Movie Diary 3/31/2011

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010). On its own terms, the film is a beauty – and it will be interesting to see what happens when unsuspecting audiences settle in for a western yarn. (full review 5/6)

Journey to the Seventh Planet (Sid Pink, 1961). Not sure how I got this far without seeing this item, but wow. The destination is Uranus, which could lead less evolved film watchers to complete some lines of dialogue – okay, every line of dialogue – with the phrase “on Uranus” or “at Uranus” or another juvenile variation. Not that I would know. John Agar stars; the scenario seems to echo an old Ray Bradbury story, and possibly even shades of Solaris, except everything is incompetent.

It’s a big big week at What a Feeling!, with 1980s reviews of The Big Blue and The Big Town.

Movie Diary 3/29/2011

Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011). Some young actors might have a hard time holding down an entire  movie; Saoirse Ronan is not one of those. Also, file under “worth the price of admission” the sight of Tom Hollander as a gay hitman giving chase in a lemon-yellow tracksuit. (full review 4/8)

Circo (Aaron Shock, 2010). The traveling circus isn’t what it used to be, but this documentary about a Mexican family circus is hard to look away from. (full review 4/22)

The Music Never Stopped (Jim Kohlberg, 2011). A movie based on an Oliver Sacks case, and a good example of how committed actors and an interesting idea can get something cooking beyond a general TV-movie treatment. J.K. Simmons and Lou Taylor Pucci are the main actors in question. (full review 4/1)

At my other website, What a Feeling!: Big Top Pee-wee, a three-ring disappointment.

Movie Diary 3/29/2011

Invisible Invaders (Edward L. Cahn, 1959). Say this for the movie: there are many useful cost-cutting tips on display here, courtesy of a truly indefatigable low-rent filmmaker. Limited sets, small cast, stock footage – to say nothing of monsters that are invisible. Plus, John Agar, John Carradine, and pre-Romero shots of staggering zombies.

Insidious (James Wan, 2011). Interesting experience to sit in your seat in the preview theater for almost an hour before the movie is actually scheduled to start (we do that for all evening screenings – the glamour of the reviewer’s life!) only to be told that we were all in the wrong theater and would have to march in a line across the lobby to a different theater, where not all of us would have seats. Good fun. The movie’s got some jumps. (full review 4/1)

Empty Quarter (Alain LeTourneau, Pam Minty, 2011). Static shots of farming country in Eastern Oregon, which is to say barren land that is now farming country because we brought water there. (full review 4/8)

At What a Feeling!, a vintage review of Big Trouble in Little China kicks off the week.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin (The Cornfield #23)

What is this? The basics: The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a 1957 made-for-television musical, derived from the folk tale by way of the Robert Browning poem. According to some sources it was originally a Thanksgiving special and was later shown in theaters. The music is drawn from a variety of Edvard Grieg sources, with lyrics by Irving Taylor (the man who wrote the lyrics to “Everybody Loves Somebody” and the theme to “F Troop”); the rhyming dialogue is by Taylor and Hal Stanley. Van Johnson plays the P-Piper and also plays a young man (well, a man) in the town of Hamelin. Claude Rains, looking skeptical, plays the town mayor; there’s a cameo song by Kay Starr.

That’s what this is. I bring it up because you may have seen this movie in childhood and relegated it to some corner of your mind where old nightmares live, only to be brought up, in flashes, throughout your life.  I wasn’t alive in 1957 but I saw the film on TV at some later date and some tender age, and although it is not overtly scary it gave me a profound shudder. Seeing the movie in adulthood – it’s in the public domain and can be easily found in washed-out prints (color, though), including YouTube – reveals a professional, if not quite ready for Broadway, production with a few evocative moments.

One of those good moments is in the opening scene, when the Piper comes slithering down on his belly from a tree – an unexpectedly pagan touch in an otherwise stagey production. It isn’t Van Johnson, but a double. Though Johnson, in a devilish goatee and “queer long coat from heel to head/Was half of yellow and half of red” (as Browning described his get-up) is really pretty good in the part; he seems to be reveling in a sinister role. In his second role as the romantic lead, he looks more like himself, but duller. The script nudges into a little social-commentary territory by having this second role carry hints of what happens to Fifties-era men who disagree with the official line – Rains’s Hamelin Corporation rules with a heavy fist – but not so much that it gets obvious.

The songs are a tortured lot, even if Grieg lends himself to show music (Song of Norway, folks, another childhood memory). The Pied Piper of Hamelin has one show-stopper that appears patterned after the “Trouble” number in The Music Man, although actually The Music Man didn’t open on Broadway until a month after this thing debuted on TV, so maybe not. It’s a description of the Piper’s adventures in ridding other places of their bothersome vermin, as he is promising to do with the rats that have taken over Hamelin; the melody is drawn from “Anitra’s Dance” in “Peer Gynt,” so Johnson has some fancy syllable-punching to do. It’s pretty crazy, but you appreciate the effort.

The production is directed by Bretaigne Windust, that Tolkien-named fellow who did a lot of Broadway (he had Life with Father and Arsenic and Old Lace running at the same time) and The Enforcer onscreen with Bogart and then later some TV episodes; he died three years after The Pied Piper, at age 54. Except for that snake-like entrance and the film’s most exciting scene, The Pied Piper mostly looks flat and studio-bound, without a whole lot to distinguish it.

That one exciting scene, though: whew. Even if you never saw this show, you know which scene it is. One night Johnson’s Piper takes his flute and, having contracted with the Corporation to lead the rats from Hamelin, goes into the streets to do his dark magic. And you know the music has to be “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” building madly from disturbing murmur to insane shriek, as the Piper glides around corners and alleys, and the rats – real rats but seen only as shadows – scurry along in helpless thrall to the music. And the children sleep in their beds, because they can’t hear the music. Only the adults, those other rats, hear it.

Seen in childhood, this was terrifying. And even in adulthood it raises the chickenflesh pretty well. There’s one shot – of a stairway leading down to the river, where the Piper has perched and where the rats are throwing themselves willy-nilly into the water – that has stayed in my mind, almost exactly the way it is, for decades.

Of course, the fact that the Piper later leads the children out of town is also troubling, and the source of the folk tale’s enduring creepy power. (Some mixed feelings there: the fear of being separated from home, but the promise of exotic fun inside a magic mountain.) This production doesn’t stick with the original ending, instead going for a happy reversal and restoration of that which was lost, which sells out the whole thing. But still, there’s quite a bit here to freak out any unsuspecting Thanksgiving-evening viewers in 1957. And, in a supple way, to make a permanent impression on a young brain.

(You can watch the big scene here, if you dare.)

Of Gods and Sucker Punches (Weekly Links)

“See, first you’re the white swan, then you’re the evil twin…” Browning, Gugino in Sucker Punch

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

Sucker Punch.  “Epic flame-out.”

Of Gods and Men. “An amazing array of faces, battered by life and age and experience.”

The Human Resources Manager. “It might be easier to predict the outcome of this movie than Riklis’s other films, but the manager’s journey is full of peculiar, nicely detailed incidents.”

The Round Up. “Bad stuff needs to be remembered, even if it would be so much nicer to forget.”

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. “Shares the same likable quality as the first.”

Carancho. “People in Argentina are terrible drivers.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about movies that meant a great deal to you in childhood but, when seen from an adult vantage, turn out to be not so great. You know, like In the Year 2889. It’s archived here; the movie bit kicks in at the 13:55 mark.

Rotten fans! Issue #9 is finally out this week. Go to your local comic-book store or order online from a place like Moonstone Books or Heavy Ink. Issues 7-8-9 form an episode the authors consider their best yet, so you might want to purchase all three at once.

At What a Feeling!, my repository of 1980s reviews groans anew with The Aviator – not that Scorsese thing, either.

Movie Diary 3/24/2011

Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011). Whaaaa? Are you kidding me? Seriously? (full review 3/25)

Mother Lode (Charlton Heston, 1982). Never caught up with this one, which the big man made with his son Fraser. He’s a Scotsman mining for gold, and looking at his mighty beard you’d guess it contains about a pound and a half of the stuff right there. Not great, but some awesome Heston moments; Nick Mancuso and Kim Basinger are the young people.

The Round Up (Rose Bosch, 2010). Not a lot more than a TV-movie, but what a subject: the arrest of thousands of members of the Jewish population of Paris in 1942 – not by German troops, but by Paris police. (full review 3/25)

At What a Feeling!, I’ve got vintage reviews of the dismal Gene Wilder/Gilda Radner movie Hanky Panky and the dismal-in-a-different-way Brazil.

Movie Diary 3/22/2011

The Conspirator (Robert Redford, 2011). The trial of Mary Surratt, accused accomplice of the Lincoln assassination squad. The military tribunal provided questionable justice that has a modern-day echo, which Mr. Redford appears to have noticed. (full review 4/15)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (David Bowers, 2011). Actually if you’re going to make movies about suburban families and hilarious scamps, this is a non-offensive way to do it. I did feel the parallels with Guantanamo were a bit much, however. (full review 3/25)

At What a Feeling!, an original 1984 review of the smutty Michael Caine comedy Blame it on Rio, a really bad memory for me.

Movie Diary 3/21/2001

The Way Back (Peter Weir, 2010). Certain images jump out of the movie as destined to be visualized by Peter Weir (the shimmering figures of the desert travelers dissolving into the oasis that a few seconds ago was a mirage), and the tale of endurance is compelling and stripped-down.

Hop (Tim Hill, 2011). The Easter Bunny, as only James Marsden can embody him. (full review 4/1)

The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman, 2009). An honest-to-gosh saga from the Palestinian director, of Suleiman’s Nazareth in the last 60 years. Interesting that outrage and drollery can co-exist in the same scene over and over. (full review 3/25)

At What a Feeling!, an Eighties twofer review, of David Lynch’s Dune and Michael Crichton’s Runaway. Needless to say, I prefer the latter.

Jane Eyre of the Dance (Weekly Links)

I Walked with a Rochester: Fassbender and Wasikowska in Jane Eyre

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week:

Paul. “Pegg and Frost haven’t come to the U.S. to poke fun at nerds, but rather to affirm their brotherhood with the clan.”

Jane Eyre. “The right balance between the modern and the old.”

The Lincoln Lawyer. “The movie equivalent of a book you buy from the rack at the airport.”

Lord of the Dance in 3D. “Color that ham green.”

A Somewhat Gentle Man. “A big man in overalls, one step ahead of his ponytail and his past.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about movies made from fairy tales. It’s archived here; the movie bit kicks in at the 16:15 mark.

That conversation anticipates a talk on Sunday at the Frye Art Museum, at 2 p.m. I’ll look into Disney’s Snow White, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and Breillat’s Bluebeard, among other titles in the fairy-tale game. More info here.

An inexplicable week of 1980s movies about monkeys concludes at What a Feeling! with Gorillas in the Mist, a review published in 1988.

Movie Diary 3/17/2011

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiraostami, 2010). Just checking here, but it’s okay if a movie is both spellbinding and mystifying, right? Good. Juliette Binoche and William Shimell (an English opera singer – what a find, too) may not be the fun couple of the year, but they are the most intriguing. (full review 4/8)

Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011). Rewinding a train bombing with Jake Gyllenhaal, over and over. The premise is not hard to take, at least in this particular reality. (full review 3/25)

I Saw the Devil (Kim Jee-woon, 2010). If you have a vulnerability to Achilles-heel-severing-phobia, this might not be the film for you. (full review 4/1)

Over at What a Feeling!, the 1980s monkey movies continue: consider the very odd Missing Link and the possibly even odder Project X.