Category Archives: films

Human Highway

The Plot and Such:  Well, it’s sketchy.  See, there’s this kind of scuzzy guy (Dean Stockwell).  He inherits a roadside diner near a very poorly maintained nuclear power plant.  His fry cook (Dennis Hopper) is quietly certifiable.  The scuzzy guy’s plan is to torch the place for the insurance money.  Then there’s this other guy who pumps the gas (Neil Young).  He’s not too bright.  He dreams of seeing/becoming his favorite rock star (also played by Neil Young).  Devo provide a sort of musical commentary.  There are dream/drug trip sequences–sort of, and the ending has elements of a cross between Monty Python and Everyone Says I Love You, but Devo-style.

Human Highway is just exactly as terrible and as perfect as you might guess that a 1982 film (begun in 1978) by Neil Young and Dean Stockwell featuring Devo, Russ Tamblyn, and Dennis Hopper would be. This was before Hopper cleaned up and got sober.  I read a review that mentioned Pee Wee Herman, and there’s definitely something of that in Human Highway. Neil Young has decent comedic timing. Devo’s music is present, as are a few Neil Young tunes, but not so much that the film is merely an extended music video. There’s a drug trip within the drug trip and lots of indulgence. And Booji Boy.  Proceed at your own risk.

Closely Watched Trains

The Plot and Such:  In the Czech countryside during the Nazi occupation, young Milos (Václav Neckár) gets a job at the train station and tries with considerable frustration to lose his virginity.

Closely Watched Trains is a revelation–an absolutely gorgeous black and white film and a glimmering example of the best of the Czech New Wave. The first time I saw it, some of the shots just took my breath away.  Václav Neckár is excellent.  I want to see his other films, but they are not easy to come by.

Lucky you, it looks like Closely Watched Trains is available more or less in full online.

Closely Watched Trains (1966) pt. 1 by karimberdi


Closely Watched Trains (1966) pt. 2 by karimberdi

Once Upon a Time in the West

Serving up a plate of spaghetti with Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone:

The Plot and Such:  A harmonica-playing gunslinger (Charles Bronson) and a soulful bandit (Jason Robards) try to protect a comely widow (Claudia Cardinale) from a cruel assassin (Henry Fonda) in the frontier West.  There’s a lot of meaningful gazing and sneering, firearms and dust-kicking horses, derring-do on moving trains, cleavage, and fresh, strong, hot coffee.

I love Jason Robards. I really don’t go in for Westerns much, but I wanted to watch this one for Robards, and he delivers. Huge bonus:  Henry Fonda turns in one of his greatest performances ever–as a villain.  The film is also full of great camera shots and a ton of atmosphere.

30 Posts About Movies #9

Post #9:  A Movie that You Know Practically the Whole Script Of

I’ll give you three:  Pretty In Pink (1986), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and Radio Days (1987).  Since these are films I know well, I’ve written about all three of them before.  So, in lieu of some big discussion, I offer this:

That clip always reminds me of this (especially from about 1:00 onward):

Oh, and now I could probably realistically add Rapture to the list of films I know almost by heart.

Catching Up with Dean Stockwell, Part I

Since seeing him in the 60s film Psych-Out, I’ve been on a little bit of a Dean Stockwell kick.  It’s pretty funny, actually, that Psych-Out is the film that started me off on said kick.  You’ve read about my experience with Rapture, and I’ve recently watched (or re-watched) twelve of his other films, plus a couple of his performances on the Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  As far as I can tell, he’s been a workaholic all his life, with perhaps a few slightly less prolific periods (at least in terms of performing) in his late teens and then again in the mid-to-late 60s, when from what I’ve gathered he was busy doing the Haight-Ashbury thing with Dennis Hopper and friends.

Dean Stockwell with Egg on His Face, Photographed by Dennis Hopper in 1964

Dean Stockwell with Egg on His Face, Photographed by Dennis Hopper in 1964

In terms of breadth, his resume is impressive.  In film, he’s worked with Abbott and Costello, Robert Altman, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Jeff Bridges, Sean Connery, Francis Ford Coppola, Willem Dafoe, Jonathan Demme, Melvyn Douglas, Errol Flynn, Harrison Ford, Jodie Foster, Katherine Hepburn, Wendy Hiller, Trevor Howard, Anjelica Huston, James Earl Jones, Elia Kazan, Gene Kelly, Janet Leigh, Jerry Lewis, Myrna Loy, Sidney Lumet, David Lynch, Herbert Marshall, Jack Nicholson, Margaret O’Brien, Gary Oldman, Reginald Owen, Gregory Peck, William Powell, Vincent Price, Jason Robards, Cesar Romero, Randolph Scott, Frank Sinatra, Harry Dean Stanton, Meryl Streep, Orson Welles, Wim Wenders, Teresa Wright, and Neil Young, among many many others.

Dean Stockwell and Gregory Peck in Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Dean Stockwell and Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

His first film was released in 1945, when he was 9 years old, and he has completed work on two films that are tentatively scheduled for release this year.  On TV, he has worked with loads of people as well, including Fred Astaire, Anne Baxter, Ralph Bellamy, Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney, Jr., James Garner, Paul Henreid, Ida Lupino, Karl Malden, Raymond Massey, Walter Matthau, Leonard Nimoy, David Niven, William Shatner, John Wayne, and Shelley Winters.  A sampling of shows on which he has appeared includes Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Bonanza, Cannon, Chicago Hope, Columbo, The Drew Carey Show, General Electric Theatre, Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, Hart to Hart, Hunter, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Miami Vice, Mission:  Impossible, Murder She Wrote, Schlitz Playhouse, Simon & Simon, Star Trek: Enterprise, The Streets of San Francisco, The Twilight Zone (both the old and newer runs), and Wagon Train, and he’s played a recurring character on several shows, including Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Kildare, JAG, and–of course–Quantum Leap.

Michael Hogan and Dean Stockwell in an episode from the third season of Battlestar Gallactica (2006)

Michael Hogan and Dean Stockwell in an episode from the third season of Battlestar Gallactica (2006)

He’s hosted science shows, made TV movies, done the voice for an animated character, and appeared in pretty much every genre of film including Comedy, Drama, Documentary, Horror, Musicals, Romance, Science Fiction, Suspense, and Westerns.  He’s acted in works by Roald Dahl, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, H.P. Lovecraft, and Eugene O’Neill.  The guy’s been around.  Oh, and he’s a visual artist as well.  Presumably, he has rarely been bored.

tracks

Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell in Tracks (1977)

After Psych-Out and Rapture, I think the next Stockwell film I watched was 1977’s Tracks, starring Dennis Hopper.  In it, Hopper plays a Vietnam soldier on special assignment to take home his friend’s body on a train bound for California.  Stockwell plays a fellow passenger who teams up with Hopper’s character to hit on a couple of ladies (art imitating life, probably).  The handful of focused conversations between the two of them are among the best parts of the film.  Tracks has potential, and I wanted to like it, but it’s indulgent and overly masculine (most female characters are sweet, sexy, and fairly stupid; they don’t say much, and they seem to be around primarily to meet men’s various needs), and it just doesn’t quite work.

Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell in Paris, Texas (1984)

Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell in Paris, Texas (1984)

Next I re-watched a film that is among the best in which Stockwell has taken part, 1984’s Paris, Texas.  In it, Stockwell plays Harry Dean Stanton’s relatively stable and settled brother.   Stanton reappears after a four-year disappearance, and Stockwell takes him in and tries to get him back on his feet and find out what happened.  Stockwell and his wife have been caring for Stanton’s young son, who at this point sees the two of them as his parents.  I had not seen this film for many years, and it affects me more now that I’m a married adult with a child of my own.  It’s a Wim Wenders film and features Aurore Clément and Nastassja Kinski, so it’s got that wonderful freshness that comes of combining elements in a new way and in a new place, much like I see in a film like Rapture.  This is a Great (captial G) movie.

Dean Stockwell and Katherine Hepburn in Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)

Dean Stockwell and Katherine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

After Paris, Texas, I moved back in time a bit to another impressive ensemble film, Sidney Lumet’s 1962 version of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  In this film, Stockwell joins Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, and Jason Robards.  Stockwell is Edmund, the film’s counterpart to O’Neill himself, Hepburn and Richardson play his parents, and Robards portrays Edmund’s older brother, Jamie, a role he played in the Tony Award winning Broadway premiere (which also starred Fredric March, Katharine Ross, and Bradford Dillman–Stockwell starred with Dillman in Compulsion in 1959).

Dean Stockwell as Edmund and Jason Robards, brilliant, as Jamie in Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)

Dean Stockwell as Edmund and Jason Robards, brilliant, as Jamie in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

The film is true to the stage play;  it is intense, dramatic, and–at nearly three hours–unrelenting.  As the O’Neill character, Stockwell does a lot of observing and reacting to his damaged family.  At first blush, his performance might not always seem equal to those of his co-stars–Robards in particular really had his role down–but then again, Stockwell’s portrayal seems right.  He seems tired.  He’s the well-loved baby of the family, he’s supposed to be weak with consumption, and his is perhaps the least venomous role.  In some ways, it’s the hardest of the four main roles to get right.  So, if he’s not always quite as show-stopping as Robards or, in her brightest moments, Hepburn, that’s not really a knock on his performance.  He still puts in an excellent turn here.  If Paris, Texas is a Great Movie (with a capital G), then Long Day’s Journey Into Night is Fine Acting (in the stage tradition, with a capital F).

Three down, nine to go.

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window (1944)

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window (1944)

It’s hard not to compare The Woman in the Window to Scarlet Street, another Fritz Lang film starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, which appeared the following year. It seems many people favor one over the other. Both are successful, and in my mind a preference for one over the other is really a matter of taste. The two films share many parallels. The stories in both films are set off by a relatively harmless extramarital dalliance. In both films, portraits of Joan Bennett sit in shop windows, haunting Edward G. Robinson’s character. In both films, characters mislead others and/or are mislead. In both, clues are misinterpreted, and in both the wrong man gets the blame for the murder, but it’s the man with whom you–the viewer–sympathize least.

Christopher (Edward G. Robinson) will do anything for Kitty (Joan Bennett) in Scarlet Street (1946)

Christopher (Edward G. Robinson) will do anything for Kitty (Joan Bennett) in Scarlet Street (1945)

Joan Bennett has to act a little more, maybe, in Scarlet Street, putting on that she’s really bad news. Though it’s much more sad, Scarlet Street also has more funny moments, while The Woman in the Window is darker–more of a straight noir right up until just before the very end.  Then again, The Woman in the Window has my favorite chuckle of the two when the the boy scout who found the body appears in a newsreel.

"I was not afraid!  I will give my brother some of the reward money to go to a second-rate college, and I am going to HARVARD!"

“I was not afraid! I will give my brother some of the reward money to go to a second-rate college, and I am going to HARVARD!”

I like watching the professor (Robinson) in The Woman in the Window squirming as the district attorney chats with him about the murder investigation. I like the strange, tense relationship in The Woman in the Window between Alice (Bennett) and the professor. I can see how the very end of The Woman in the Window is unsatisfying–a cop out for the Hays code.  I think Scarlet Street gets more love, but my personal taste leans toward The Woman in the Window.

30 Posts about Movies #8

Post #8: A Movie that Makes You Sad

I’m interpreting this as “a movie that made you cry,” and one movie that had me weeping uncontrollably is Ordinary People (1980). Mary Tyler Moore proves that she can do serious dramatic acting in this movie, and Robert Redford proves that he can direct.

Robert Redford directing Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People (1980)

Robert Redford directing Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People (1980)

It captures something very real, as some of the best movies do. I’m sure that’s why it has the power to actually get me sobbing. I wonder if this particular movie is also especially resonant for me because I have a close sibling.  I need to go watch it again, but I probably won’t for a while because there are so many other films I want to see that I haven’t ever seen, and because it deserves my full attention–and my willingness to go through half a box of tissues.

The Mail

Ever since I was about 11 or 12 years old, I have been excited by the prospect of receiving mail.  In high school, when I had 30 or 40 penpals, my penfriends and I used to say that we were “chained to our mailboxes.”

This week, I have been waiting on packages–3 books and a DVD.  Two of the books are advance review copies–one from Random House and one from Chronicle Books, and the other two are items I ordered from Ebay and from an international seller.  I wondered which would be the first to arrive.  Every day this week I’ve anxiously anticipated the sound of the mail dropping through the slot.  Was there a thud?  Or just the little flutter and smack of bills and circulars?  Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday there were no thuds, or if there were, they were teases–items for our neighbors or for Ezra or for Rainer.  Today, about twenty minutes ago, there was a thud.  For me.  This is what arrived.

Rapture by Phyllis Hastings

Rapture by Phyllis Hastings

I hear your shock.  Of course, the moment it arrived I read the first few pages, but then I had to put it down.  1:  I have work to do.  Oh, and 2:  There was another thud! (Yes, the 2nd thud came later.  I think the mailman delivers the lighter items first and then goes back to the truck to collect and deliver any larger or more oddly-shaped packages before moving on to the next part of his route.)  This also arrived today, from Random House:

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman, Advance Reader's Edition

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman, Advance Reader’s Edition

The copy of Rapture was the item I ordered from Ebay.  So, two down and two to go.

Happy Friday!

30 Posts about Movies #7

Post #7:  A Movie That Makes You Happy

mr-blandings-builds-his-dream-house-movie-title

Here’s a fun one.  One movie that always makes me happy is Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.  It’s 1948 and the war is over!  Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and Melvyn Douglas star–what a cast!  Cary Grant’s character, Jim Blandings, is in advertising.  He and his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) are going to move out of the city into a house that they’re building in Connecticut so they can have more room for themselves and their terribly bright daughters (read that as maybe too bright for their own good, a popular type in 40s comedies).  Things are looking up, people!

Their old friend and lawyer Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas) hangs around quite a bit.  There’s a suggestion that he and Muriel had some kind of relationship in the past, and while they’re now just friends it gives Jim something to worry about.  Bill and others try to advise Jim and Muriel against letting their plans for their new home get out of hand, but of course their dreams get the better of them.

Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglas, and Cary Grant in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglas, and Cary Grant in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

The writing is what can rightly be termed “delightful.”  Melvyn Douglas as Bill Cole provides voice-over narration to the story.  He has such a great warm, funny tone.  Yes, Melvyn, tell me a story!  Get me in on your joke!  I’m all ears.  I’ve poured myself a drink!  I’m yours!  Jim and Muriel are, as Bill tells us, “two little fish from New York–out in the deep deep waters of Connecticut real estate.”  They fall in love with a broken-down house, for which they proceed to pay far too much.  A number of experts then come in and tell them to tear the house down, which leads to their massive house-building project.  We follow along with them through their home’s planning and construction and all of the attendant mishaps–the negotiations over how many bathrooms and closets to build (their architect suggests, “Perhaps what you need is not so much a house, as a series of little bungalows, each with two closets and a private bath”), the tearing down of the old place (on which another person held a mortgage–whoops), the digging of the well, the lintels and the lallys, the closet door that sticks, and the starry-eyed selection of paint colors.

A fun little subplot revolves around an account Jim is working on.  He needs to come up with a new ad line for the fictional product WHAM!, which is apparently more or less like SPAM.  He’s pulling out his hair over it and coming up with nothing, until finally the family housekeeper, Bessie, busts out with “If you ain’t eaten Wham, you ain’t eatin’ ham!”  Speaking of movies I quote, this film is one my sister and I have been quoting since way back in the days when AMC stood for American Movie Classics and when that’s what they actually played.

Happy indeed.  As a matter of fact, folks, I am happy to present you with the entire film.  Enjoy!

30 Posts about Movies #6 Part Four

Post #6:  Your Favorite Comedy Movie

Raising Arizona (1987)

There are some movies that you see a zillion times because no matter how many times you watch them, they still crack you up.  Raising Arizona is one of those movies.  It’s a movie that we’ve been quoting for years.

Holly Hunter and Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona (1987)

Holly Hunter and Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona (1987)

Most Coen brothers movies include the sinister in some form and to some degree.  There’s the Hudsucker Proxy at one end of the spectrum (I can’t recall what you might call sinister in Hudsucker, though it’s probably in there), then movies like Fargo inch into slightly darker territory, and at the other end of the spectrum films like Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, No Country for Old Men, and (at times) O Brother, Where Art Thou? delve into much darker places inhabited by gangsters, killers, and demons.  Raising Arizona sits at the relatively tame end.  In this movie, even Leonard Smalls, the scary bad guy (as opposed to the totally-not-frightening bad guys, Gale and Evelie) is actually pretty funny.

Nicholas Cage is great in this.  I guess he’s known for some other films, but I think this has to be my favorite Nicholas Cage performance.  His physical comedy and just the faces he makes are perfect.  He is H.I. McDunnough.

Nicholas Cage as H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona (1987)

Nicholas Cage as H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona (1987)

Possibly my favorite character in the film, with of course a nod to the main duo of Ed (Holly Hunter) and H.I., is Dot (Frances McDormand).  The most oft-quoted Raising Arizona lines in our house come from Dot.  You probably know them:  “He’s gotta have his dip-tet,” and especially “You gotta do that, Hi!”  Of course, it’s all in the delivery, since just looking at the lines written out like that doesn’t convey the humor.  Oh, Frances McDormand, you are good.  She doesn’t even have that many lines, but she gets every bit out of that part.

Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand in Raising Arizona (1987)

Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand in Raising Arizona (1987)

Since an unadulterated clip of the scene is not available online, here’s that favorite bit from the script:

DOT
… and then there’s diphtheria-tetanus, what they call dip-tet.  You gotta get him dip-tet boosters yearly or else he’ll get lockjaw and night vision.  Then there’s the smallpox vaccine, chicken pox and measles, and if your kid’s like ours you gotta take all those shots first to get him to take ’em.  Who’s your pediatrician, anyway?

ED
We ain’t exactly fixed on one yet.  Have we Hi?

(He sits stock-still with a stony face.)

ED
…No, I guess we don’t have one yet.

(Dot shrieks.)

DOT
Well you just gotta have one!  You just gotta have one this instant!

ED
Yeah, what if the baby gets sick, honey?

DOT
Hi, even if he don’t get sick he’s gotta have his dip-tet!

ED
He’s gotta have his dip-tet, honey.

(Hi shrugs, then flinches as a piece of jello hits his shoulder.)

HI
…Uh-huh.

DOT
You started his bank accounts?

ED
Have we done that honey?  We gotta do that honey.  What’s that for, Dot?

DOT
That-there’s for his orthodonture and his college.  You soak his thumb in iodine you might get by without the orthodonture, but it won’t knock any off the college.

(Hi sits stoically.  Dot is looking offscreen.)

DOT
…Reilly, take that diaper off your head and put it back on your sister!… Anyway, you probably got the life insurance all squared away.

ED
You done that yet honey?

DOT
You gotta do that, Hi!  Ed here’s got her hands full with that little angel!

HI
(dully) Yes ma’am.

DOT
What would Ed and the angel do if a truck came along and splattered your brains all over the interstate?  Where would you be then?

ED
Yeah honey, what if you get run over?

DOT
Or you got carried off by a twister?
(End quote from script.)

Yeah, what about that, Hi?