This Week in Rixflix #7: April 21-27, 2017

I was cloaked in sadness throughout last week but in the first five days, it was in purely trivial ways. For the past eight weeks, Jen and I have both been entranced by Ryan Murphy's sublime FX series, Feud: Bette and Joan. The final episode on Sunday was the equal of the rest that preceded it, and left me with a great desire to watch the entire series as a whole immediately, especially knowing that the Feud franchise will move on to an entirely different arc next season (much in the way that Murphy transforms American Horror Story each year). The second series will be called Feud: Charles and Diana, a subject that intrigues me far, far less simply because it will be mostly free of cinema references, apart from a likely few regarding Diana's lover, Dodi Fayed, who was a film producer. Most especially, it will be free of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and who wants that? Honestly, could we just convince Murphy to do a remake of The Golden Girls with Jessica Lange's Crawford and Susan Sarandon's Davis hanging out at a retirement home with Kathy Bates' Joan Blondell and Catherine Zeta-Jones' Olivia De Havilland?

Heartbroken enough already (Feud is just that fantastic, people), I then had to face the dreaded series finale of my beloved Bates Motel after a marvelous five-year run. The show had constantly astounded me by repeatedly thwarting my expectations at nearly every turn. I have also been quite pleased that someone produced such a fine showcase for the talents of two personal favorites, Vera Farmiga and Nestor Carbonell (who also got the chance to direct a trio of episodes in the series). The final episode was quite the downer for me, having to finally say goodbye to these characters, but luckily the time went by so fast it was almost like it never happened when the credits started to roll. I came into the series doubting highly the placement of Freddie Highmore in the role of Norman Bates, but now I doubt instead that I will ever be able to watch him in anything else without thinking of this show. (Luckily, he usually speaks in his British accent elsewhere, so he won't sound like Norman in most other things.) He may not be Anthony Perkins, but that was kind of the point of the entire show: to pay tribute to a true classic at the same time that they took the story in entirely new and even deeper, darker directions. Goodbye, dear Norma(n)...

As always, my ability to write and create is tied directly to my health. If I am even relatively healthy, I tend to concentrate on writing most of the time, and the result is that I will balance everything out by watching less films. On the flip side, if I am watching more films per day, that means I probably don't feel well enough to sit at my desk. The bulk of the past week's watch-load (16 of the films out of 23 seen in total) was compiled over the first three days, as I found it hard to sit long on Friday and Saturday due to some increased leg pain I was experiencing after physical therapy the preceding Thursday. By Sunday and the next PT visit, it started to work itself out to where I gained extra mobility again. I was able to spend the last three days comfortable enough to finish a handful of projects and jumpstart some others (much to the relief of my buddy Aaron, with whom I write a pair of blogs, and who has been awaiting my return to a regular pace of creation).

Finally, the real sadness hit on Wednesday, when it was announced to the world that director Jonathan Demme had died from cancer at age 73. While Demme directed a wide variety of features, genres, and documentaries in his career since he started as a screenwriter for Roger Corman in the early '70s, he is highly placed in my personal pantheon for directing four films: Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984, the greatest and most inventively filmed concert feature ever), Something Wild (1986) and, of course, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), for which he won the Best Director Oscar. (Sadly, it was his only Oscar nomination, even though Lambs won all of the major categories that year.) Each of these titles is so intricately tied to my personal history that I will never do without owning and watching them for the rest of my life.

I garnered an even greater appreciation for Demme in his post-Lambs career when he started a working friendship with the English singer-songwriter, Robyn Hitchcock. While the direction of various music videos has been a staple throughout his career, Demme flexed his feature-length music documentary muscles yet again in 1998 with Storefront Hitchcock. True to the film's title, Demme quite literally placed the eccentric musician behind a large storefront window on a street in New York, and has Hitchcock play a mostly acoustic concert to a small and appreciate crowd while confused passers-by look in through the window and wonder what is going on inside, unaware they are being caught on film.

The film's release was just another instance where the connections between all of the things I love seem to grow tighter. By the time Storefront Hitchcock was released, I already owned nearly 20 albums of Hitchcock music (and over 35 by now), including his early work with his seminal late '70s band, the Soft Boys, his many albums with his next band, the Egyptians itself featuring two former members of the Soft Boys), and Robyn's ever imaginative solo work. I couldn't believe my luck that Robyn had met up with Demme, as I had always hoped Hitchcock would receive greater exposure to his music from the general public. This proved to be a problem for a couple of reasons. Hitchcock's music – odd, alternately whimsical and dark, and rife with deeply British phrases and references – is definitely an acquired taste and perhaps not greatly suited to the shorter attention spans of the majority of Americans. Also, while Storefront Hitchcock was well received by critics and is a quite perfect spotlight on Hitchcock's singularly surreal wit and artistry (just as much for his ad-libbed, non sequitur-laden monologues between songs as for the music itself), the film did not get much of a theatrical release in America. And I am still the only person that I know who has ever seen it, though I have recommended it to a select few.

When I heard Jonathan Demme died, I thought immediately about which film I was likely to watch first, knowing full well that I was bound to launch into a film-watching mourning period. The usual suspects of his filmography that I listed above are all bound to be hit during this period, but the one that I jumped to throwing in the DVD player without even pausing was Storefront Hitchcock. In the middle of that same night, having gotten up briefly around 3:00 a.m., I was scanning the cable channels to see what was showing, and found another Oscar-winner of Demme's, Philadelphia, which was about to air on Starz in about 90 minutes. Since I had not seen Philadelphia since it was released to theatres in 1993 (it was his first narrative feature after Lambs), that seemed to naturally be the next choice to watch again.

As of this writing, I am deep into next week's films. I have watched 13 more Demme-directed films since I saw Philadelphia last Thursday afternoon. (And I have two more to watch tomorrow, the start of the next cycle for me.) Some of these films will be discussed in the next This Week in Rixflix. There will be so much Demme flavor in fact, that it is quite likely the entire thing will be subtitled as a special All-Demme Issue. It's the very least the great man deserves for what he has meant to me, especially in those four films. Rest in peace, old chum. I wish that you had made another 34 features.

This week's feature-length film count: 23; 14 first-time viewings and 9 repeats.
Highest rated feature-length film: Philadelphia (1993) – 8/9
Lowest rated feature films: Frankenstein 1970 and My World Dies Screaming [aka Terror in the Haunted House (both 1958) – 4/9
Average films per day in April thus far: 2.55
Average films per day in 2017 thus far: 3.05

Janie (1944) Dir.: Michael Curtiz – In the interest of filling in the gaps in the filmographies of some of my favorite directors, I tracked down two smaller films by the legendary Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) this past week. The first that I watched, Stolen Holiday (1937) starring Kay Francis and Claude Rains, was the better film (though no great shakes itself), but his 1944 feature Janie proved to be the more interesting one overall. Janie is kind of a jaw-dropper of a movie, if only because I wondered constantly why I had never seen this quite odd film before or even heard of it.

Starring Warner Bros. then-ingenue Joyce Reynolds as the title character, Janie is one of those wartime flag-wavers, meant to lift the spirits of both families at home and troops abroad during the conflict. Janie is a senior in high school who even has a steady boyfriend, the obnoxious Scooper Nolan... or at least he thinks they are going steady. The problem is that she, as well as all of her girlfriends, are just bonkers about the soldiers on leave in her small town, which lies conveniently near a military camp. The film is based on a play, and sure enough, most of the action takes place in the large family room and entrance to her parents' home, with about a hundred soldiers, neighbors, teenagers, and eventually an entire Army jeep coming and going non-stop through the many doors and windows of the place throughout the story. (There are just a couple of brief forays to other locations to make the film a little less set-bound, but the home is the prime location.) Janie, both the film and the character, are almost always pitched at one level: fast and breathless, and it does become a bit of a pain trying to wrestle down in one's mind all of the characters one is encountering. After I told Jen's mom about Janie when I was done watching it, she sat through it and thought it was awful. I have seen far too many truly awful films to ever consider this to be of the same ilk, but I will agree that the film itself is not actually good.

However (and this is precisely how I sold the film to Jen's mom), there is a time capsule quality to the film that practically demands that any lover of old time cinema should give it a shot. There is the wartime propaganda angle, naturally, and then there is the small town setting, the period trappings, the radio broadcasts, and then there is the look at teenage life in the 1940s, as fabricated as it may be ultimately. There are also some interesting character actors in bigger parts in the film, such as Edward Arnold, Robert Benchley, Ann Harding, Alan Hale, and Hattie McDaniel. But the main reason for me to at least have seen it this once, despite its shabbiness, was for the several small uncredited parts in the casting that make one tilt a curious eyebrow at the proceedings. "B' western star Sunset Carson plays an army sergeant, another former western star Lane Chandler is a cop, former silent leading man Monte Blue plays another cop, Billy Benedict of the East Side Kids/Bowery Boys is a soda jerk, chanteuse and future Emergency star Julie London is in amongst the passel of teenage girls in this film, and the family's nosy neighbor is played by the very familiar Virginia Sale. Best of all are appearances by two actors known far more for other media. Future leader of the Mouseketeers, the freckle-faced Jimmie Dodd, is on hand as an army sergeant (he even gets a name for his character, Sgt. Frank Parker), and not only has a few lines, but even has a couple to sing on his own in the big dance number (Keep Your Powder Dry) at the party. Finally, a singing group called the Williams Brothers performs at that party as well, with one of the four being a very baby-faced, 17-year-old Andy Williams, who would go on to great fame for several decades through his top-rated TV show but mostly for the 100 million records he sold worldwide. Sometimes, all I need is a cast like this to make a film worthwhile, even if the film itself is mediocre. TC4P Rating: 5/9

Mechanic: Resurrection (2016) Dir.: Dennis Gansel – The first Mechanic film a couple of years ago (itself a remake of The Mechanic, an edgy starrer in 1972 for Charles Bronson) was merely an OK watch for me. Even with Jason Statham (who I find pretty reliable in even bad films), I was left wanting by the end of it. I never considered that film might have a sequel down the line, but the second in what I presume is now going to be a series for Statham and his personal brand of martial arts (really, he is kind of his own thing) left me wanting for other reasons, even if I thought the second go-around was a slightly better effort. In fact, if I could just accept this film on its own terms, I might come to believe it is a far superior effort. Those terms are: Statham might not be selected to play James Bond, but why shouldn't he have his own Bond series?

That's right... Mechanic: Resurrection plays like a frenzied, globe-trotting clip montage of all the big action scenes from a half dozen Bond films, only without the plot mechanics (see what I did there?) and appealing characters of those Bond films. We even see Statham flirt with a voluptuous female here and there, but in non-Bond fashion, he really only has eyes for one woman, a blonde teacher played by Jessica Alba, who is kidnapped from the children's shelter she runs in Cambodia in order for Statham's hitman character to be blackmailed by a former childhood chum turned villain into assassinating a variety of targets. Statham kills about 97 guys in this film, give or take, and if he doesn't, it sure feels like he does. There is no real weight to anything, especially when Statham climbs a high-rise in Sydney to kill a child trafficker by shooting him through his overhanging all-glass pool. (The more I describe this film, the more it seems like I am making the whole thing up in my head.)

Statham's character performs remarkable feats against terrible people and instead of yelling, "Hooray!" after each one, all I did was shake my head and wonder if maybe I had fallen asleep and missed all the plot between the kills. Somehow, Tommy Lee Jones shows up two-thirds of the way through, and does very little but be Tommy Lee Jones. Also, sharks are mentioned in a menacing way at least twice in the film, but after about a half-dozen scenes where Statham goes in the drink in various ways, not one damn shark shows up at all. The film cost $40 million, looks like about $20 million, and made $125 million. There will no doubt be a third film in the Mechanic series, and strangely enough, I kind of look forward to watching it, if only to confirm that I am not crazy enough to imagine this one. TC4P Rating: 5/9, but kind of wavering towards 6/9 just for pure chutzpah.

Autumn Leaves (1956) Dir.: Robert Aldrich – Chalk this watch up to the incredible influence that Feud is having on my life right now. With the concentration in the series on director Robert Aldrich as the third lead character, I have launched a small side-attack on his remaining filmography that I have not seen yet. Autumn Leaves is mentioned a couple of times in the series, mostly because it was the previous film that Joan Crawford had worked on with Aldrich. When TCM aired it last week, I did not miss my chance. Crawford is a lonely but confident woman who works as a typist at home. After she meets a man many years her junior (Cliff Robertson) and has a successful date with him, she turns him down because of the age difference. A month later, they meet again and after another date, he proposes to her. After turning him down, she then changes her mind and they get married. 

The problems start when she notices a different place of birth on the marriage license than the one he told her. When his real first wife shows up not long after (played well by Vera Miles), Robertson starts to lose control of his senses. We find out he has some serious mental issues, but exactly why I will leave it to you to find out on your own viewing of this surprisingly tense drama. Honestly, I just thought I would be watching a straight romance with Crawford paired up with a younger leading man, and never considered this had some noirish aspects to it. The big reveal still came out as pretty shocking to me here in 2017, so that will tell how little I could have anticipated it in a Hollywood feature in 1956. Absolutely worthwhile, and Crawford is really grand in it. Aldrich knew exactly how to use her in a sympathetic fashion, something he proved in Baby Jane down the road. TC4P Rating: 7/9

Prelude to War [Why We Fight, Pt. 1] (1942) Dir.: Frank Capra – When I took in a viewing of the Netflix documentary, Five Came Back, the previous week, I did not realize it was going to reawaken my interest in the Hollywood-produced World War II propaganda films that form the basis of the doc. My pal Aaron, who watched it on his own, pointed out to me that Netflix was also streaming several of the titles that are talked about in Five Came Back, a marvelous piece that concentrates on five famous directors who ended up taking part in America's war effort: John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens. One of the films on Netflix is Prelude to War, the first part of a series titled Why We Fight. Of the seven features* that comprise the Why We Fight series, all of them are credited as having been directed or co-directed by Capra, and his particular form of highly manipulative, emotional filmmaking comes in handy for him as he uses the lead film to convince Americans exactly why we had joined the fight in Europe and the Pacific theatre.

I am not knocking his methods, because America needed to engage in this particular fight at the time to stop the creeping terror of fascism across the world. (Something we need to start taking care of right now as well, because it's not just a-comin'... it really is knocking at the door, and does in fact have its puppet sitting in the Oval Office.) But this film especially in the series is so highly jingoistic and downright racist in its attitude that it is a bit rough for a modern progressive such as I am to get through it without either cringing or shaking my head. However, I am also a realist and know this is just how it was at the time, especially when our own country was being bombed. But just like today, where the real news has been branded as "fake news" by those who would subvert the constitution and sweep a nationalist agenda into America by manufacturing their own fake news posing as real news (or as they themselves term it, "alternative facts"), Capra had to do battle with the other side's own propaganda machines, who were more than proficient at using the film camera to manipulate the public to believe in, fear and serve their twisted agendas. (And if you perceive that I just directly compared the Alt-White House's methods to the Nazis... Congratulations. You win a prize, kid. And they really haven't done much to dissuade such comparisons...)

While based in reality, these films are not exactly documentaries, and Five Came Back will prove the case for some of them, as you see films by other directors – Huston quite notably – where they arrived too late for the action and had to get the soldiers to recreate battle scenes for the cameras. Prelude is more of an opening salvo for Capra's own series, and is more concerned with leading in to the other films in the series while also explaining how we got to the point of another global war. It declares that the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 is the true start of WWII, though most historians usually point to the reigniting of hostilities between China and Japan in 1937 as the beginnings of the Second Sino-Japanese War that leads up to the start of WWII in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and had war declared on them by England and France. Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia is also explored, but Hitler is only tackled in a small way, as the second film, The Nazis Strike, picks the narrative up there. Capra, though, does incorporate footage from Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, but subverts the images using his narrator, Walter Huston. Regardless of their status as propaganda, these films are vital to understanding what America and the world went through in the 1940s and really should be must sees for every citizen. Especially for the ones who have taken us dangerously near reliving everything again, only this time from the other side. TC4P Rating: 7/9

Genius (2015) Dir.: Michael Grandage – I read more than one review for Genius that remarked on how mistaken the filmmakers were by overestimating just how interesting it was to watch a professional editor redline text for two hours. Well, excuse me, but that sounds like a perfectly delightful time for me. If the film were comprised of nothing but such activity, that is. What's wrong with that concept? Genius is a biographical sketch of two famed figures – the novelist Thomas Wolfe, and his first true editor, Maxwell Perkins – coming together at the exact point of their greatest collaboration, the manuscript for Wolfe's epically conceived debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Perkins had to learn to tame the flamboyant Wolfe just enough to convince the young, eager writer to excise over 60,000 words from the draft. The film carries through with their relationship to Wolfe's untimely end, after Wolfe had left Perkins following endless creative disputes over the years.

I was a good chunk of the way through Genius before it hit me that of the seven real, very American primary characters in the film, only one was played by an American (Laura Linney, essaying Perkins' wife, Louise Saunders). Colin Firth is as steady as he can be as the nearly unflappable Perkins, who already has some practice in dealing with edgy writers pre-Wolfe through his exploits with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and his wife Zelda (Vanessa Kirby). Along the way, Wolfe meets up with Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West), while Nicole Kidman plays Wolfe's lover, Aline Bernstein. Wolfe himself is embodied fairly well by Jude Law, who might be a tad too old to play Wolfe at the age of 28-29 when the film starts (Law was 41 during filming), but still has a buoyancy and charisma to his performance to carry it over just fine. In fact, Law might have a little too much buoyancy, as he goes a little over the top here and there. But since when did Thomas Wolfe and over the top not go together? While I didn't think the film was great by any means, Firth is always enjoyable, the cast is mostly game (I love Pearce in everything that isn't meant to be a summer blockbuster, and this might be my favorite role for West, though it is a "blink and you miss it" part), and director Grandage drapes everything in a hazy nostalgia that does somewhat downplay what was really going on in America at the time. You know, outside of the office of an editor. TC4P Rating: 6/9

[*Note: there were technically eight Why We Fight films, as The Battle of Russia (1943) was released in two parts, though the full film is merely just over 76 minutes long.]


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