Monday, March 28, 2016

7 Days in May | Pee Wee's Big Cloverfield



So here's what I watched last week:

Pee Wee's Big Holiday (2016)

Nothing will ever top Pee Wee's Big Adventure, but Big Holiday is super funny and sweet. Makes me want to re-watch Big Top Pee Wee to see where that one went wrong. I don't remember much about Big Top other than being disappointed, but there's no such problem with Holiday. Although I also doubt I'll watch it over and over again the way I do Adventure.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Not the Cloverfield sequel I'd wanted, but an excellent thriller-with-a-twist nonetheless. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a great, relatable hero and John Goodman does an excellent job keeping her and viewers on our toes. John Gallagher Jr is also compelling as the third major character and I had a good time trying to decide whether he or Goodman (or neither of them) was a villain.

The Peanuts Movie (2015)

Probably the last word on these characters, at least as far as I'm concerned. As sweet and funny as any of the classic shows, with a great balance of classic bits and new material. And what's so great about the new stuff is that it moves the kids' story forward and lets them learn something great about themselves. Just lovely and charming.

Top Secret! (1984)

Some of the jokes no longer hold up, but most of them still do and are just as funny after dozens of viewings. The music is also fun, as is the cast with Val Kilmer and Michael Gough (long before Batman Forever), Jim Carter in the complete opposite of his Downton Abbey role, and a cameo by Peter Cushing.



King Arthur (2004)

For the longest time, I've wanted to work my way through British history as portrayed in the movies. I finally started that with King Arthur, so obviously accuracy isn't a factor in this project. It's just that I generally like this movie and it 's one of the few I know of that cover the Roman occupation, the Celts, and the Saxon invasion.

Even though I like King Arthur, the premise does feel cynical. It's basically Braveheart with brand recognition. But even though it's derivative and only nominally an Arthurian film, it's gorgeously shot and has an amazing cast. I never feel like I'm watching a King Arthur movie, but I don't care. As a fictionalized account of Rome's last days in Britain, it's fun and compelling.

The Vikings (1958)

Pretty standard mid-'50s "historical" adventure, but it covers the Saxon period before the Norman invasion, which is rare. It has three things worth mentioning:

1. It's not sure what it wants to do with Kirk Douglas. He's clearly the villain for the entire movie, but I think the film wants to redeem him a little at the end. He never really changes though; he just hesitates at a crucial moment. The movie seems to want me to feel something other than simple victory when he dies, but it does nothing to help me do that.

2. The location of the Viking village is gorgeous. I could look at that place all day. I wish more of the movie was set there.

3. Tony Curtis is absolutely dreamy in a beard.



The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Like last week, I'm continuing to work my way through a bunch of silent films. Some of them are new to me, but a lot of them are re-watches like Dr. Caligari. I've grown less satisfied with the twist ending on this one the more I see it, but I never get enough of looking at the movie. Just beautiful.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Not my favorite adaptation of the story, but a good one. I wrote plenty about it already.

One Week (1920)

This short is one of my favorite Buster Keaton films of any length. It's got a great concept to build gags around (putting up a prefab house) and makes full use of the opportunities. Sybil Seely is super cute and a great partner for Keaton, bringing her own athleticism and comedy to the team.

The Saphead (1920)

Buster Keaton's first feature-length film is good, but not typical of his stuff. It's a pretty standard romantic comedy most of the way. It makes great use of Keaton's deadpan, sad sack persona to endear me to his clueless, insanely wealthy character. I root for him and Beulah Booker's character to overcome the obstacles to their being together, which are mostly thrown in the way by other people.

As straightforward as most of the movie is, the climax finally gives Keaton the chance to go nuts with his awesome physical comedy, so it's even good on that level. There's just not enough of it to be completely satisfying.

Convict 13 (1920)

One of the things I both admire and am frustrated by in Keaton shorts is the way he leads into the premise. Convict 13 is built around Keaton's being mistakenly imprisoned, with all the gags that take place in that setting. But there's a long explanation for how he got there, featuring golf jokes. The golf jokes are funny and pay off at the end, so I don't dislike them; it's just that - especially on re-watches - I'm impatient to get to the prison stuff that I consider the meat of the film. I've probably been over-influenced by Looney Tunes cartoons that cut to the chase right away.



The Mark of Zorro (1920)

A splendid version of the Zorro story. Douglas Fairbanks isn't as handsome as some of his swashbuckling successors, but he makes up for that with sheer athletic ability and a ton of charm. His stunts in the climax are nothing short of early parkour.

He's also the model for what Christopher Reeve did with Superman/Clark Kent. He makes it believable that no one connects Don Diego with Zorro, because he plays them as two totally separate characters: sheepishly slouching as Diego, while full of life as the hero. I also love the touch of Diego's constantly amusing himself with shadow figures and little handkerchief tricks, then nerdishly trying to share them with the uninterested people around him. Great performance in a great movie.

Neighbors (1920)

Another of Keaton's best. Simple plot (star-crossed lovers in a New York tenement), super funny, and with some amazing stunts.

The Scarecrow (1920)

Like Convict 13, the story takes a while to get going. Before getting to the main plot about Keaton's rivalry with his roommate over a young woman, The Scarecrow indulges in lots of gags about the multi-functional gadgets of Keaton and his pal's one-room house. Then there's a bit about Keaton's being chased by a dog he thinks has rabies (actually it's just eaten a cream pie). But eventually feelings for Sybil Seely's character (so glad to see her return from One Week) reveal themselves and Keaton goes on the run from his roommate and Seely's father. Every bit of it is funny stuff, so I don't mind the meandering plot. It's just not as focused as my most favorite Keaton films.

On to some stuff I've been reading/listening to:



Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling

I discovered Harry Potter through the movies and by the time I did, I decided to discover that world through cinema first and then come back later and pick up the books. I finally read the first one on vacation a few years ago, but never found time to do the rest. Now that the audiobooks are available on Audible, I'm planning to listen to the whole series this year.

Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone is as magical as I remember from the first time reading it. Rowling has a wonderful imagination and a great sense of humor. It's a joy to attend Hogwart's alongside her characters. Some of the mystery-solving relies more heavily on coincidences than I'd like, but that's easy to forgive in a book about and for pre-teens. Especially since the characters' motivations and relationships are already so sophisticated. I'm eager to get on to brand new territory with Chamber of Secrets.

Long John Silver comics by Xavier Dorison and Mathieu Lauffray

This is a series of four comics albums and they're great. The first volume, Lady Vivian Hastings, is gorgeous. And it's an excellent sequel to Treasure Island. Lauffray's artwork is incredibly detailed and immersive. Dorison's plot introduces a fascinating character, Lady Hastings, who is as different from Jim Hawkins as can be. Delightfully wicked, cunning, and courageous, she's a worthy foil for Silver and the perfect person to bring him into a new treasure-seeking venture. And Silver himself is as charmingly crafty as ever. (I went into more detail about this one a couple of years ago.)

A lot of stories set at sea bore me with the same old tales of storms and doldrums and complaining crews, but Neptune, the second installment, avoids that by filling the time with politics and scheming. It's the same tactic that Stevenson used in Treasure Island, but to very different results. Stevenson's adventure story has its moments of darkness, but this is a scarier version with rougher stakes.

In part three, The Emerald Maze, the pirate adventure becomes more psychological thriller and Heart of Darkness. The crew of treasure-seekers heads upriver into the jungle in search of a lost, gold-filled city, and doubts arise in some of them about the wisdom of the venture.

Finally, the whole thing wraps up in Guyanacapac. I always worry about how well these things are going to end, but Dorison and Laufray do a nice job with a conclusion that's both epic and emotionally satisfying. They have pirates fighting Aztecs with shades of Lovecraft looming over it all. They also offer a great read on the character of Long John Silver and what drives him. Great series of books. Highly recommended.
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