Candyman (1992). After seeing Virginia Madsen not quite channeling Marion Davies, I wanted to check her out in something else, so this creepy hit went on the Netflix instant watching queue. Despite its age, it’s actually quite a scary and impressive film. It starts off with Philip Glass’ foreboding score accompanying aerial shots of Chicago, leading one to believe we’re in for Koyaanisqatsi 2: Revenge of the Hopi. What follows is a fun and frantic opus based on the “Bloody Mary” legend that so taunted many a school child (who, me?). Madsen plays a college researcher whose study of urban legends leads her to investigate the legend of Candyman, a hook handed former slave allegedly still terrorizing the residents of a run-down apartment building unlucky enough to say his name into a mirror five times. Madsen makes for a strong, intelligent heroine and Tony Todd is a formidable slasher. It only gets cheesy near the end. Bar none, the best aspect of the film is the Philip Glass score. Apparently Glass believed he was working on an edgy indie, disowning his work once it was revealed as a mainstream scare flick. Strangely, the music is a good fit with the visuals; each one complements the others and makes the film as a whole much more effectively terrifying.
Goodbye Love (1933). Another venture into public domain land via the household Comedy Kings 50 Movie Pack set. This was a breezy yet inconsequential RKO quickie with Charlie Ruggles as a butler who’s in trouble for missing alimony payments. When he is sent off to a beach resort by his employer (Sidney Blackmer), he impersonates a rich big game hunter and snags a conniving gold digger (Verree Teasdale). The scheme gets more complicated when greedy Teasdale arranges to wed Ruggles. This was pretty dull stuff, considerably enlivened by the two leads. Ruggles knew how to play perplexed better than anyone and the swanky Teasdale is always worth a watch, even in tripe like this.
Jeanne Eagels (1957). Speaking of tripe — I’ve been wanting to see this biopic for several years now. It stars Kim Novak as Jeanne Eagels, brilliant and mercurial Broadway actress whose hard living ways led to an early demise in 1929. Unfortunately, this cliché-ridden mess was a disappointment on every level, from the pacing (which never recovers from interminable early scenes with Novak and Jeff Chandler at a seedy carnival) to the acting. Everything is overstated and unsubtle, and the role was well beyond what Novak’s talents could offer at the time. I believe the film’s biggest mistake was that it came about at the wrong time. Had it been made circa 1947 with Bette Davis, it may have been a campy, overheated melodrama … or perhaps it may have made for a compelling and gritty ’70s drama with a Jane Fonda type playing Eagels. I award this one star out of five.
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1986). Another film I’ve been wanting to catch for years. Kiss of the Spider Woman stands as one of the early triumphs of indie filmmaking, anchored by a memorable turn by William Hurt as a gay prisoner coerced into wrangling secrets from cellmate Raoul Julia. This is certainly a well-acted and at times nicely mounted film. The importance of what it has to say never wavers, which might be why the film doesn’t quite hold up as well as other dramas of the era. While it has sound intentions to spare, generally it comes across like a pompous stage adaptation. The vague reasons for Hurt and Julia’s imprisonment are never adequately explained, the film-within-a-film segments with Sonia Braga as a shoulder-padded ’40s heroine were painfully self-conscious, and the finale seemed too pat and formulaic. Even worse, the supposedly shocking kiss between the two leads arrived with a thud. Hurt deserves a lot of credit for breathing life into his swishy character, but I couldn’t help but feel his Oscar was another example of liberal Hollywood patting its own back. It’s an excellent performance, however, in a deeply flawed film.
Married Life (2007). This was a good, meaty neo-Hitchcock domestic drama with Chris Cooper as an unhappily married man carrying on an affair with Rachel McAdams while trying to figure out a way to off his spouse, Patricia Clarkson. He confides his predicament to his best friend, Pierce Brosnan, all the while not realizing that Brosnan and McAdams are falling for each other. The film takes place in the late 1940s, with production design that is a feast for aficionados of that era. The look of the film is so nicely done, evocative of its time yet never overstated. The skilled Cooper and Clarkson are both reliably great; Brosnan and McAdams do well, too. The film has a few flaws (Brosnan’s narration chief among them), but on its own modest standards we both enjoyed this one a lot.
Elvis Presley — Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight. I’ve always been a casual fan of Elvis who lacked a decent, career-spanning collection of the man’s music. Since I had a lot of free credits at eMusic to spend, I decided to go for this comprehensive 100-track, four disc set released to celebrate his 75th birthday. Probably a two disc hits collection would have been okay for my needs, but I love the way this particular box was chosen with an even handed survey of 1955-77 music emphasizing quality over popularity (it even skips over a top ten hit, “The Wonder of You”). It opens with “My Happiness,” a charming 1953 recording made for his ma, then launches into eight tracks from the legendary Sun sessions. These raw early recordings reveal a man burning with talent and startlingly aware of every genre of the era (country, blues, nascent rock ‘n roll, even showtunes). The RCA stuff that followed is often criticized for being crass and shallow, but I dug those as well, both the hit and the buried treasures. For better or worse, he became a hip-swiveling icon almost immediately. Much of the late ’50s material was chosen to make him look dangerous, yet appealing for a mainstream audience. It tends to verge on self-parody, frankly, but I think Elvis approached stuff like “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” with tongue firmly planted in cheek and it’s a blast to hear it again. This set also picks through the gems of his oft-stinky Hollywood soundtracks with panache. Elvis’ ’68 comeback and its immediate aftermath form the highlights of the set, including my personal fave tune of his, 1970′s “Kentucky Rain.” The last quarter of the set basically covers his ’70s output, which is the least familiar period often for good reason — he tended toward lazy, country-inflected live cuts at this time. Despite some good, overlooked performances, it is the least essential part of the box. The m.i.a. “Wonder Of You” epitomizes the schmaltzy, white jumpsuitted Elvis phase so well (perhaps I ought to download that, too), but at least the box ends on a more positive and lively note with the 2002 remix of “A Little Less Conversation.” RCA seems to churn out new Elvis repackagings like sausages, but at the very least this is one of the more thoughtful (and tasty) ones.
Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009). Interesting, at times problematic doc on one of the 20th century’s most popular entertainers, now largely forgotten. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg chronicles the life of Gertrude Berg, star and creator of the ethnic family sitcom The Goldbergs. Through ample clips and comments from colleagues and admirers, we gather that Berg was a true self-made media mogul. Berg’s creation Molly Goldberg was presented as the ultimate worldly wise, wry urban Jewish matriarch, a character that warmed the hearts of many Americans who otherwise wouldn’t know such a person. The fact that Berg was a savvy businesswoman whose private life differed greatly from the picture perfect family she wrote of is also amply discussed, although the filmmakers have an excessively fawning attitude toward their subject for it to have much impact. Between all the hyperbole and exaggeration (about her being a sitcom pioneer, etc.), Berg comes across as quite a lively and absorbing personality. I enjoyed learning a lot about her and her show. The Goldbergs became a blockbuster on the radio, but most of the exposure in this doc comes via clips from the TV incarnation which ran from 1949 to 1954. The series actually looks kind of stodgy and stagebound, which might explain why it’s never had the longevity of an I Love Lucy. I also liked the section on the blacklisting and eventual death of Berg’s onscreen husband, actor Philip Loeb. Beware, however: Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg suffers from an overabundance of out of context clips and too much obsequiousness. To which I say “oy vey.”