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Six out of seven thumbs up

An excellent run of movie luck lately — you're welcome!

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Framed (1947)

Why would a blonde bombshell working as a waitress pay a $50 court fine for a truck driver she's barely met? Well, there's literally a sign at the side of the road that says "Dangerous Curves," but the movie's blonde is all wrong — she's not acting, she's posing for the cover of Vogue in every scene.

The movie is enjoyable, though, even with a vacancy where a leading actress ought to be, because it has Glenn Ford as leading man. Ford smolders more than a whole pack of those cigarettes he's always puffing, then tossing the butts away in such a manly fashion.

Crusty old Edgar Buchanan (you might remember him as 'Uncle Joe' on Petticoat Junction) brings a load of lovable gruff. The plot, if such things matter, is cockeyed and chicken-brained, and yet...

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

From Other Worlds (2004)

In American movies, if there's a woman with a Brooklyn accent, she's there for wisecracks, street smarts, and comedic effect. This movie, though, takes a Brooklyn housewife seriously. Yeah, it's a bargain-priced science fiction movie about alien abductions, but still, she's not a punchline and I loved that.

JoAnne Schwartzbaum (Cara Buono) woke up on the patio and doesn't remember how she got there, but suspects she was alien-abducted. She joins Abductees Anonymous, and at a meeting she finds Abraham (Isaach De Bankole), a counterfeit watch salesman from Ivory Coast who's had a similar experience.

Occasionally the movie goes for laughs, and apparently it was promoted as a comedy, which might be why it bombed. It works better when it's serious, but when the movie wants to be funny, it's sometimes funny.

"If it's so important, how come the aliens didn't notify me personally?"

From Other Worlds has some technical shortcomings, a musical score that's effective but sometimes mismatches the mood, a bad guy played by a bad actor, and a few hiccups in the script, but it has brains and a heart, plus a fabulous space alien (Joel de la Fuente). Melissa Leo plays Marion the librarian, and Robert Downey Sr is in there somewhere.

And it's not the schlock it looks like. This is a pretty good low-budget film. It was written and directed by Barry Strugatz, a name that wasn't even slightly familiar to me, but IMDB says he wrote Married to the Mob and She-Devil, and something called Furlough that I've never heard of, but it's on my list now. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Mr. Ricco (1974)

The Neverending
Film Festival
#46

Unless it's a famous flick, when I click 'play' I usually know nothing but a movie's title and year, so this sure surprised me. It's a 1970s police and legal drama, emphatically of that decade, with awkward racial conflict, angry political speechifying, cops and lawyers yelling at each other, and the protagonist is a famous defense attorney, played by… Dean Martin.

Dean Martin? The easy-listening crooner with a perpetual martini in his hand, sometimes one in each hand? What the heck were they thinking?

Two San Francisco beat cops have been ambushed and murdered, and we watch as a white cop shoots and kills an unarmed black man, then plants a gun on the corpse to make it seem like self-defense. This is serious stuff, but the movie slows and stops frequently to focus on Martin and his lovable quirks, his fluent Italian, and his adorable dog that's "raped" a neighbor dog. 

Until the bizarre and inexplicable ending, this is almost adequate, if overly reminiscent of better movies. I'm not even sure Martin is bad in the title role, but he's relentlessly Dean Martin. He doesn't sing, but he does wear a tuxedo while holding a martini, just before a shootout. And it's probably your only chance to see 58-year-old Dean Martin in an extended fist-fight with the much younger, much more athletic head of the Black Panthers ("Black Serpents"). Who do you suppose wins the fight?

Verdict: MAYBE, if you don't know who Dean Martin was.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Questor Tapes (1974)

This is another post-Star Trek unsold pilot written and produced by Gene Roddenberry, after his horrendous Genesis II, which I watched and wrote about recently. 

Let's see if we can build an android. Sure, the scientist who was the brains behind the project is missing, but there's a lot of money at stake, so the experiment must proceed. When they flip the "on" switch, though, the android doesn't work, doesn't respond to any inputs. Then when everyone gives up, goes home and locks the door, the android opens its eyes. It promptly finishes the work of building itself, adding ears and nose to its face, and bit-by-bit becomes 1970s TV hunk Robert Foxworth.

Code named Questor, it — no, he — looks like an ordinary albeit very handsome man, but with no experience as a human, and no emotions. Basically, he's Data — smarter and stronger than humans, designed by a mysterious scientist, wishes he had human emotions, and he's "fully functional" in the sack.

Mike Farrell, pre-MASH, plays Questor's handler, and John Vernon from Animal House is Questor's enemy, the penny-pinching administrator who wants Data, err, Questor disassembled for scrap.

This is an interesting little TV movie, and would've made a good series, because unlike Genesis II, the characters have been written into a story makes sense, Farrell and Foxworth can act, and occasionally there's a funny moment or line. That's probably because Star Trek's behind the scenes sidekick, Gene L Coon, was prominently involved. Also, the music is kinda spiffy.

The ending sucks, of course, because it was a TV pilot, so the grand conclusion amounts to, "Tune in next week." I would've tuned in, though.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Shop around the Corner (1940)

Ernst Lubitsch, man...

He was born and raised in Germany, English was his second language, so how did he get so good at making subtle but very funny American comedies? Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, Trouble in Paradise… and absolutely, The Shop around the Corner.

It's a classic, a film you've heard of even if you haven't seen it, but you ought to see it. It's a workplace comedy, set in the kind of store that doesn't exist any more, because corporate capitalism won't allow it — a small shop that sells clothing and accessories, where the owner runs the place and knows the employees by name. From a personal ad in the newspaper, two of the shop's employees are corresponding and falling in love via mail, while squabbling and hating each other in person.

James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan star, with Frank Morgan from The Wizard of Oz as the shopkeeper, and William Tracy as an errand boy, stealing every scene he's in. Everyone sparkles, the dialogue is funny while also ringing true, and the situations still resonate even though such shops are extinct along with personal ads, newspapers, and writing letters.

It must be said, though, that Stewart's character is an ass. He discovers the truth halfway through the plot — that the woman he's been working with and the woman he's been trading letters with are the same woman — but he doesn't tell her until the movie's last scene. She ought to be angry when she finds out, but of course, Stewart being an ass is what keeps the story crackling, and damn, it's a funny story with no dull spots. 

"Well, that's very nicely put. Yes, comparing my intellect with a cigarette lighter that doesn't work. That's a very interesting mixture of... poetry and meanness."

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

To Be Takei (2014)

This is the documentary about actor and gay rights activist George Takei (rhymes with toupee), who's led an interesting life. As a child, his family was trucked to an internment camp, punishment for being of Japanese ancestry during World War 2. As an adult, he stayed in the closet until 2005, because he believed that being out could've ended his career. 

He started in show biz dubbing Japanese horror movies, and moved on with very stereotyped roles in Jerry Lewis movies, and then, of course, his breakthrough as the helmsman Sulu on Star Trek.

After the series, he ran for Los Angeles City Council and almost won, and as a consolation prize he was named to the board of the Southern California Rapid Transit District, where he served for eleven years, while the board was planning the restoration of light rail in L.A.

There's not much here I didn't already know, but that's more my fault than the movie's. Being a Star Trek geek all through kidhood, I read everything I could find about anyone involved with the show, and of course Takei has remained very much in the public eye.

There's funny footage of Takei's feud with homophobic basketballer Tim Hardaway, his exasperated opinions of William Shatner, and his work with Howard Stern on the radio. We also get to know Takei's husband Brad, a lovable dweeb who manages Takei's public appearances. 

OK, everybody likes George Takei, but is the movie any good? Yeah, it's almost as charming as Takei himself.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

World on a Wire (1973)

Let's start with two little and one big word: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He made a whole lot of artsy, well-respected movies, only a handful of which I've seen, but none I've regretted seeing — Beware of a Holy Whore, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and Veronika Voss.

Maybe those titles sound worrisome if you're unfamiliar with Fassbinder, so just trust me, when a big-time big shot from cinema deigns to make something for TV, you ought to tune in. This two-part miniseries, roughly three hours long, was hard to track down, and it took several frustrating efforts before I finally saw the whole thing. Was it worth those efforts? Fuck, yeah.

The story: With governmental funding, private industry is designing virtual reality as it was imagined in the 1970s — modeling systems and individual behavior by constructing 'people' of ones and zeroes, electronic circuitry in such detail, for each person, that their programmed interactions resemble human life.

The Secretary of State is visiting to check on the project's progress. The scientist in charge, Professor Henri Vollmer, is delightfully unimpressed by the Secretary's person and exalted rank, and tells him so. And can the titans of private industry be trusted with a system designed to effectively predict the future?

Based on a novel by Daniel F Galouye, this was Fassbinder's only foray into science fiction, and he didn't come at it half-assed. There are no light sabres, special effects, or CGI, but it's smart. 

It's the 1970s and it was made for TV, so every woman in all of Germany is young and beautiful, and there's a strange all-nude scene with only black actors — not sure what's up with that. Other than that, though, I have no complaints, only applause.

There are all sorts of crazy complicated tracking shots, all perfectly executed, and Fassbinder recruited several supporting actors who were "washed-up" movie stars from the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s — German stars, so they were largely unknown to me, but definitely commanding presences.

World on a Wire never seems showy, though. It's all intended to tell a story and maybe make you stop and think about things like reality and other stuff science shouldn't monkey with. It adds up to something unlike anything you've seen before.

Verdict: BIG YES.

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5/27/2022 
 
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.  

23 comments:

  1. I haven't seen too many Fassbinder movies. They are numerous and not often aired on any movie channel. (Bravo back in the '80s showed them when that network wasn't the cesspool it's become.) I loved The Merchant of the Four Seasons, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and a few others whose names escape me.

    As per Dean Martin, while you rightfully think of him as the song-and-a-martini man, there is a first-rate biography on the man that may expand your perception of him and the world he lived in. Nick Tosches' DINO: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams is hilarious, cynical, obscene and affectionate. It's too long but still worth its length. -- LArden

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    1. A hot tip toward good reading (or movies) is always appreciated, but it's unlikely I'll read a Dean Martin biography while unread Geronimo and Mousy Tongue remain on my list...

      I did see the Ali movie, now that you mention it.

      Fassbinder has a highbrow reputation, I think, as being maybe difficult, especially via subtitles. And it's an earned reputation. But World on a Wire isn't a third as challenging as some of his stuff.

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    2. Understood. A Dean Martin bio is a serious commitment. But may I suggest that if you're ever in a bookstore or library or flea market where a copy of Tosches' book shows up that you read the two page intro scene. It's plenty funny and requires little time or effort. I'd love to hear your take on it. -- LArden

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    3. I'm in the library typing this, and they don't have it on the shelf, but I've reserved it. :) Expect a two-page book report soon.

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    4. I look forward to it. I hope you'll be amused. Just imagine old time Dean Martin fans reading it, thinking they're getting a standard fan-bio. Cheers!

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    5. I've learned as much about American music history from the books of Nick Tosches as I have from any other single source. His bio of Jerry Lee Lewis is kickass, his book Save the Last Dance for Satan about pop/rock music and the Mob is revelatory, and his book Unsung Heroes Of Rock 'n' Roll is an American treasure. His style is occasionally challenging, but his perspective and his facts are solid and contextually revealing. He provides details unavailable anywhere else while never losing track of the bigger picture. We lost one of America's great music writers when he died in 2019.

      jtb

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    6. The breadth, width, and depth of your musical knowledge still impresses me, John.

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    7. I had the joy of meeting Nick Tosches back in 1990, spent two afternoons at his apartment on Commerce St in Manhattan talking about writing, magazines, the hustle. The weirdest things about his set-up were 1) he had no music or stereo visible in his living room. 2) He wrote on a computer in his kitchen, which had harsh lighting, while he sat on a stool facing the wall. Whatever works, I suppose. -- LArden

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    8. Mr A, for my generation that's like saying, "I palled around with Joe Heller in my youth. How did that happen? I know writers are just people, but Tosches was always special: in the writing game, but not of the writing game. Went to college at the New York public library. Lived pretty much on his own terms. Mark Maron did a pretty good interview of Nick, but there's not much else I'm aware of in terms of biography. Very cool.

      John

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    9. John, I met Nick Tosches when I was doing a music/writing zine called Throat Culture (1989-1992, 3 issues) and our second issue was based mostly on Lester Bangs, the CREEM editor/writer who moved to NYC and wrote for the Village Voice and anywhere that would print him. Nick and Richard Meltzer agreed to talk about Lester in a phone call that I transcribed, since Nick's "official" piece on Lester was printed in another zine called Chemical Imbalance. I re-published the very long and intense piece Meltzer wrote about Lester for the LA Weekly (or was it the LA Reader?). In this process, I got an invite to visit Nick at his home anytime I was in NYC. So, I arranged to meet him one afternoon and he was a complete gentleman and even invited me back, which I took him up on. I had a standing invite to visit anytime or stop by Kelly's Bar near him where he was usually found. The trick, though, to hanging out with Nick was to grab him when he was still sober. I never witnessed it, but I've heard tales of him as a wild-n-crazy drunk. I wanted to keep my memories of him positive and besides he was lots of fun to talk with when he was in full control of his mental capacities. I haven't heard the Marc Maron interview, but I assume it's much like what I learned from him. He was an honest guy and a nice one who liked to project a sense of danger -- and I'm sure he saw plenty growing up at his dad's bar in either Newark or Jersey City. Cheers -- LArden

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    10. That is all very cool. I knew he liked to hang out in bars; I'd never read that he was a drunk, which is too bad; it likely reduced his output some. I guess when you set out to write about Lester Bangs you're going to find some characters along the way. Thanks for sharing the story.

      John

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    11. I've read the first two pages of an introduction, and the first two pages of the book itself, and flipped ahead to see what Tosches had to say about Mr Ricco, and it's all well-researched and well-written but none of it's blown me away, sorry.

      Wondering if the library gave me a different edition of Tosches's Dino, or maybe I'm just unable to care much about Dean Martin. His era of popularity preceded my era of being alive or conscious of music.

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    12. Nick Tosches wrote some terrific books about some pretty interesting people. Why the hell are you reading Dean Martin? First, read Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll. Quick, easy, fun read. Then Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story. Then maybe Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll, which is peculiar and eccentric and might piss you off. Then maybe Save the Last Dance for Satan, his last book, which is about the mob in the early days of Rock 'n' Roll.

      Then it's about fucking time for Dashiell Hammett.

      I wish you well.

      John

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    13. I dunno why the hell I read anything. Once read a gothic romance novel because the man on the cover was so pretty I thought he was a woman.

      Mostly I don't read books much at all. Maybe half a dozen so far this year. I used to read that many in a week, but I got less interested, less interesting.

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    14. A belated postscript:

      First pass-through, what I'd read was the first few pages of the first chapter, before skimming and reading about half the book. On a second try before returning it to the library, I found those two pages I'd missed on the first pass, after the acknowledgements and before the book begins, and yessir, that's a short, vibrant burst of dang fine writing.

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  2. Your side is so organized/ does it do that automatically or do you have to input every little thing?

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    1. My side is organized? At first I thought you were referring to the imitation leather manpurse which holds my pills, my phone, paper towels for nose-blowing, index cards for note-taking, magazines in case I eat at the diner, a jug of water in case of dry and an umbrella in case of wet... but as I haven't mentioned the manpurse recently, more likely you mean the sidebar on the site?

      The 'latest comments' list is automated, but I dislike Google/Blogger's built-in archiving, so the 'recent posts' thingie is prepped by me. If ever it includes a typo or busted link, kindly slap my face and I'll fix it (the sidebar, not the face) and say thanks.

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    2. Doug, I too carry a man-purse and have for 20 years (since my back went to hell). I carried it when I wore a suit every day, and I'm still carrying it now that I dress in sweats and Goodwill nouveau gauche. It sounds like my MP is a little smaller than yours, but it's omnipresent and indispensable. It has more pockets than a mob of kangaroos.

      jtb

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    3. Ah, my fellow man-purse man.

      Mine came from Goodwill, but it was sturdy and in good shape when I bought it in the '90s and it's still serving me well. Big enough for my laptop, though when I bought it it was "big enough for several newspapers". I've recently added a pocket, by supergluing a baggie inside one of the bigger pockets, which makes a perfect space for carrying my spiral mini-notebook.

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  3. Another Roddenberry pilot that went nowhere was Planet Earth (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072000/?ref_=nm_flmg_wr_104). I remember it more than Genesis II for some reason, but the storylines seem similar.

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    1. Bet there aren't many of us who remember unsold Roddenberry pilots from the 1970s, but I'm a completist and Planet Earth is now on my watchlist, thanks.

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    2. Did Mariette Hartley have two belly buttons in Genesis II, or am I confusing that indelible image with some other Roddenberry epic?

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  4. You ask the tough questions, man.
    Google tells me yup, Ms Hartley had two belly buttons in Genesis II. Apparently it was Roddenberry's revenge because he hadn't been allowed to show her navel at all when she guested on Star Trek.

    All this is a surprise to me, though. Her double tartar sauce cups entirely eluded me in Genesis II.

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