Turd Wrestling 2014 Calendar
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Starring: Akira Takarada (Andrew Hoshino), Bibari Maeda (Ruby), Tomomi Sawa (Mitsuko Saito), Andrew Hughes (Stonefeller), Makato Sato (Detective Tezuka), Yoshio Tsuchiya (Kurokawa), Nadao Kirino (Hassan).
Screenplay: Jun Fukuda, Ei Ogawa, Michio Tsuzuki.
Director: Jun Fukuda
Fukuda and Takarada are reunited after 1965’s Ironfinger for another Andrew Hoshino adventure, something about gold smuggling in Egypt. As with the James Bond films that inspire it, the plot is not that important. Takarada is an enjoyable lead, stylish and enjoying himself, but without that Western cockiness, but the fun is in the outlandish action scenes, with armed baby carriages and helicopters killing people with anchors and such, all nonsense but very entertaining. It’s also amusing to see Japanese actors in brown face, playing Egyptians. If this Bond homage is missing anything, it’s the lack of sexual chemistry or tension. They just leave that aspect right out of it.
Starring: Vincent Price, Lyn Bari, Annabel Shaw
Screenplay: Eugene Ling, Martin Berkeley, Based on a Story by Albert DeMond
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald, Glenn MacWilliams
Music: David Buttolph
Editing: Harmon Jones
Director: Alfred L. Werker
Janet Stuart (Shaw) is staying in a hotel when she witnesses a man murder his wife. She falls into a coma-like state of shock, and ends up being treated by the murderer, Dr. Cross (Price), who did it to join his real love, his femme fatale nurse, Elaine (Bari). As Janet’s husband tries to piece things together, Elaine urges Cross to inject Annabel with insulin to induce death by shock, but he can’t do it, and kills Elaine instead, at exactly the wrong time, as Stuart and the authorities are arriving. This B-level thriller suffers from weak plotting and is only mildly interesting due to the performances of Price and Bari.
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I have no time in my life for people who only want escapism. I know some people who dropped out of The Leftovers because it was too depressing, but doesn’t that seem a little stupid? It’s unlikely Damon Lindelof, Tom Perotta and the cast and crew would devote their energies to something made only to bring misery, or HBO to pay for it. The series is a meditation on grief and hopelessness, but this is only its starting point. It’s going somewhere, and the season finale confirms that ultimately, understanding and some form of happiness are meant for at least some of its characters.
What I’ve been struck by are the original ideas and the depth of characterization. Damon Lindelof is no stranger to symbols, portents and Macguffins, but here they are used as seasoning, enriching the stories but not overpowering them. More importantly, the characters have dimension and we see a surprising number of them experience change through these ten episodes, as they try to accustom themselves to this changed world and try to decide if they have any place in it, with Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon and Ann Dowd in particular doing Emmy-worthy work. Disturbing, challenging, even maddening at times, but soulful. There have been some missteps along the way, par for the course with an ambitious ensemble project, but it’s a special show. While the departing Boardwalk Empire is more purely pleasurable and I’ll miss it, there is very little capacity for surprise. I look forward to The Leftovers surprising and touching me next year.
Starring: Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth Perkins, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Joan Plowright, Leo Fuchs, Kevin Pollak, Elijah Wood
Screenplay: Barry Levinson
Cinematography: Allen Daviau
Music: Randy Newman
Editing: Stu Linder
Director: Barry Levinson
Levinson’s third film set in his Baltimore hometown is one of his most personal, the kind of drama one gets to make after huge hits like Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and Rain Man (1988). It tells the story of Sam Krichinsky (Mueller-Stahl), a Russian Jew arriving in Baltimore in 1914, and his family. Levinson here is much less interested in a traditional three act story here than in moments, little stories that add up to a multifaceted if not particularly deep survey of a family as they support each other, feud, grow, and experience successes and failures. Some of the stories are told by Sam, and it’s always a pleasure to see and hear Mueller-Stahl, such a handsome and dignified elder man, so patient and warm with a young Elijah Wood as his grandson, Michael, utterly convincing as a man who, in the Jewish oral tradition, is intent on passing down his history, so much so that he frequently repeats his handful of anecdotes. Although he is a forgiving man, we sense in the lack of scenes between him and son Jules (a rather flat Quinn) that Jules has disappointed him, by changing his name to Kaye, marrying a non-Jewish girl, Ann (Perkins), who knows what. We see Jules go into business with cousin Izzy (Pollak, unfortunately his humor kept mostly under wraps), and the growth of their little TV store to a huge department store takes up a lot of time in the film, but with little dramatic purpose other than a fire.
Levinson is so intent on getting all the stories in there that many of them don’t really register. Michael stung by bees is more memorable than the arrival of Sam’s wife Eva (Plowright)’s brother Simka arriving in Baltimore with his wife and child after surviving a concentration camp. It’s interesting—Levinson subtly shows a turkey going into the oven while the words “concentration camp” (a place with ovens used for a very different purpose) are said offscreen—but the statement Levinson seems to be making is that memory is a fragile thing, and so dependent on those with stories to tell being willing to tell those stories. Simka apparently wasn’t comfortable talking about his experience, and the family wonders how he met his wife, and surely she didn’t give birth in the camp, and it must have been a refugee camp, right? He moves out to a farm within a year, perhaps so detached from Baltimore city life and a family he doesn’t really know that he’d rather start over, with people who won’t ask him where he came from.
The theme of the loss of memory becomes increasingly important as the film goes on, and it almost feels like Levinson is battling to make sense of his old family stories. Why does Jules decide not to stay in business with Izzy, if, as he says often, he’s a salesman and can sell anything? Does Izzy’s frequently mentioned bank loans and creative financing catch up to him eventually? From its first introduction into the Krichinsky/Kaye home, television is seen in the film as a hazard, a device that inevitably separates children from their parents and grandparents. Instead of absorbing tales of the old country or when Mom and Dad met, they’re watching Captain Video or Howdy Doody, or, later, rapt with the fake family of The Andy Griffith Show rather than their own. This leads to the sad, if somewhat under realized, final scene, in which a grown Michael, with son Sam, visits his ailing, addled grandfather in a nursing home. As the elder Sam starts to tell the familiar story of when he first came to Baltimore, perhaps for his great-grandson’s benefit, the boy’s eyes shift over to the TV. As he remarks to Michael on their way out, “that man talks funny,” and Michael, doing his part to preserve his family’s history, takes up the story in his own words. It’s a very strong ending to what is, at times, a meandering and somewhat precious film, with its many shots of slow motion fireworks in the night sky. Levinson falls prey here to what might be called Rob Reiner Syndrome, where a comedic director decides that if he’s now doing a drama, he better cut all the jokes out, when a little more levity would have made the more dramatic moments stand out. And again, there are so many little bits here that lots of potentially interesting subplots never really take off. Ann’s frustration at her mother-in-law Eva’s living with them and being critical is played for a laugh or two but goes nowhere. In mainly focusing on Jules’ exterior conflicts—mostly store stuff—he’s undeveloped as a father, a son or a husband. And it’s obvious that Levinson downplayed the Jewishness of the family to make their experience more universal, so that nobody ever wears Stars of David or celebrates Hanukkah or sits shiva or anything. When you can see how people live and do things, if the things are unusual, it can be interesting and education, while at the same time reassuring, because you realize that at heart, they have the same concerns as you do. Specificity is actually the better option, more often than not, not generalization. Jules and Izzy changing their last names to Kaye and Kirk doesn’t mean much if we never see anything to suggest Krichinsky would have faced problems as the name of a business. But as a sort of patchwork of events great and small in the history of an American family, and as a meditation on the loss of memory, Avalon is successful.
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Starring: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt, Titus Welliver, Scott McNairy
Story: John Krasinski, Matt Damon, Dave Eggers
Screenplay: Chris Moore, Matt Damon, John Krasinski
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Music: Danny Elfman
Editing: Billy Rich
Director: Gus Van Sant
Damon plays Steve Butler, a hot young employee for Global Crosspower Solutions, an energy company. He and his senior coworker, Sue (McDormand), are sent to a small, depressed Pennsylvania town to get the town’s property owners to sign away mineral rights, so that Global can start fracking (hydraulic fracturing) for oil. Steve and Sue try to ingratiate themselves with the townspeople, buying humble flannel shirts and singing at the local open mic night. Steve is caught off guard at a town assembly by teacher Frank Gates (Holbrook), who is well-informed on the dangers of fracking, and agrees to Frank’s suggestion that they put the decision to a vote, a rookie mistake for someone with as good a track record as Steve.
Another obstacle arrives in the form of Dustin Noble, an environmental consultant, who convinces a number of people in short order to reject Global’s offer, and to make matters worse, he quickly charms a local teacher, Alice (DeWitt), on whom Steve had his eye.
It’s around this time the film experiences a difficult second act, where not much of importance happens. Steve is sneered at and even punched; Dustin makes a nice presentation about fracking to Alice’s class that serves as a kind of PSA for the audience, Steve tries to convince Alice he’s a good guy, and a planned Global-funded town fair is rained out. Oh, and we see that Global has provided one of the Little League teams with uniforms, which they seem to have switched to mid-season. While it would have been more realistic for Steve to stay away from Frank Gates, there’s an out-of-nowhere, underdeveloped scene where he spends the day at Frank’s house, mostly quietly listening to Frank, who somehow from this decides that despite his job, Steve is “a good man.”
I have to say the twist near the end is clever. It did surprise me and I found it possibly believable, but at the same time, it led to a more conventional ending, especially for a Matt Damon movie. It doesn’t ruin the film and undoubtedly, for many people the twist and the ending will be satisfying. But it’s still fair to say that the writers came up short in terms of a second act that developed the story and the characters with enough depth and complications. Steve gets to do the right thing and maybe even get the girl, but is that enough? The romantic subplot is barely there, anyway, and seems like a cheat. The fact is, if the town doesn’t take the deal, it will likely dry up, because there’s no industry left. Is Steve going to move in with Alice in a dying town? A town where everyone remembers he was the guy who lied to them, even if he came clean at the end? And what will he do for a living? And, okay, spoiler warning, because the movie is over a year old and this is irritating me…
As his name, Dustin Noble, might have tipped you off, Dustin is anything but noble. He’s actually the villain of the piece, a Global plant who is designed to get people against fracking until it’s revealed that the photos he shows of dead cows from his family’s Iowa farm, poisoned by the contaminated water from fracking, are actually from a town gulf town in Louisiana (a lighthouse and the ocean are visible in the photos). He was sent by Global when it seemed Steve was blowing it with the vote thing, so when Steve conveniently receives the proof from Global that Dustin’s a fraud, he can expose him to the town and they’ll all vote for the Global drilling deal. But this supposes that Global would be so confident that Dustin’s deception would turn the tide that they wouldn’t question just why those Louisiana cows were dead. And is Dustin so shitty that he would do a demonstration on the very real hazards of fracking to schoolchildren and then leave town? It’s not very well thought-out, the engineering involved in giving Steve a redemptive arc becomes sort of silly. Much of the problems are in the script, which in addition to the issues with the Damon and Krasinski characters also does very little with solid supporting players like Scott McNairy or Titus Welliver, the latter of which seems like he might have been intended to have a romance with McDormand’s character at one point, but in the film has just a sort of meet-cute and then nothing else happens with him aside from showing up to the town fair and helping set up a food stand and then driving back with Steve. In fact, when Sue sees him at his shop, after Global has been exposed as charlatans, he seems only amused, maybe even kind of a putz. And though I come from a good Liberal family of teachers, it’s a little patronizing that the only two townspeople who aren’t rubes, Alice and Frank, are teachers. We even get one yokel who buys a new gold Corvette, based on money he thinks he’ll make from the Global deal. You know, even a local dealership is going to want actual cash and collateral. And director Van Sant, drafted to replace Damon as director, seems to have just sort of shown up and started shooting. Oh, it looks pretty nice, all blue-toned like you’d want a film set in a depressed area would be, but there are very few interesting master shots or style. It’s like Van Sant is overly worried that adding a little razzle-dazzle will kill the earnestness. Maybe he’s right, but it’s kind of dreary to watch.
What’s kind of interesting is that some oil companies actually took out ads before showings of the film, and sent out pamphlets and such about how the film was unfair in its depictions. As the country now knows a bit more about fracking than they did a year or so ago, we know that not only is the film accurate in this regard, but doesn’t hit hard enough, in that we now know the practice can cause earthquakes. And, in fairness, there are also some studies saying that for the short-term, it may be less hazardous than coal. Still, Big Oil needn’t have been worried, as the film only made back a little over half of its $15M budget. Damon’s and Krasinski’s hearts are in the right place, and the film doesn’t want for facts, but it’s not much of a story.
gf: Come over
me: i can’t i’m skiing
gf: I have dog treats
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Starring: Spencer Tracy, Sylvia Sidney, Bruce Cabot, Walter Brennan
Screenplay: Bartlett Cormack, Fritz Lang, Based on the Story “Mob Rule” by Norman Krasna
Music: Franz Waxman
Editing: Frank Sullivan
Director: Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang’s first American film burns with the anger of a man who fled his own Germany once Hitler came to power. It begins with a tender goodbye scene between Joe (Trach) and Katherine (Sidney), as she is leaving by train to begin a new job, with the plan that Joe join her some months later, his finances permitting. Joe gets his and his two brothers’ lives in order, convincing them to leave the rackets alone and open a legitimate gas station together, and it thrives. With money in his pockets and high hopes, he drives cross-country, planning to meet Katherine in a diner near her place. He’s arrested instead, held as a possible suspect in the kidnapping of a young girl, as he fits the description and, like the kidnapper, likes salted peanuts.
The rumors of a suspect in custody spread throughout the small town of Strand, getting more exaggerated in the telling, and soon a lynch mob goes up against the sheriff and his deputies, knocking out the sheriff and setting fire to the jailhouse. Katherine, hearing Joe’s name on the news, arrives just in time to see her poor fiancé’s face in the barred window of his cell, panic-stricken as the flames get higher. Then a couple of the mob throw sticks of dynamite, and when the smoke clears, Joe is thought dead.
Instead, he shows up at his brothers’ place, a changed man, his goodness all but extinguished in the lust for revenge. The Dstrict Attorney (Cabot) brings the 22 members of the mob to trial for murder, with newsreel footage and Katherine’s eyewitness testimony as crucial evidence, but an anonymous letter supposedly from someone who helped clean up the rubble, and which contains a ring given by Katherine to Joe when last they saw each other, convinces her Joe is actually still alive. When she finds him, she tells him that to go through with letting these men be convicted of a murder that didn’t happen would be the same as murdering them, and himself.
Even with the compromised ending, where Joe turns himself into the court and reconciles with Katherine, it’s still a powerful, even shocking film. Lang not only takes relish in showing the perverted bloodlust of the citizens, he establishes how easy such an act could happen again. The governor is kept from sending the National Guard when it could have mattered because it’s an election year, and citizens don’t like seeing armed officers in their towns. The townspeople of Strand, the wives and friends and even the injured Sheriff, would rather perjure themselves than let justice be served. It’s an embarrassing incident they would rather forget about. Lang does a brilliant job showing how unreasoning anger and hatred can corrupt good men, and he couldn’t ask for a better actor than Tracy to convincingly portray a character who goes from light to dark, nor could have have found much better than Sidney to play a woman sweet and decent enough to pull a man like Joe back from the brink of damnation. Lang would go on to several more films featuring cruel systems and organizations bent on crushing innocent men, but this is among his best.
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Starring: Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn
Story: Jay Dratler
Screenplay: Jay Dratler, Dorothy Davenport
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Music: Michel Michelet
Editing: Arthur H. Nadel
Director; Arthur Lubin
Donlevy, with that stout post-War build, plays rick industrialist Walter Williams. His wife plots his death, to be carried out by lover Jim Torrance, and he nearly gets away with it, clubbing Walter over the head with a tire iron and taking his car, before he crashes into a truck and makes a fiery exit down the mountain.
Dazed Walter ends up in a small Iowa town, nursing the wound of his betrayal and letting the world think he’s dead and his wife rot in jail for it. He gets a job as a mechanic and befriends and then falls for gas station owner Marsha (Peters). Eventually, she persuades him to come forward to clear Marsha, but he’s arrested when she blames Torrance’s death on him. With the help of a kindly detective (Coburn), he clears his name.
The film starts and ends with an awkward voiceover about the impact two lives have on each other. Between this is a film directed with little flair and a barely coherent story. Donlevy brings the film up a notch, as his natural discomfort in his own skin onscreen fits the character.
Starring: Vincent Price, Charles Bronson, Henry Hull, Mary Webster, Richard Harrison
Screenplay: Richard Matheson, Based on the Novels, Robur the Conqueror and Master of the World by Jules Verne
Cinematography: Gil Warrenton
Music: Les Baxter
Editing: Anthony Carras
Director: William Witney
Jules Verne. Richard Matheson. Vincent Price. Charles Bronson. A film combining these talents should have been fun. But despite a bigger-than-usual budget for American International Pictures, this brightly lit airship adventure sinks like a lead balloon. Price reportedly considered the role of Robur one of his favorites, but aside from some caterpillar eyebrow appliances, this is a stock Price performance, the kind of coldhearted despot he played most of the time, though he still easily outshines the ferocious overacting by Hull, who apparently came out of retirement for one last feast on scenery. Bronson as the good guy is dull and miscast. The effects come down on the wrong side of charmingly cheap vs. embarrassingly inept. One of the only highlights of the film is the wildly overcompensating score by Baxter, providing Warner Bros quality for AIP prices. For Price or Bronson completists only.
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