I hope everyone had a great holiday season. I had a great time with mine and my wife’s family. I received some wonderful gifts (including that spectacular Godzilla set from Criterion and some Grateful Dead socks). I also got some much-needed rest. With a couple of weeks off, I have lots of cool things to talk about. It was really hard to just pick five, but never fear, I’m sure I’ll slip some of the things I consumed over my break during the next few weeks.
Universal Horror Collection, Volume 3
This collection from Shout Factory continues to cover Universal Horror films that aren’t included in other more famous monster sets. There are no Frankensteins here. No Draculas, Wolfmen, or Creatures from the Black Lagoon either. No, these sets feature slightly more obscure monsters and madmen. They contain four films each and things are already starting to stretch a little thin.
Out of the four films featured in this set, two are more comedic than horrific and one barely qualifies as horror at all. That isn’t to say there aren’t some good films here, just that if you are looking for classic or even semi-classic Universal Monsters, you should probably look elsewhere.
The comedic films work the best. The most enjoyable of the bunch is The Black Cat (1941), not to be confused with the 1934 film of the same name included in the Universal Horror Collection, Vol. 1, a fun little film about an old, rich woman, whose nasty kids return home to a creepy old mansion where they hope to inherit their riches. But as they do in these sorts of things, one by one they all start to die. It is full of all the tropes of the genre and a very Abbott & Costello-esque turn from Broderick Crawford and Hugh Herbert. But all the films are worth watching and the collection is quite nice.
This Australian crime series has been picked up by Hulu and the wife and I have been enjoying it. The series stars Ioan Gruffudd as a forensic pathologist/senior medical examiner with a complete disregard for the rules and total empathy towards the dead. He’s also got a dark past that may include the murder of his ex-wife’s former husband. If that sounds like your typical broadcast television crime series, that’s because it basically is, but it’s quite well made and Gruffudd’s performance is terrific.
The episode-to-episode mysteries are mostly good and the larger mystery of Harrow’s past puts it into binge-watch category. The secondary cast is interesting and enjoyable and it all adds up to not quite must-see TV, but something well worth watching when you aren’t quite in the mood for prestige television.
It’s fascinating to me how I wind up watching films by certain actors or directors (or both) during a given period, almost by accident. By which I mean I don’t set out to watch films by that particular artist, but that’s exactly what happens. For example, I didn’t mean to watch 12 films starring Alec Guinness this past year, but that’s what I wound up doing. As it turns out, several of his old Ealing comedies were released on Blu-ray and I reviewed them, and then a certain decade-spanning, fantasy franchise finished up its nine-film series this year and so I went back and caught the original trilogy which all-star Guinness in some way.
And then there were films like Doctor Zhivago that have been on my list of things to see for a very long time, which started streaming on one of my services and just happen to include Guinness in its cast list. Put it all together and it turns out 2019 was my Year of Guinness.
Doctor Zhivago is an epic classic from David Lean. It is essentially a love triangle where a man is in love with one woman but married to another. It is set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, giving it that David Lean epic quality. It is gorgeously shot and composed, and full of great actors like Julie Christie, Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger, and of course, Alec Guinness. It isn’t quite as good as Lawrence of Arabia or The Bridge on the River Kwai, but it’s still quite wonderful.
The Sons of Katie Elder
John Wayne is another actor whose films I kept seeing this past year. Unlike Alec Guinness, his films came my way on purpose. I think I started with Stagecoach because that’s a film that is highly regarded and had been on my list, and from there I kept hitting “play” whenever I’d see his name pop up on whatever streaming service I was browsing. Wayne is an actor that I don’t actually love, in that I don’t think he’s particularly good at his art. But he certainly has a stage presence and a star power, and he made a lot of really good films so I have been trying to see a lot more of them.
The Sons of Katie Elder is pretty standard western fare. It stars Wayne as John Elder, the oldest of four sons from the titular Katie Elder. When she dies, the four come back home to say goodbye and take care of her estate. Three of the four boys are rascals with the youngest being a rascal-in-training. Katie was apparently a loving, giving woman adored by all in the town, and nobody can figure out why her sons turned out so rotten. John is the worst of the bunch, but since he’s played by John Wayne and since this is a western of a certain bent, it turns out all of them have a heart of gold.
As they look into matters, it seems Katie was murdered and most of the film finds the brothers trying to find out who did it and how to stop him. There is lots of goofy comedy (including a wonderful brawl between the brothers), plenty of action, and some good old John Wayne bravado. Dean Martin plays one of the brothers and he’s a hoot. It’s a film without a lot of depth, but it definitely hits that classic western sweet spot for me.
This Phoebe Waller-Bridge series garnered a huge amount of critical buzz when its second season dropped earlier this year. The first season was quite popular but things went really over the top for season two. It was one of those shows that had been on my list of things to see, but I kept putting it off. I wasn’t ever quite sure it would be for me (the terrible name didn’t help). I was a little under the weather a few weeks back and finally decided to give it a go.
Honestly, after the first couple of episodes, I was ready to leave it forever. Waller-Bridge plays the titular Fleabag, a selfish, foul-mouthed, misbehaved woman about London who treats basically everyone around her like garbage. It was funny, but not as hilarious as it seemed to think it was. It felt a lot like those comedies who think women who love sex and cursing are inherently hilarious simply because they are women. I have spoken many times about how I have a peculiar sense of humor and that sort of thing doesn’t tend to do it for me. But Waller-Bridge’s performance was incredibly winning and there was enough going for it that I kept watching.
Through its six episodes of the first season, we slowly understand what it is that makes her behave so poorly. We’re given a backstory that gives insight into the character. This gives the series a weight that so many comedies like it are missing. One of the things I really loved about Fleabag is that she seems to understand her behavior is abhorrent and actually wants to stop, all the while finding it difficult to make changes.
The second season takes place a year later and she’s finally started to make those changes. Her life is still a bit of a mess, and she’s a long way from perfect but there is growth. The comedy becomes less raunchy and the drama more potent. In my opinion, anyways. There’s also a love interest (played by the always wonderful Andrew Scott) that complicates matters in a really satisfying way. Waller-Bridge has stated there will not be a third season, and if not, she can be proud of creating one of the best series I’ve seen in a long while.
From producer Jordan Peele comes this new Amazon series about a group of Nazi hunters living in New York City circa 1977. It stars Al Pacino as a Holocaust survivor. It looks like tons of fun.