Monthly Archives: September 2019

Quiz the ninety-second: Uncomfortable elevator rides (Part one)

Usually you just get on and look up at the numbers. But sometimes you’re stuck in an elevator with someone you really don’t want to be stuck in an elevator with. Things can then go to hell in a hurry. It might be better to take the stairs than share the sort of company lined up in this week’s quiz.

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Night Shift (1982)

*. A movie full of not-quite debuts.
*. It wasn’t Ron Howard’s first feature film working behind the camera, but it was his first Hollywood studio film (and he’d done some TV-movies as well). It also wasn’t Michael Keaton’s first film, though it was the part that made him a star. Shelley Long had been on TV a lot. Going down the list of credits, it wasn’t even Kevin Costner’s first movie (he’s Frat Boy #1 here, but had appeared in Malibu Hot Summer the year before), or Shannon Doherty’s (she plays one of the Girl Guides).
*. It wasn’t Henry Winkler’s debut either, though again you’d be forgiven for thinking it was at the time. There can’t be that many people who had seen The Lords of Flatbush. He was, however, the biggest star in the cast because of his role as the Fonz on Happy Days.
*. It’s easy, but nonetheless fair I think, to ascribe the general small-screen feel of Night Shift to the fact that all of this talent was coming from television. This isn’t a big movie, and is content to mainly play within its handful of sets (the morgue, the jail, the different apartments). Sets, I would add, that very much look like sets. How many hallways in apartment buildings have we seen on sitcoms that look like the ones here?
*. Another near first: I remember this as being one of the first movies I watched on video after getting a VHS tape machine in the ’80s. Watching movies at home without commercials seemed almost magical then.
*. What also seems magical: the fact that Chuck (Winkler) is investing his hooker clients’ money in accounts that are returning 17.5% (you can read the numbers on his computer). Oh, those interest rates! I remember them going up even higher than that in the ’80s.
*. There is one first. That’s the first recorded version of “That’s What Friends Are For” being sung by Rod Stewart over the end credits. It seems a bit downbeat, however, to wind the movie down with.
*. As for the film itself, I can’t think of much to say. I think this was the first time I’ve seen it since the days of VHS, which is over thirty years ago now. I guess it’s kind of a sweet in a very conventional way. Winkler is Caspar Milquetoast. Long is the hooker with a heart of gold. Keaton I can still enjoy, but he’s only playing a type as well.
*. What sort of type? The American dreamer with endless entrepreneurial schemes for making it big. Night Shift is a movie dealing with adult subject matter but it doesn’t have much to say about the morality of what’s going on. In so far as it does glance in that direction it only suggests that conventional morals are for squares. Making money has its own, transcendent, morality. Is Belinda going to have to go back to work at the end? She will if Chuck can’t support her. And Billy . . . there’s no saying what depths he was likely to fall to after being fired as a towel boy. I hope his idea for microwaveable clothes took off.

Venom (2018)

*. I wasn’t too far into Venom before I started feeling like this was a movie that I’d seen before.
*. I know what you’re saying. It’s a Marvel movie. Of course I’d seen it before. The origin story. The CGI that scales buildings and goes on crazy car chases. The hero who has to find a balance between saving the world and fixing his relationship with his girlfriend. Aren’t all these movies the same?
*. Well, yes, they are all pretty much the same. But what I’m referring to is the plot. You see, Venom is this alien “symbiote” that has come to Earth, along with a team of fellow symbiotes, basically in order to eat people. He bonds with down-and-out journalist Eddie Brock who then has to fight a super-Venom symbiote called Riot who has taken over the head of a seemingly benign but actually quite evil corporation.
*. Isn’t this the same as a bunch of other Marvel movies where the hero has to fight an evil doppelganger? In Iron Man Tony Stark is supplanted by Obadiah Stane who steals the Iron Monger suit, making him the anti-Iron Man. In Ant-Man, Hank Pym (whose proxy becomes Scott Lang) is supplanted by Darren Cross who becomes Yellowjacket (the anti-Ant-Man). In Black Panther T’Challa is supplanted by Killmonger. In this movie Venom has to take on Riot. Once you know the pattern you’re just staying to watch them tear up buildings and beat each other up.
*. Venom might have been something different. It might have been darker, given Venom’s thing for biting off people’s heads and Riot’s arsenal of weapons. But the violence is edited so quickly you don’t actually see anything.
*. It might also have been funnier. There’s one good line from Venom about piling up bodies and heads as though it’s the most natural thing in the world, but that’s it. Despite the comic potential of having two personalities inhabiting one body it’s not a funny script. Plus I don’t think Tom Hardy plays comedy well. He got a lot of praise from reviewers but I didn’t get the sense he was comfortable in the part and I just couldn’t buy him as Eddie Brock.
*. So it’s not a superhero horror movie and it’s not a superhero comedy. What we’re left with is a really long, boring car chase and a really long, boring fight between the two symbiotes at the end. Maybe I’m just getting jaded (and I know I am getting jaded) but the CGI looked like crap to me. I wasn’t buying Venom’s movements at all. Finally, the relationship between Eddie and his girlfriend is so vague I thought it would have been better if it had been left out entirely. Are they back together at the end? Whatever happened to Dr. Dan?
*. This is all too bad because Venom might have been an interesting character. His personality, however, is hard to get a grip on. He identifies with Eddie because they’re both losers, but what does that mean for a symbiote? How sophisticated is he when he acts like he’s just a walking stomach? I appreciate the henchman Treece’s indefatigable pursuit of such a beast, but at what point should he have figured out what he was up against and come up with some different tactics? I mean, tasers? He thought those were going to work?
*. For some reason Venom was pretty widely panned by critics. I’m not sure why. You’ll have gathered from what I’ve written here that I didn’t like it much, but the thing is, it’s not that different, either for better or worse, than any other Marvel movie. Black Panther got rave reviews and Oscar nominations, but was it that much better? Meanwhile, like the universe itself, the MCU just keeps expanding, it’s only enemy now being entropy.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

*. I was scratching my head as Ant-Man and the Wasp got started. What was with this voiceover, rehashing the story of what happened to Hank Pym’s wife, which was itself a flashback episode in the first film? This is a clunky opening, especially for a Marvel movie, which are usually so deft in such matters. All of the MCU movies are tied together in various way, but they rarely bother entering into time-consuming explanations about what happened in previous movies in order to bring us up to speed. They take a certain amount of familiarity with the rest of the franchise for granted.
*. It’s even stranger given that Michael Douglas had made director Peyton Reed promise him that he (Douglas, playing Pym) wouldn’t be “just a walking exposition machine” in this film. And yet this is how we begin.
*. As things turn out, the background we get is at least somewhat necessary as it provides Ant-Man and the Wasp with its plot, which has to do with rescuing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from all the pretty lights of the quantum realm. Plus, after a few years it’s not impossible (and perhaps even likely) that the audience would have forgotten the relevant material. But I still think it opens the movie on the wrong foot.
*. Pretty much everything I said about Ant-Man goes for this film as well. There’s a likeable cast being likeable. It’s a superhero comedy but it’s not really jokier or funnier than most of the other Marvel movies. It’s just easy going. Sort of a family-oriented Deadpool.
*. But all the reservations I had with Ant-Man are here too. It’s a poor story that makes little sense and the villains aren’t very good. The Ghost (who has her own dull back story dialed up) isn’t a bad guy but just someone trying to cure herself of quantum phasing by . . . well, I really can’t tell you. That part wasn’t explained very well. But it has something to do with the quantum realm and it will have a negative impact on Janet. As things turn out, Janet will lay her hands on Ava at the end and then Scott will be sent back to the quantum realm to collect “healing particles.” If that makes it any clearer. Ha-ha.
*. We also have Walton Goggins playing a heel named Sonny Burch who wants to get his hands on Pym’s lab because it’s apparently worth a lot of money even though he has no idea what it does or how it works. In other words, he’s just an obstacle thrown up by the plot, the same as the better intentioned but just as bumbling FBI.
*. The whole thing made me think of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 with its interest in parents and children and the climax set in an alternate reality that is all colours and lights. And I didn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. I guess I liked this movie a bit better but it struck me as even more forgettable than Ant-Man.
*. Paul Rudd, I have to say, doesn’t seem as into it this time out, but Evangeline Lilly and Michael Peña stand out. The casting of the Marvel movies may be their strongest suit. And I say casting because little in the way of acting is demanded. Has Marvel ever had a real misfire when it came to casting? I can’t think of one off the top of my head. Yet the actors all seem so replaceable.
*. The production drips millions and millions of dollars from every frame. The action scenes bounce us around a lot. It’s entertaining nonsense, but there are some dull moments and, as with all the Marvel movies, I can only take so much of it. I usually watch one of these flicks every few months and that’s all I can take. Any more and I think I’d be sick with hyperglycemia. There are no healing particles for that in Marvel’s candy land.

Shampoo (1975)

*. Shampoo came out the same year as Altman’s Nashville. What made the connection, for me, is the soundtrack. Not the music, but the layering of voices and other aural cues.
*. This layering is introduced right at the start, as we face a mostly black screen and hear the overlapping sounds of two people making love in bed, a radio broadcast, and a phone ringing. There’s nothing to look at, so your ears are put to work trying to sort this out.
*. Another link to Nashville can be seen in the film’s glancing look at politics. As in Nashville, Shampoo is anchored in a political moment. It’s the eve of the 1968 presidential election. We see (and hear) of this, but it’s something that plays in the background, like the roving speaker van of Hal Phillip Walker.
*. But is Shampoo a political movie? That angle is something that critics try their hardest to play up, but for me it remains mostly background noise, the equivalent of those posters of Nixon (and, in one shot, Reagan) that we occasionally see.
*. Beatty has lent a hand, trying his best to help people find a political message in the proceedings, but I find his efforts entirely unconvincing. Apparently he saw some kind of connection between the hypocrisy of politicians and the hypocrisy of George’s relationships and our attitudes toward sex generally. Which really doesn’t take you very far.
*. Frank Rich: “The movie’s characters — not just Lester’s crowd but also the less affluent George and his harem — are laughably insulated from and oblivious to the violence and political tumult ripping America apart in 1968. They care about the election only to the extent that it may affect their bottom line. Even when the party at the Bistro, in the film’s most mysterious moment, is suddenly aborted by a loudspeaker announcement instructing everyone to evacuate the restaurant ‘as quietly and quickly as possible,’ no one clamors for an explanation (which is never forthcoming) — they simply head on to the next party.”
*. So is it a political film? Is the personal political? Or is the very idea that politics really aren’t that important itself a political stand to take?

*. A final link to Nashville is in the interweaving of different stories. At first this might seem like I’m trying too hard to make a connection, since Shampoo is focused solely on a day in the frantic life of George Roundy, which is very different from what Altman gives us. But how can any movie be more than just vaguely entered on Roundy? He’s such an empty vessel it’s hard to see him as any kind of narrative baseline. The various threads of the story pass through him while he only runs in place. “You never stop moving and you never go anywhere” Jill (Goldie Hawn) tells him, a judgment nicely reflected in the scene at the party where he keeps running back and forth, always just missing getting where he wants to be.

*. Roundy is a himbo. I’ve even heard him referred to a couple of times as the film’s “dumb blonde.” Pauline Kael was clearly smitten by him, calling him “almost a sexual saint,” but one could expect the same salvation from a dildo. Even Carrie Fisher’s teenage Lorna possesses a maturity far in advance of where George is at. He learns nothing, though he does manage to teach others. He doesn’t grow up (despite Jill’s encouragement), but all the women around him do. And I feel at the end as though he never will grow up. Shampoo is the anti-Graduate: we feel sure that Jackie has made the right choice by marrying a square (Lester must be invested in plastics), and getting on with her life. She’s not going to blow this chance. Whereas it’s obvious that Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross have made a big mistake.
*. This isn’t to say that Shampoo is without a tragic dimension. But George’s tragedy isn’t expressed in his tears but in the lines on his face. He’s getting old. And isn’t that the real tragedy of all our lives? We’re always losing something. George won’t be beautiful forever. Hell, he may even start to go bald some day.
*. I wonder how much it would cost to buy the music that’s on the soundtrack here if you were to make this film today. Probably more than the cost of the rest of the movie.
*. Another sign of the times is George riding around on his motorbike without a helmet. But then, if you had hair like that (and the movie was originally going to be called Hair) would you wear a helmet? You’d rather die.
*. Given how we view these things today, would we say that George rapes Jackie? She does say No. Back in 1975 audiences would understand that she didn’t mean it. Maybe this is an answer to David Thomson’s question about why sex was never like this again.

*. The presentation of George as gay is something borrowed from Restoration comedy, with the steam-room scene clearly meant as an homage to the china scene in Wycherley’s The Country Wife. But if you go see The Country Wife today (at least based on the productions I’ve seen) they really play up the gay angle a lot more than it is here. In fact, George doesn’t really give anyone reason to suspect he’s gay. It seems as though Lester is the only person who thinks he might be. So that angle is nicely underplayed.
*. But this brings us back to what I think is the key point, and something else Shampoo shares not only with Nashville but with many of the great American films of this period. In its layering, visual and aural, understatement becomes everything. We’re meant to consider the ways that unimportant things, even things that are hard to notice, may be in some way significant. George doesn’t notice Nixon’s election, so we’re left to wonder how important that was, if at all. On the other hand, while it does seem as though losing Jackie is a blow, can we doubt that he’ll get over it, probably later this afternoon?
*. Is the superficial, finally, only superficial? Here’s a verse from Morrissey’s “Hairdresser on Fire” (1987): “Can you squeeze me into an empty page of your diary and psychologically save me? I’ve got faith in you. I sense the power within the fingers, within an hour the power could totally destroy me, or, it could save my life.” That’s an observation that seems important to me watching Shampoo, and one that is not, in my experience anyway, hyperbole.

Fantastic Four (2015)

*. Fantastic Four is perhaps too easy a movie to trash. But what else can one do with it?
*. The director, Josh Trank, trashed it even before it was released, which is always a bad sign. He thought the studio (Fox) had wrecked it with cuts and reshoots. I have trouble crediting this. Everything about this movie is wrong and I don’t see how a director’s cut would be any better.
*. Apparently Trank alienated not just the producers but his cast and crew as well. This certainly shows in the performances. I can’t think of a movie I’ve seen where the entire cast so clearly seems to have checked out. As Christopher Orr remarked in his review in The Atlantic: “everyone in the otherwise talented cast appears resolutely uncommitted to their roles.”
*. But it’s not just in the performances. The Gang of Four (or Five, if we’re including Victor “Dr.” Doom) are just a collection of sullen assholes. Basically, aside from the unfortunate Ben Grimm, they’re a bunch of Silicon Valley nerds who are into tech and hacking and building game-changing technology in their garage. Or drag racing without bothering to put on a seatbelt. They also don’t joke around (there are no laughs in Fantastic Four). Though close personal relationships are suggested, none of them seem even remotely interested in anyone other than themselves. I thought Robbie Collin made a good point saying that there is so little chemistry on screen that during the dialogue scenes they don’t even seem to be talking to one another, and that maybe they weren’t and that a lot of this was done later in reshoots. It certainly has that feel.
*. Surprisingly, and I mean that it was an unpleasant surprise, the team become even less likeable after their transformations. Their new conditions are less wonderful powers than a depressing curse they have to learn to endure. Only the Human Torch seems to think he got an upgrade.
*. The set-up takes forever. Indeed, the film is half over before we get to the action. These origin stories are hard to handle even in the most skilful hands, and such hands were not present here. I also question the need for making such comic book stuff more character-driven. When has that ever worked?
*. If the beginning of the movie is a drag, the ending is painfully perfunctory. Once again a gate is opened to another dimension threatening all life on Earth. The team are whisked off to CGI-Land to do battle with Dr. Doom, who isn’t at all like the comic book villain but is instead another God-like power. He doesn’t even look interesting. Doom beats the team individually, but when they all come together they are able to swiftly dispatch him to a place beyond sequels. Meaning back over to Marvel Studios, who immediately promised a reboot.

The Mole People (1956)

*. Things begin with Dr. Frank C. Baxter telling us about “strange” historical theories about what’s inside the Earth. But Dr. Baxter is an English professor. What is he doing pontificating on such matters?
*. Actually, Dr. Baxter, who does have expressive hands, was his real name, and he really was an English professor. He went on to play Dr. Research on the Bell Systems Science Series: television specials that started in 1956 discussing various science topics. That said, I’m not sure what he was thinking in taking this particular project on.
*. I think The Mole People is remembered, if at all, more for its title and a few meme-like moments than anything else. Most of it plays out like one of the more forgettable episodes on the original Star Trek series, right down to the bad matte paintings and vapid slave girls in minidresses.
*. John Agar is Captain Kirk, leading an away team of archeologists into a subterranean world where Sumerian albinos rule over the titular mole people. Even the symbol of the Sumerians looks like a Star Fleet insignia turned on its side. There’s the usual social allegory, and the surface dwellers lucking out with a bit of useful tech in their flashlight with remarkably long-lasting batteries.
*. Isn’t it a bit odd that Adad dies at the end? She doesn’t burn to a crisp like the naked sacrfices, I guess because she’s all wrapped up, but then a pillar goes and falls on her. I thought poor Dr. Bentley was going to get something out of this expedition.
*. I’m not sure what the point was in losing Adad. In both the movie adaptations of The Time Machine (a novel that must have been in mind while making this movie) the Time Traveler stays with his Weena. I guess that couldn’t happen here.
*. Leonard Malton judged this “probably the worst of Universal-International’s ’50s sci-fi movies.” I don’t find much interesting about it, but it moves quickly and has its moments. The underground world has a kind of silly charm, what with those Whack-A-Mole pits the mole people pop in and out of and the mushroom-everything diet. Unfortunately the story is flimsy, the direction only rudimentary, and the characters props. Not that you should be expecting anything more.