Seven more movies

Be Pretty and Shut Up is a 1981 documentary that looks at how Hollywood treats actresses. I've heard it's good and I'd like to see it, but hell if I'll pay for a subscription to Mubi, which seems to be the only place it's playing. And I hate doing the “free trial” for something I know I’m not buying.

It’s a 40-year-old film and on principle I believe it ought to be free. Anyone want to nudge me in the right direction, please?

Onward to this week’s movies...

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The Conqueror (1956)

Netflix •  streaming free

This is rightly regarded as one of Hollywood’s more ridiculous major-studio efforts, with John Wayne playing Genghis Khan, exactly the same as he played every other role in a hundred old-time westerns.

It’s all spectacle without sense. Wayne declares war because he fancies a woman who’s Tartar royalty, and after that it’s just galloping horses and battles and stale wisecracks. Everyone speaks stilted, formal English, presumably to make it seem more exotic, so you get lines like, “I greet you, my mother” instead of “Hi, Mom,” for every word of dialogue, all the way through. This is an American movie for American audiences, 'sort of' about Asians but not really, so why bother translating the simplistic dialogue and dumb plot points into lines that sound so very, very artificial?

Wayne rapes Susan Hayward and slaps her around, but she enjoys it so I guess it’s par for the 1950s. Other than that, there’s nothing much to say about the nonsensical plot and performances, so let’s talk about Dick Powell.

Powell was a comedic actor, a song-and-dance man who grew tired of his image and later starred in some minor noir movies. He’s not in this movie, but for unfathomable reasons, he’s the director. And, wow. It’s an Olympic long jump from acting in B-movies to directing a sprawling horse epic, and Powell stumbles over his shoelaces all across the Mongol Empire.

Legend has it that many of the people who made this shitty flick paid for it with their lives. It was filmed in the Utah wilderness, not far downwind from multiple nuclear test sites, and according to Wikipedia, about 20% of the cast eventually died of cancer, including Wayne, Hayward, and Powell. Color me skeptical, though, as quick Googling shows that about 22% of US deaths are attributed to cancer, and that number is actually on the decline. 

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Donnie Darko (2001, “director’s cut” 2004)

Google Playstreaming free

Donnie’s parents are sending him to a shrink, he’s stopped taking the prescribed pills, and the movie presents him as mentally disturbed. To me he seems like an ordinary adolescent boy, but who am I to argue with a medical diagnosis?

One night while he’s sleepwalking, an engine falls off a passing jet, drops miles through the sky, and crashes through the ceiling of Donnie’s bedroom while he's out sleepwalking. “Somebody was watching over him,” says his father, because if the kid had been home, he’d have been killed.

From this setup, we’re immersed in the politics and hypocrisy at his Christian high school, and we meet a new girl at school (Jena Malone) who’s believably intrigued by Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), and there's also a human-sized rabbit haranguing our hero. Drew Barrymore plays an English teacher with a heart of gold, Noah Wylie is the physics teacher who can't delve into metaphysics, Patrick Swayze is a super-charlatan, and Katharine Ross is Donnie's shrink.

A hell of a lot happens in Donnie Darko, and to Donnie Darko, and having seen this film only half a dozen times I am of course unable to explain much of it. It’s complicated, and defies synopsis. If I watched it another half dozen times (and I intend to) I might understand it no better. It’s sorta science fiction, sorta romantic, funny, philosophical, and amazingly cynical but of course not cynical enough. And it’s simply smart, in ways that most movies can’t even pretend to be. 

Doug says watch it, enjoy it, and then could you please tell me what it means?

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The Last Bus (2021)

streaming free

After his wife dies, a grumpy old man rides buses across England, running into little dramas, making himself a nuisance. All this is interspersed with flashbacks, revealing bit-by-bit details of the old man's marriage and maybe why he's so darn grumpy.

Timothy Spall plays the grumpy protagonist, and his face is so inhumanly grumpy he'd make Walter Matthaeu seem like Santa Claus. Spall's performance is adequate, as is everyone’s, and as is the script — adequate, but nothing special. It reminds me of Movin’ On or Then Came Bronson, long-ago TV shows where wandering men solved strangers’ problems in every episode — is that still a genre on TV? — except here each ‘episode’ is only a few minutes.

The episodes include Old man comes to harassed woman’s rescue, Old man sings “Amazing Grace”, Old man hears sex through thin walls at a boarding house, Old man’s bus gets in a wreck, Old man’s finger gets infected, and my favorite ep, Old man becomes a YouTube celebrity. The big reveal at the end was exactly what I’d guessed it would be in the first ten minutes. It's low-rent charming, but formulaic as fuck, and every character in the movie is a 'character'. You could do worse, but also much better. 

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The Movie Murderer (1970)
YES — 

streaming free

See the mustache on Tom Selleck's face in the poster? I call bullshit. It's an image from when he was famous for Magnum PI, added to the video cover to sell tapes, but the movie is from ten years earlier, and in it he's mustache-free. You have been warned.

This is a TV movie, and seems suspiciously like a pilot episode for a series that might’ve co-starred Selleck. The plot concerns arson investigators, while fires are being set at old film archives.

It tries very hard to be cool, and there’s plenty of snappy lingo-laden dialogue, split-screen editing, and deadly dull dialogue-free sequences of people being odd, like the extended shots of Warren Oates cleaning his enema in the bathtub.

What’s Warren Oates doing in a cheap TV movie? I guess everyone needs a paycheck, but it’s strange indeed to see Oates, one of the toughest tough guys in movie history, face off against Russell Johnson (The Professor from Gilligan’s Island) in a macho pose-off. 

Is The Movie Murderer good? Hell no, but it’s a hoot. It’s delightfully dated, like wallpaper in a house that's been abandoned for decades, and if you open the fridge you'll find 50-year-old margarine. Gray-haired white guys are the computer experts, and some scenes are set in a hippie pad that looks exactly like what TV viewers in 1970 might have imagined a hippie pad looked like.

Everyone in the movie watches a lot of old movies, on TV, and in theaters, so you could call it "movie noir," and that's how it got me. It's 'about' old movies, same as I am, so — yeah, I sorta liked it.

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Sex Madness Revealed! (2018)
YES — 

Alamo On Demandstreaming free

Patton Oswalt, entirely off-screen, plays Jimmy Morris, a podcast host whose show revolves around early exploitation films. Today’s feature will be Sex Madness, a/k/a Human Wreckage (1938). Jimmy’s special guest is the grandson of the film’s director, who brings a trove of archival information even Jimmy wasn’t expecting.

So it's a tongue-in-cheek crack at Mystery Science Theater 3000, but more audacious and less comedic. It's not written by Oswalt, and not much of it is funny line-by-line, but it accumulates into something outrageous, and it’s in keeping with Oswalt's droll style.

With the movie 90% finished, I finally gave in to curiosity and checked, and yes, the movie they’re watching, Sex Madness, actually exists. As for this movie’s lurid behind-the-scenes revelations about that movie, I counsel skepticism, but the send-up seems deserved.

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Streets of Fire (1984)

Netflixstreaming free

First and obviously, most streets are made of asphalt, which doesn’t burn.

Streets of Fire is regarded as a cult film by whoever decides such things, but I’d say it’s maybe, possibly, moderately entertaining if your standards are easier than mine. I was bored silly. On the plus side, there’s music by Ry Cooder. On the minus side, just about everything else. 

It opens with a rock concert, where we hear an unremarkable song in its entirety while the audience screams. There’s immediately a riot, and the concert's singer is kidnapped, a car crashes into a dumpster, motorcycle bozos roar past, and then the opening credits begin, with a promise that this will be be “a rock & roll fable.”

More accurately, it’s a collection of clichés spoken by familiar faces — Rick Moranis, Amy Madigan, Willem Dafoe, Bill Paxton. Diane Lane plays the rock star, which requires more suspension of disbelief than exists in the universe. Michael Paré plays the lead, predictably and boringly fake-cool and sneering all the way through, like he’s Elvis reincarnated but without the talent. I clicked it off after about an hour.

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Things to Come (1936)

Criterionstreaming free

This is based on the H G Welles novel, and set after the First World War, when a second world war was still a horrific prophesy, like our dread of World War III. The story imagines a World War II lasting many years, with the worst people in charge of the mightiest nations, while a few sane voices argue for civilization instead of deadlier gasses and more powerful weaponry.

This is one of the earliest big-budget science fiction movies, and I respect the effort, with remarkably elaborate sets and then-futuristic machinery. It’s occasionally gorgeous to look at, but damn it's depressing, and disappointing that Welles believed scientists would refuse to work on the technologies of death. Oh, honey.

The music is annoying — maniacal to suggest whimsy, regal when a leader delivers a speech, etc. The acting is worse than the music — it's almost all over-acting, melodramatic like a silent movie crossed with a soap opera, so every actor delivers every line as if it’s “To be, or not to be." I say, not to be.


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  1. On primciple I believe the people who made it should be paid for their work.

    1. It was produced and directed by Delphine Seyrig, who died more than thirty years ago, so there’s nobody alive to pay except people who didn’t do the work.

  2. I cannot tell you what Donnie Darko means or if it means anything but it sure is amazing every time. You may have missed the boat on Streets of Fire, I saw it a long time ago and thought it was fun.

    1. I've missed more boats than I've caught. As for Darko, whatever it means and despite the giant bunny, it sure feels human. Heartbreaking, every time.


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