An Angel at My Table, and six more movies

An Angel at My Table (1990)

Directed by Jane Campion, this was originally a television miniseries, but it's been recut as a movie, and nothing about it feels like a TV show. It's the life story of someone I'd never heard of, and it's slow, thoughtful, accented, episodic, and occasionally confusing. It sprawls all over the world, but like life it's a grand journey.

Janet Frame was a writer of some renown down under, and the movie opens with little-kid Janet facing consequences from her schoolteacher, for the awful crime of chewing gum in class. It's a great beginning, at once endearing us to the girl, and reminding me just how stupid and hollow so much of school was — teaching children to obey authority, no matter how picayune and silly the rules.

(I wrote the preceding paragraph on the back of some junk mail during the film's first few minutes. Didn't know as I scribbled it, that obedience to authority would be the biggest mistake of Ms Frame's life.)

The Neverending
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Through the movie's first hour or so, she grows up in a rural farming family that's poor but seems normal enough. Then she's off to college, wanting to be a poet but becoming a teacher.

In her rookie year teaching, she has a breakdown on a day when she's being ‘observed' by an administrator, and soon three men show up to gently but firmly invite her to hospital. Obedient to authority, she does as instructed, and once admitted, the slightest burst of emotion gets her sent to a sanitarium for an aggressive regimen of shock therapy.

Many times I've felt that intense fear of nothing specific, so yikes, it's distressing to think such a random moment could get someone committed to a loony farm. Feels like a kick to my own gut.

And the mental institute — I've been to facilities like the horrid place where she's incarcerated. Just visiting, thank Christ, but my sister was an inmate, and there's nothing about the mental hospital shown on-screen that seems in the slightest false. Whether you need help or not, it's not a place you'd want to go, but Janet Frame spent eight years there.

The movie, though, is in and out of the asylum in half an hour, so it's not One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, not a movie that entirely takes place in the nuthouse. And it's only a slight spoiler to say things get better.

The movie tells a long and complicated story, about a delicate woman making her way in a world that's not a beautiful place, until she writes and makes it beautiful.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

Wendell Corey plays a married but lecherous drunken attorney. His wife is clingy and his in-laws are around too much, and the music cues that we're supposed to sympathize with him, but I didn't. He's seems like a jackass.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a dame who thought she was above falling for someone like Corey's character, but it turns out she's not above much of anything. There's a murder, Stanwyck is arrested, Corey works in the District Attorney's office, and he'll be the prosecutor as his lover faces the death penalty.

It's absolutely absurd, of course, not at all believable — but it's also intriguing, and every time you think it can't get any more ridiculous, it gets more ridiculous, but in a good way. You'll roll your eyes like dice in Vegas, but Stanwyck owns every moment she's on screen. Microwave some popcorn and enjoy the show..

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Human Nature (2001)

Patricia Arquette plays a woman with a medical malady wherein a light layer of apelike hair covers her entire body. Rhys Ifans plays a man who isn't an ape, but was raised believing he was. Tim Robbins plays an uptight psychologist who's trying to teach table manners to mice. All three are painfully damaged, and at one point Arquette bursts into a lovely song about her hairy existence. As a fan of musicals, to me that's the high point here.

This is a movie dedicated to being strange. It was written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), so of course there's an allegorical point behind all this, perhaps several layers of allegory.

All these people are miserable because they don't accept their human nature and/or desires, and instead of being true to themselves they're lying about everything to everyone, including themselves. "When in doubt, don't ever do what you want to do," explains the esteemed Dr Robbins.

There are bright ideas and creative flourishes here, but nah. I searched for a path to giving a damn about these characters, and got lost on the way. It's hard seeing past the forest covering Ms Arquette, though you have to respect the effort it takes to make an attractive woman sorta repulsive. In other ways as well, the movie's cringeworthy elements overwhelm the cast, the story, and the point.

Verdict: NAH.

♦ ♦ ♦

Lathe of Heaven (2002)

From Ursela K LeGuin's brilliant novel of dreams that become reality, this stars Lukas Haas, Lisa Bonet, and late-career James Caan. An earlier filmed version on the novel, with Bruce Davison, was made on a PBS budget and looked cheap. This one is visually improved, better written, and made me want to read the book again, maybe see the Davison movie again, mostly because as a movie this version is a bad dream.

Caan's performance is amusingly befuddled and evil, but Bonet seems Botoxed, and I never came close to believing Haas as the man who dreams of a better world but only wants the dreams to stop. Haas hasn't got the chops, sorry, and it's a problem when a movie's leading actor seems wrong in every scene.

Verdict: MAYBE, but the original (1980) is better.

♦ ♦ ♦

Salome's Last Dance (1988)

This is delightfully stylized, with all the lines delivered haughty and overwrought. It's based on, inspired by, and a perversion of Oscar Wilde's Salome. Lots of fanged wit, exaggerated everything, and just general craziness, from surrealist filmmaker Ken Russell. 

In some of his films, Russell made a minimal effort to appeal to a mainstream audience, but not at all in this one. Do yourself a favor and don't be a mainstream audience.

I was having a good time but bemused and confused by the delirious makeup, sets, costumes, and performances, and then came a long sequence where a beautiful princess tries to seduce John the Baptist. By the sixth or seventh time she shouts variations of, "Kiss me with your lips, John the Baptist," I was totally enlisted in this movie's strangeness.

None of it's for the normals, but if you toss away all ordinary movie expectations, it's an armpit tickle and simply a lot of fun.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Timecrimes (2007, in Spanish, with English subtitles) 

This movie's leading man is a bald, middle-aged schlub. I like schlubs, being one, and you don't often see a schlub as a leading man.

Schlub is sitting in his lawn chair outside his lovely home, when he spots a young woman inexplicably stripping in the woods, so of course he goes to 'investigate'. When he gets to where she was, though, he finds her dead.

Then he gets stabbed in the arm, climbs a fence to escape his assailant, and pretty soon he's on the grounds of the time travel research facility that's conveniently next door.

After that, we play with all the tropes of time travel stories, and I'm a sucker for that so I was having a good time, but halfway through the movie there's a plot twist toward unnecessary violence, and I lost interest. I can root for a schlub, but not for a schlub monster. 

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Yesterday Machine (1963)

Two relentlessly wholesome teenagers on a date have car trouble, hike toward a house for help, and get shot instead, under the opening credits. The big surprise is that the bullets pulled from the boy's body are antique bullets.

This is a cheap but earnest 1950s science fiction set in the American South, about an escaped Nazi with a time machine. It's badly acted, there's a poorly-dubbed song in a nightclub, one girl has a thick Southern accent but her sister doesn't, and the story ends with a corny speech. It was written, directed, and produced by someone I've never heard of, and the intent was clearly to make some money screening this schlock at the drive-in, but perhaps surprisingly, it's not devoid of imagination and creativity.

There's a very nicely filmed fist fight, where the image cuts from a fist hurled at the camera's lens to a blotch of blood on a man's face. The score is minimal but jazzy, catchy. Nobody was robbed when the script wasn't Oscar-nominated, but in addition to explaining what's going on, the dialogue occasionally seems human. Also, there's a college girl who never changes out of her very short skirt, and I enjoyed a scene where the newspaper reporter and mad scientist debate whether Hitler was a genius or a madman.

Verdict: MAYBE, but yes, Hitler was a madman.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited. 

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