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The Animal Kingdom

Wittily presented male chauvinism
I came away from this with a somewhat different message than the playwright intended (the same playwright, I should point out, who started The Philadelphia Story with a comedic stylization of wife-beating). The hero, played by Leslie Howard, starts a publishing enterprise devoted to the avant-garde works admired by his friends. He marries, and surprise, his wife, played rather icily by Myrna Loy, has the philistine idea that he should publish a few titles which will actually reap a profit so that he can at least finance his little enterprise without losing the family fortune. The movie leaves no doubt that such a money-grubbing attitude is worthy of the deepest condemnation. Hubby naturally finds himself longing for his former without-benefit-of-clergy bedmate, played by Ann Harding, who understands his sensitive soul and is more likely to indulge his dissipating his wealth, since she has no more sense than he does.

Oh, I enjoyed the movie, but I'm surprised that so many seem not to notice how shallow and stupid its ideas are. Leslie Howard does his best to make the protagonist seem noble, and I guess that for many viewers, he succeeds. Loy, not yet a star, is lovely as always.

The Haunted Airman

Don't blame Dennis Wheatley
As a fan of the late prolific Dennis Wheatley who found "The Haunting of Toby Jugg" to be one of his most gripping thrillers, I was confused to find that this tedious mess was supposed to be inspired by that work. What there is of plot is undercut by uncertainty whether Jugg, from whose POV the story is seen, is a reliable narrator or a nutcase. Playing Jugg, Robert Pattinson mostly gives the perfect Goth fashion model note of cool emotionlessness, which presumably serves him well in the hunky teen vampire stories to which he owes his fame. For this story I would have preferred an actor.

Just for fun, the script includes a bit of interracial flirting which is perfectly appropriate to the 21st Century and perfectly inappropriate to World War II, during which the story is set. Casting a black woman as nurse in a British countryside rest home was inane altogether considering the era.

Don't waste your time. Read the book if you can find it.

Roman de gare

Do you like to be misled?
If you enjoy mysteries in which the author misleads you, you might like this movie. Technically it's fine, and the players are agreeable, although the leading man doesn't look like a leading man and may not even fit the conventional definition. This I would consider a very positive point in another movie.

But for this one I had a problem. The writer/director has complete control over the "reality" of the film, and so can do anything he wants with it, but I found the manipulation to be irritating. I can't go into details because I want to keep spoiler-free, but there is suspense which is suspenseful only because the creator decided to mislead, and some of the action involved didn't really make much sense. Now when Hitchcock misleads us in Vertigo, for instance, he gives us a resolution which makes everything we've seen up to then suddenly come together and make sense. Here, when we discover we've been misled, we've just been misled and what we've seen and heard to mislead us played no other role than to mislead.

That applies more or less to the first part of the film. The second part is a more conventional murder mystery, which I found extremely predictable in its "suprise" resolution.


What, this isn't an episode of Sin City?
Watching this innovative black and white noir thriller, I kept thinking that Frank Miller must have written it, so perfectly does it fit the sensibility of his Sin City comic book series. Innovative, not exactly original: one can indeed detect the influence of any number of famous noir flicks, most notably D.O.A. But it's executed so perfectly that I wouldn't want to complain. My wife said that the film was rich in allusions to Bulgarian life and culture which went right past me. She is definitely not a genre fan but she really liked this movie. Certainly the best Bulgarian movie I've seen since the magically-realistic anti-communist fable The Well.

Playboy: Hef's Halloween Spooktacular

Silly but enjoyable doc about Hef's extravagant party
This is a sort of vanity project, but what do you expect from something featuring Hugh Hefner? Hef has enormous amounts of money to throw away on projects beyond the wildest dreams of most of us. Is this bad? Well, at least we can share this particular project by DVD. It's an unbelievably extravagant Halloween party, and we get the inside story from the small army of technicians and artists involved in the setup. (A few -- surprisingly few -- celebrity attendees are shown. Geez, what does it take to get an invite?) Elvira does her usual nice job and yeah, she still looks really good. (She sports her usual duds, which she does not shed. She narrates the doc but apparently was not actually at the party.) OK, the best part shows a family team of body painters putting "costumes" on a handful of naked girls hired to cavort at the party. Hey, this is a variety of art you'll rarely see demonstrated elsewhere!

The Quiller Memorandum

Dialogue and acting fail to save nonsensical plot
Mr. no-first-name Quiller is pulled out of his current assignment to investigate neo-Nazis in Berlin. Pulled by whom? He's clearly American. Then why does he report to a bunch of Brits? Reminds me of silly Roman Empire movie conventions where the older roles go to Brits and the younger to Americans.

This is only the first bit of nonsense. The basic question is why American or British intelligence organizations would be interested in what would basically be a German police matter. It is never explained why Quiller's organization (whatever it is) sees fit to devote its Berlin resources to investigating neo-Nazis rather than working against East Germany and its master the Soviet Union.

The supposedly neo-Nazi players show no devotion to or even interest in Nazi ideology. All they want is the location of Quiller's British control (who can obviously move at a moment's notice anyway).

In short, the story makes no sense. I have no complaint about any of the actors. I don't know whether to blame the failure on the author of the novel (which I haven't read) or Harold Pinter, the fidelity of whose adaptation is unclear. There are some nice bits of dialogue, but they don's save the movie.

Islam: What the West Needs to Know

Talking heads, but a well-argued message
This one does seem to get extreme votes in one direction or the other, doesn't it? Production values are minimal. This is almost completely talking heads, a bunch of people telling us what they think we should know. Ms. Bat Ye'or's heavily accented English is subtitled. That's fine: she had something worthwhile to say. The most interesting speaker was an ex-PLO terrorist.

One bit which stuck in my craw was a survey of world trouble spots where Islam was involved, which included Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechenya. Of these, I think it is inane to imply that the Bosnian massacres were at all the responsibility of the relatively unarmed Muslim population, which suffered the worst slaughter. I have less sympathy for Kosovars and still less for Chechens, but I've no doubt that responsibility for the violence in those areas must be shared to some degree.

Also, speakers were sometimes a bit silly about the uniqueness of Islam in allowing for some normally sinful acts such as lying. I'm sure Jews and Christians could find instances where lying is necessary as being the lesser evil.

Aside from that, the basic point, that Islam is a religion and a political system which mandates the subjugation of non-Muslims, which lacks the pluralist values we take for granted, was made convincingly.

Particularly useful in understanding Islamic thought was the explanation of how one Koranic text can supersede another. Thus nothing in the Koran can be trusted to be valid doctrine without a knowledge of everything revealed subsequently. And the Koran is neither arranged chronologically nor do most editions date the texts, so no one who has not devoted much study to the Koran and the history of its composition can know what doctrines are valid.

There was practically nothing in the film about the treatment of women under Islam, a matter which certainly merits attention. Muhammad's sexual relations with a nine-year-old "wife" were briefly mentioned.

All in all, the film justifies its title.

The Man in the Iron Mask

Okay, but not Dumas
I'm a big fan of Patrick McGoohan so I don't like to find fault in a piece boasting one of his customarily excellent performances. But it should really be noted that this is, like some other movie versions of the same story, a great mutilation of the Dumas version. Dumas's story, actually just one thread of a gigantic novel titled The Viscount of Bragelonnne, has a secret twin of Louis XIV who is hidden away in the Bastille unknown even to the King himself. Through the machinations of Aramis, with the unwitting help of Porthos, an overnight coup is affected and the King sent to the Bastille in his twin's place. The King is, however, freed from the Bastille and reclaims his throne when d'Artagnan identifies him as the authentic monarch. The twin, who is disavowed by his mother, is only then condemned to imprisonment in the quasi-eponymous mask. The King is presented not as a black-hearted villain, but as a King who is sometimes ruthless and even cruel because his office requires such qualities.

Hollywood invariably twists the story into one of a virtuous twin imprisoned in an iron mask who is led by one or more of the one-time musketeers to take the place of the evil king. This is simplistic claptrap, nothing to do with Dumas.

Action of the Tiger

Comedic attempted-rape scene
If for nothing else, this film is memorable for a scene in which the heroine is chased around the hero's boat by the mate, Mike, played by Sean Connery, as obvious prelude to rape, while said hero, a particularly grubby-looking Van Johnson (who had seen better days in Santa Fe Trail and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) looks on indifferently. Somehow or other she gets out of this, but the idea that having escaped the clutches of Connery she would subsequently fall hard for Van Johnson give cinema one of it great "huh?" moments. Otherwise, the movie lacks much interest or originality despite the Albanian background which certainly could have been better exploited, as Albania was known during its Communist era as the last surviving medieval society in Europe, and attracted a goodly share of antiquarian tourists.


Why Sherlock Holmes?
I must admit to having enjoyed Young Sherlock Holmes, as unfaithful to Doyle's stories as it may have been. But there are limits.

A Case of Evil is simply dreadful. The Holmes played by James D'Arcy is a man completely ruled by his passions, the very opposite of the character portrayed by Doyle, who occasionally showed an appalling indifference to justice, enjoying the solution of a puzzle for its own sake and ignoring the suffering of innocent victims.

The movie begins with Holmes apparently killing off Moriarty, and follows with the nation celebrating him for the gallant deed. Huh? According to Doyle, practically no one but Holmes was aware of Moriarty's role as the Napoleon of Crime. Holmes bragging of murdering the man should have gotten him locked up.

The whole thing seemed to be an excuse for making Moriarty responsible for the invention of heroin. This involves Sherlock's original grudge against Moriarty to be the addiction of his brother Mycroft, portrayed as a pathetic wimp by the wasted talents of Richard Grant, who made such a grand villain in a recent version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

I must admit that I was spellbound whenever Vincent d'Onofrio's Moriarty was chewing up the scenery. Quite a contrast from his portrayal of Conan creator Robert E. Howard as deluded hick in The Whole Wide World.

The Disputation

Showing how the deck is stacked
Christopher Lee's performance as the King of Aragon, whose fairness and basic decency overcome his piety, is the standout here. At the request of the Catholic establishment, he sets up a "disputation" (public debate) between the leader of the local Jewish community and a Jewish convert now esteemed as a brilliant clergyman. The Jewish leader sees all too well that even (or especially) if he wins, he'll lose, but the King pushes him with well-meant promises to do the right thing. The King finds to his sorrow that the consequences are not entirely within his control. It's unfortunate that the veteran Lee has rarely had such occasion to demonstrate his very real talent.

Great Performances: Secret Service
Episode 7, Season 5

19th Century Expectations?
This is a Civil War melodrama written around the turn of the century by William Gillette, who is better known for the first stage adaptation of Sherlock Holmes.

Secret Service mostly still works pretty well. The dialogue is stilted by modern standards, but fortunately Lithgow, Streep, and company play it straight.

I had a problem with the conclusion, which may have something to do with changing standards of right and wrong. The hero makes a choice which the audience is evidently supposed to perceive as noble, but which may strike today's sensibilities very differently. I suppose the drama might be fuel for some interesting arguments about morality and ethics.

Gabriela, Cravo e Canela

Terrific story, terrific movie
Gabriela, Clove & Cinnamon was the novel which marked Jorge Amado's break from pure class warfare--he received several Stalin prizes in his early career!--and embrace of the joys of Brazilian humanity. Sonia Braga has starred in adaptations of three of Amado's novels, all of them magnificent (the other two are Dona Flor and Tieta). I won't say she is here at her sexiest--Sonia Braga is sexy any time she's on screen--but this is one of her best movies, helped much by the other players, among them, curiously, Marcello Mastrioanni as the Syrian immigrant who hires Gabriela as cook and quickly finds himself in a deeper relationship. The plot here involves attitudes toward women and their sexuality, an eventual welcome breakdown of the double standard. and progress of law and order in a society too often ruled by lawlessness and custom. Amado dies without getting a Nobel Prize for Literature: Gabriela and the other two films mentioned convincingly demonstrate why he should have won it.

The Cloning of Joanna May

Edgy ego drama with SF elements
A wealthy, self-centered monster loses the woman he loves, but determines to re-create her. He has a number of clones developed, and sits back while they grow to maturity, unknown to each other, in a wide variety of circumstances. He then invites them all to a gathering and announces that he will be picking one of them as his bride. Of course, the women's reactions are not what he anticipates, and the ending is suitably surprising and ironic.

Like the good version of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (not the Roseanne Barr version), this is an adaptation of a Fay Weldon novel and stars the lovely Patricia Hodge. What more could one ask for?

O Convento

Yak yak yak leading nowhere
Great premise: American academic (John Malkovich) and lovely French wife (Catherine Deneuve) travel to Portugal so he can research his theory that Shakespeare was really a Spanish Jew cast out in 1492 or on the run from the Inquisition. He winds up at a disused monastery (not a convent; there is no convent in the movie, despite the title) cared for by Satan worshipers, the viewer subtly becoming aware of this due to a big inverted pentagram hanging in the office of the "guardian" of the monastery, Baltar. Whether Malkovich and Deneuve are aware of this, or care, is unclear. Baltar gets the hots for Deneuve, while Malkovich is thrown together with the lovely young archivist (who seems to be a token non-Satan worshiper), but nothing comes of either pairing. Characters yak at each other, this tedium being broken by the greater tedium of extended silences, and then the yet greater tedium of extended silences with the screen virtually still. Despite the great setup, no gore, no nudity, all very tasteful eurotedium. Inconclusive conclusion. Ninety minutes wasted.

Sasori: Korosu tenshi

Disappointing sequel, but flesh still on display
Nami Matsushima has escaped from the prison to which she was sentenced in Scorpion, but is now obsessed with tracking down the--don't laugh--one-armed man who murdered her younger sister fifteen years ago. Nami is certainly no great action heroine, and the plot at times makes little sense, climaxing with a coincidence more ridiculous than any Shakespeare ever used. For complicated reasons, Nami uses her medical knowledge to break into a women's prison as staff physician. There, as in the previous movie, the convicts wind up naked awfully frequently.

The rather inept Nami, by the way, is never referred to as Scorpion within the movie; this appellation may be an attempt to evoke a more acclaimed Japanese caged-woman movie from the past, Female Convict Scorpion, to which this movie is, however, unrelated.

Pleasant time-waster if you go in for this sort of thing.

Sasori: Joshuu 701-gô

Women in prison, frequently unclothed
Fifteen years ago, Nami Matsushima witnessed the kidnapping of her younger sister, later murdered. Now a physician, she recognizes one of the two criminals in the emergency room, but when she confronts him, he snidely points out that the statute of limitations has run out. She reacts by stabbing him dead, which is about as scorpion-like as this pretty but martially unskilled heroine manages to get. This leads to a ten year sentence and a standard women-in-prison exploitation story, complete with cat-fightin' gangs, a lusty lesbo warden, an escape attempt (Nami wants to go after the other kidnapper), and a fair amount of nudity throughout. A subplot involves an inmate on death row who holds information about a politician's involvement in a murder. Without dropping a spoiler, it can be said that this leads to Nami performing a medical miracle which makes no sense at all. Still, with all the female flesh on display, this isn't a complete waste of 90 minutes.

Theater of Blood

Recycled plot, but a good one
The plot here--sorta-dead nutcase kills off his various enemies in gruesome ways--is the same as in the Doctor Phibes flicks in which Price starred at about the same time. But the Doctor Phibes duo lacked Diana Rigg, who as the Price character's daughter fetchingly connives in the slaughter.

Quest for Love

Married to Joan Collins in her prime - in an alternate reality
This is one of those really great little pieces of science fiction that 1) are based on an actual print story (a short piece by John Wyndham, better known for The Midwich Cuckoos/Village of the Damned, and Day of the Triffids) and 2) have practically nothing in the way of special effects to detract from the plot and the characters, which are the important part of every good story.

The Power of the Whistler

Amiable amnesia victim
Richard Dix plays...well, that's the secret. He gets hit by a car early on in the movie and gets one of those handy Hollywood cases of amnesia. Shortly after being hit, he's asked by a girl in a restaurant to be allowed to tell his fortune for a lark, to show her friends how it's done. The cards come up bad, and then his amnesia comes to light, causing the amateur fortuneteller to more or less adopt him so she can help him find out who he is. You'll notice that folks trust one another in this flick a lot more than they probably ever did in real life. With the results your parents probably warned you about. Dix, as usual, is great as this befuddled but somehow sinister stranger. This is perhaps the best of the Whistler movies. Warning: Implied violence to cuddly animals!


Fish sans bicycles
One of those movies which is delightful to watch, and seemingly realistic, but also fundamentally misleading and immoral in the lesson it tries to teach. The lesson here is that males are needed only to provide a bit of seed so that women can have daughters, and the daughters grow up perfectly well without fathers. In point of fact fatherless children have no end of problems throughout the world, and we hardly need more Murphy Brown sugarcoating of single motherhood.

As I said, the movie is a delight to watch, and nearly all the characters are delightful. That's the problem. Life is not like that for women who spawn children without providing a father. It seems that Hollywood is not the only place where moviemakers feel obliged to pretend that fatherless families are the greatest thing since sliced bread.

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