Category: Reviews

With Further Ado #169: The Vast of Night

With Further Ado #169: The Vast of Night

Halloween is time for scary movies. That’s part of the fun. My utopian Halloween would consist of kids trick or treating, going to a killer (not literally) Halloween Party, and then settling in with a classic monster movie, preferably something from Hammer or Universal’s heyday.

And while we “meant” to watch a lot more movies during the recent Covid-19 lockdown times, we really didn’t, just a few here and there. I’m a little disappointed in myself, if I am to be honest with you.

Having shared that confession, it makes sense we missed The Vast of Night at first. I’m elated we finally stumbled across it. This is a brilliant indie film set in the 1950s at the pinnacle of the scary “Flying Saucer craze”.  It’s both creepy and gorgeous, a tribute to both small town Americana and the fears that bubble up from rural communities.

The heroes are an unlikely pair: a plucky teenager with a part time job, played by former Disney Channel actress Sierra McCormick, and a cool-cat radio DJ, played by Jake Horowitz. These two are actors to watch.

I’ve been learning about Rod Serling and enjoy teaching a bit about him.  Nick Parisi’s brilliant book, Rod Serling: His Life, Work and Imagination provided me with a such a rich background and dialing into Tom Elliot’s The Twilight Zone Podcast adds to my Serling knowledge.  Even so, I was really surprised to find that The Vast of Night takes place in a small town called Cayuga, New Mexico.  As you might know, Serling grew up and eventually returned to the Cayuga Lake area. He even taught classes at Ithaca College, far above Cayuga’s waters. Continue reading “With Further Ado #169: The Vast of Night”

Brainiac On Banjo: New York, Naked

“It trails me and it tails me down to Central Park. Even after dark, New York is my home. New York is calling me, and now I find the city never sleeps… it’s my state of mind.” New York Is My Home, written by Dion Di Mucci, Scott Kempner, and Mike Acquilina, 2016

Like many pop culture enthusiasts – we used to be called “fans” before cosplay became a big deal — my “top ten favorite movies” list runs a bit heavy. I recently took to creating an actual written-down list and, as of this typing, this effort has engorged to 66 films. I’m sure it will lengthen.

Among those works on film to which I am most endeared is a 1948 flick called “The Naked City,” directed by Jules Dassin and starring Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, and Dorothy Hart. Despite its title, this brilliant and authentic action movie is not the least bit salacious. It most certainly is naked, in the sense that The Naked City is the most poignant portrait of New York City I have seen.

This is the New York City of legend, filmed on location. Well, 80% of it was filmed on location, and that certainly fits the definition of unique. No other movie had so much Manhattan footage, and the performers and crew were not limited to the types of cover shots we are used to seeing on shows like N.Y.P.D. Blue.

We are thrust into the real, heroic city of legend that is no longer with us, but unlike Camelot or Brigadoon this place was real and that is the stuff of this movie. It was the town many of our ancestors first saw when they came to America, the portal to a new world that offered the promise of fair play, opportunity, equality, and democracy. Those values may be fading rapidly as well, but that’s for another time.

As much as I love the work of Damon Runyon, the New York City seen in this movie is the real thing. There are no singing and dancing gangsters in this production. You can almost smell the sidewalk hot dogs, the sweat of the workers, and the stench of the tenements on a hot summer day — The Naked City was filmed in the very, very hot summer of 1947, and it shows.

Long gone are the Manhattan elevated trains and the Essex Street Market, the old Staten Island Ferry terminal and the real Penn Station, the ramshackle and often dangerous subdivided apartment buildings for those who dream, and the mom-n-pop stores that met their needs. Big-box chain stores and franchise fast food were almost unheard of. It was America’s portal to the rest of the world and, more important, it was the portal from the rest of the world.

The movie most certainly suffers from some of the constraints and attitudes of its time. There’s plenty of white ethnic diversity, and that’s about it. New York City is and always been a lot more than that, but in 1948 I suspect a lot of people wondered why they ever would be interested in seeing a movie about a bunch of Irish, Italians, and Ashkenazi… let alone about New Yorkers. The Naked City does not portray a lot of high falutin’ swells living in the vertical gated communities that line Central Park; this is the people of New York whose heads would explode at the thought of paying today’s $3,500 a month rent.

The original The Naked City movie, later remade as several television series and movies, is a breathtaking, highly detailed and emotionally appropriate record of the city that defined America. It is a 96-minute time machine that nails down the roots of our cultural heritage.

It’s also a damn good cop movie.

The Naked City is on HBO Max and, better still, the 23-minute Criterion documentary Uncovering The Naked City is there as well, although I do not know how long either will be streaming from that venue. Talk about Brigadoon… Of course, both are available from Criterion on home video and on the Criterion Channel. I say “better still” because The Naked City is shown on TCM with some regularity but the documentary is a mere seventeen months old and not quite as accessible. It’s a love letter to both the movie and to the city that made it… and, of course, to the people who made it as well.

As they said in this movie and its subsequent adaptations, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” This has been the best of them.

The author dedicates this column to Howard V. Chaykin, the source of several of those eight million stories.

With Further Ado #145: Guest Column Winner “Men Direct Feminist Films Too”

With Further Ado #145: Guest Column Winner “Men Direct Feminist Films Too”

We have made it to the final installment of the Ithaca College Writing Assignment awards. The students in the class that helps run Ithacon were tasked to submit a guest column entry for this space and we have a winner. You can see the previous runners up on this site from the past two weeks here and here.

The winner is Caleigh Clarke who took on a pop culture accepted opinion and challenged it. What really set her over the top is that not only did she take issue with prevalent take on movie making, she presented an alternative example of what she was looking for from feminism in pop culture movies.

Men Direct Feminist Films Too

By Caleigh Clarke

When I think of female-directed films with a superheroine, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman comes to mind. It is the first of its kind, with Captain Marvel and Black Widow following and trying to erase the previous sexist works of Catwoman and Elektra. It follows Diana Prince, an Amazonian goddess, as she joins American spy, Steve Trevor, to fight in World War I as she believes it is a result of the Greek god of war, Ares.

This movie was definitely marketplace feminism. They wanted to appeal to the little girls who would go on to buy the lunchboxes, t-shirts, and costumes after watching the movie, like with most superhero films. However, does this have to be the case in our modern world saturated with superheroes? Are superheroines just there to be a “look, feminism” moment? Or are executives starting to break the mold?

I thought of comparing Wonder Woman to a superhero film that I personally loved and was critically praised- Black Panther . Released just one year after Wonder Woman , the movie follows the titular character who is crowned king of Wakanda after his father’s death, but is challenged by a man who seeks to use the country’s resources for a world revolution. Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther is filled by many women, mainly Nakia, Shuri, Okoye, and Ramonda. These female characters are integral to the story and success of T’Challa. Nakia is not merely his love interest. She holds a lot of agency. Her goal is not to become queen of Wakanda, but rather convince T’Challa to reveal Wakanda as a country and open its gates to help people with their advanced technology. She is also a spy fighting for enslaved women, she is expertly trained which we see in her first appearance on the screen. Continue reading “With Further Ado #145: Guest Column Winner “Men Direct Feminist Films Too””

So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #072: The Good, The Bad, and the Synder Cut

So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #072: The Good, The Bad, and the Synder Cut

I wanted to extol the virtues of Wanda Vision this week. Truly. I wanted to expound and extrapolate vividly how Marvel was able to slow down their relentless phase-after-phase serial storytelling to truly stop and explore the power of grief in the superhuman world. It was 9 episodes of brilliance capped off with a decent-if-by-the-numbers finish. Ultimately though, I made the mistake of following the zeitgeist over the last two nights and watched Justice League, as envisioned by its original helmsman, Zack Snyder. And now, all I desire to share… is my snark and malaise. Continue reading “So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #072: The Good, The Bad, and the Synder Cut”

With Further Ado #128: That Comic Book Movie Starring That Statuesque Raven-Haired Beauty That Stumbled

With Further Ado #128: That Comic Book Movie Starring That Statuesque Raven-Haired Beauty That Stumbled

So that statuesque, raven-haired beauty makes the leap from comics to a big time movie! And the leap, by most accounts, lands with a resounding thud.  How could it be? The actress was perfect for the part. The public adores her. The camera loves her too.  And there’s a real fondness for the comic/source material. But still fans are unhappy with it.

I’m talking, of course about the comic-to-cinema movie, Tamara Drewe. But don’t beat yourself up if you don’t remember this picture.

A decade ago, I wasn’t familiar with the UK strip, Tamara Drewe or the creator Posy Simmonds.   But Simmonds’ art looked engaging and I thought the movie might have a Love, Actually vibe to it all.  Meaning: both my wife, Kathe, and I might enjoy it. Inviting her to see a comic movie that is kind of like Love, Actually is easier than dragging her to…for example…Marvel’s Captain Marvel.  Although she’s patient and open-minded, I remember her eyes glazing over when I tried to explain, in preparation for Captain Marvel, about the Skrulls and the Kree. Continue reading “With Further Ado #128: That Comic Book Movie Starring That Statuesque Raven-Haired Beauty That Stumbled”

So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #055: Hole In Won

So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #055: Hole In Won

A while back, I’d admitted to having never seen Top Gun. I was commanded to rectify the situation. I did, and capturing my hot takes on a virgin viewing. I presented said takes here on Pop Culture Squad. My friends? I’ve never seen a bigger reaction to my reactions. I’ve written a few pieces on the ole’ interwebs over the last decade or so I’ve been truly proud of. Pieces that unearthed old friends, made me new friends, or defriended bad friends. Well, none of those pieces apparently came close to the engagement gained over declaring:

I love how Johnny Exposition sets us up about a dozen times throughout the movie. “Welcome, all you Top Gun Fighter Pilots, today is day 4 of your 12 day schooling. It’s clear that Maverick is in second place to Iceman because he’s just too cocky for his own damn good. Today your assignment will be to fly planes again, but this time Maverick needs to be a team player, except when the mission demands he become a cocky cock-sure cock who’d cock up the mission to see us win. America!”

Well, the interwebs demanded I deep dive into the litany of flicks I’ve yet to see, due to my sheltered suburbanite over-protective-Jewish-mom-upbringing. So here goes. My hot takes on Caddyshack. Continue reading “So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #055: Hole In Won”

So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #049: “Am I a Joke(r) to you?”

So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #049: “Am I a Joke(r) to you?”

Arthur Fleck has been through some shit, kiddos. And any of it — had it happened to you — might be enough to drive you insane. But if you already suffered from any number of mental disorders, well, it’d be enough to push you into a realm beyond insanity. Poor schmuck Fleck, for those not in-the-know, is the titular protagonist of Todd Phillips’ Joker. While a large part of me wants to dive deep into a nuanced spoiler-filled review of the film, it’s still fresh off its debut. I’d rather pivot to discuss some specific bits of internet-debate over the film instead. So, let me get this out of the way:

Joker is an amazing film. I would feign perhaps only to compare it to Logan; in so much that it’s a film first, and its roots to pulp and paper serve merely to enhance the final product. Remove a detail or two, and frankly neither film should be name-dropped alongside any other movie tepidly denoted as a comic book movie — which itself is becoming shorthand for flicks that are somehow less than, in spite of them largely being truly awesome entertainment. But, as usual for me, I digress. Joker was jaw-dropping. I suggest you catch it. Cool? Cool. Moving on. Continue reading “So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #049: “Am I a Joke(r) to you?””

With Further Ado #055: So Bad It’s Good

With Further Ado #055: So Bad It’s Good

Every other Tuesday, I’ve been hosting the Screams & Screens movie series locally at Auburn Public Theater. We celebrate B-movies that are so bad they’re good. To be fair, some of the movies we show really are good, or actually have a few good parts to them.

We’re wrapping up our summer season with The Giant Claw. It’s a curious movie that epitomizes the whole “so bad it’s good” charm of these flicks.  Continue reading “With Further Ado #055: So Bad It’s Good”

Brainiac On Banjo #046: Prescient Murders

Brainiac On Banjo #046: Prescient Murders

You probably heard about the mass shootings in a El Paso Texas Walmart and in Northeast Ohio this weekend. Maybe not; these two were the third and fourth such slaughter this week, and we’re getting accustomed to it. As of this writing – Sunday evening – 29 bodies have been found and several dozen have been hospitalized. The alleged shooter in Texas is in custody., the alleged shooter in Ohio was killed at the scene.

Right now we have endured 2,191 mass shootings since the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders that happened on December 14, 2012. That was less than seven years ago. If that hasn’t provided us with sufficient warning, and even if they have, I would like to direct your attention to an amazingly prescient movie made in 1971, based upon a play that opened on Broadway four years earlier. Both were labelled as “black comedies” but that exposes the downside of prescience: what was black comedy a half-century ago has evolved into a documentary. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #046: Prescient Murders”

So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #043: Top Gun Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #043: Top Gun Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Warning: the following article is about a piece of old pop culture that I have only recently absorbed for the first time. As such, much of this article will find you asking yourself “Wait, seriously, he’s never seen Top Gun before now?” and I’m making it clear from the get go:

I literally watched Top Gun for the first time, ever, a few days ago.

And I did it because, I kid you not, a would-be investor in Unshaven Comics outright refused to even be pitched to until I did. To be clear: it’s not that I wasn’t familiar with the movie. But when the movie came out, I was 5 years old. My family didn’t go to the movies, and I was never much into military stuff (Like G.I. Joe and the like). I knew Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer were in it. I know the soundtrack was Loggins heavy. And I recalled once asking Unshaven Kyle about the climax of the movie (when it happened to be on in our apartment at the time) and he told me “eh, the whole movie is just about fancy maneuvers.” Continue reading “So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #043: Top Gun Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”