Monday, September 14, 2020

Hellbent for Letterbox | They Call Me Trinity (1970)

Pax and I watch the first of Enzo Barboni's comedic Trinity movies starring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. I also talk about First Cow and read Jonah Hex: Shadows West by Joe Lansdale and Tim Truman. And Pax reads the Tombstone novelization by Giles Tippett.

Download or listen to the episode here.

Monday, September 07, 2020

AfterLUNCH | Ultimate Triple Features 3

Rob Graham and I welcome Michael DiGiovanni and Kay to revisit a classic Nerd Lunch topic. We put together movie triple-features around the themes of witches, soundtracks, walking away from explosions, and movies that make us feel alive.

Download or listen to the episode here

Monday, August 31, 2020

AfterLUNCH | Pandemic Palliates


A palliate is something that reduces or eases the symptoms of something horrible. In this special episode of AfterLUNCH, Rob Graham talks to AfterLUNCH guests and listeners (and me) to learn what has brought them joy or relief during the uncertainty and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tune in and find out what movies, TV, video games, creative activities, and other things your podcast friends have been into to get them through.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Western History | Man in the Wilderness (1971)

Continuing watching movies based on the mountain man period in the 1820s, I don't know anything about the true-life events that inspired this and Alejandro Iñárritu's The Revenant, but purely from a storytelling point of view, I can see why Iñárritu's version punched up the evil done to its main character.

In Man in the Wilderness, Richard Harris (A Man Called Horse and the first Dumbledore) plays trapper Zachary Bass who's attacked by a bear and appears to be mortally wounded. There are hostile Indians in the area, so Captain Henry (John Huston), the leader of the trapping expedition, orders the group to keep moving, but leaves a couple of men behind to either bury Bass when he dies or euthanize him if he's still alive after a couple of days.

Henry is unkind and a bit ruthless in his orders, but it's nothing like what Leonardo DiCaprio endures as Hugh Glass in his version. Harris is certainly pissed at Huston, but his survival mostly seems to be out of sheer toughness rather than an undying thirst for vengeance. 

Vengeance does still play a part of it, though, and my thinking it doesn't may have more to do with comparing Man in the Wilderness to The Revenant rather than anything in the film itself. Along with some other flashbacks to his life before joining Huston's group, Harris constantly relives his hazy memories of Huston's abandoning him. And there has to be some symbolism in Huston's battered, stovepipe Captain Ahab hat and the boat his party is trying to transport overland to the Missouri River. It's clear shades of Moby Dick (a story Huston knows something about), although in this case if Huston is Ahab, he's the hunted party and not himself the obsessed hunter. 

It's imperfect symbolism, so maybe I'm making it up, but I don't think so and the film has other issues that make me question its ability to get its story across. For instance, there's that group of Indians with mysterious goals. As in, I'm not sure the film ever explains what they're up to or trying to achieve. Either way, Man in the Wilderness isn't as strong as it could be.

But it's got some things going for it. Like The Revenant (which I'll be re-watching next), it's still a captivating survival story if nothing else as Harris uses his wits and skill to drag himself across the wilderness in pursuit of Huston's group. And while Harris' character arc is different from what I remember of DiCaprio's, he does go on a spiritual journey as he reflects on and reconsiders the family he abandoned (a nice parallel with what Huston has done to him) and the faith he never had (I mean, he comes back from the dead in this, almost literally "born again"). I imagine I'll have more to say about that once I've revisited The Revenant and can contrast the two stories.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Mystery Movie Night | The Daughter of Dawn (1920), Stormy Weather (1943), and Flower Drum Song (1961)

Evan picked the movies; Dave, David, Erik, and I tried to guess the secret connection. See if you can too in this episode about tipis, tap dance, and towels.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Western History | First Cow (2019)

This is a recent enough movie that I think it's appropriate to warn that I'm going to talk freely (if not specifically) about its ending. In other words...


After an interlude in California to check in on Zorro and the Mexican War of Independence from Spain, we're back to trappers. But instead of Eastern trappers like Davy Crockett and Georgie Russel, we're deep into the territory that Lewis and Clark claimed for the United States. Kelly Reichardt's First Cow opens with a guy (John Magaro) hired to cook for a group of beaver trappers in Oregon. 

No wait. It actually opens with a modern-day prologue in which a woman discovers a couple of skeletons buried near the banks of a large river. That was shocking and also troubling to me. I'm not opposed to Westerns being framed by contemporary scenes per se, but knowing that the movie is about a couple of guys trying to start a business in the West, I was afraid that Reichardt had revealed their fate much earlier than I wanted her to.

Back to Cookie, though: His trapping employers don't like him much and I immediately got the sense that he hadn't really found his true calling. But while they're still out in the wilderness, making their way towards the fort where they intend to sell their furs, Cookie meets a fugitive named King-Lu (Orion Lee) who's on the run from some Russian trappers that he's ticked off. The meeting is brief, but the pair reconnect at the fort and decide to partner up to face the hard life of surviving Oregon together.

Eventually - and the film moves super slow, so I do mean "eventually" - they hit upon a scheme to steal milk from the one cow in the territory and then use that to start a fried pastry business. King-Lu provides the business strategy; Cookie makes the treats.

Without going into detail about the rest of the story, I'll just say that it ends super abruptly. And it would be ambiguous if the ending didn't combine with the prologue to make the movie a bummer overall. But I was all in for everything between. Laid-back though it is, the film is beautifully shot, scored, and acted by its two leads. I love the friendship. And that's a pretty great cow.

The focus on partnership and working together is something I never get tired of, but do I feel like the deeper theme here has to do with property rights and I don't think the film explores that enough. Or maybe it's nuanced in a way I don't like by making the "criminals" really really likable and then punishing them harshly (though off-screen and with just enough uncertainty that you can write your own, different ending if you insist on it). I'm a fan of nuance, but the questions and distinctions raised by First Cow weren't the ones I was interested in. 

I really did like hanging out with Cookie and King-Lu for a couple of hours though.

Monday, August 17, 2020

AfterLUNCH | Blackbeard's Ghost

Before we run out of summer, let's talk about another Disney pirate movie. In this second flashback to the dead 'Casting Off podcast, my son David and Rob Graham join me to blather about Blackbeard's Ghost from 1968 starring Peter Ustinov, Dean Jones, and Suzanne Pleshette. But before we get to that, we also have a quick announcement about AfterLUNCH itself.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Hellbent for Letterbox | Flaming Star (1960)

Pax and I visit our second Elvis Presley Western with Flaming Star, a movie about racism also starring Steve Forrest, Barbara Eden, Dolores del Rio, and John McIntire.

Before that, Pax talks about vintage Western-themed advertising and I discuss my progress in my Western History film project and review the Batman Western comic, Batman: The Blue, the Grey, and the Bat.

Monday, August 03, 2020

AfterLUNCH | Who Would Win?

Rob Graham, Jeff Somogyi, Chad Young, and I hit the playground to argue about who would win in four legendary match-ups between various characters. Gandalf vs Sasquatch is just the first competition (and not even the weirdest) in this hilarious discussion.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Little Women (1978)

The 1978 Little Women was a two-part mini-series aired over a couple on nights on NBC. Little Women isn't something I would have showed up for at the time, but I was super excited to watch it now. It has a Who's Who of '70s and '80s TV actors with Susan Dey (Laurie Partridge) as Jo, Meredith Baxter (Elyse Keaton) as Meg, and Eve Plumb (Jan Brady) as Beth. 

Ann Dusenberry, the actor playing Amy, isn't as recognizable, but she was in an especially memorable episode of magnum pi that we covered on the recent AfterLUNCH discussion (she plays an unhinged woman who falls for Magnum and tries to murder Mimi Rogers), so even she was fun. And then there's Robert Young (Marcus Welby) as Laurie's grandfather, William Shatner as Professor Bhaer, and John de Lancie (Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation) as Amy's suitor Frank Vaughn.

As entertaining as the cast is, they're also quite good. Meredith Baxter is classically beautiful and refined as Meg, but she's also kind. She's perfect playing the oldest daughter who remembers better times and is trying to stoically endure her family's reduction in finances. 

Susan Dey... I've recently run into a couple of roles of hers from the '70s that I'd never seen before and they never fail to remind me that my crush on Laurie Partridge was real and strong. She's lovely as Jo and the script really emphasizes her struggle to control her temper.

Eve Plumb doesn't get much to do as Beth, but she's fine. And I like that the mini-series has enough time to explore Beth's realization that she's dying and how she helps Jo to come to terms with it. Jo's reluctance for change is a big theme that this adaptation pays a lot of attention to.

Amy is always a challenging character to cast because she's so young at the beginning of the novel and so matured and improved by the end. There are actors who make both parts work - I think Elizabeth Taylor and Janina Faye are good examples - but Ann Dusenberry isn't one of them. She's fine as the older Amy, but never convincing as the younger version. 

I don't know Richard Gilliland, but he had a recurring character on Designing Women as well as a ton of guest roles on a gazillion other '70s and '80s TV shows, so his face was familiar to me. He's a good Laurie, even though the script goes pretty dark with him. It really plays up the conflict between him and his grandfather and goes to extremes with Laurie's fall into drinking and gaming. There's even a scene where Laurie and his grandfather strike each other, which I thought was excessive. 

But of course it works out okay in the end and Robert Young does well with both the stern and gentle aspects of Grandfather's personality. I do think those aspects could be better integrated, but that might be more of a script problem than the performance. It's easy to see what Laurie has done to make Grandfather angry, but Young's character seems to switch quickly between hot and cold.

One of the performances I most looked forward to didn't appear until the second of the two episodes and that's William Shatner as Professor Bhaer. The professor is a tough character to do well, because he usually comes across as too old for Jo and creepy in his interest in her. Shatner is 20 years older than Dey, but he's using all of his considerable Captain Kirk charm to make a super charismatic character that it's easy to believe Jo falls for. I could do without Shatner's version of a German accent, but he's the best Professor Bhaer so far. He has a horrible, out-of-character line of sexist dialogue at the very end - suddenly insisting on being the master in his and Jo's relationship - but that's on the script. 

I'm also not crazy about how the script has Jo narrate the whole story first person. Or then again, maybe I am. She's talking the whole way through about her family life and her journey to become a writer in this bygone era, so it reminded me a lot of John Boy's voice-overs on The Waltons

The Waltons was super popular at the time, so Jo's copying him sometimes feels like a ripoff. But other times, the cast and Jo's descriptions just made me super nostalgic for this age of television. And that was really pleasant. I think I enjoyed Little Women '78 more than it probably deserves, but I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Western History | The First 18 Minutes of The Mask of Zorro (1998)

The opening scenes of The Mask of Zorro take place in 1921. Zorro is middle-aged and though he's still active, he's considering hanging up his whip and rapier. It seems like a good time since Spain and its ruthless alcaldes and commandantes are being driven out by the Mexican War of Independence led by Antonio López de Santa Anna.

I like that the movie roots itself in history. Being set in California, it's fair that it'll skip the Texas Revolution that led to the Mexican-American War. But the mention of Santa Anna - like the Davy Crockett movie I watched before this - foreshadows the events around Sam Houston and the Alamo. 

Anthony Hopkins was a weird choice to play the original Zorro. I mean, it's understandable. Hopkins pretty much owned Hollywood in the late '90s and since he quickly gives over the mask to Antonio Banderas, his Welshness isn't as distracting as it might have been. Still, watching just the parts where he's playing younger and is the one and only Zorro... he doesn't exactly disappear into the role. 

It's all set-up though. We meet the young village boy Alejandro who idolizes Zorro and will take over the role in the future. We meet the evil Don Montero who has to leave thanks to Santa Anna's forces, but is desperate to do as much damage to Zorro before he goes as possible. We also learn that our hero Don Diego is now married and has a daughter, though that doesn't last long.

The opening glosses over how Montero has learned that Don Diego is Zorro. That's an important point and would be the whole plot if this was actually a movie about Don Diego. But Zorro is getting older and perhaps a little careless, so I'll let it go. On Montero's way out of town, he shows up at the De la Vega estate and confronts Zorro. It looks like Montero wants to kill Zorro, but he changes his mind when Diego's wife - whom Montero has always desired for himself - dies trying to protect her husband. That causes Montero to adapt his plans, so he simply arrests Diego, but kidnaps his daughter to raise as Montero's own child.

And that's where the story sits for the next 20 years, so I've decided to leave it alone for now and come back to it when the rest of this project's timeline has caught up to it.


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