IMDB #220 Frankenstein

Classic horror today, as we take a look at the 1931 version of Frankenstein, loosely based on the book by “Mrs. Percy Shelly” as the credits refer to her. A film so terrifying it was banned in Kansas, and starts with a gravely serious (or tongue in cheek?) warning to the audience that it may be horrifying or disturbing, it’s certainly a film we all know pretty well without even seeing it.

The Key Players:

Our director is a studio hand named James Whale, mostly associated with horror staples thanks to this, The Invisible Man, and The Bride Of Frankenstein- but he also directed the definitive film version of the musical Show Boat.

Boris Karloff is the name most associated with this Frankenstein, mostly for his lumbering, grunting performance, as well as the hype surrounding his casting. It was rumored that Bela Lugosi would take the role, and Universal decided to withhold the announcement of who was actually chosen, as well as keeping photos of the monster under wraps until the film opens. In fact, the credits at the beginning even say “The Monster… ?” This allowed Karloff to launch a long and storied career, but he remains most beloved for wearing bolts on his neck and going “Raaah!” (plus narrating the How The Grinch Stole Christmas animated special).

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Colin Clive is mostly forgotten for performing perhaps the most iconic “mad scientist” type in cinema, or at least the earliest. Mae Clarke’s career highlights include this role as the mad doctor’s fiancée, a role in The Front Page (hey!), and getting a grapefruit to the face from James Cagney, oddly. Finally, Dwight Frye had the creepy assistant market cornered back in the day, playing Fritz in this film AND Renfield in Dracula the same year.

The Story:

We open with Dr. Frankenstein (Clive) and his hunchbacked, manic-eyed assistant Fritz (Frye) waiting for a funeral to finish so they can hurriedly dig up the body. On the way back to the lab (which is not explicitly in a castle, but definitely a large stone building of some kind) they cut down a hanged convict for some more spare parts.

Then Fritz sneaks into the university lap where Frankenstien had been on staff until recently to steal a brain, and in a scene that was more or less unchanged in Young Frankenstein, accidentally drops one labeled “normal brain” and takes one labeled “criminal brain” instead. I had always assumed they were making that up, but no. Just grabs the criminal one and figures it’ll be no problem.

Then Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (Clarke), his friend Victor, and his mentor Dr. Waldman show up to ask after his health, since he’d been getting pretty reclusive and mad-scientisty recently. He reluctantly lets them into the lab to witness to big lightshow- in a famous scene, he raises the assembled body from various dead parts to the roof during a lightning storm, and lightning crashes while various Tesla devices makes sparks. The creation moves its hand, prompting the famous “It’s alive!”

The next day we finally meet the monster, lumbering slowly around the lab, and seemingly able to understand basic commands. He’s affable enough until Fritz comes in with a torch and he flips out- not understanding why, they chain him in the cellar for fear of attack. Fritz goes down there to torment him with the torch again (because Fritz is kind of a dick), but the monster kills him in a rage and breaks from his bonds.

Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman manage to subdue the monster with drugs, and wearily Frankenstein agrees to let Waldman keep it sedated to be autopsied, and returns to his father’s house to finally plan for his wedding…

The Artisticness:

What struck me about Frankenstein is that it’s mostly done without a soundtrack- there’s music over the opening and closing credits, but all other sounds are diagetic- this includes the nonstop clamor of bells during the wedding day celebrations, which turn into the constant clamor of voices during mob scenes. So the second half of the movie is sonically busy, but just with no score.

The performances were able, if affably thirties and overblown. Karloff doesn’t really have much to do, but he does imbue a certain tenderness to the monster, frightened of flame but fascinated by sunlight.


The monster, of course, wakes up and strangles Waldman before he can take a knife to it. Then he escapes and famously meets a little girl- they float flowers in the water until there aren’t any left, and he tosses the little girl in to see if she floats. Unfortunately she doesn’t, although precisely how she ends up drowning is hastily edited around and not very clear. The monster then breaks into the estate and terrorizes Elizabeth, who screams and faints. It’s only a matter of time before the angry crowd of torches and pitchforks forms, led by Dr. Frankenstein himself, to hunt the monster down.

In the pursuit, the monster knocks his creator out and carries him to a windmill, where they engage in a final struggle before the doctor falls of the top, barely surviving the fall. The angry villagers burn the windmill, the monster dying inside.

Then we get a random comic scene in which father Frankenstein helps himself to some wine the servants were brining his recuperating son


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Can’t say I was very impressed- it seemed to drag in a lot of places for such a short film. But I certainly appreciated all of the horror touchstones that this film created, from the visualization of the monster to Clive’s madcap performance. Let’s say it’s just right on the outer fringes of the 200s.

The Legacy:

Well, there’s the entirety of Young Frankenstein, every green makeup depiction of the monster ever- perhaps no movie eclipses the source material as much as this one (maybe The Wizard Of Oz?)- Shelley’s monster actually learned to speak perfect English reading Paradise Lost, and was a monster by conscious reaction to his creation and imprisonment.

I guess Herman Munster could talk, though. In any case, Frankenstein was popular enough to spawn an entire line of sequels (The Bride Of, The Son Of, The Ghost Of, and Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein) and was selected for NFR preservation and so on.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!!!

Leftover Thoughts:

This was apparently Johnny Cash’s favorite film.

I wonder how relatively frightening this movie was when it came out. I personally can’t think of any incarnation of the monster I’ve ever found frightening- it’s just like slow zombies. More funny than scary.

Adventures in Actual Movie Taglines: To have seen it is to wear a badge of courage!

IMDB #221 Magnolia

Hey, champ. Life got ya down? Feel like one is the loneliest number you could ever do? Then take a morose, twisting ride with me through Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 Magnolia. Watch out for plot-centered coincidences, life’s inherent misery, and spontaneous Aimee Mann sing alongs.

And frogs. Mind the frogs.

The Key Players:

P. T. Anderson, as he likes to be known, will be appearing on my seemingly life-spanning countdown at least one more time (There Will Be Blood), and perhaps more (since he’ll finish a film or two before I finish this project). An Oscar nominated director and writer, he’s well on his way to a Kubrickian reputation for deliberate pacing and sophisticated wide-angle shots- though he seems to care a lot more about people than Kubrick ever did, if that makes any sense.

The cast is a large ensemble that most notably includes Tom Cruise, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but also features the talents of Anderson regulars like Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Luis Guzman, and of course Filliam H. Muffman.

Not enough? There are cameos by Alfred Molina, Patton Oswalt, Ricky Jay, Thomas Jane (barely), and there are cranky old dudes like Jason Robards and Phillip Baker Hall.

Plus, and I can’t stress this enough, a metric ton of frogs.

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The Story:

Magnolia opens with three brief stories of odd coincidences- a man is murdered near Greenberry Hill by three men named Green, Berry, and Hill. A man assaults a blackjack dealer, then two days later accidentally scoops up the same dealer in a water tank to be dumped on a forest fire, killing the man and later committing suicide in shock and guilt. A young man loads the rifle his parents threaten each other with when they fight, then six days later jumps off the roof- there’s a net to catch him, but the rifle accidentally discharges right as he passes his own window, and his parents are charged with his death (with himself listed as an accomplice).

So these three very specific coincidences set the theme: random coincidental things can happen, and then you die. Things featured among the myriad plotlines in Magnolia: two old men dying of terminal illnesses and full of regret, past molestation, getting struck by lightning, neglectful parents, crippling loneliness, rampant misogynism, unrequited love, car crashes, and suicide attempts.

To briefly sketch it out, with the connections in tow: Robards plays a television magnate on his deathbed, desperately miserable about abandoning his first wife and son. His current trophy wife (Moore), who had married him for his money, actually grew to care about him and turns to pills out of guilt over past infidelity. His live-in nurse (Hoffman), having grown attached to the old man, tries desperately to get in contact with his estranged son (Cruise), who’s become a sleazy self-help guru for men with issues that want the ‘secret’ to scoring chicks. Meanwhile, one of Robards’ shows is taping- What Do Kids Know? a Quiz Show style thing that pits a team of precocious brainiacs against adult guests- the main, erudite kid that normally answers all the questions wets his pants during the taping of the show and loses his cool, leading to confrontations with his exploitative father. The host of the show (Hall) is secretly dying of cancer, and trying to reconcile with his coke-head daughter (Melora Walters), who goes on an awkward date with an idealistic but cloddish policeman (Reilly) who loses his own gun and is so lonely he narrates his own COPS style show to no one at all.

Uh, that’s mostly it? No wait- Macy plays an adult former quiz kid champion whose life is in financial shambles, who wants to get braces to be just like a hunky bartender named Brad he’s in love with but rarely speaks to.

The Artisticness:

Suffice to say, Magnolia needs a lot of time to get it’s plot all together, even though it takes place over one night. A large part of the film’s inspiration comes from the work of Aimee Mann- her cover of Harry Nilsson's “One” plays over the credits- multiple original songs punctuate key moments throughout the rest, including a scene in which everybody breaks character for one somber moment and SINGS part of “Wise Up.” As well as the Oscar-nominated “Save Me” accompanying the film’s final scene.

I was struck, watching it again, the relatively breathless pace of the film- after the initial rush to introduce everyone it slows down a little, but only enough to get to the next crisis. I like the theme of interconnectivity, but I didn’t really see why we need three very extreme examples of it to tie in to the lives of a dozen or so loosely connected people. Perhaps the coincidence is that they all have a crisis in their lives on the same night.


Well- Cruise goes to see Robards, though he despises him, and has an Oscary scene yelling and crying at him. Moore attempts suicide but a passing boy calls 911. Macy tries to rob his former employer, but changes his mind and goes back to return the money. Hall admits to his wife that he may have molested their daughter, she leaves him, and he tries the suicide route as well, with a gun. Reilly and Walters’ date goes reasonably well for two messed up people, but she kisses him and runs away.

And then frogs fall from the sky. Thousands of them. Yeah. This leads to Macy falling off a telephone pole and smashing his teeth, but Reilly is passing by and helps him. Walters’ mother crashes her car but makes it to her daughter’s apartment, where they are reunited. Robards dies and Cruise goes to help Moore in the hospital. A frog falling through the skylight hits Hall’s hand as he pulls the trigger, but his house does light on fire- his fate is unknown. Everyone else just looks out at the falling frogs in wonder, as the disgraced whiz kid from the game declares “This happens. This is something that happens.” (you know, in case you were wondering). Right as the frogs end, Reilly’s lost gun falls from the sky as well (?), and he later goes back to Walters and declares his intention to be good to her and honest as “Save Me” plays us out. Curtains.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I was definitely underwhelmed the first time I saw Magnolia, but with repeat viewings (and seeing PTA’s other work), I really admire it as a piece of singular vision and storytelling. Even if the particular ‘point’ of such a story is unclear, I enjoy it each time- it’s dense enough to be more that just a “miserable things happening to miserable people” movie, which nine times out of ten puts me off.

So much as I love frogs (and dislike even fictional mass weather-pattern frog genocide), I’m saying higher (just as saying that Punch Drunk Love and Boogie Nights should really be on this countdown. Oh well.)

The Legacy:

People certainly seemed to think, at the time, that this would be the role for Tom Cruise that Pulp Fiction was for John Travolta, but his career has taken a few more turns in the decade since.

With all due respect to Robert Altman, Magnolia’s certainly my default reference for the interconnected style of storytelling, if only it explicitly states that that interconnectivity is the point (Tarantino films are also a good benchmark- Crash? No.).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

You know what? I bet the whole sing along thing (where according to Janet Maslin of the NYT Magnolia “begins to self-destruct spectacularly”) works better out of context:

It did put me off the first time, but I’ve since gotten way more into Aimee Mann.

Leftover Thoughts:

-My least favorite parts of the film: 1. The producers of a game show featuring kids that’s been running for THIRTY YEARS not knowing what to do when a kid wets his pants. 2. Jason Robards’ long, interminably monologue about regret and life and stuff that’s surely very meaningful and important, but he’s the only character that doesn’t get time to earn any sympathy.

-Frogs raining from the sky DOES really happen, but everything I read on the interblags maintains that its much smaller frogs and would not likely happen in North America.

-Exodus 8:2 is about a plague of frogs, and the number 82 recurs in the film a half dozen times. Make of that what you will- I’m not too up on the Bible, so I prefer to not try and make connections I don’t mind not looking for (the show Kings on NBC is fantastic without any references). Still, I’ll put the Bible on my “to read” shelf on that facebook app sometime.

-Magnolia is one of many films scored by Jon Brion, my favorite film composer ever.

-This film is pretty light on magnolias, and flowers on the whole.

IMDB #222 Spartacus

And now, after falling asleep during the middle four or five times and having to try again (what? It’s very long), it’s time for 1960’s Spartacus. It has something for everyone- romance, blood, epic battles, political machinations, and crucifixions. Exciting, right? If you have three hours and sixteen minutes to spare, grab a copy and follow along at home!

The Key Players:

Our director is a 30-year-old Stanley Kubrick- after churning out more accessible studio fare for most of the 50’s (most notably Paths Of Glory), Kubrick was brought on to replace Anthony Mann after star and producer Kirk Douglas didn’t like the cut of his jib. This would be Kubrick’s last, reportedly frustrating attempt to cowtow to the demands of a producing studio before embarking upon his twiceish-a-decade schedule of creating masterpieces with complete creative control. This is the first of a whopping EIGHT Kubrick films that we’ll be chit-chatting about on the countdown.

Douglas, meanwhile, has come a long way from his first countdown appearance. Legend has it that he decided to finance Spartacus himself after being passed over for Ben-Hur, in favor of Charlton Heston. A thrice-Oscar-nominated screen legend, Douglas played everything from a brooding Vincent Van Gogh (Lust For Life) to the plucky comic relief in a Disney film (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) to our titular hero.

Laurence Olivier, one of the Greatest Actors of the Twentieth Century (or so they say), with fourteen Oscar nominations, two wins (for directing 1948’s Hamlet, and a best actor statue for taking his own direction so well), and two honorary little gold men to boot. With twice as many credits on the stage as on screen, he was generally regarded as the foremost authority on interpretations of his homeboy Shakespeare.

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The epic cast is rounded out by all-stars of the day, including Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, and Peter Ustinov (who inexplicably, to this reviewer at least, won Best Supporting Actor for playing a hapless slave trader in this film, becoming the only actor in a Kubrick feature to win one).

The Story:

Spartacus (Douglas), a Thracian slave, is working in some Libyan mines at the film’s beginning. We see him stop to help an older slave that’s fallen, so naturally he’s whipped- but he’s got spirit, this one, and he ends up biting a guard in the leg. (A Roman guard. This is set in that part when the Roman Empire was sort of listlessly controlling everything with just the senate, not an emperor).

Anyway, he gets sold to Batiatus (Ustinov), who takes him to his camp that trains gladiators, where he generally does a whole bunch of silent brooding while I realize how many parts of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator were cribbed directly from this film. Eventually, a rich, powerful Roman senator named Crassus (Olivier) and his friend Glabrus stop by for a visit, and their wives are bored so they choose some gladiators to fight to the death and entertain them- naturally our stoic hero is among them. Spartacus actually loses his battle, but his opponent flips out and tries unsuccessfully to kill Crassus instead of finishing him off.

Now, this whole time Spartacus has been making gaga-eyes at a woman slave named Varinia (Simmons), even holding her hand when she came round to give him some soup. Aw. But when he sees her being taken away since she’s been sold to Crassus, he flips out, kills the head trainer, and the other gladiators join in and overthrow Batiatus’s entire estate. Now there’s an army of trained gladiators looting the countryside and living it up around Vesuvius. Oops.

The scene shifts to Rome, where Crassus’s main political rival, Gracchus (Laughton), manipulates things to get his buddy Caesar (hey, I know that guy!) in temporary command of the Roman Garrison, while Crassus’s teammate Glabrus leads six cohorts to stomp out Spartacus and co. Crassus is pissed about these developments, and also his favorite new boy slave Antonius (Curtis) has escaped, right when he was talking all menacingly yet seductively to him. What’s a crazy warlord to do?

Glabrus, it turns out, is not so up to snuff- the slave army destroys the entire six cohorts, burns their camp, and sends him back tied to a horse. Spartacus, after not talking for the entire first hour of the film, convinces the entire slave army that they need to organize, free and recruit other slaves, and bribe Sicilian Pirates into taking them out of Italy back to their homelands. Also, Varinia’s escaped from Batiatus and the lovers (who’ve hardly actually spoken to one another, really) are happily reunited.

If only the movie ended there…

The Artisticness:

Did I mention before that this movie is long? Always a curse and a blessing for Kubrick, his films are deliberately paced, which certainly gave Olivier and company plenty of time to flesh characters out, but makes for a long movie, especially when we all kind of know how the slave rebellion is going to end- maybe not specifically, but we’re pretty sure they don’t destroy Rome or anything.

The sets and battle-scenes are certainly pretty impressive for the time- this is even after an entire host of battle-footage was cut out of the finished film because it didn’t test well with audiences.

Douglas’s curious and resolved Spartacus is an all right hero, but you kind of wish he had some sort of flaw to round him out (this was apparently also a source of friction between Kubrick and Douglas as well). I loved Olivier’s Crassus, and I sort of found the Roman senate more intriguing than the war aspects.
And the “I am Spartacus!” scene- yeah, it worked for me. Call me a sap.


Where were we? Oh yeah, the slave army, having grown, destroys an entire legion and makes it to one day’s journey from the very end of Italy- but the Sicilian Pirates have been bought off by Crassus, and they have no where to go, with large armies converging on them from the east and the south.

Spartacus sees that the only viable option is to march on Rome itself, which is exactly what Crassus wants, since the Senate has to basically hand him a dictatorship to get him to lead his legions in defense of the city. It all ends in a big, epic showdown with giant flaming logs rolling down hills and lots of people getting stabbed. The battle’s kind of even until those other two armies show up, and the slaves lose.

Then, of course, the survivors are rounded up and told that they will be allowed to live and sold back into slavery if they just turn over Spartacus to be crucified. But they all claim to be Spartacus. So they ALL GET CRUCIFIED. Wow. Way to go.

Also Crassus buys and tries to woo Varinia because he’s sort of got a Spartacus complex now. Plus he forces Antonius (who had joined the slave army and taught them about poetry and stuff) and Spartacus (who he’s pretty sure is Spartacus, but still is frustratingly unsure about) to fight to the death. Since the winner will be painfully crucified, they both try earnestly to kill the other and spare them, but Spartacus of course “wins.”

Finally Varinia, freed by Gracchus to spite Crassus gets to travel with Batiatus (who’s now anti-Crassus because he had been promised the right to auction off the slave army survivors who instead got crucified) and she gets to see nearly dead Spartacus (and show him his son) on her way out of Rome.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Whoo. What a downer. Personally, I still haven’t seen Ben-Hur or Gone With The Wind or many other historical epic type things, so Spartacus is pretty impressive to me as a technical achievement, and the cast is winning enough to stick out the run-time. So, higher-ish.

The Legacy:

Well, it’s somehow the only Golden Globe Best Picture, Drama winner to not be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but it won four of ‘em anyway (Ustinov, Art Direction, Costumes, and Cinematography).

Plus the famous scene gets parodied all the time, including a soullessly annoying Pepsi commercial from 2005. Please see a whole list of parodies and homages here (but be warned, TV tropes is a hellish time-vortex that will destroy your brain).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Whole thing starting here (it had to be split into 18 parts!), or you know, the Scene of Scenes:

I bet a lot of dudes in Hollywood at the time said they were extras in that scene. “You know that eighth dude that’s all like ‘I’m Spartacus!’? That was me.”

Leftover Thoughts:

-It’s not as prevalent as his later work, but you can still see Kubrick being Kubrick from time to time in the film. Like when Spartacus drowns his trainer in a giant pot of soup, we get to watch the entire 45 seconds of it in one long take.

-Oh yeah, this is the verbatim voice-over narration that opens the film: “In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity, which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome and bring about a new society…” ‘Cause we all know Christianity turned out to be infallibly awesome, at all times.

Moon! Omigodomigodomigomigod!

We interrupt regular programming to bring you a trailer, a trailer that made my jaw hang in slack astonishment due to sheer awesomeness.

To review, what kind of films do I love? One: science fiction films. Two: films that star Sam Rockwell. Three: films with a great score. Four: films that look artfully done that were well received at Sundance.

What I told you there was a film starring Sam Rockwell about a man all alone on a mining base on the moon, scored by Clint Mansell (of Requiem For A Dream fame) that basically looks like Primer but with a bigger budget and better acting?

I mean, not only does it star Sam Rockwell, his name is BEFORE the title! That's how much it stars Sam Rockwell. I just, I can't even begin to, OMG just watch the trailer:

Other things that are awesome: There is a robot with the voice of Kevin Spacey. Yeah. Sam Rockwell mysteriously finds a duplicate of himself- THERE ARE TWO SAM ROCKWELLS. Visually, it looks a lot like the movie Sunshine but with the moon instead of the sun, and I loved Sunshine visually. It is directed by a first-time director named Duncan Jones, which is the name of a dude I met two weeks ago and also my first name. Sam Rockwell's character is named Sam.

I think I might watch this trailer a flobbity-jillion more times. Moon will be in limited theaters on June 12th (and probably in Milwaukee in July or something, although if you don't think I'd drive to Chicago to see it sooner than that you're clearly a fictional person who didn't just read the above hyperventilating with awesomeness).

That is all.

ETA: URgh....must....have...poster....gah!

2009 So Far: Suprisingly Passable

Mini reviews of all the 2009 movies I’ve seen so far, in reverse order:


What I Liked: First of all, Adventureland was filmed in Pittsburgh, PA (where I grew up) and parts of the fictional amusement park "Adventureland" were filmed at real-life amusement park Kennywood (where I went growing up and is the awesomest place EVER), so I felt warmly nostalgic already. The movie has a great naturalistic feel to it, a la Dazed And Confused, tracing its central characters while letting the others wander through the fringes (as opposed to presenting them one a time like “Here’s this guy! He’s the wacky dude who always plays the air drums! Yeah!”). And I admired the work of pretty much the whole cast (Eisenberg, Stewart, Staar, Reynolds, you name ‘em. Even Wiig and Hader scaled it back nicely).

What I Didn’t Like: Well, it’s hard to tell any coming of age story ever without treading familiar territory, I guess.

The Verdict: Three Stars- Kennywood! It’s a magic factory where dreams are made!


What I Liked: Clive Owen sort of gets to play the James Bond type he never got cast for, and Julia Roberts didn’t bother me as much as I predicted she would (what? I just don’t buy her as a femme fatale. Sorry). Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti (who gets “and” credit, ooh) have fun as loudmouth CEOs. The plot is reasonably twisty.

What I Didn’t Like: It’s fun and all, but you just spend the entire movie waiting for the big reveal, to see who’s been playing who. And while I can’t say I called all the shots on what would happen, I can’t imagine needing to watch it ever again. Tony Gilroy seemed like an auteur capable of visual restraint with Michael Clayton, but he gets bogged down in Ocean’s style musical scene cues in Duplicity- the movie’s pretty proud of itself for being as inconsequential as it is, you could say.

The Verdict: Two and a Half Stars- what the hell, the dialogue is snappy and the movie passes quickly. I’d just rather see Gilroy get serious again for his next feature.


I Love You, Man

What I Liked: Paul Rudd, after playing wise-ass supporting parts, nails a sort of over-eager awkwardness endemic to any new friendship. Jason Segel is just awesome in anything. The name “Lou Ferrigno” is always funny to say. Rashida Jones got third billing, good for her.

What I Didn’t Like: Meh. The whole storyline sort of followed a bunch of movie clichés, but with a best friend in place of a girlfriend, as in “Boy meets friend, boy loses friend, boy regains friend.” But there were a surprisingly lack of gay-panic jokes, so kudos.

Verdict: Two And A Half Stars


What I Liked: The opening montage is pretty much awesome. Jackie Earle Haley for Best Supporting Actor? Billy Crudup and Harry Dean Stanton were also well-cast. It was of course fun to see so many panels recreated exactly on the screen, and so many moments (“I’m not locked in here with you…”). The story mostly survived intact, and the new ending didn’t bother me.

What I Didn’t Like: Malin Akerman was a cinematic black hole (in addition to her character getting rewritten into a mental patient). Most of the soundtrack cues were obtrusive and/or ridiculous. Zack Snyder gets WAY too much of a hard-on for limb-snapping violence. Matthew Goode was terribly miscast and Patrick Wilson had little time to be anything other than milquetoast. The love scene. Carla Guigino acting like she was in a Tennessee Williams play. The tenement fire-scene getting way overblown. I could keep going for a while- the thing is, I liked it okay the first time, enough to see it twice, but the second time through the negatives really started to wear on me (more than the positives grew on me).

Verdict: Two Stars- A for effort, but the spirit got lost somewhere. And it’s not because, like Alan Moore, I think it’s impossible to tell Watchmen in movie form. It’s just that Zack Snyder seemed to like Watchmen for its grisly violence and Dan Gibbons’ art (really?) instead of, you know, themes of Cold-War paranoia and psychological complexity, which is why everyone else IN THE WORLD likes it so much.

Coraline (3D)

What I Liked: Uh, how about everything? The 3D added to the story, Dakota Fanning’s voice didn’t drive me up the wall for once, the textures and detail in Selick’s claymation are always indelible. There was a short song by one the They Might Be Giants guys! The father was voiced by John Hodgman and the upstairs neighbor by Ian McShane! After the likeable but not terribly Gaimanish Stardust, Coraline completely nails the source material, departing only to flesh the story to feature length.

What I Didn’t Like: Uh, how about you not going to see it? Seriously, what’s your deal?

Verdict: Four Stars- It’s looking like an honest cage match (or dance-off) between Coraline and Up for the Best Animated Feature statue come Oscar-time.


What I Liked: Taken doesn’t feel the need to waste time. There’s maybe ten minutes or so of Liam Neeson’s former spook taking some part time work as a security guard and reluctantly agree to let his daughter take a trip to Paris before she’s kidnapped (while on the phone with him OMG) and he sets out to kick ass. And seventy minutes of ass-kicking ensue. What else do you need?

What I Didn’t Like: Uh, not much, really. I didn’t exactly pay (cough) for my ticket (cough) to see Taken, so I have no interest in harping on thin characters and nonsensical Paris law-enforcement logistics. There was ass, it was kicked.

Verdict: Two and Half Stars- delivers exactly what the trailer promises, with an extra half star for Neeson’s admirable badassery.

Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans

What I Liked: Sometimes you just gotta watch things that don’t take themselves too seriously. Or maybe things that take themselves so seriously that it’s funny- I can’t decide which one the Underworld prequel was. A friend of mine wanted to see it to complete the Underworld “trilogy,” so we went, and what I can I say- some werewolves fought some vampires, everybody came out a winner.

What I Didn’t Like: Not having seen the other two films, I figured I be okay since this all happened before those things occurred, but Rise Of The Lycans didn’t expect any non-fans to be interested whatsoever, and thus didn’t really bother explaining the particulars of the vampire/werewolf mythos in its world- thus I spent a good portion of the film asking Jacob annoying questions like “how come those vampire foot soldiers are incapacitated after one blow?” or “Can the werewolves change anytime, or does it have to be a full moon?”

What I Took Away: Respect for Michael Sheen, who was ripping out throats as the head werewolf in front of me while nebbishly interviewing Richard Nixon in the next theater over in Frost/Nixon. That’s an Oscar season juxtaposition nearly on par with Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls/Norbit.

The Verdict: Two Stars- again, delivers exactly what you expect, not particularly memorable.

All in all, two films with three stars or higher is like a crazy winning streak for this third of the year. Could 2009 be as stacked as '07?

IMDB #223 His Girl Friday

Hey there, people. Do you ever feel like life is too slow? That people around you should just knock it off with the carefully considered responses and the staring at the Wendy’s menu like zombies and just keep up with you already?

Then you’ll love His Girl Friday, the crackling, rapid-fire, rollicking screwball masterpiece that I was looking for on this countdown all along. I thought, given my propensity for the dialogue of Aaron Sorkin, that the tradition had been sort of talked-up as quicker than it actually was- maybe it was just relatively fast for people’s attention spans back then. And after enjoying movies that were reasonably snappy like Arsenic And Old Lace and The Philadelphia Story, I was beginning to believe that was true.

But His Girl Friday is a solid 92 minutes of breathless banter, and reinforces something we’ve learned once already: don’t divorce Cary Grant, because he will always trick you into remarrying him.

The Key Players:

Howard Hawks, director of Bringing Up Baby and Scarface (1932 version, yo), pioneered the naturalistic style of dialogue we all love so much today. He’s like Tarantino’s grandfater, essentially. Hawks only received one Oscar nomination (for directing Sergeant York), but did get an honorary statuette in 1975.

Cary Grant. You know him.

Rosalind Russell was cast after some eight other actresses had turned down the role (including Katherine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, and Ginger Rogers). A four-time Oscar nominee (and Hersholt Humanitarian recipient), five time Golden Globe winner, and Tony Award winner, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in her most famous role.

The Story:

Grant plays Walter Burns, a newspaper editor whose ex-wife and best reporter Hildy Johnson (Russell) has stopped by to inform him she’s quitting to marry some sheepish nice guy (yeah, that’ll last). But mayhem ensues when a murderer about to be hanged escapes, leading to a whole madcap situation in which corrupt politicians are exposed, Hildy’s fiancee gets arrested several times in comical scenarios, and old feelings are re-ignited.

Is the plot terribly important? No. But here’s some quotes:

-“I like him; he's got a lot of charm.” 
“Well he comes by it naturally- his grandfather was a snake.

-“Who, me?“
“Yes, you and that albino of yours!” 
“You talkin' about Evangeline?” 
“None other!” 
“She ain't no albino.” 
“She'll do 'till one comes along!” 
“She was born right here in this country!”

-“Hey, Duffy, listen. Is there any way we can stop the 4:00 train to Albany from leaving town?” 
“… we might dynamite it. 
“Could we?”

The Artisticness:

Aaaand more quotes:

-“ Well, Albany's a mighty good insurance town. Most people there take it out pretty early in life.“
“Yeah, well I can see why they would.”
“I figure I'm in one business that really helps people. Of course, we don't help you much while you're alive, but afterward - that's what counts!”

“No, no, never mind the Chinese earthquake for heaven's sake...Look, I don't care if there's a million dead...No, no, junk the Polish Corridor...Take all those Miss America pictures off Page Six...Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page...No, no, leave the rooster story alone - that's human interest.”


Guess what? They get the big story, and get back together. Who’dve thunk it?

Once again, gender roles are pretty antiquated- it’s good to know that if I want to win an ex back the day before she gets married, I might stand a chance if I set up her fiancee to get arrested three separate times. (Also not helping? Whoever decided to make the tagline “She learned about men from him!” What the hell is that?)


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Well, I loved it, and I’m super stoked to watch Bringing Up Baby sometime (though it is not awaiting us on the 250, alas). Higher!

The Legacy:

Well, despite being an adaptation of a stage play itself, His Girl Friday was later adapted for the stage, in addition to the usual AFI list inclusion and so forth. I can’t say I recognized many lines from out there in the pop culture ether (unlike say, watching Casablanca for the first time), but that’s probably because they fly by too quickly, and they speak over one another so much.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube

Well, forget YouTube for once! You can watch the entire thing on here. Hulu is pretty awesome.

Leftover Thoughts:

Interestingly (at least to me, because I used to have a job in a copyright setting) His Girl Friday’s copyright wasn’t renewed and has fallen into the public domain, but the play it was based on (1928’s The Front Page) is copyrighted until 2024. This means the only things really PD are the portions of the film not based on the original play, which is to say most of the Grant/Russell stuff about having been married and all (since in the play “Hildy” was, you know, a guy). There was also a straight-up adaptation of the play with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau directed by Billy Wilder in 1974 that will not be appearing on this countdown.

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