Movies to See and Flee While Avoiding the Mall

They don'e make 'em like this any more, but they should!

A Few to Queue

So it happened just like this. A group of us thought we’d catch a film last weekend and, on impulse, we swung into the mall to see what was playing. (Apparently it’s too much bother to list films on the roadside marquee.) What were our choices? Let’s see…a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, King Fu Panda II, an X-Men prequel, Hangover II, and another damn film about another damn wedding that I’m sure is as insipid as every other damn film about every other damn wedding. We just recently learned that the term “blockbuster” comes from a Latin term that means, “You’re too old and have too many brain cells to like this crap.” We ducked the brainbuster blockbusters and retired to a friend’s house and downloaded a few classics. Allow us to recommend a few recently viewed old and recent films that are far preferable alternatives to this summer’s mall fare.

First among them is the film we viewed that night, All About Eve, the 1950 masterpiece directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. We hadn’t viewed this in many years and had forgotten what a tour de force it was. It won six Oscars back in 1951, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay and it deserved them all. An aging actress (Bette Davis) attracts a starstruck devotee (Anne Baxter) who wants only to serve her idol. Sound too good to be true? You bet! As Davis remarked in the film’s most quoted line, “Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night.” And reserve your judgment until near the end before you cast your vote for the film’s creepiest character. When the film was over a friend remarked, “There sure don’t make films like that any more.” More’s the pity.

If you fancy an old-fashioned mystery thriller, there’s a new video print of Les Diaboliques has just been released. Rent the 1955 original directed by Henri-George Clouzot, not the 1996 remake. You’ll get a lesson in 1950s style sexism, a portrait of dire post-World War II France, and a Hitchcock-like thriller that builds to a dastardly end. The headmaster of a rundown boarding school bullies and abuses his teacher wife (Vera Clouzot) at the same time he’s having an equally vituperative affair with another teacher (the icy Simone Signoret). The two women await an opportune moment and murder the headmaster. But where’s the body?

Another fine French film to rent is Man on the Train (2002), directed by Patrice Leconte. It’s essentially a duet between a loquacious, aging bachelor teacher (Jean Rochefort) and a virile young thug (pop star Johnny Halladay) who barely utters a word. They are thrown together by circumstance, but Leconte has far more in mind than making a silly caper film. How often have we looked at another’s life and fantasized what it would be like? Leconte gives this a bittersweet twist, with the teacher musing over a life of crime, while the thief longs to wear carpet slippers, smoke a pipe, and tutor bored boys. Can this end well? Watch and find out.

Nobody does sleazy politics quite as well as the Brits. We recently viewed a three-part British drama titled The Politician’s Wife, which aired on the BBC in 1995. The setting is conservative-led Britain just after the Margaret Thatcher/John Major era. The party is hanging onto power but there’s a power void that high flier Duncan Matlock (Trevor Eve) is poised to fill. He’s slick, but an egotistical sleaze ball of the worst kind. See what happens when Duncan, the minister for the family, is caught in an affair and seeks to enlist his wronged wife Flora (the delightful Juliet Stevenson of Truly, Madly Deeply fame) in an elaborate damage control scheme. This film is like watching a fast-moving chess match in which the black king and the white queen seek to avoid checkmate. Loved it!

Three to Avoid

We also viewed three films you should dump from your queue. Lloyd Sellus warned in a review on this blog that Fish Tank (2009) was a disappointment. We second that view. What could have/should have been a penetrating look at lower-class life in soulless British Council flats รก la Mike Leigh is, in the hands of director Andrea Arnold, merely meandering angst. It’s at once a depressing film, but also an unaffecting one because everything in it seems forced.

The late Peter Sellers once said that he had no personality outside of the characters he inhabited. Despite wealth and fame he led a very sad life. Someone needs to make a good movie about a man who came alive only on the screen. Alas, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004) is not that film. Geoffrey Rush plays Sellers and gets the look right, but he delivers a wooden performance that is more caricature than character. At least he’s better than John Lithgow, whose preening portrayal of Blake Edwards is an embarrassment. This film reeks of a low budget, slap-it-together-print-it ethos. Not even Inspector Clouseau could stumble upon life in this turkey.

We had heard that Despicable Me (2010) was a charming animated delight. Not! The send-up of Bill Gates (Vector) was mildly amusing, but the film is only interesting when its central character, Dr. Gru, is…well… despicable. Alas, once he adopts two orphan girls for a nefarious scheme we can see from miles away where the film is heading because we’ve seen it all before. This movie is so family values wholesome that we expected to see a Focus on the Family endorsement at the end. Give us nasty or give us a break!


David Mallett, a Pro Under Pressure

David Mallett in Concert

Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum

Hadley, MA June 15, 2011

If there was every any doubts that David Mallett is the consummate professional, he laid them aside at his outdoor performance in the sunken garden of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum on June 15. Mallett has dazzled with fourteen albums since 1978 and ranks among my favorite songwriters of all time. His peers agree; Mallett’s compositions have been covered by the likes of John Denver, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, Alison Krauss, and Kermit the Frog. That’s right, Kermit the Frog. Is there anyone who does not know “The Garden Song,” the one covered by Kermit? (“Inch by inch/Row by row/Gonna make this garden grow…”)

All of this is to say that the man could rest of his laurels if he wanted to. Instead he showed up in Hadley and out-sang a thunderstorm. To say that conditions were less than ideal would be an understatement. He and bass player Michael Burd stepped out onto the lawn amidst abundant sunshine, but made it only to the end of the third song, “My Old Man,” Mallett’s tribute to his father, when a crack of thunder hit, a spooked sound man pulled the plug, and the (first) rains came. The concert should have been moved indoors at that point, but the museum staff mistook the rain as an aberration (none was forecast) and after a ten-minute rain delay, Mallett shrugged his shoulders, walked up to the mic, and launched into the next song. He and Burd made it through 70 minutes of intermittent showers; whenever the drops fell, two guys with golf umbrellas stood behind them and Mallett soldiered on. Well, he did a bit more than that. Being a sly old dog with a big repertoire, he dragged out backlist material with rain references, the only hint of irony being the occasional nod and a twinkle in his eye.

Mallett has long been hailed for his evocations of nature, small-town life, and ordinary folks doing the best they know how. He brushed the water off classics such as “Midnight on the Water,” “Summer of My Dreams,” “Moon Upon the Left,” and--a personal favorite--“Phil Brown,” maybe the best song ever about an unorthodox mentor. He also featured songs from his fine new recording, Alright Now. At age 60, Mallett is more than alright. He’s lost a smidgen of range, but he retains his smooth delivery and buttery tones and continues to pick a mean guitar and lay down solid backing on harmonica. Mallett saved his soggy best for last. About the time the evening was coming to an end, the skies turned dark, lightening flashed in the distance, and the rumbling grew louder. So what did Mallett do? He finished off with “Fire,” the autobiographical song--and clinic for aspiring lyricists, I might add--of the thunder storm that burned down the family homestead in Maine. He sang each reference--swaying willows, cracks of thunder, the imperiled barn, and the hopelessness of mortals amidst nature’s fury--as if he was choreographing the storm with the song. He bowed, ducked under a tree and, on cue, big fat raindrops pelted the grounds. Most folks rushed for their cars, but I figured it was the least I could do to get a bit wetter and tell David what a pro he had been. He just smiled and retorted, “Yeah, I guess you’re a professional if nobody gets electrocuted during a show.” Great line, but we both know there’s more to it than that. What the Hadley audience witnessed was the grace that comes from being around the block enough times to know how to play the cards you’ve been dealt. The evening could have been a disaster; David Mallett turned it into fond memories.