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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in craigjclark's LiveJournal:

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    Tuesday, June 30th, 2015
    9:15 pm
    We're gonna have one crazy night to put this to bed.

    Three years to the day since I exposed myself to Magic Mike the First, I have taken in its successor, Magic Mike XXL. A crowd-pleasing victory lap for Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) and his fellow refugees from the Xquisite Male Dance Revue (sans Matthew McConaughey's Dallas, who has left them high and dry), it answers all the lingering questions left over after the first film, which is easy since there weren't any. Yes, Mike has gone into the custom-furniture business, but he only has one employee and can't afford to give the guy health insurance. (Thanks, Obama.) He's also single once again since his love interest has taken herself out of the picture. (No great loss there since she was kind of a drag.) That's why, when Tarzan (Kevin Nash) calls to tell him Dallas is "gone, bro," he spontaneously decides to take one last ride with the old crew to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach.

    Everyone else is on board, of course, and one thing returning screenwriter Reid Carolin does is make sure we get the time to find out what their dreams and aspirations are. Matt Bomer's Ken is an actor/musician who only started stripping as a sideline, then it became his main gig. Joe Manganiello's Big Dick Richie is as resistant to change as he's sure he'll never his "Cinderella," if you catch my drift. And Adam Rodriguez's Tito wants to transition into selling artisanal frozen yogurt, which sounds far-fetched, but hey, Mike's furniture thing worked out pretty well for him. On the road to South Carolina, Mike talks the crew into coming up with new routines and has multiple run-ins with a photographer named Zoe (Amber Heard) who's moody, but much less of a scold than Cody Horn's Brooke was. There's also a side trip to the home of an old flame (Jada Pinkett Smith) because they need a fill-in MC and a visit to the mansion of a recent divorcée (Andie MacDowell) because they need a place to crash, but these are merely pretenses to cram more stripping scenes into the plot.

    Speaking of which, the movie's stakes are low to the point of almost being nonexistent and its conclusion foregone (is there anybody watching who doesn't already know they're going to slay the crowd at the stripper convention?), but it's a lot of fun regardless and features plenty of scenes of great-looking guys dancing and stripping (and, in the case of new addition Donald Glover, singing). I also caught a wistful echo of Ocean's Eleven's Bellagio fountain ending in the film's closing moments. Since both films were photographed by Steven Soderbergh, who relinquished the director's chair to his longtime assistant Gregory Jacobs for this outing, I have to imagine that was intentional.
    Monday, June 29th, 2015
    9:00 pm
    The Dissolve round-up for June 2015
    Covered two double features this month, plus five Cable Picks.

    June 15: Mickey Rourke Double Feature, The Pope of Greenwich Village (Stuart Rosenberg, 1984) -- three stars -- Desperate Hours (Michael Cimino, 1990) -- two stars

    June 29: Philippe de Broca/Jean-Paul Belmondo Double Feature, That Man from Rio (1964) -- three-and-a-half stars -- Up to His Ears (1965) -- two-and-a-half stars

    Cable Picks: The President's Analyst (Theodore J. Flicker, 1967), Back to School (Alan Metter, 1986), To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985), Christopher Lee day on TCM, The Magician (Ingmar Bergman, 1958)
    Saturday, June 27th, 2015
    4:44 pm
    An Open Letter to Socially Conservative Business Owners, Religious Leaders, Politicians, and Anybody Else Who Objects to Yesterday's Supreme Court Decision Regarding Same-Sex Marriage

    In general, I try to leave personal politics out of this blog because it's pretty much entirely devoted to movies and I don't believe my political views should have any bearing on the kinds of movies I watch and review. I also haven't made a big deal about my sexual orientation because I've never felt the need to. (If you know me personally or can read between the lines, you know what I am.) The immediate pushback from certain quarters regarding the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision legalizing same-marriage in every state (as opposed to the patchwork we've had up until now) has gotten my dander up, though, so here are some scattered thoughts and reactions to those reactions:

    1. If you're a baker or a florist or a caterer and you don't want to be a party to the union of two dudes or two chicks, don't worry. You don't have to be. I'm letting you off the hook. Why? Because if you're doing so great in this economy that you don't need our money, then we don't have to give it to you. We'll find bakers and florists and caterers who are willing to provide the things we need for our wedding ceremonies and receptions and they'll get our money.

    2. If you're a priest and you don't want to marry gay people, don't worry. You don't have to. We'll find clergy who are willing to marry us -- or we'll do an end run around you and get married at courthouses or in our homes or on public beaches or wherever we want. Because we're doing this with or without you. Get used to it.

    3. And if you're a presidential candidate and you have an objection to gay marriage (which pretty much means you're a Republican, because what Democrat in their right mind would come out against us?), feel free to speak your mind on the campaign trail. Fire up your dwindling base. We have long memories. We're not going anywhere. That's a promise.

    That's it for now. If I have any more thoughts on this subject, I'll let the handful of people who still read LiveJournal know.

    Craig J. Clark,
    Gay Man (single)
    Friday, June 26th, 2015
    12:27 pm
    You're gonna leave this world with as much dignity as you can find in yourself.

    The film A Master Builder -- Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory's latest stage-to-screen collaboration -- opens with its title character, respected architect Halvard Solness (played by Shawn), in a hospital bed that has been installed in his home, nurses attending to his every need. He's clearly in ill health, but then he's visited by his former mentor, Knut Brovik (played by Gregory), who's even closer to death's door. Concerned about his legacy, Brovik asks the master builder to step aside so his son Ragnar (Jeff Biehl) can accept a major commission -- and maybe also finally marry Halvard's bookkeeper, Kaia (Emily Cass McDonnell), to whom he's been engaged for years. Turns out, though, Halvard is just as loath to let Kaia go -- much to the audible dismay of his wife Aline (Julie Hagerty, who's brilliantly restrained) -- as he is to let Ragnar rise in the world and potentially take his place.

    Up to this point, there isn't much about Shawn's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play Master Builder Solness -- which went through the same lengthy rehearsal process under Gregory's direction as their Uncle Vanya, memorably brought to the screen by Louis Malle in 1994's Vanya on 42nd Street -- that suggests it needed to be turned into a film. Then, while Halvard is talking to the personable Dr. Herdal (Larry Pine, who also played a doctor in Vanya), there's an abrupt shift in aspect ratio from 1.78:1 to 2.35:1, as well as a major change in tone and acting style timed to the entrance of Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), a young woman from Halvard's past who was all of twelve when they met ten years earlier. How much Halvard remembers of their interaction and whether he did everything Hilde claims he did is just one of the points of contention as she sticks around and finds out how much of his success was built on the ashes of tragedy.

    Appropriately, A Master Builder is dedicated to Malle, whose place behind the camera is taken by Jonathan Demme, who goes hand-held for the film's opening section to get the same "captured on the fly" feel that infused his last feature, 2008's Rachel Getting Married. They may be getting up in years -- Gregory is 81, while Shawn is ten years younger -- but should the two of them decide to take on another project, they would do well to bring Demme on board with them. He's the kind of director who's up for seemingly any challenge.
    Thursday, June 25th, 2015
    4:05 pm
    Where we're headed is a nice, relaxing place.

    With the future of Japan's Studio Ghibli in flux, I had no intention of passing on seeing what could potentially be its final release, When Marnie Was There, since Landmark saw fit to bring it to the Keystone Art Cinema for one week. So it is that I trekked up to the north side of Indianapolis on my day off to catch it before it moves on. As I did when I saw The Wind Rises at the Keystone last winter, I opted for one of the subtitled showings -- always my preference when given the choice, but I would have made do if I hadn't been.

    The second feature for director Hiromasa Yonebayashi after 2010's The Secret of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There tells the story of Anna, a self-loathing 12-year-old asthmatic who's sent to live with relatives in the country for her health. An outsider by choice, Anna actively avoids the company of children her own age until she's drawn to the Marsh House, an uninhabited country mansion where, in her dreams, she sees a girl in a beautiful dress with long blonde hair. Before long, she's making nightly visits to the house -- which can only be reached by rowboat when the tide is in -- and forming a fast friendship with the girl, whose name naturally turns out to be Marnie. Her secret isn't terribly hard to guess, but Yonebayashi and his co-writers, working from the novel by Joan G. Robinson, allow Anna to uncover it in her own time, making the final revelations hit that much closer to come.

    As is typical for a Ghibli film, the supporting cast is stacked with characters who get just a handful of scenes but are developed enough that the focus could shift to them and it would still be compelling. In addition to Anna's Aunt and Uncle Oiwa, whose lax guardianship allows her to explore the village to her heart's content, there's the taciturn Toichi, who comes to Anna's rescue in his rowboat but doesn't open up until the timing is right. Then there's Hisako, a painter who's just as taken with the Marsh House as Anna is and has something else with her since Anna is a sketch artist. Appropriately, Hisako's the one who fills Anna in on the house's past. When she tells the girl, "It's a sad story," we believe Anna when she replies, "I'm ready for it."
    Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015
    9:49 pm
    In the Ginza, appearance is everything.

    The life and daily struggles of a middle-aged Ginza bar hostess are laid bare for all to see in Mikio Naruse's When a Women Ascends the Stairs. One of four films he directed that were released in 1960 (quite a busy year for him), its story is centered on Keiko (Hideko Takamine), one of the 16,000 hostesses who work in the district's 700 bars. Having reached the age where she has a stark choice -- either get married or open a bar of her own -- she spends the film entertaining multiple offers to do both. The trouble is there's no way of knowing which of her clients are serious about helping her and which ones are merely blowing smoke up her kimono.

    Making brilliant use of the Tohoscope frame, Naruse's camera picks out all kinds of details in the environments where Keiko -- a widow who started working in bars when she was recruited by manager Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai) -- plies her trade. Even a change of scenery from one bar to another early on doesn't alter the fact that she has to climb a steep staircase every night she's on the job, and the moment she crosses the threshold she has to be "on" for the clientele. After five years, it's easy to see why she's looking forward to day she climbs those stairs for the last time.
    Monday, June 22nd, 2015
    10:31 pm
    Man, this guy's a jerk.

    File this one under "I let my curiosity get the better of me." When The Cobbler bowed on the festival circuit last fall, it got a pummeling from the critics. Word was it was an epic misfire, a misguided attempt to reconcile Adam Sandler's schizophrenic acting career. Co-written and directed by the previously reliable Tom McCarthy -- who has yet to make another film as fully satisfying as his low-key debut, 2003's The Station Agent -- the film casts Sad Sandler as Max Simkin, who lives on the Lower East Side and works out of the shoe repair shop he took over when his father deserted him and his mother (Lynn Cohen), now adorably senile. Bitter and resentful, Max has a low tolerance for any kind of meaningful human interaction, whether it's with his customers, or Jimmy, the friendly barber next door (Steve Buscemi, who needs to stop following Sandler from movie set to movie set like a lost dog), or Carmen (Melonie Diaz), the community activist who attempts to get him involved in the fight against gentrification in their neighborhood, which he has no love for.

    Then a magical thing happens. And by "magical," I mean profoundly stupid, insulting, and borderline racist. See, along with the shop, Max has also inherited a magical stitching machine (given to his great-great-grandfather by an angel, so the story goes) that allows him to literally step into the shoes of his customers -- as long as they're a 10 1/2. The first customer whose footwear and appearance he tries on for size is walking stereotype Leon (Method Man), a street thug whose identity comes in handy when Max sets his sights on the hiss-worthy slum lord (Ellen Barkin, who clearly needs a better agent) out to evict the lone holdout (Fritz Weaver) in an otherwise-abandoned apartment building who's standing in the way of a multimillion-dollar real-estate deal. Before it even occurs to him to use his strange powers for good, though, Max does a dine-and-dash at a fancy restaurant while in the body of one of his nonthreatening black customers, adopts Leon's imposing frame to steal a sports car (after first intimidating its owner out of his shoes), and masquerades as a black kid to stalk Carmen at her office without her realizing it's him. (Are you sensing a pattern here?)

    As hard as it is to figure out what was going through the minds of McCarthy and co-writer Paul Sado when they decided that Max would take on the identity of a black guy whenever he has to break the law, the motherfuckery doesn't end there. At one point, he slips on the shoes of hot DJ Emiliano (a grossly underused and overshirted Dan Stevens), is perplexed by the notion that he's bisexual, and nearly has sex with his girlfriend, but can't because she's in the shower at the time she proposes it. (This means, in addition to its other crimes, The Cobbler teases a steamy Dan Stevens shower scene, then cuts it short before he even gets his trousers off.) And later on, Max dons the shoes of his father (Dustin Hoffman) so he can have a romantic dinner with his mother, which is so many kinds of creepy, I can't even begin to list them all. But hey, Sandler never says anything worse than "What the crap?" (his ejaculation of choice) and there's no actual nudity, so it can get a PG-13 rating and children can be exposed to it willy-nilly. What a country.
    Sunday, June 21st, 2015
    8:57 am
    Another Batman killed, eh? I hope that it's the last of them.

    Over the past four months, TCM has been airing Columbia's 15-part Batman serial from 1943 (the cowled hero's first big-screen adventure) every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. Instead of marathoning it as I've done in the past, though, this time I watched each chapter as it aired, giving me an experience comparable to when they were first seen 72 years ago. I wish I could say this helped relieve the monotony that is intrinsic to most serials with their repetitive plots and lengthy recaps, but this Batman is no better than its 1949 sequel on that front, and in another respect it's ten times worse.

    That would be the characterization of its main villain, Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish), who's variously called "squint-eye" (by one of his own henchmen, no less), a "sinister Jap Spy," "the treacherous Jap," a "Jap murderer," and a "Jap devil." Heck, the first time Batman (Lewis Wilson) comes face to face with Daka, he cries out, "Ugh, a Jap!" There's even a reference to the "Jap New Order" Daka hopes to impose on the United States once he gets his radium gun in working order. Batman and Robin (Douglas Croft with a rat's nest hairdo) do everything in their power to prevent that from happening, though, plus they have their work cut out for them keeping Bruce Wayne's fiancée Linda (Shirley Patterson) out of harm's way.

    Directed by Lambert Hillyer, who mostly specialized in westerns, although he also made The Invisible Ray and Dracula's Daughter for Universal in 1936, Batman might have been more bearable if it hadn't been produced during the war. With Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson on assignment for Uncle Sam -- and being chauffered around by loyal butler Alfred (William Austin) regardless of whether they're in costume or not -- there's just no way to get around how incredibly racist the whole venture is. The front for Daka's League of the New Order is even a Japanese Cave of Horrors, which is located in Gotham's Little Tokyo. Still, there's absolutely no excuse for having Bruce spend three chapters masquerading as an out-of-town gangster named Chuck White in an effort to infiltrate Daka's outfit. Did the writers really think the kids watching week in and week out were clamoring for more Chuck White action? Because I sure wasn't.
    Saturday, June 20th, 2015
    4:52 pm
    I can't believe I haven't earned your trust by now.

    Results is writer/director Andrew Bujalski's fifth feature, but it's only the second one I've seen (after 2013's Computer Chess). Happily, my local library has the other three, so it shouldn't take long for me to get caught up on him. In the meantime, there's Results to consider. Bujalski's first star-driven film, it features Guy Pearce (sporting his native accent for once) as Trevor, the founder and owner of Power 4 Life, an Austin-based gym business/lifestyle that he's looking to grow, and Cobie Smulders as Kat, one of his top trainers who has what could charitably be described as anger issues. In spite of their employer/employee relationship, they've also had one that was completely unprofessional, which is complicated further by the interjection of a brand new, obscenely rich client.

    This is Danny, who's played by a completely vanity-free Kevin Corrigan. Pudgy, depressed, and sporting some impossible-to-disguise-so-he-doesn't-even-bother thinning hair, Danny is still reeling from the dissolution of his marriage (the film's opening scene depicts him being locked out of his apartment by his soon-to-be ex-wife) when he wanders into Power 4 Life looking for some direction for his. (His stated goal: to be able to take a punch.) Soon after Kat lobbies to be his trainer, though, Danny crosses a line with her, provoking her furious rejection and Trevor's protective side. This, however, doesn't prevent the two men from going into business together (facilitated by Danny's laid-back lawyer, played by Giovanni Ribisi), intertwining their lives just as Kat is taking steps to extract herself from theirs.

    If this all sounds a little dry, what I haven't mentioned is that Bujalski's script is frequently hysterically funny, especially when it comes to Danny's failure to understand boundaries and what constitutes acceptable behavior. Then again, it's possible this stems from his inability to know what to do with the oodles of money he's come into. (The runner about how he's willing to pay $200 for just about any service, no matter how mundane, never stops being funny.) Another reliable source of comedy is Anthony Michael Hall's turn as brutally blunt Russian kettlebell guru Grigory. To think 30 years ago he made his name by playing the geek in films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science. He's living proof of the transformational power of a dedicated workout regimen.
    Thursday, June 18th, 2015
    9:00 pm
    Maybe it's nice on the inside.

    It's hard to believe it's been three years since I saw a Pixar film in theaters, but after I decided to give 2013's Monsters University as pass and they decided they weren't going to have anything ready in 2014, that's just how things turned out. Happily, the next one down the chute, Inside Out, is a welcome return to form, exploring some heady concepts -- namely, the inner workings of the human mind. Specifically, it's the mind of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), who's uprooted by her parents (played by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) and moved to San Francisco, which is a world away from Minnesota, where she formed her core memories. Guiding her through this transition are the five anthropomorphized emotion that reside in her control tower, but when bouncy Joy (Amy Poehler) and sullen Sadness (Phyllis Smith) get whisked away to Long-Term Memory, Riley is left in the hands of Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader), whose attempts to impersonate Joy (who's accustomed to being in charge most of the time) are less than satisfactory.

    The main thrust of the story developed by director Pete Docter (whose last film was the delightfully daffy Up) and co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen is Joy and Sadness's arduous journey back to Headquarters, during which they're helped along by Riley's imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), who takes them through Imaginationland and Dream Production to the literal Train of Thought, which gets derailed in spectacularly literal fashion. There's even time for a side trip to the Subconscious, "where they take all the troublemakers." (As for who "they" are, they're a pair of dim-bulb guards voiced by Muppet performers Frank Oz and David Goelz in a neat bit of stunt casting.) As dark as things get, though, there's never the sense that Riley will be permanently emotionally damaged. A Pixar film without a light at the end of the tunnel is about as unthinkable as one where Lewis Black gets to say the one bad word he knows.
    Tuesday, June 16th, 2015
    8:32 pm
    Love agrees with you. You're unrecognizable.

    Uninterested in resting on his laurels, Louis Malle immediately followed his debut, 1958's Elevator to the Gallows, with The Lovers, which was released the same year and also starred Jeanne Moreau. This time out, though, she's undeniably the focal point, even if the title is plural. As Jeanne Tournier, the provincial wife of Henri (Alain Cuny), a provincial newspaper man, Moreau would be able to communicate the quiet desperation of her situation even without the voice-over narration.

    Already in the habit of traveling to Paris on a regular basis -- ostensibly to visit her friend Maggy (Judith Magre), who married into high society, but actually so she can carry on an affair with Spanish polo player Raoul (José Luis de Vilallonga) -- Jeanne is thrown for a loop when her car breaks down on her way home from one such trip and she's picked up by a total stranger who becomes a whole lot more to her than either of the other men in her life. This is Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory), an archaeologist who pegs what kind of a husband Henri is without even meeting him -- and before he's invited to stay for dinner. (Did I neglect to mention that Henri, sensing something's up, insisted that Jeanne invite Maggy and Raoul down for the weekend? Yeah, he's kind of a smug bastard.)

    Trading out Miles Davis for Johannes Brahms, Malle signals right from the start that this is going to be a very different film from Elevator to the Gallows. Where that one kept its lovers separate (and, in the case of one of them, boxed in for the night), The Lovers is all about their coming together and the rush of emotions that accompanies such an intense connection. (For this reason alone, the decision to shoot in scope is more than warranted.) No matter how much Jeanne's eight-year marriage to Henri means to her or how much she's invested in Raoul ("We only get moments together," he whines early on." "I want a lifetime with you."), it's crystal clear that Bernard is the first man she's ever felt passionate about.
    Sunday, June 14th, 2015
    9:29 pm
    Quite an untamed country, I'm led to understand.

    For a film that is about a proper English valet who's won from his master by a nouveau riche American couple in a game of poker and has to adjust to life in the rough-and-tumble United States of the early 20th century, it's most unexpected that 1935's Ruggles of Red Gap doesn't feature that all-important poker game. Rather, director Leo McCarey and his screenwriting team -- working from the novel by Harry Leon Wilson -- pick up the story the morning after, when the remorseful Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young, last seen by me in And Then There Were None) has to break the news to his faithful servant Ruggles (Charles Laughton) as gently as he can. ("Ruggles," he begins, "how are you about shocks?") In short order, Ruggles is collected by Effie and Egbert Floud (Mary Boland and Charlie Ruggles), who take him to Washington (the state, not the city) and the boomtown they call home, which he is expected to as well.

    Having been in service all his life -- but not the service, which leads to more than a few misunderstandings since the straight-shooting Egbert alternates between calling him "Bill" and "Colonel" -- Ruggles doesn't initially know how to act when his new master insists on treating him like an equal. However, with the encouragement of a headstrong woman (played by Zasu Pitts, last seen by me in The Crooked Circle), he ultimately decides he has to stand on his own two feet. A delightfully droll comedy that takes an unexpected -- but not unwelcome -- turn for the poignant, and one of Laughton's most affecting performances.
    Friday, June 12th, 2015
    11:34 am
    He specializes in murder, in the most gruesome ways imaginable.

    It's taken me a couple decades, but I've finally managed to get all of the omnibus horror films made by Amicus between 1965 and 1981 under my belt. The last one to fall was 1971's The House That Dripped Blood, which TCM aired back in October, but I somehow didn't get around to watching it until now. Sadly, my reason for calling it up on my DVR was the news that Christopher Lee passed away over the weekend, but considering he lived to be 93 and had a long and highly successful career, there's more reason to celebrate his life than mourn his death.

    One thing to celebrate is that Lee's top-billed in The House That Dripped Blood and stars in its strongest segment, "Sweets to the Sweet," in which he plays the father of a spooky little girl named Jane (Chloe Franks) that he's kept isolated and has his reasons for not letting her play with dolls. At first he seems entirely too strict and cruel, but when Ann (Nyree Dawn Porter), the former teacher he hires to be her private tutor, encourages the girl to be more intellectually curious, everything he's worked to prevent becomes a frightening reality. It's a pity the other segments aren't on its level, but each one has its moments.

    In "Method for Murder," the moment is when a horror writer (Denholm Elliott) who has moved to the country to facilitate his work and invented the character of a mad strangler, actually sees the man in the flesh for the first time, causing him to fear for his sanity. In "Waxworks," it's when the retired stockbroker (Peter Cushing) who leases the house after him stumbles upon a Museum of Horrors in town and is startled by the wax figure of Salome, which reminds him of his lost love. And in "The Cloak," it's when the conceited horror film star (Jon Pertwee) who takes the house while he's playing a vampire in Curse of the Bloodsuckers makes a dig at the "new fellow" who plays Dracula, meaning Lee.

    That's just one of the clever touches added to the script by writer Robert Bloch, whose failure to come up with a compelling framing story is the main thing that hobbles the film. Otherwise, director Peter Duffell stays out the way of his stars since they're all professionals and presumably know what they're doing. This is especially true in the case of Ingrid Pitt, who's cast as Pertwee's buxom co-star in the film-within-the-film in "The Cloak." You don't get much more on-point than that.
    Thursday, June 11th, 2015
    10:46 pm
    Some things are better left as they are.

    In spite of Guillermo del Toro's imprimatur, I never got around to seeing the remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark in 2011. I also hadn't seen the original 1973 TV movie before, but since I happened upon the Warner Archive release of it at my library, I decided to give it a spin. Of all the tales of horror and the supernatural that were made for the small screen in the '70s, it's one that -- like The Night Stalker before it and Trilogy of Terror after it -- managed to leave a lasting impression on the young viewers who were exposed to it at the time. (Amazingly, ABC aired it at 7:30 p.m. as the "Wednesday Movie of the Week" like it was nothing out of the ordinary.)

    Written by Nigel McKeand and directed by John Newland -- television vets, both -- Don't Be Afraid stars Kim Darby and Jim Hutton as Sally and Alex Farnham, a young couple who move into a creaky old house that Sally inherits from her grandmother. They also, without realizing it, inherit the three demonic creatures that are trapped within the bricked-up fireplace in Sally's grandfather's former study, which their carpenter (Preston Sturges repertory company member William Demarest) urges them to leave alone, but if they did that there would be movie, so Sally takes it upon herself to at least unbolt the ash door, which releases the creatures right on cue, in between the first and second commercial breaks. For his part, Alex is distracted by the prospect of being made a partner at his firm (which could be law or advertising or anything, really) and therefore doesn't have any time to attend to Sally's deteriorating mental state, which is hastened by the creatures' insistent whispering that only she can hear.

    As long as McKeand and Newland keep their monsters in the shadows, Don't Be Afraid is an effective, if talky, chiller. It begins losing its potency the moment we get a closeup of one of the creatures, though, which occurs in the middle of an important dinner party Sally is throwing for the benefit of Alex's bosses. With their rubbery, pumpkin-shaped heads and hairy bodies, these homunculi don't exactly look menacing as they clamber up and down the stairs. Frankly, they were better served when they were represented by an eerie green light and the occasional glimpse of their hairy little paws. Somebody went to the trouble of making three creature suits, though, so I guess Newland wanted to show them off.
    Wednesday, June 10th, 2015
    5:30 pm
    It's the most diabolical plot that a madman ever concocted.

    Bela Lugosi hadn't entirely fallen on hard times when he headlined 1940's The Devil Bat, but he was well on his way. Made by the poverty-row studio Producers Releasing Corporation, the film stars Lugosi as Dr. Carruthers, a disgruntled chemist who decides to off his bosses at Heath Cosmetics Ltd. for making millions off a greaseless cold cream he formulated while he had to settle for a one-time cash payment of $10,000. (This is why he scoffs at the $5,000 bonus check they surprise him with at the top of the film.) The instrument of his revenge: a giant bat he creates with "glandular stimulation" (read: strapping an immobile bat puppet to a generator, zapping it but good, and letting the props department replace it with a larger one during a cutaway). As for how he's able to direct its movements, the good doctor has made a pungent shaving lotion which he gives to each of his victims just before they're attacked.

    Seems like that would make him the prime suspect, especially when the corpses start piling up, but he's such a beloved figure in the company town of Heathville that nobody believes he would ever dream of harboring a grudge against his employers. That means it's up to big-city reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O'Brien) of the Chicago Daily Register and staff photographer "One-Shot" McGuire (Donald Kerr) to get to the bottom of things before Carruthers works his way up to the comely Mary Heath (second-billed Suzanne Kaaren), who doesn't seem too broken up about the deaths of her two brothers, her fiancé, and his father. Then again, she takes the proceedings about as seriously as screenwriter John T. Neville and director Jean Yarbrough, which is to say not very much at all. As Carruthers himself says at one point, "It was very interesting and very asinine." All he had to do was add "very cheap" and he would have summed up the film perfectly.
    Monday, June 8th, 2015
    9:16 pm
    I want the rice to boil over in Chinatown. I want to change things.

    Following the well-documented debacle that was Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino didn't make another film for five years, but when he got back on the horse, he made up for lost time with Year of the Dragon. Released in 1985 (the same year as William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A., another film by a New Hollywood director who spent time in the wilderness), the film found Cimino collaborating with Oliver Stone on the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Robert Daley (who also wrote the novel Prince of the City is based on). He also tapped Mickey Rourke, who had previously filled a supporting role in Heaven's Gate, to play police captain Stanley White, the "new marshal in town" who shakes things up in Chinatown by refusing to play by the rules that have kept the wheels greased for as long as anyone can remember.

    Then again, the wheels are already starting to come off the bus (if I may be allowed to mix my metaphors here) since the story opens with the murder of the man called "the unofficial mayor of Chinatown" right in the middle of a riotous parade in "his" town. This is followed by a smash cut to his funeral procession, during which a candy shop owner is shot dead for refusing to pay protection to a gang of hoodlums. Connecting the dots, Stanley seeks out "Uncle" Harry Yung (Victor Wong, one year before he was Egg Shen in Big Trouble in Little China) to lay down the law, which doesn't sit too well with Harry's ambitious subordinate, Joey Tai (John Lone, one year before he was Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China). The same goes for the publicity Stanley drums up by playing up to TV reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane, who was "introduced" in this film, but didn't stick around long), who meets him for dinner at one of Harry's restaurants on the night it's shot up by a pair of masked gunmen. (Talk about a lousy first date.) Other than professionally, there's little about Tracy's relationship with Stanley that makes much sense (something he himself admits at one point), but it does drive a further wedge between him and Connie (Caroline Kava), the wife he barely sees and who's done enough suffering on his behalf.

    Playing a man determined to see justice done, even if he has to go over his superiors' heads in the process, Rourke carries himself with such authority that the frequent reminders that he was in Vietnam or that he's the most decorated cop in the city seem superfluous. He's also not afraid to get emotional, but doesn't allow them to get the better of him, especially when there's a perp to chase down. Case in point: when a rookie undercover cop played by Dennis Dun (one year before he was Wang Chi in Big Trouble in Little China -- am I sensing a pattern here?) dies in his arms, he takes it upon himself to confront the villain responsible. Not to do so would simply be unthinkable.
    Friday, June 5th, 2015
    8:58 pm
    He goes hence frowning, but it honors us that we have given him cause.

    In 2000, Michael Almereyda directed a modern-dress version of Hamlet set in the corporate world and he kind of pulled it off. Not completely, but enough that he didn't embarrass himself. Now he's back with an adaptation of Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's lesser-known works, which he has transposed to the milieu of a gang of meth-dealing bikers christened the Briton Motorcycle Club. Their foes: the Roman Police Force, with whom they enter into an all-out war when their leader Cymbeline (Ed Harris, every inch a king) refuses to pay "tribute" (read: pay the cops off). It's redolent of the way Almereyda set his Hamlet within the confines of the Denmark Corporation to get around all the talk about a country where the film clearly isn't set, but in this instance the mismatch is too glaring to ignore. (The first couple of times a character refers to his gun as a "sword," it sounds like an odd affectation. By the third or fourth time, though, it becomes clear Almereyda simply didn't think that aspect of the adaptation through.)

    Despite being the title character, Cymbeline takes a back set for much of the picture, as does his second wife, who's only ever referred to as The Queen (Milla Jovovich). For that matter, top-billed Ethan Hawke doesn't get all that much screen time, either, as he has the ancillary role of Iachimo, whose main function in the plot is to persuade Cymbeline's banished protégé Posthumus (Penn Badgley) that he has bespoiled the exiled lad's virginal bride Imogen (a pre-Fifty Shades Dakota Johnson), who just so happens to be Cymbeline's daughter, hence Posthumus's banishment. Also in the mix is The Queen's petulant son Cloten (Anton Yelchin), who wants Imogen for himself in spite of the implied incest and goes so far as to lose his head over her, but not before he pleasures himself in her bedroom, which I believe may be a first for Shakespearean cinema. (He's also the one that dumps a bag of Hershey's Kisses onto the table when Roman Caius Lucius, played by Vondie Curtis-Hall, drops by to pick up his tribute, a gesture that makes about as much sense as any in this film.)

    In some respects, Almereyda's Cymbeline commits to its anachronisms so fully that one is tempted to applaud the occasional creative use of an iPad or laptop to advance the plot (e.g. the scene where Cloten checks Imogen's Google search history to find out where she's gone). On the other hand, it's the sort of film where every few scenes another recognizable face shows up -- first it's John Leguizamo as one of Cymbeline's flunkies, then Delroy Lindo as one of his former flunkies, then Bill Pullman as the ghost of Posthumus's father, and finally Kevin Corrigan as The Hangman, who disappointingly is not outfitted with a hood -- only for them to be saddled with dialogue that doesn't fit comfortably into their mouths. If Almereyda had used Shakespeare's Cymbeline as the model for his outlaw-biker story and ditched the text and the puzzling character names -- think 2001's Macbeth-derived Scotland, Pa. -- I suspect the end product would have been a lot better for it.
    Thursday, June 4th, 2015
    9:05 pm
    I think it'll be complicated to get this story.

    For a time, it seems like the objective of the 2014 documentary The Salt of the Earth is to cause the viewer to sink into a pit of despair. Then, like its subject, it turns a corner, which counts as something of a miracle. Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the film is partly a biography of Salgado's father, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, but it mostly serves as a catalog of many of the astonishing and heartbreaking images he's captured in the four decades he's been traveling the world to document the lives of people on the bottom rungs of the social ladder.

    Trained as an economist, Salgado found his true calling when he started taking photos while on a fact-finding mission for the World Bank in Africa. This led to a series of long-term projects covering the plight of the poor in Central and South America, famine in Africa, manual laborers across the globe, and peoples displaced by war and civil unrest. The latter, in particular the mass exodus from Rwanda in the '90s, brought Salgado face-to-face with some of the worst examples of man's inhumanity to man, prompting him to put down his camera, but thankfully that's not where his story ended.

    Sprinkled through the film is footage of some of his excursions from the last decade or so that found Salgado -- now accompanied by son Juliano -- tackling less depressing subject matter. (One interlude, where they set out to witness a walrus migration in the Arctic, is especially amusing as their efforts are stymied by a persistent polar bear.) And where it winds up, with Salgado's efforts alongside his wife Léila to turn his once-barren family farm into a thriving nature preserve -- and a model for other reforestation missions -- is hopeful enough to restore one's faith in man's ability to right his wrongs.
    12:03 pm
    Is this what being a woman or a wife is supposed to be?

    To go with Ginza Cosmetics, TCM aired Mikio Naruse's 1953 film Wife, the second of three he released that year. With its utilitarian title -- a direct translation from the Japanese -- one might expect it to tell the story of Toichi and Mihoko Nakagawa entirely from her perspective, but Naruse actually opens the film with competing voice-overs from both of them as they bemoan how stagnant their lives have become over their ten-year marriage. Mihoko (Mieko Takamine) is disappointed by her husband's lack of advancement, forcing them to take in boarders and her to take side jobs to make ends meet, while Toichi (Ken Uehara) translates his own disatisfaction into an office romance with typist Sagara (Yatsuko Tan'ami), a single mother who keeps in touch with him when she returns to Osaka to live with her family.

    To put the couple's marital woes into perspective, screenwriter Toshirô Ide, working from a novel by Fumiko Hayashi, contrasts the Nakagawas with their boarders the Matsuyamas, who split up when the wife (Chieko Nakakita) and sole breadwinner abruptly leaves her chronically unemployed husband (Hajime Izu), thus leaving him without the means to pay the rent. Art school student Tanimura (Rentarô Mikuni) is in the same financial boat, but the best he can do is moon over Mihoko's sister-in-law Yoshimi (Michiyo Aratama), a young widow who has no interest in remarrying anyone, least of all him. Then there's Mihoko's single friend Setsuko (Sanae Takasugi), who provides her with a place to spend the night when she walks out on her husband and him with a simple piece of advice when she visits him at his office the next day. "Don't be a fool," Setsuko tells Toichi. "Just be a good husband." In light of the film's ambivalent ending, though, it's safe to say he still doesn't know how to do that.
    Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015
    4:13 pm
    We all work hard for our children.

    In the 40 years he spent working in the Japanese film industry between 1930 and 1969, Mikio Naruse directed 74 features, plus 18 shorts and segments of omnibus films. And in the 40-plus years I've been on this planet, I have not watched a single one of them until today. Clearly, I would have my work cut out for me should I decide to get serious about him, but Turner Classic Movies got the ball rolling by airing a pair of his films from the early '50s this past weekend.

    Up first is 1951's Ginza Cosmetics, the slice-of-life portrait of an aging geisha named Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) who works as a bar hostess (at a place called Bel Ami) in the Ginza district of Tokyo to support her son Haruo (Yoshihiro Nishikubo). Plot-wise, there isn't much to speak of. Naruse simply observes her as she goes about her business, whether it's dealing with a drunk who runs up a 2000-yen bar tab which he skips out on (and which she covers for the inexperienced hostess who let him run it up) or showing an out-of-towner (Yûji Hori) around as a favor to a former co-worker (Ranko Hanai). The only time something akin to drama rears its head is when Haruo goes missing for a few hours, upset about Yukiko reneging on her promise to take him to the zoo. This causes his mother and the neighbors no small amount of worry, but there's never a sense that the kid was in any real danger. To be honest, I was more worried about Yukiko in the scene where she hits up a notoriously stingy businessman for a loan to keep the Bel Ami afloat and he acts like this gives him license to do whatever he wants with her. Just as she's evidently done all her life, though, she takes care of herself.
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