Category Archives: Movies

A Double Dose of Katherine Hepburn

A few months ago I went on a big Katherine Hepburn kick (who can blame me? She’s still hot), and added a ton of her movies to my Netflix queue. However, I’ve been going through my physical discs so slowly that it took all this time to get through them. Many of them, such as Holiday, I’ve enjoyed immensely. Others, like Desk Set, are just kind of silly and dated.

The majority of her work seems to consist of romantic comedies in which she plays an incredibly smart career woman who’s at some sort of feminist odds with her husband. Or maybe it just seems that way because I just got two of those films in the mail at once: Adam’s Rib and Woman of the Year.

I was particularly looking forward to Woman of the Year, having seen photos of the stage play version and wondered what it was about. Spencer Tracy plays sports reporter Sam Craig, while Hepburn plays political reporter/columnist Tess Harding. After a public feud in their respective columns, the two end up falling in love and marrying. Unfortunately Tess is such a workaholic that she can hardly see that she’s making for a very poor wife.

And that’s about where Woman of the Year lost me. The character of Tess is an outright psychopath. She expects her new husband to move in with her, change nothing about her life, and adjust to her jet-setting ways while compromising nothing on her own. At one point she adopts a Greek orphan child, and is content to leave him home alone, unsupervised. By the time she realizes her mistake, it’s too late, and Sam has left her, leaving her with no recourse than to try to be a stereotypical “good wife” with “comedic” results.

I don’t know what this film is trying to say. Are we to honestly believe that a woman so intelligent and ambitious as Tess would put absolutely no work into marriage at all? That her career is to the detriment of any possible family life? One could conjecture, but little in the film’s conclusion will offer any help: like so many romantic comedies of the era, it ends with simply a punchline, and little resolve. The narrative arc is so weak, I’m left wondering what the point of it all was.

Adam’s Rib proved a great counterpoint, since it’s a far better film. Tracy and Hepburn reprise their roles as a bickering professional husband-and-wife, this time becoming opposing council in a sensational attempted murder trial of a woman who shot and injured her cheating husband. Hepburn’s Amanda Bonner is passionately convinced that her trial is evidence of a double-standard (a man has the right to protect the sanctity of his family!), while Tracy’s Adam Bonner is hotly dedicated to his work prosecuting the flaky woman that pulled the trigger. Ultimately the case and its ideals bring both the marriage and the courtroom to their knees.

What was, and still is, refreshing about Adam’s Rib is that it takes both sides seriously — both are intelligent, thoughtful people with entirely reasonable opinions, and both are entirely unable to see the other person’s point of view. Even today it’s refreshing to see a thoughtful debate on a dicey feminist issue (I don’t know how to feel about it today), but even more relevant is how divergent social and political opinions can truly break a family apart. (Plus it’s funny, though not always — the 1940s seems to find great humor in repugnant, “humorous” side characters that serve no purpose other than to annoy.)

Of the two, Adam’s Rib is worth seeing, despite being the less famous of the two.

Hepburn’s filmography has some major gems in it, like The Lion in Winter and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. There are still many more I haven’t gotten to yet. There’s so much good stuff here that it’s worth churning up the occasional dud.


Pop Culture of a Bygone Era

As a rule, I can’t stand the 70s. It’s developed into a physical revulsion: there’s a gutteral, instinctive dirtiness I feel from 70s pop culture and paraphernalia, developed, doubtlessly, when shopping at countless garage sales with my mother in my youth, and seeing the aged board games and toys on display. These toys, typically vintage 1975-80, bore not the slightest bit of interest from me, but did feature a layer of grime that felt like handling fireworks, or perhaps a toy that had been well-loved by both a toddler and a dog. Movies and pictures of the era also do nothing to help the dirty feeling: grainy, brownish and cheap Kodachrome (earlier eras are in vivid and beautiful Technicolor®), and everyone has a cigarette in their hand. Also, the fashions of the era are grotesqueries: the women appear to reek of perfume, while for men the fashion statement of the era tended to be, “I’ve let myself go;” their pictures conjure a vivid memory of BO. And all that is to say nothing of the era’s horrendous pop music.

So I can’t remember what made me stick “Love Story” in my Netflix queue. Maybe I’d read an article about it, what a giant blow-the-doors-off-their-hinges success it was, how every teenage girl in America, nee, the World saw it multiple times and cooed over the romantic lead Ryan O’Neil, and yet it went on to be nominated for 7 Oscars. It was, in other words, the 1970 equivalent of Titanic.

Well, finally having watched it, I can say that it slightly exceeded my expectations, but not much more than that. It’s a simplistic melodrama, coldly calculated at milking a teenager’s penchant for us-against-the-world romance. The leads, O’Neil and Ali McGraw, are good looking and talk in a terribly stilted, stagey way, like the cast of Dawson’s Creek. It’s also quite badly dated cinematically, featuring a relentless and soppy piano theme song that seems to insert itself whenever there’s a quiet moment, and plodding, methodical edits that you can practically feel go through the Steenbeck viewer with a click. It felt somehow wrong seeing the film on DVD; the feeling is akin to watching an old educational film on 16mm.

The plot is pretty much a cliché, though I have no way of knowing how cliché it was in 1970: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl against the wishes of his cold and demanding dad, boy marries girl, girl dies. (That’s not a spoiler, everybody in America knew how this movie ended when it came out, as the book sold 6 Million copies or so.) If that synopsis doesn’t inspire an eye-roll in today’s cynical viewers, I don’t know what will. Despite this, the film does successfully build believable characters and an emotional connection, but it’s a pretty tenuous one. It’s cute, it’s flimsy, it’s not worth making an effort to either see or avoid.

If there’s anything to snark about, it’s the fact that it inspired an insipid sequel (EIGHT YEARS LATER), featuring the widower O’Neil falling in love again. Audiences and critics hated it, despite it featuring Candice Bergen, who I always thought was hotness even in her waning years.

Also worth mentioning is how, despite the film itself being moderately progressive in its day, how sexist the world was in 1970. Audiences apparently thought nothing of a doctor telling a woman’s husband that she’s dying, and keeping it from THE PATIENT HERSELF. The girl’s father is also shocked that they’re having a wedding in which the woman gets to speak. At one point, after having been “saved” from having to work herself, O’Neil asks where McGraw is. “In the kitchen, where I belong,” she jokes back. I don’t know many women who’d be so cheery about being in that position today.

Love Story is a trifle, and really only worth seeing as a yardstick of American pop culture. It looks today how films like The Blind Side will look in 40 years: old and silly.

Cocktail Shakin’!

The last few years and its boom of HD-capable internet streaming has brought a ton of really really cheaply made “Web TV programs” from startup online “networks” like Revision3, Howcast, and countless other startups and podcasters. Most of it is unwatchably dull pop culture and nerd news and commentary, involving someone who really shouldn’t be a TV host trying to be a TV host on a set that is clearly somebody’s office or living room. It’s all very amateur, and most of it is not worth watching.

Of course, since all of this content is available through Boxee apps, nights of boredom often find me sifting through them, trying to find something special. And indeed, I did find something special.

Produced by startup On Networks from 2007 to 2008, Cocktails on the Fly is a series of short clips on how to make cocktails, hosted by “flighty hostess” Alberta Straub. Ms. Straub is a prominent San Francisco-area bartender with a goofy attitude and a closet full of vintage air travel stuff. Shooting in what is clearly somebody’s apartment kitchen, Straub takes on one drink (or common home-made ingredient) in each clip.

Ms. Straub is a riot. No television professional would ever try to put her on TV. She has the performance of a spastic high school girl giving a report on a book for which she’s already written fanfiction, often going off onto bizarre tangents or nervously putting on weird voices — or even singing. (In one clip, she goes on about her taste in TV men and fantasizes about dating Gilligan.) She also clearly suffers from estropia (cross-eyes). Between the set, Ms. Straub’s non-traditional oddball camera style, and the low-fi feel of the show, it all feels like you’re watching someone’s audition reel more than an actual show. (Most episodes are clearly shot in one take — she regularly spills a little or puts something in front of the drink she’s making so we can’t see.)

But so many amateur productions are boring. This most certainly is not. Ms. Straub is captivating (though not always in the way that’s intended), and her lessons on cocktail preparation are pretty educational. Her cocktails might be quite famous, but they often look terrible on camera — most of them are muddy piles of whole herbs and spices, and look like they barely have any actual liquid in them. The unappetizing look of the cocktails just adds to the surreal nature of it all. It’s like you’re trapped watching TV in some David Cronenberg film.

This is cheap educational web TV at its most nutty. It’s worth checking out. Since On Networks stopped producing the show Ms. Straub has posted the series at She currently tends bar at The Parlor in San Francisco (I will definitely go at some point!), and she says she has something else cooking, web-TV wise. I can’t wait — she can count me amongst her fans!

“Parade” of the Walking Wounded

One of the biggest tragedies of Japan’s declining status in the world is the end of its art film boom. Growing out of the Pink-Eiga (softcore art-porn) industry in the 80s, Japan’s art film output reached amazing heights in the 90s and early 2000s, bringing us spectacular new talents such as Shunji Iwai (PicNic, All About Lily Chou Chou), Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life, Maboroshi) and Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer).

But in recent years Japan’s art-film output has slowed substantially. For every bizarro film like Love Exposure, we get 20 maudlin pieces of TV-quality garbage, or a handful of slow, badly made Hollywood-style blockbusters. Japan, as Roger Ebert has said, is one of the 3 countries with a strong artistic filmmaking tradition, and seeing its output slow to a trickle has been nothing short of heartbreaking.

And so it’s with a sense of celebration that I discover a new, fairly off-the-beaten-path film with artistic proclivities, even if it’s from a director I already know. In this case, Isao Yukisada’s “Parade” pretty much delighted me from the get-go.

Taking place largely in a crowded 2-bedroom apartment, its young inhabitants consist of a slacker college student Ryosuke, heavy-drinking illustrator Mirai, an aspiring actress (who’s dating a celebrity) Kotomi, and film distribution salaryman Naoki. They hang out together occasionally, and live as young roommates often do; their lives criss-crossing and co-mingling, without probing too deeply.

Things get stirred up a bit with the arrival of the drifting teenaged prostitute Satoru, who seems to be homeless. Ryosuke and Kotomi are convinced there’s a brothel being run out of a neighboring apartment and conspire like kids to infiltrate the place. (Both of them also have some personal drama going on with the people they’re respectively dating.) Mirai is pretty screwed up and goes on regular drinking binges. Naoki is a fitness nut who needs his wisdom teeth pulled.

On the surface there’s not much going on here, and most of the film settles into a comfortable, amusing slice of their lives. However, the film takes some very strange turns in the second half, exploring each character’s background, their damage, their loneliness, and how while they might never admit it, they need each other. The college-like atmosphere of the apartment might seem like something they’d be outgrowing at their age (Naoki, in particular, is 28) and most of them are considering moving on, but something is keeping them there, and keeping them together.

Most intriguing is the character of Naoki (Tatsuya Fujiwara, in his best role since the original Battle Royale), who often feels the discomfort of being the group’s big brother. He’s also carrying one hell of a secret around with him, and it’s this secret that leads to some of the film’s biggest, most emotional statements. The resulting choices that the characters make, and what it says about where they place their values, is something I’m still rolling around in my head.

Yukisada’s filmography is pretty long, including plenty of TV dramas and films alike — good, and bad. I loved his 2001 film “Go”, but two years later he was making drippy schmaltz like “Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World.” Despite (or even because) of such a young and hot cast, Parade is something of a shock, a true personal artistic statement of the sort Japan barely makes anymore. It’s subtle, it’s real, and it’s kind of amazing. If you have a chance to see it, take it.

Failures: Journey to the Western Xia Empire

Watching obscure movies means there’s nobody to tell you you’re wasting your time. Finding the gold pieces often means wading through miles of crap. Case in point, last night I watched a mainland Chinese movie from the 90s called Journey to the Western Xia Empire.

Now, I love the idea of mainland Chinese films from this time period. Until about 10-15 years ago, China was kept largely isolated from the glitzy, Westernized star system that so permeated Taiwan, Hong Kong, and really most of the rest of Asia. While being subject to the strict government censorship of communist China, several local film studios in Beijing, Xian, and a few other cities have maintained decades of creative output. Low in budget but rich in ambition, these mainland films sustained the population’s need for arts and entertainment during China’s decades-long isolation. There’s a lot of junk here (a good 50% seems to be WWII propagandistic stories of bravery in the face of the evil Japanese), but some true unloved treasures as well. I’ve discovered a small pile of of my favorite films by spelunking this cave.

A 103-minute warriors-on-horses movie set in the 1030s A.D., Journey to the Western Xia Empire might have been one of those. A more recent (1997) film, it contains some truly breathtaking photography of beautiful, desolate wilderness… and a whole lot of freaking awful brutality.

Following a tribe of raiders in the Northwest of China, we watch as they attack and brutalize a village, (literally) throw around the women, and collect a “blood tax” of ten male babies. They get drunk, they round up the kids like cattle, they head back across the desert. One kid gets lost, so they take a pregnant woman instead. Once she gives birth they take the baby and dump the woman, who lumbers after them pathetically.

Aside from this being fucking brutal to watch and not having a single redeeming story element that I could find, I couldn’t tell one character from the next. The warriors act like stupid frat boys (“See if she’s carrying a girl or a boy.” “She’s not a horse, how can I tell?” “Just treat her like one!”), the villagers act more or less like cattle. The camera is so distracted by scenery that we never get a close-up or even a dramatic cut. I could barely even tell what was happening when the birth was taking place. It’s never explained just why the Xia warriors needed to steal children, and there’s clearly no moral dilemma taking place, or any other thought for that matter. This film utterly lost me on every level. Truly awful subtitles didn’t help matters either.

The film had English titles, which is rare for mainland Chinese film of the era, and implies that they were aiming to enter this into festivals, and it apparently did win a few international awards. Along with about 40 other films it was purchased into a collection by an American collector of Chinese film, who sloppily subtitled and transferred the lot of them to video and has since put on a few film festivals and tried to sell them to distribution. Unfortunately the materials he made are so rough that most companies couldn’t consider them; a few of the decent ones ended up at Facets Multimedia (a low-cost art house distributor who generally takes what they can get) who put them out on DVD. Journey to the Western Xia Empire might have ended up getting a release, but God Almighty, it is not a good movie.

Cable TV in the 90s (Part 1): The 90s

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with cable TV. As compared to the fairly polished digital look of even the scrappiest television networks today, deep cable of the early and mid-90s was a weird and wonderful no-mans land, full of absurd and unusual video of questionable origin. Cable networks that are well-known and well-funded today were then flimsy, low-budget affairs. E! Entertainment Television had just launched, and its programming was a daily 2-hour loop of a languidly-paced Entertainment Tonight-ish newsmagazine. TLC actually stood for “The Learning Channel,” and was mostly horrifically dry demonstrations of math problems. And Spike TV was then called The Nashville Network, home of endless Hee-Haw reruns.

I was always proud of our cable service, since it offered nearly 100 channels in total (as opposed to 65 or so in the adjacent suburbs), but most of these extra channels were chaff at best — public access and local school district channels, whose programming usually included home movie-quality footage of high school lacrosse. At best, you could see some middle school talent show. Pretty dire stuff.

But past even the public access garbage, there was treasure to be found. My two favorite channels were the very pictures of obscurity: a channel called “The 90s” (channel 69) and an obscure pay-per-view channel called “Action Pay-Per-View.” I’ll write about my oddball pay-per-view obsession another time, but for now I’d like to talk about The 90s.

The 90s

In retrospect, it seems amazing that a channel like this could even exist, let alone get national carriage. Born out of a Chicago-area art college, The 90s (“The New Channel for the New Decade”) featured video art, ranging from independent documentaries to video essays to weird and experimental stuff. Most of it was sourced from a non-profit video art library called Video Data Bank.

Now, as a bored pre-teenager living in whitewashed suburbia, I was simply not prepared for anything this outside-the-norm. But unbeknownst to me, the era’s advances in video technology was beginning to make it possible for near-amateurs to create truly personal, if not always good, video works about their lives and their unique experiences. While video art had been around since the 70s, the low cost and portability of new, higher-quality formats like Video8 and SVHS resulted in something of an artistic boom time. “The 90s,” its very name hopeful of the new directions in media and information this would open up, was the first cable network for this sort of content.

And so, 24/7, this cable network would show an eclectic selection of experimental weirdness, probably carefully curated but to the untrained eye, seemingly an unfiltered firehose of bizarre imagery, of experiences far removed from my own, with production values too low to remove the stench of reality. I was like a sponge for this stuff. It was all so inexplicable, and so completely outside the realm of every other piece of media I had access to at the time. At the same time, it felt provocative and dirty, and even a little bit dangerous. It also, as would be important to any teenage boy, occasionally featured nudity.

I will never know the names of most of the works I saw on The 90s. I remember seeing food vendors in Vietnam, demonstrating how they lit a dish on fire in a wok before flinging it over the heads of their patrons and catching it on a plate. I remember hearing the narration of an American, isolated and homesick, as he tried to make his way through Japan, camcorder in hand. There was the story of the guy who was preparing a car to run in a demolition derby, despite constant nagging from everyone that he had a death wish. (The ending made it seem like he might have, in fact, died in the derby, though the narration sure seemed like it was recorded afterwards.) There were animations, poems, visuals. I do recall the name of one work, which I took in on an early Saturday morning with the volume turned low, so as not to wake my family. “Delirium,” a 23-minute very personal documentary of a the artist’s mother and her strange, non-specific “female hysterical disorder,” which may or may not have been real, but nonetheless was a label that affected both their lives. Light-hearted but disturbing and thought-provoking, even though I couldn’t have been more than 14 or so at the time.

There was a lot of chaff in there too. I recall seeing one program open with the title cards, “What you are about to see is a play. The dialogue is part of a script, and the people you see are actors in an open environment. The arrests you see, however, are real.” Following this was amateur hand-held footage of a protest rally for god knows what. There were also a ton of panic-stricken left-wing documentaries, trying desperately to shine a light on poverty and corruption, but usually just tripping over themselves.

“The 90s” didn’t, in fact, last the decade it was named after; in fact, I don’t think it lasted more than a few years, most probably having lost its funding in that decade’s culture wars. Today I can barely even find evidence online of its existence. When it finally disappeared from our channel lineup I was crushed. Lacking even the concept of the internet at this age, The 90s, for all its faults, was a window into a strange adult landscape that, to a young teen, often didn’t make sense but was nonetheless intoxicating. The very raw and emotional nature made it feel like a direct line into the confusing and often terrifying world around me. I loved it.

I’ve had brushes with video art since, especially having gone to art school and frequently visiting Museum of Modern Art in NYC. As with most people I’m put off by the genre’s inherent pretentiousness, and its crap-to-quality ratio is, like all forms of modern art, impenetrably high. In the modern age of YouTube and Vimeo, where video is something that can be produced by the phones in our pockets, video art seems like a conceptual antiquity: the novelty of once-new technology that has since achieved ubiquity and is no longer even a remotely curious object. But even though it might feel more established and less exciting, there is still amazing work being done, if you know where to dig. And thanks to YouTube and Vimeo, most of it is easily available.

But I do miss having a place like “The 90s,” where I could stumble upon something weird and interesting and have absolutely no idea what I’m watching or where it came from. If the internet has robbed us of anything, it’s the mystery of the unknown.

Pilot from peter philip on Vimeo.

Illness and the viewing bender

There’s really only one good part about being sick, and that’s the part where you’re collapsed on the couch, too fatigued and dizzy to do anything useful with yourself, and therefore finally able to throw responsibility to the wind and just start chipping away at the pile of discs and files you’ve built up for years. As you start going through movie after movie, it’s actually a bit of a comfort to realize, “hey, I fucking hate almost all of these.” The pile starts shrinking at a truly wondrous rate.
The shrinking goes that much faster when said pile is the pile of Dollar-Store DVDs you bought years ago in some discount-fueled craze and the vague suspicion that its contents might be “hilarious.”

I did watch a few quality films as well, but I’ll get to those later, since they bear closer examination. But in the mean time, here are but a few of the gems I’ve attempted to sit through this week. Words cannot convey the joy I take in throwing these terribly made discs in the trash after I decide I’m done with them.

Duel of Champions (pictured)
A hastily produced dubbed Italian sword-and-sandal epic. I stopped watching when I realized that, with all the helmets and uniforms and stuff, I literally couldn’t tell one character apart from another, and couldn’t follow at all what was going on. It looked like some pretty dangerous filming, though, with flaming balls of something being pushed down hills and narrowly missing actors and their horses.

Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess
One of those mid-70s Sonny Chiba actioners, dubbed. I stopped watching when I realized how bad the video quality was, and that someday this film might be worth watching in an acceptable form.

A quiet and surprisingly watchable (though way not “good”) horror movie from the late 70s, involving a rich society woman who hears all sorts of ghosts, and her dickish husband who might be behind it all. It didn’t make me hurl the disc across the room.

They Came From Beyond Space
Most of the terrible and silly alien movies from the 50s and 60s came from the USA, but this one is British! That means the acting is better, forcing me to wonder how any self-respecting actor could utter some of this dialogue without cracking up. The scientist dude, who is impervious to alien mind control due to a metal plate in his skull from a recent car accident, upon finding out that mysterious meteor formation has landed nearby, immediately concludes that they’re from the MOON! He draws a little diagram, with a big circle marked “MOON.” This doodle is later deemed so important that the aliens steal it. While this was plenty amusing at first, the film is starting to bore me, so I might be done for now — I got about 40 minutes in.

You sure find a lot of drift wood looking for buried treasure, I guess.