A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

May 15, 2011

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I’m guessing that this movie doesn’t resonate with the youth of today the way it did with me when I first saw it in the Eighties. I saw this fir the first time in eighty-four or eighty-five. I would have been about twelve years old, and like any twelve-year-old at the height of the cold war I was scared to death of the threat of nuclear Armageddon. I lay awake in bed contemplating my impotence in the face of the possibility of being obliterated by capricious forces completely outside of my control. As such I am probably part of the last generation to appreciate this movie for how terrifying its subject matter is.

I didn’t appreciate it at the time that I saw this (because I was horrified by the events portrayed however farcical they may be) but it really is brilliant how this movie does actually help you to stop worrying. It takes a certain mad brilliance to find comedy in our most dreadful nightmares, and Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick have just that right kind of genius.

The plot of this movie involves a rogue General sending the bombers under his command on a mission to bomb the USSR. He has no authority to do so, but he’s able to issue orders under a plan that allows independent action should the command structure in Washington be destroyed by a sneak attack nuclear strike. Of course the command structure is still very much in place and as General Ripper is sealing his base and warning his men that the Ruskies might well come disguised as American soldiers to confuse them the President and his chiefs of staff are gathering in the war room to figure out how best to avoid catastrophe. To add to the tension it is revealed when the President contacts the Soviet premier that the Soviets have just installed an ultimate weapon. It is a doomsday device that will shroud the entire Earth in nuclear fallout and destroy all life on the planet if even a single bomb should be detonated inside the Russian boarders.

It’s a marvelously uncomplicated film. The primary action takes place in three locations. In Ripper’s office he is holed up with his XO, a RAF officer named Mandrake on loan from the UK as part of an officer exchange program. In the skies above Russia we follow the valiant crew of one of the B-52s as they fight what they believe to be the last war, completely cut off from all communication with home. In the war room under the Pentagon President Muffley tries desperately to avoid war and the end of all life on Earth, although his efforts are hampered by many of the people who should be assisting him like the Russian Ambassador de Sadesky, gung-ho General Buck Turgidson and his absolutely mad ex-Nazi science advisor Dr. Strangelove.

Because this movie is so stark, with its harsh black & white presentation and few simple locations, the entire thing is carried by the performances of the cast. It’s a good thing that those performances are so memorable and brilliant. Sterling Hayden plays Jack Ripper completely straight as a man who has lost his grip on reality and in his paranoia and delusions actually believes he is doing the right and honerable thing by precipitating World War III. He’s creepy and frightening as he flatly declares that this is what must be done to prevent the Communists from tainting our precious bodily essences. Slim Pickins is Major Kong, the pilot of one of the bombers sent on this fatal mission. Again – he plays the role seriously and the plight of his plane and his crew is a stirring adventure story – except that if they succeed there will be dire results for every person on the planet. (There are parts of his plot which are humorous, but the jokes are less blatant and more sly – like the contents of the emergency survival kits.) On the other end of the scale there’s George C Scott with an uncharacteristically over-the-top and insane portrayal. (Apparently it was a source of much tension between him and Kubrick that his most outrageous takes were the ones cut into the final film.) It might not be the performance he wanted to give or the version of the character he felt comfortable with, but it does make for great viewing, and he’s one of the best things in the movie.

Of course it is Peter Sellers who really headlines the film and makes it all work. He is the desperate, intelligent and harried RAF officer Mandrake. He is conciliatory President Muffley. And his outrageous and hilarious portrayal of the titular Dr. Strangelove is pure classic Sellers. You can’t help laughing.

In my youth I loved the madcap physical humor of the Dr. Strangelove character (I loved all the Pink Panther films for the same reason.) As I’ve aged I’ve mellowed somewhat and nowadays although Dr. Strangelove gets the most laughs out of me it is President Merkin Muffley who is my favorite character in the movie. He’s the rational one trying to sort everything out, the lone voice of reason. His one-sided phone conversations with the distraught and drunken Soviet Premier Kissoff are for me the highlight of the movie. I love his quiet desperation and determination to somehow turn this dreadful situation around.

This movie is so iconic and memorable. It has brilliant writing with such classic lines as “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here – this is the War Room!” It has a host of fantastic performances. It tackles an uncomfortable subject and manages to allow us to laugh at the preposterous dilemma of the cold war. I love a good dark comedy, and this of the darkest and the best.

May 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 406 – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – April 10th, 2011

I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I feel like I need to mention my antipathy towards musicals whenever we review one. Though I admit that through this whole project I’ve discovered I’m not entirely antipathetic to them, just extremely picky. And I’ll watch a musical and enjoy it, but not in the same way that musical theater fans do, where they’ll go on and on at great length about the merits of the music itself. The music isn’t what I’m picky about.

There are people I know from high school and college to whom musical theater is almost a religion. They can identify not only composer but performers and performance dates from the first bar or two of a song. They have their favorites and woe to any who criticize said favorites without an encyclopedic listing of the technical issues they might have. And that’s where they lose me. I certainly don’t want to listen to badly composed music or badly performed songs, but if something doesn’t strike my fancy I don’t go looking into whether the key was poorly chosen or the bridge less complex than some other piece’s. I don’t care. What I care about is whether I’m enjoying listening to it. I don’t care what musical theater people argue about. It’s the story I’m into. I tend to like musicals that twist things a little. And while I like the songs, to be honest I’d probably enjoy the stories told even without the music.

After watching this tonight I did a little poking into the history of the story, because I knew that the movie was based on a Sondheim stage production but also that the story that was based on was much older. What I hadn’t realized was just how much older. From what I read, it seems this is a very early example of an urban legend. I’ve always found urban legends fascinating and bizarre, so I love that the story has its roots there. And what an urban legend! A butchering barber who uses his straight razor to slice his victims’ throats? Fantastic. Selling their bodies to a meat pie baker down the road? Genius. It takes the idea that gruesome things are happening under your nose and then brings in the concept that you yourself might well have unwittingly participated! Truly the mark of a great horrific legend. Now, in my opinion what elevates it from pure horror and urban legend and its penny dreadful origins is the shift in Todd’s motives. Originally he was just an evil and greedy murderer who operated in an imaginative way. With the introduction of a more sympathetic background the story becomes drama. With the darkly humorous writing and lyrics it becomes a dark comedy. And I’ve got to say, I love that literary evolution. Makes me wish I was back in college so I could have the leisure to do academic work on it. Not that I’d be the first, I’m sure. Or the last.

I didn’t see this movie in the theaters when it came out. I didn’t know the stage production at all and I was never quite in the mood for Tim Burton at the time. I find Tim Burton to be someone whose tastes I have to be in the right mindset for. When I am, he’s fun and fantastic. When I’m not, he’s predictable and tiresome. And I suspect that to some people he’s all of those all combined or only one set or the other. For me, it depends on my mood. Tonight I was in the mood for something dark and sarcastic and a little twisted, so in this went, and I think I was right to wait for the mood, because I enjoyed it. I seem to recall some very mixed opinions from my friends when it came out in theaters, with some loving it and others decrying it as a poor substitute for the stage production. Honestly, I’m not in love with it, but I think it did a fine job with the story and the songs.

I already gave the basis for the story above, but the sympathetic motives this version (and its predecessors) give Todd make him more of a tragic figure, undone by the treatment he and his family suffered at the hands of an evil figure in power. He’s an odd hero for a story, being a murderer who kills indiscriminately after a while, but given his original intention was to take revenge on the judge who wrongly sentenced him in order to gain access to his wife and child? Well, how can you argue with a man who wants to do that? The judge destroyed his family, supposedly drove his wife to suicide and locked his daughter up in his house for years. So he’s got good reasons and I like Depp’s portrayal of him slowly losing touch with those reasons as the movie goes on. I also greatly enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter as Todd’s partner in crime, the baker of the “worst pies in London”, Mrs. Lovett. Of course I enjoyed Alan Rickman as the judge as well, but then, that’s Alan Rickman and the man could read tax instructions and I’d listen. Granted, I’m not a musical expert, but I enjoyed their performances in the songs as well as the acting. Weirdly, though IMDB claims that Depp used Iggy Pop as some of his musical inspiration, I noted a distinctly Bowie-ish feel to a few of his deliveries.

Stylistically, it’s a very obvious Tim Burton film. The color palettes of the scenes tend towards the blue and gray, which I can only assume are intentional in order to make the very red blood pop against them. And oh, there is blood. A lot of blood. That is, after all, half the point. But it really is very much a Burton production, down to Mrs. Lovett’s daydreams of life at the seaside with the incongruously cheerful colors and costumes on the still grey-toned characters. But I think that all suits the story very nicely. It’s an urban legend, after all, so it should feel a little unreal and imaginary. Having the color schemes be so stark works towards that. Really, it’s a fantastic marriage of skills and tastes to put this story and these songs and these actors and this director in the same place. It had just enough fun to keep it a comedy but quite enough darkness to keep it from being silly. An excellent mix and just right for my mood tonight.

April 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 180 – The Producers (2005)

The Producers (2005)

A few years back my mother called me up on a Friday night when Andy was working late. A friend of hers had gotten a couple of comp tickets for The Producers in Boston and given them to her and did I want to go? I said sure, because hey, a show that had gotten great reviews, based on a movie I loved, on stage for free? Why the hell not, right? So I changed out of my jeans and into something decent, met my mother and headed into Boston. It wasn’t the original cast, and we had these horrible seats up on like, the third balcony, and I spent most of the show sitting on my coat because the guy in front of me was about seven feet tall, but I also laughed my ass off. We all did. The entire theater. It made me wish I’d been able to see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick on Broadway, but then they went and made a movie of it, so this combined with seeing a truly excellent stage production is the next best thing.

It’s an odd movie, to be honest. Funny as hell, but odd. It’s a movie based on a Broadway musical based on a movie about a Broadway musical. About Hitler. That’s a couple of levels of meta beyond the norm, plus, you know, Hitler. We don’t own the original movie (I know, I know, we’ll have to buy it tomorrow or something), but we’ve both seen it, and as I mentioned, I’ve seen it on stage. So I’m really looking at this as the offspring of the two. And as offspring of a stage show and a movie, it’s still odd. After all, the very nature of the original involves a stage show, so to put it on stage in the first place was going to be somewhat self referential. Like I said, levels of meta. And I do enjoy a stage show made into a movie. We’ve already done a couple, and I like looking at how things were changed between the two. But this isn’t a simple one way trip here. It’s a roundabout. The movie isn’t so much a movie based on the musical as the musical done on a movie budget and set. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how to write a review about this other than to keep talking in circles. There’s a lot to mention, but every time I try it feels like I’m just making a list of things I like, and that doesn’t address the oddity of the movie’s feel. But I think I’ve worded that as well as I can manage and don’t want to just go on and on about it. Of course Nathan Lane is hilarious as Max Bialystock. I love Nathan Lane anyhow, and he plays his role, from songs to lines to movements to facial expressions, with a spot-on combination of ham, sleaze and charm. Of course Matthew Broderick is fantastic as Leo Bloom, though I will say that while he brings a lot of himself to the role, there were a few deliveries that were pure Gene Wilder (one shout in particular made me look up sharply because I could have sworn it was Wilder’s voice). This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just something I noted as I watched. I enjoyed seeing Uma Thurman as Ulla, and while I’m not a big Will Farrell fan (I don’t dislike him, but he tends not to do the sorts of movies I enjoy) he did a bang up job as Franz. But I also liked seeing smaller roles like Michael McKean in the prison scene at the end, and John Barrowman on stage in Springtime for Hitler. And they all did good jobs. The entire cast did. They put on a wonderful stage show! On screen!

See, having seen the musical, I’ve got to say it feels somewhat oddly confined on the small screen. I think it would have felt oddly confined on the large screen too. Because it should be on a stage. This isn’t like Frost/Nixon, where the stage show is so drastically different from the movie, with the movie attempting to make the viewer feel like the sets aren’t sets where the play used the obvious and minimal sets to focus the action. And this isn’t like Jeffrey, where the more obvious stage show aspects of the script were mixed in with more film-friendly scenes. This is a stage show where the stage has been put in front of cameras. Sure, they don’t have to clear the stage and change the sets in moments between scenes. They had time to change costumes and makeup and you don’t get the same feel that live theater (even recorded and viewed on a screen) has. But it is theater. It’s not the musical numbers (which are great, and catchy, and my mother and I had to consciously not hum Springtime for Hitler on the train on the way home from the play), and it’s not the performances, and it’s not the sets. There’s nothing wrong with the movie. Nothing at all, in my opinion. It’s just not quite completely a movie.

I had a lot of fun watching this tonight, despite its odd nature. I laughed out loud, I enjoyed Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, I envisioned the stage performance, and I remembered the original movie. I like this movie. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, though there is that pesky thing about the plot and all. I mean, the original almost didn’t get released. It’s about two Broadway producers who, in trying to make a guaranteed flop, produce a lighthearted musical about Hitler winning World War II, complete with swastika dance formation. It balances right on a razor’s edge of taste and does some fake-out dips to the wrong side every so often. It’s certainly got that in common with the original movie. But what it’s also got in common with the original is that it manages to stay funny. And that the humor was kept through the transition from original to musical on stage to musical on screen is fantastic. And if you like that sort of thing, the movie does a great job. So since Lane and Broderick aren’t performing it on Broadway anymore, the movie really is an excellent stand-in.

August 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 174 – Keeping Mum

Keeping Mum – August 21st, 2010

Tonight we’re visiting my parents – together this time so we didn’t have to watch the movie apart. When deciding what to bring with us we wanted to take both of their tastes into consideration, since it was highly likely they’d be watching with us. They’re not big action fans, and some of our weirder stuff would definitely not go over well. We didn’t want something too long, and we didn’t want something too esoteric. But then, I got my love of British comedy from both of my parents, so when Andy suggested this movie, it seemed rather perfect. We’d brought some alternatives: The Commitments and A Hard Day’s Night, as the former is one of my mother’s favorites and I also got my love of The Beatles from my parents in relation to the latter. But quirky dark comedy won out and here we are. My parents loved it, by the way, so mission accomplished there.

I loved it too, just so you know. I enjoyed it thoroughly, aside from the death of the dog. I think I’d have been fine with it, in keeping with the rest of the movie, if not for the little yelp. I know I’m quibbling over a pebble in my shoes in the middle of a desert, but it was a little cringey moment that actually made me cringe. It’s kind of funny, really. Funny odd, not funny ha-ha. Normally, in movies with comedy of embarrassment, I end up cringing more than laughing. But now, given that I’m spending more time actually thinking about what I’m watching and how I’m reacting to it, I find that British movies seem to get a bit of a pass. Maybe it’s the accents, or the setting. I don’t know. It’s still comedy of embarrassment, but in a more understated, less in-your-face way. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Sorry.

I suppose if one wanted to get all serious about the movie, one could say it’s about family and how important it is. And well, that’s true. In a way. It’s about how apparently, God works in mysterious ways. And that’s sort of true too. But it’s also about a sociopath who makes a lovely cup of tea, and the growing number of bodies she’s had to dispose of. The movie starts us right off with Rosie Jones, a young woman who’s pregnant and on a train trip. She’s reading an issue of Country Life and seems to be having a charming time. Except she’s also killed and dismembered her husband and his mistress and chucked the bits in her trunk before the trip. When she’s caught, she doesn’t seem at all apologetic. After all, she had to do something, right? She seems pretty cheerful, even as she’s locked up.

We rejoin the movie with the Goodfellow family, Reverend, Mrs. and the kids: Holly and Peter. Holly’s seventeen and sleeping with a parade of young men. Peter’s ostracized at school for being the reverend’s son. Walter, the reverend, is focused entirely on work and his wife, Gloria, is lonely and looking elsewhere. The local villagers are bothersome, the local dog is noisy, and life is, in general, unpleasant. Until the Goodfellows’ new housekeeper, Grace, shows up. And then, magically, everything seems to be solved! Bit by bit, every troublesome thing going on gets resolved. Mysteriously. But it’s not really that mysterious. And it’s not God.

If you know how dark comedies tend to go, you can probably guess what’s going on. If you need another hint, Gloria was raised in an orphanage and never knew her mother. It took me about ten seconds to figure out who Grace was and a second more to know what the movie would entail. This could be played very dark. I’m put in mind of Mother Love, an absolutely chilling series starring Diana Rigg. If one wanted to go in a serious direction, that’s how it would go. But no. No movie starring Rowan Atkinson as a reverend could possibly go in that direction. Humor it is!

As Grace discovers the problems the Goodfellow family is facing, of course she makes it her mission to solve them. By any means necessary. And Maggie Smith plays her with the best innocent looks and charm. She’s the heart of the movie, the homicidal sociopathic heart. While Rowan Atkinson certainly is amusing in his role, I’ve got to say he’s sort of in the background. Oh, he does a wonderful job whenever he’s on screen, and his speech near the end is fantastic, as is his pathetic attempt at goalkeeping in the village football match, but the one I really loved in the movie was Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays his wife. She’s delightfully desperate, wringing humor out of wry comments and sharp looks and exasperated sighs. Her life is certainly not what Country Life would have you believe it would be, living in a village like Little Wallop. She does a fantastic job with it all, from her affair with an American golf pro (played by Patrick Swayze, who didn’t have much screen time, but got some great lines in what he did have), to her dawning horror at what Grace has been up to.

It’s a charming little movie, if you enjoy this sort of darker humor, which I do. It’s got some fantastic performances from a few names and faces that are instantly recognizable. And it’s got a happy ending! Of course! Those who survive do live happily ever after.

August 21, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Keeping Mum

August 21, 2010

Keeping Mum

You know what I love? I love a clever British comedy with a fantastic cast. Say, Maggie Smith and Rowan Atkinson and Kristin Scott Thomas. And how about a black comedy with infidelity, sex and murder in the little English country town of Little Wallop. If that sounds as appealing to you as it does to me then this is the movie for you.

In this movie the Goodfellow family has problems. Mother Gloria is pent up, sexually frustrated, tempted to an affair with her cad of an American golf instructor, and cannot sleep through the night because of her neighbour’s annoying dog. Daughter Holly is a bit of a floozy and goes through boyfriends like Kleenex. Son Petey is a bit of a wimp and mommy’s boy who is picked on by everybody in his school. Father Reverend Walter Goodfellow is utterly clueless in every way. Everything is going wrong for them until they get a new housekeeper. Grace Hawkins (unbeknownst to everybody else) has only just gotten out of prison for the brutal murder of her husband and her mistress. She is a kind, simple, wonderful woman who just happens to have an uncharacteristically direct way of solving problems for herself and her family.

You know, it would probably be an okay movie give the fun script and plot, but it ends up being more than just a fun movie. That’s because this movie has that amazing cast, and is filled with gorgeous English countryside. As the clueless reverend we have Rowan Atkinson, who gets to mostly play the straight man for a change. He has a little bit of physical humor as he displays Walter’s ineptitude at football. But this is really a movie about the women.

It’s about Gloria Goodfellow (played brilliantly by Kristin Scott Thomas) and her quiet desperation. For one thing, she’s the only person in the movie who seems to understand what’s going on. She’s the intelligent core of the film. In spite of the fact that she very nearly enters into an extramarital affair with Lance (her sleazy golf instructor, played by Patrick Swayze in one of his last roles) you still completely sympathise with her. She’s tortured by her husband’s daft cluelessness. She is mortified by her daughter’s antics. And the movie is all about how Grace solves her problems and turns her life around, and why.

Grace herself, of course, is played with charm and good humor by Maggie Smith. It’s a tricky role, since for the humor to work you have to accept that for all her unusual methods for showing it she is entirely driven by benevolence. Everything she does is done for Gloria and for her family. And with the kind of dark humor involved in this kind of movie you can completely accept even the most brutal acts.

The humor, the scenery, the cast… everything in this movie seems custom tailored to my tastes. (Well, except for a bit of squeamishness on my part regarding a couple of Grace’s victims. Maybe they didn’t deserve what they got.) It makes me chuckle, makes me grin to see Gloria’s family repaired, and sends a bit of a chill down my spine now when somebody asks “shall I put the kettle on?”

August 21, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment