January 2014 Movie #1 – Man of Steel (Zach Snyder, 2013): Most critics didn’t like this movie and I can see why – it isn’t Richard Donner’s “Superman” (by contrast, “Superman Returns” received much more critical acclaim and was intended as a direct sequel to the two Donner films). There seems to be a constant refrain of “it wasn’t light” and “it wasn’t fun” – and it wasn’t. It wasn’t meant to be either of those things. Still, it also didn’t have the nice moments that made the “Avengers” movie what it was, either, so there is some justice there. Beyond that it is certainly true that the effects overwhelm the story at times and weaken what could have been a better movie. Still, the effects were pretty great. It is also true that there is no discernable chemistry between Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Henry Cavill as Superman so when they have their big kiss there is almost a feeling of “why?” Actually, there seemed to be more sparks between them in the final scene in the Daily Planet when he is in Clark Kent garb than there had been earlier. I’m not sure if this was a failure of performances, direction, or editing, but it was not there and the lack drained a lot of emotional weight from the film. On the other hand, Henry Cavill had some good scenes, as did several others of the actors. Amy Adams didn’t really have any such good scenes, but that was not due to her performance so much as her not being given much to do. When the movie worked, it was good. Overall, it is a fairly generic big blockbuster effects movie – much better than “The Green Lantern” but not as good as the Nolan Batman movies. I can’t say this leaves me feeling excited about “Batman vs. Superman” or “Justice League” or whatever the hell. January 2014 Movie #2 – Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013): I saw this at the a/perture earlier this afternoon. It has that wonderful Coen Brothers film feeling of being surreal and realistic at the same time. We follow the eponymous Llewyn through a few days in 1961 and get several things; a great character study, a Coen Brothers road-trip, the sort of great supporting characters played by excellent actors you usually find in their films, a slice of the Greenwich Village folk scene just before it explodes, and a dark rumination on the fate of the uncompromising artist. John Goodman was excellent as always (as Jon Foster said, just give him some great lines and you’ve got something). I also really liked Carey Mulligan in this. She has become a favorite of mine with just a few roles (especially “An Education”). If you like the Coen Brothers, or just good things, go see this. January 2014 Movie #3 – The Journey to Planet X (Myles Kane & Josh Koury, 2012): This is a documentary about two guys – a geology professor and a civil engineer – who make movies in their spare time. We follow them as they make a science-fiction short. Along the way we see how a friendship can work and how different the motivations for creativity can be. We also see two men with true creative vision, energy, and a can-do attitude – who also have almost no esthetic awareness at all. They approach their film-making with the sensibilities of a geologist and an engineer. Their blindness about the resulting product is as sweet and tragic as Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood’ and the film is as ultimately triumphant. Well worth checking out. January 2014 Movie #4 – Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (Gilles Penso, 2011): From the title and the fact this was produced by the foundation established to preserve his work, you can guess the tone of this. It is a very straightforward documentary about his work featuring many interviews with Harryhausen and a wide variety of collaborators and later film-makers. This is a wonderful film if you are interested in the history of stop-motion film effects or in Harryhausen’s professional life. I loved it. “The First Men in the Moon,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” and his Sinbad films are among my favorites. The first fantasy movie I saw that really stuck with me was Harryhausen’s “The 3 Worlds of Gulliver”. These movies loom over my childhood and probably, along with hefty doses of “Star Trek,” “Lost in Space,” and many Irwin Allen TV shows, set me on the path to being the geek I became. Most of the scripts and acting in these films were forgettable (not all, though) and no one really tends to remember most of the actors of these films or the directors – because the star was Harryhausen and his creatures. This celebrates one man’s creative life and is well worth the watching. January Movie #5 – Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (Tommy Wirkola, 2013): There is a growing sub-genre of action-horror films that feature a lot of special effects, fight scenes, some gore and supernatural elements, and a hefty dose of steampunk-y weapons – “Van Helsing”, “Jonah Hex”, etc… This is very much a part of that and like most of those movies it is fun, but still not all that great. It seemed to me there was a better movie hiding in there somewhere. The story is a bit weak and the movie can’t decide what it is – campy or more substantive. Still, I’m not sorry I saw it. It is fun enough for be worth a little less than 90 minutes – just turn your brain off before watching. January Movie #6 – The Colony (Jeff Renfroe, 2013): I’m a bit of a connoisseur of post-apocalyptic movies of various sorts, so I put this in my Netflix queue. This is a thoroughly ordinary post-apocalyptic cliche-fest. It doesn’t rise to the level of “Book of Eli” let alone the rarefied heights of “The Road Warrior”. It isn’t intelligent enough to be a drama, or scary enough to be a horror-adventure movie, and the fight scenes are too tedious for it to be straight-up action. Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton are thoroughly wasted in this. I’d rather watch the Patrick Swayze cheese-fest “Steel Dawn” than this – at least it is bad enough to laugh at. At least some Canadian film people got work between better projects. January Movie #7 – Starship Troopers: Invasion (Shinji Aramaki, 2012): This is the fourth installment of the “Starship Troopers” movies (not counting the vastly under-rated animated series). It is a Japanese CGI-animated production (although, interestingly, Casper Van Dien – who played Johnny Rico in the first and third movies – was an executive producer). It has that “video-game” animation style, like 2001’s “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” and decent, though not overwhelmingly good, voice-acting (no big names). Basically, if you enjoyed the other movies (I did) you’ll like this. It is sort of “Starship Troopers” meets “Aliens” in terms of story. It has the bleak vision of the Federation that has continued in all of the films (but without the vicious humor Verhoeven brought to the first one). The action is pretty good and it has a couple of decent movie moments. Early on, it also spends a bit too much time on the naked bodies of the female characters in the film, but not to a greater extent than other low-rent action films. If you can overlook the faults and just want to enjoy some military-SF action, it will do. I’m glad I saw it, but my life would have gone on just fine if I hadn’t. Snowpocalypse 2014 Movie #1 – Riddick (David Twohy, 2013): Often people talk about movies as “guilty pleasures” that they really want you to know they like and aren’t guilty at all about them. I’m REALLY rather ashamed that I like the Riddick movies… actually I’m ashamed I like “The Chronicles of Riddick” because it is unrelievedly bad. The first movie, “Pitch Black” is actually pretty good, for a small budget kind-of “Alien” rip-off. If you haven’t seen that movie, watch it, and then you will have seen this one too. Basically, “Riddick” reboots the franchise by re-telling the same story. Riddick is stuck on a desert-y planet. There are people there he is in conflict with, there are Bad Monsters who come out in the dark (there is also rain this time), Riddick and company have to fight through the monsters to get a necessary part to fix the spaceship. What made the first movie work was a much more interesting cast of characters and the fact that they made the monsters work in a way that generated real frights and real tension. None of that happens here. You do get to see one of Katee Sackhoff’s boobs, but it doesn’t really make up for the rest of the movie. It isn’t so much bad as a bit dull. There is little tension, no frights, and every time you think you know what is about to happen next, you are completely right. Oh, well. Snowpocalypse Movie #2 – Sputnik Mania (David Hoffman, 2007): This is a fairly pedestrian, but still worthwhile, documentary about the American reaction to the launch of Sputnik in 1957. It touches on elements of popular culture, but it is at its strongest when it tells the story of the role the launch played in political struggles over defense policy and particularly Eisenhower’s – successful – fight to prevent the American space effort from becoming fully militarized. Worth checking out. Snowpocalypse Movie #3 – Nollywood Babylon (Ben Addleman & Samir Mallal, 2008): This is a documentary about the Nigerian film industry, of “Nollywood”. It tells the story of that industry while following one of its most prolific directors as he shoots his 157th feature film. What emerges is a story of Africa, colonialism, art, politics, economics, creativity, and hucksterism that explodes with energy. One of the most fascinating elements of the film is its depiction of Evangelical Christianity in Nigeria and how that intersects with the film industry there. There is just too much in this 74 minutes to write about – go watch it!
Posted by Gerald on October 20, 2013
Fall Movie #11 – Parker (Taylor Hackford, 2013): This is a solid “B” action film; nothing extraordinary, but still entertaining. It is a combination of a heist film and a revenge film – again not a sterling example of either genre, but not bad either. Jason Statham is playing the sort of taciturn crook with a sense of honor he has been playing for years. Jennifer Lopez is his “partner’ (but not, refreshingly, his romantic interest) and, like Statham, is good but not anywhere outside her normal comfort zone. Decent supporting turns by Michael Chiklis, Patti LuPone, and Nick Nolte add to the film. The action scenes and cinematography are – again – good but not outstanding. A lot of the reason I’m damning this with faint praise is that the movie is an adaptation of a novel from the series that also produced the 1967 movie “Point Blank” directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin in the role Statham plays here (different character name due to legal stuff, though). I like Statham and Taylor Hackford has done some great movies (“Ray” and “An Officer and a Gentleman” among others). Still this isn’t one of the best efforts from either of them. On the other hand, “Point Blank” is one of Boorman’s best and Lee Marvin – who I would argue is one of the best action film stars ever – is in one of his best roles it it. That is a heck of a shadow which “Parker” never climbs out from. It is definitely worth checking out if you are in the mood for that sort of film, but it does seem to have a lot of unrealized potential.
Fall Movie #12 – Masculin-Feminin (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966): In case you’re not familiar with Godard, let me start by saying that making an attempt to write a narrative review of one of his movies is an exercise in futility. This movie is subtitled “15 Specific Events” – which is what it is, and the events aren’t in any particular order. Godard’s movies (the ones I’ve seen, anyway) don’t tell stories so much as illustrate themes by elaborating on moments. He didn’t really deliberately structure his movies as much as improvise them. This film is built around an affair between Paul, an ardent and pretentious would-be revolutionary and intellectual played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, and Madeline, an aspiring pop singer played by Chantal Goya (a real “Yé-yé girl” – look it up; it’s kind of fascinating). The film is episodic, non-linear, filmed in natural light – all the Godard favorites. He also just drops in these great random moments including episodes of women killing men, odd moments of conversation, a film-within-a-film that spotlights the voyeurism of movies, and a brilliant “interview” with a vapid teen celebrity played by the awesome Anna Karina. It is merciless and hysterical in its satirical treatment of everything from consumerism to intellectualism. Finally it all comes back to masculine and feminine. The film also does a great job of depicting Paris in the mid-60s with its love-hate relationship with America, its own racial issues, and the simmering politics that were about to explode in the following years. In one of the inserts he has between the chapters, Godard says (in what is probably the film’s most famous quote) that the movie could be called “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola”. I don’t think I can sum it up any better than that. This is just fantastic.
Fall Movie #13 – Rampart (Oren Movemen, 2011): This is a character study of a “dirty” cop in the aftermath of the Rampart scandals in Los Angeles. I put dirty in quotes because this isn’t as simple as some films of this sort, and it isn’t as simple as some reviewers have tried to make it. Woody Harrelson gives a fantastic performance (another of many in recent years) as a brutal cop who literally can’t see the damage he is doing until the end. He is held up by others in the film as an example of everything wrong with the LAPD – and he is. He is brutal, he is uncontrolled, and he is corrupt. He is a racist, but he honestly doesn’t realize he is one. That is the most compelling thing about this. This guy is not some unrelieved villain – but he isn’t just a good guy pushed into the dark either. He is complicated and deeply flawed. We can really see this in his family life – they love him, they hate him, they’re afraid of him, and they have all been damaged by him. We never really learn why – we just see the results. I kept wanting to find reasons to excuse him, but the movie wouldn’t let me. Every human moment is followed by one of violence. It is his very humanity, though, that makes his downward spiral so difficult to watch and so impossible to turn away from. The cinematography is stylish and interesting, contrasting deep blacks and neon colors at night with the blinding light of day. Still, the film is not without flaws. The story gets a bit pointlessly murky at times and the suggestions of a conspiracy to make Harrelson’s character a scapegoat for the LAPD’s sins seems a bit ham-fisted at times. Still, the virtues outweigh the flaws. This isn’t fun, but it is well worth seeing.
Fall Movie #14 – Dig! (Ondi Timoner, 2004): I’m really not very knowledgeable about music, although I’ve been learning things in the last couple of years. This documentary centers on seven years in the lives of two bands; The Dandy Warhols (who I knew only from the theme to “Veronica Mars”) and The Brian Jonestown Massacre (who I knew only from the opening music for “Boardwalk Empire”). This is significant because I’m not at all able to judge anything about this movie on the basis of knowing anything about the two bands. After having watched it, I’m curious about them because there really isn’t enough of any of their songs to get much of a sense. But that isn’t really what this is about, anyway. On a superficial level this deals with a “love-hate” relationship between the two bands – contrasting the relative commercial success of The Dandy Warhols with the complete lack of anything like that for The Brian Jonestown Massacre. At this level, the film does a very able job of depicting what commercial music is like. On another level this film centers on BJM founder and front man Anton Newcombe and his struggles with the entire world. We are repeatedly told he is a genius by almost everyone in the film, including him. Frankly, I had to just take that on faith in that, again, I never heard enough of the music to tell one way or another. Still, it wasn’t hard to believe from what I could see. That he has a lot of problems, including next to no impulse control, we get to see quite clearly as he flirts with death and fights with everyone until he drives them all away. Finally, we are presented with the contrast between the beyond erratic Newcombe and the image-conscious and very ambitions lead from the Dandys, Courtney Taylor-Taylor (he hyphenated his own last name – I think that may tell you as much about him as the whole movie does). I think this level is the film at its best. It could easily have shown a simple contrast of the insane Newcombe and the sane Taylor-Taylor – or it could have shown an equally simple contrast between the artistic integrity of Newcombe and the “sell-out” Taylor-Taylor. Instead it leaves you in the center of all of that; asking questions about the meaning of things like ambition and integrity and the places where art and commerce dissolve into one another. It was very interesting and well worth seeing.
Fall Movie #15 – Marooned (John Sturges, 1969): I watched this movie a couple of days ago, but am just writing something now. This has been a favorite of mine since childhood. First, it was directed by John Sturges who was one of the greats – “Bad Day at Black Rock”, “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “The Great Escape”, and “Ice Station Zebra” – among many others. It stars Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen and Gene Hackman – among many others. It is more of a techno-thriller than a science fiction film in that it depicts a tragic space mission gone wrong but uses the existing technologies (or a couple of things that were in development in 1969, like Astronaut Maneuvering Units and Skylab). By today’s standards the movie is slow and the Academy Award winning visual effects are frequently a bit dated. Still, the movie builds to a tense conclusion that I would argue still holds up today. Even if it weren’t as good a film as it is, it still has Gregory Peck in it, which means an automatic injection of sheer awesomeness. I’m not much of a fan-boy and could really not care less about meeting actors – but I would have loved to have shared a couple of pricey single-malts with Gregory Peck.
Fall Movie #16 – The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959): My journey through French New Wave continues. This is a beautiful and painful film about adolescence – one made more so by the knowledge that the events closely resemble Truffaut’s life. This is one of the foundational films of French New Wave and you can see it all here: shot on the streets with an artistic artlessness, the deep sense of authenticity that runs through it all, the use of fragmented editing in some places contrasting with long slow cuts in others, the way the camera will shift away from the story to show the world it is happening in – all of these are going to show up again and again in the decades to come. I was really struck by scenes where Truffaut uses music that is almost stereotypical of the romantic view of Paris in contrast with events that are either mundane or very bleak. All of this leading to the famous final shot with the zoom into a still frame – something that is now a video cliché but was startling and new then. Here, like with “Stagecoach”, “Psycho” and, “Breathless”, I keep wondering what it must have been like to experience this movie without having already seen decades of other films (and TV shows and even commercials) that have drawn from what it was pioneering. Then I wonder which things I’ve seen that will cause someone to ask the same question in fifty years or so.
Fall Movie #17 – Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006): I saw Eastwood’s depiction of this battle from the American side, “Flags of Our Fathers,” many years ago and thought it was pretty good, but never quite seemed to come together for some reason. I wouldn’t give that criticism of this film – it is excellent. The performances are great, the story is moving, and the film is well crafted overall. Ken Watanabe is great as always. The cinematography is – not surprisingly – identical to “Flags of Our Fathers” and is effective; although the techniques used by Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski in “Saving Private Ryan” are almost becoming visual clichés by this point and that is what we see in the battle scenes here. This film is respectful of the Japanese soldiers while still not shying away from the militarist sentiments that had created the war. The Americans are shown in a similarly balanced fashion. What comes in the end is a movie that respects the soldiers, but not the military or the war. This is very worth seeing.
Fall Movie #18 – Outlander (Howard McCain, 2008): I don’t remember adding this to my Netflix queue, but I must have since it is on there and this thing arrived in the mail a few days ago. The best I can say for it is that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. This is a basic Beowulf reworking, but the monster is an alien and the hero is a space-warrior-dude (Jim Caviezel being very tortured and Jim Caviezel-ly). You have probably seen every element of this before. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t good either. The highlights are John Hurt and Ron Perlman, of course, and production design by Weta. The scenery is New Zealand, so quite beautiful. Also the female lead – Sophia Myles – is only put into peril twice and kills her “im-peril-er” each time – then she scored a solid assist on the big boss fight at the end. Outside of that there is not a single surprise in the entire film. If you are in the mood for a SF-Fantasy mash-up, this isn’t bad. Just don’t expect too much.
Fall Movie #19 – Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013): No “spoilers” here. This movie is great. The director of “Children of Men” is very much in evidence in this movie. Like there he does a brilliant job of placing adrenaline-filled action sequences into stunning cinematography. He moves effortlessly from moments of tense action to moments of serene beauty and back again and melds them all into a wonderful whole. Again like his earlier film, he explores issues of hope and faith without being maudlin or overly sentimental. His efforts are completed by fantastic technical work (this really should get an Oscar for visual effects, next “Hobbit” movie or no) and excellent performances by George Clooney and especially Sandra Bullock (who reminded me in this film that she can do good work that isn’t light comedy or schmaltzy drama). Finally, the visuals are complemented with a good musical score that gets most interesting when it moves away from heavy orchestra and by some fantastic sound-editing (again, this should be at least an Oscar nominee, if not the winner, for this category – but since most Academy members are actors who wouldn’t know good sound editing if it came up and stuck an icepick in their ears, I’m not sure of anything.) Drop what you are doing and go see this movie RIGHT NOW!
Fall Movie #20 – The Magic of Méliès (Jacques Mény, 1997): This is a collection of several of Méliès films including “The Impossible Journey”. Watching these is fascinating. You can see the influence of his background in stage magic in the theatricality of the performances. The selection also features many of his innovations such as the use of dissolves, stop-motion animation, and hand-tinted film. These were interesting as film history and just fun to watch.
Posted by Gerald on September 29, 2013
Birthday Movies – Genesis II (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1973) & Planet Earth (Marc Daniels, 1974): My good friend Dana Hatcher bought me these two movies (and a third I haven’t watched yet) for my birthday. We’d talked about them several times and I’ve been thinking about getting them for a long time (more for nostalgia than anything else), but just never convinced myself to spend the money. In many ways, the perfect gift is something you want, but would never get for yourself. I’m reviewing these together because they are sort of the same project. Gene Roddenberry, post-”Star Trek” – made several failed pilots for CBS. One of those projects got reworked into three separate forms. These are the first two. Genesis II is the story of hunky scientist Dylan Hunt (played by failed series all-star Alex Cord). Dylan was put is suspended animation in 1979 as an experiment but due to Unforeseen Circumstances winds up awakening in the year 2133, where he has to use his overwhelming hairy studliness (this was the 1970s) to deal with a post-apocalyptic world. He is found by a group of future hippies who call themselves “Pax” (’cause that means Peace, you know, man) and winds up helping them deal with rebuilding civilization in said post-apocalyptic yadda… This film gives his origin story and how he has to overcome evil mutant Mariette Hartley (whose mutation seems to be having two navels and an aversion to concealing clothing – not that I’m complaining – her hottness comes from her human half) and her evil slave-owning mutant brethren. It is wonderful 70′s Roddenberry cheese. The series idea would have had Hunt leading a Pax team in adventures across the post-apocalyptic etc…
Planet Earth was a reworking of this after CBS rejected “Genesis II” in favor of the live-action “Planet of the Apes” series – which was cancelled after about 11 episodes or some such. We pick up with the story of Dylan Hunt – now played by 70s TV movie all-star John Saxon – the same characters, but re-cast (except for Isiah – correct spelling – a sort of post-apocalyptic Indian played by Ted Cassidy; Lurch in “The Addams Family” and a multiple guest star and voice actor on “Star Trek”). Some of the sets and shooting locations were new (Pax was supposed to be in Carlsbad Caverns in the first movie – I think they filmed exteriors at Century City for this one). Marc Daniels, who directed, was a veteran of 12 “Star Trek” episodes. This movie resembles that show in a way “Genesis II” didn’t. Had they simply replaced John Saxon with William Shatner, you couldn’t have told this wasn’t an episode of “Star Trek”. The team has to rescue a guy from a matriarchal society run by “Star Trek” vet Diana Muldaur. Of course, Hunt has to seduce her. Of course, she – and all the other women – are overcome with his manliness. This even has the little joke character beat at the end that closed most original “Star Trek” episodes. Even some of the incidental music sounded like “Star Trek”. Again – just lovely.
Of course, Majel Barrett was in both of them.
Birthday Present Movie #3 – The Questor Tapes (Richard Colla, 1974): This is the third movie given me for my 50th birthday by my good friend Dana Hatcher, who is having surgery tomorrow. Frankly, I couldn’t think of a better way to salute him and our friendship than to watch an obscure made-for-tv 1974 pilot movie. This thing is one of a series of pilots produced by Gene Roddenberry between the original Star Trek and The Next Generation. The story was written by D.C. Fontana based on an idea from Gene Coon – familiar names if you know your Trek. It tells the story of Questor, a mysterious android, played by Robert Foxworthy. He is assisted by a pre-MASH Mike Ferrell. In other words, just my kind of thing. Questor is clearly the basis for the later character of Data. He is an android who has been denied human emotions but strives for them. He was created by a mysterious inventor whom he feels compelled to find. He also at one point delivers the line “I am fully functional” concerning sex and at another point fixes loaded dice with his bare hands in order to win a craps game in a casino – both of which Data did as well. No cat – but then the series was never picked up so we can’t know what might have happened later. Fun stuff.
Posted by Gerald on September 6, 2013
Fall Movie #1 – Atragon (Ishiro Honda, 1963): This is a science fiction film from the man who directed the original “Godzilla” as well as many other “tokusatsu” (‘special effects films”) and “kaiju” (“monster”) films. He also collaborated with Akira Kurosawa on several projects. This film, like many of its type, features model work and monsters to tell a story that has some interesting ideas behind it – in this case the dangers of blind patriotism and aggressive nationalism. We have the sunken Empire of Mu which comes out of hiding the threaten the world. We have a renegade WWII era submarine captain who has built a super sub (it flies and has a “freeze-ray”) with the goal of restoring the Japanese Empire. One will be brought in contact with the other. A fairly extraneous monster was also put into the mix, seemingly because the studio thought any science fiction-y movie needed one. This suffers from the problems and weaknesses you always see in these movies, but it has some interesting ideas and some cool models.
Fall Movie #2 – Journey to the Seventh Planet (Sid Pink, 1962): The seventh planet is Uranus, so we get lines here like “We’re going to explore Uranus. It’s our mission!” Which, if you pronounce them right, justify the entire 77 minute running time of this AIP gem. We have stalwart (white, male) astronauts, we have a giant tarantula, we have a one-eyed rat/lizard monster (50′s and 60′s monsters frequently seemed to suffer from the “one-eye” thing – which inevitably lead to the “getting blinded by the heroes” thing), and we have bosom-y women in underwear (the product of the imaginations of our astronauts). The guy who directed (and produced) this, Sid Pink, is notable for being considered the “father of the feature-length 3D movie” (he released “Bwana Devil” in 1952 which started the whole 3D movie craze in the 50s) and he also cast a young Dustin Hoffman in his first film “Madigan’s Millions” (which wasn’t released until 1969 - so two years after “The Graduate”). When you watch it – as I’m sure you will – stick around for the “Journey to the Seventh Planet” love theme over the closing credits. It’s just art… art…
Fall Movie #3 (French Fridays) – Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965): This one I’m going to be thinking about for some time to come. The dystopian science-fiction elements were interesting and I want to look into the extent to which this film inspired elements of Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball” (1975 – absolutely ignore the misbegotten insult that was released as a “remake” in 2002). The cinematography made areas of contemporary Paris seem chilling. I was also struck by the use of the classic American film noir detective hero (yes, Lemmy Caution is a “spy” – but Eddie Constantine was playing Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade) as a foil to play against institutional society. These elements are commonly discussed in relation to the film, but I was more impressed by other things. This is one of the most blatant statements about the commoditization of women’s sexuality that I’ve ever seen in a film – from the serial-number bedecked “seductresses” who are there like furniture for men’s use to a nude woman kneeling in a glass box in an office building for no reason except decoration (and a decoration which elicits as much of a reaction from passersby as a plastic fern). The theme is explicit – yet not a line of dialogue is devoted to it. Another thing that struck me was the semiotic nature of the film – things like the use of language to control thought and action and a deliberate divorce of common gestures and expre4ssions from their usual meaning. Watching Anna Karina repeatedly saying yes (or no) and deliberately shaking (or nodding) her head in reversal was oddly disconcerting. I’m really overwhelmed by this movie. Now I feel like watching lots of episodes of “The Prisoner.”
Fall Movie #4 – Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012): Let me begin by saying that I’ve never read the book, so my comments don’t touch on it at all. This movie is visually stunning. I can’t speak to the 3D aspects, because I cannot see them, but even without that the cinematography and the use of CGI created beautiful and memorable moments. The use of CGI and live action with the animals created particularly moving scenes. The performances were wonderful and Lee seems gifted at working with actors. Here we see the deeply human moments that made “Brokeback Mountain” such a great film. To me, the movie fails in one place – the religiosity. I just didn’t buy it. The actors playing Pi did a great job of showing that the character experienced something deeply religious to him – but I saw that rather than felt it. Where Pi saw the hand of God, I saw, at best, the functioning of chance and, at worst, contrived plot points driving me to a pre-ordained set of conclusions. I’d rather believe Pi was deliberately telling an allegorical tale – it almost seems less manipulative. I’m happy I saw it. It was beautiful to watch. I didn’t love it.
Fall Movie #5 – Apollo 18 (Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego, 2011): There is one sin a survival horror film cannot commit and survive and that is to be dull. Boring. This movie tries to combine some existing Moon landing conspiracies to create one of its own. The result is a “found-footage” version of “Alien” with the US Government playing the role that The Company played in Scott’s vastly superior film. The only real successes of the movie are production design and cinematography. They do a decent job of making this look like footage from the space program in the 1970s. The rest is a mess. A conspiracy film has to be at least a bit credible to work – this one is murky and pointless. Peter Hyams did a much better job in his 1978 film “Capricorn One” (about a faked Mars landing) and that wasn’t an exceptionally good movie (decent fun, though). A good survival horror movie – like “Alien” – requires believability (on a certain level) and real suspense grounded in concern for the characters. This isn’t believable. Of course the horror elements were going to be fantastical – they are supposed to be – but the spaceflight stuff was real. Rooting the film in the Apollo program means playing by those rules and this movie doesn’t. The astronauts stay on the moon way too long before air runs out. They go on extra EVAs. At one point, one of the characters is demanding a “rescue” (the evil government is going to “abandon” him). How? With what? This might have been alright if we actually ever got invested in the characters, but we don’t. Harry Dean Stanton’s character in “Alien” had almost no lines, but you care when he died (same with the rest of the crew). The three characters in this movie are such stereotypical examples of “The Right Stuff” that they never come alive at all. The actors are believable enough as the heroic looking enigmas that the Apollo astronauts were at the time, but that isn’t a recipe for making us feel much when they are in trouble. It isn’t that they don’t try to insert the human touches that worked in Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13”, it is that they failed. Finally, all of the post “Alien” SF/Horror movie clichés show up here. There isn’t a single surprise. This is almost a textbook on what goes wrong with most science fiction and horror films today. Avoid this. Watch “Alien.” Watch “Capricorn One.” Watch “Apollo 13.” Just don’t watch this.
Fall Movie #6 – Mama Africa (Mika Kaurismaki, 2011): This documentary celebrates the life and career of Miriam Makeba through interviews, stock footage and concert footage. Her music is, appropriately, the strongest element in the film. Her life as a musician and a political activist is well-chronicled, but we also see some of the major events in her personal life through the eyes of those around her. There is no attempt at analysis or criticism here – this is, again, a celebration. Technically it is a good, but not great documentary. There are a few points where some things like the sound mix seemed a bit off to me – but those are minor quibbles. This is a good biography and well worth the viewing.
Fall Movie #7 – The Angry Red Planet (Ib Melchior, 1959): Another in my late summer of “B” movies – this one from the same team that brought us “Journey to the Seventh Planet.” I saw this on my 12-inch black and White portable TV when I was a kid. They used to show old sci-fi and horror movies along with TV shows like “The Invaders” all night Friday nights on one of the local channels and I tried to see them all. This creeped me out then – not so much now. The movie was shot in ten days for a budget of $200,000 and used a special effects process the combined live action and hand-drawn scenes. It doesn’t work, but the film does boast this odd visual effect in all the Mars scenes made by double exposure and a red gel that makes it look distinctive, if not particularly good. Mind you, warts and all, I love this stuff. We have the manly commander played by Gerald Mohr (an actor that James Garner was rather complementary toward in his autobiography – you couldn’t see why here), we have The Scientist, The Hot Girl Scientist, and The Comic-Relief Guy From Brooklyn Who Will Die. Better yet, we have a great rat-bat-crab-something monster and a giant amoeba with a big spinning eye (not rotating – this thing looks like a fast-moving radar antenna). It ends with a Dire Warning “Do Not Return to Mars!” Then the credit and one of the worst sound-editing moments I’ve ever encountered. It almost seems like someone spliced in a different sound track as the credits rolled, but didn’t bother to actually listen to it before during or after having done so. It is light, pop-y, and is mildly reminiscent of the “I Dream of Jeannie” theme music – which is an odd fit with the Dire Warning. Lovely cheese – but no one is going to make a Criterion disc out of this one.
Fall Movie #8 – Solomon Kane (Michael J. Bassett, 2009): This is a sword-and-sorcery film based on a character created by Robert E. Howard, who also created Conan the Barbarian. Kane (in the movie) is a former pirate who is trying to atone for his violent past and winds up fighting evil. The movie is pretty dark in tone, due to the story and the cinematography. Overall it works. There really isn’t anything new or surprising here and some of it borders on the cliché. Still, in a film genre that is often embarrassing to watch, this movie is solidly made. The stunt and sword-work is good, the production design is decent, the editing is competent, and the performances are not bad. It seems as if all science fiction or fantasy movies need an appearance by John Rhys-Davies, Alan Rickman, Malcolm McDowell, or one of those guys. This one has Max von Sydow. I think two things move this film from mediocre to good, in my estimation anyway. First, James Purefoy’s performance as Kane is excellent. He seems to be making a career of raising the level of historical dramas and he doesn’t disappoint here. He takes a character which could be seen as just moody and shows some real pain which gives some real depth. There are some bits of dialogue that could have just landed with a thud but he manages to pull them off. Second, although there was a bit too much use of the rain machines, this film is well shot. Some of the exterior shots, seemingly done during the “magic hour” when the light is just perfect, were quite beautiful. I’m not sure this movie will work for anyone who isn’t a fan of the genre but if you are, give it a look.
Fall Movie #9 – The Wild, Wild Planet (Antonio Margheriti [as Anthony Dawson], 1965): This is an Italian science fiction film. Just ponder that. It stars Tony Russel, an American actor who did a lot of low-budget Italian movies (he is also one of many actors who turned down the lead in “A Fistful of Dollars”) and features a young Franco Nero in all his awesomeness. The story is about a creepy mad scientist who is shrinking people and fusing their parts together to make a master race, or something. Some obvious work went into the production design for this, including some elaborate models. The models are then poorly handled (think of a rotating space station that is wobbling on its almost visible string while in the foreground we see an astronaut floating around on a COMPLETELY visible string) and horrifically shot. The guys who did this would have been drummed out of Japan’s Toho studios and required to commit seppuku to atone. The acting goes from barely passable to just bad. The director… well… suffice to say that Quentin Tarantino named one of the characters in “Inglorious Basterds” after him. This movie is just so gloriously bad. I loved it.
Fall Movie #10 – Capricorn One (Peter Hyams, 1978): I watched this when I woke up at about 4 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. I’d been thinking about watching it ever since I saw “Apollo 18” awhile back. I got the DVD (along with a pile of others) when I went with my friends Jon and Dana to scavenge the remains of a nearby Hollywood Video a couple of years ago. I first saw the movie on HBO not long after it came out (I was fifteen) and just loved it – I’m not sure how many times I watched it back then. I even owned the novelization. So, I’ve got some history with this, but I’ve not seen it in about 25 years. It held up pretty well. The story is a fairly typical 1970s government conspiracy thriller, but this time about faking a Mars landing. Hal Holbrook turns in one of his usual skilled performances as the villain. The three crew members (who are forced into the conspiracy and then have to run for their lives) are played by a wonderful combination of James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and… O.J. Simpson. Elliot Gould plays the requisite investigative reporter. Hyams also added in a 70s all-star cast of supporting characters (Brenda Vaccaro, Karen Black, David Huddleston, David Boyle, even a cameo by Telly Savalas, and more…) to round out the film. The production design is good; especially the Mars set which features an actual prototype Lunar Lander on loan from NASA. Despite some cliché moments and a somewhat forced happy ending, this is a good thriller and features a nice chase through the desert. Two helicopters pursue the fleeing crewmen and become almost like characters themselves due to the way they are shot and edited into the scenes. This is well worth the watching.
Posted by Gerald on August 11, 2013
Summer Movie #91 – Galaxy of Terror (Bruce D. Clark, 1981): It is called “Galaxy of Terror” and it was produced by Roger Corman. I think we can all see where this is going. This rather blatant “Alien” rip-off is a somewhat famous for several reasons. A young man named James Cameron was the Second Unit director and one of the production designers (this was his second film working for Corman). It starred Edward Albert, Erin Moran (who was still appearing on “Happy Days” at the time and was about to do “Joanie Loves Chachi”), Ray Walston, Grace Zabriskie, and a pre-“Freddy Krueger” Robert Englund. Despite all this, though, the movie is probably most infamous for a scene that originally earned it an “X”-rating where a worm monster rapes a busty crewwoman (played by Taaffe O’Connell – yes that is spelled correctly) who goes from terror to ecstasy before dying of an orgasm. According to the interwebs, this scene (which began in the script as the woman is attacked by the monster, “accidentally” rendered topless, and then devoured) was greatly changed at the insistence of Corman, who had promised both a sex scene and full frontal nudity to the backers. Being Corman, he decided to just combine that into the existing scene. When the director and actress both refused (she was willing to do the moaning and faces of ecstasy, but not the full nudity), Corman directed the scene himself, using a body-double, and then edited the results into the existing attack footage. The results earned an “X” rating and then had to be re-edited. This was film-making in the Corman School. The whole thing (even the parts without disturbing sexual connotations) is really awful. I wish MST3K could have done this one.
Summer Movie #92 – Papillon (Franklin J Schaffner, 1973): I saw this mentioned in the film “Trumbo” because he wrote the screenplay and had added it to my Netflix queue because it is one of the “classics” that I’ve never seen. Then, unable to sleep last night, I turned on TCM, and there it was – serendipity. This is one of the classic escape movies, although most of it is about failure to escape. It is a classic big picture from one of the great big movie directors (“Planet of the Apes” & “Patton” among others). Beautiful Technicolor cinematography and a score by Jerry Goldsmith contribute to a good movie. Not a great one, though – at least for me. I was just never that taken with Steve McQueen’s performance here. I thought Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of weakness and guilt was far more interesting. Still, this is very worth watching.
Summer Movie #93 – Slaughterhouse Five (George Roy Hill, 1972): This has been on my “I ought to see this” list ever since I saw a short write-up about it in a book on science fiction movies that I had when I was a teenager. It is an interesting movie adaptation of the famous novel. Through a jumping narrative and interesting visuals we see a reflection on how the events of our lives fit together, we see death represented as a hostile psychotic tracking us through time to wreak vengeance for nothing, and, probably most significantly, we see the stupidity and waste of war. None of this is done with a lot of preaching or explanation. The audience is largely allowed to draw their own conclusions. Well worth seeing.
Summer Movie #94 – Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004): Another movie with time as a central conceit, which I didn’t really think about until I was watching it. This movie takes one of the most fantastic concepts in science fiction – time travel – and treats it like the development of the PC. A couple of smart guys in their garage figure out how to do it – by accident. It feels very real – especially given that Carruth (who wrote and directed – as well as several other tasks) has a background in mathematics and decided not to explain any of what the characters are talking about on a technical level. The result – added to the hand-held camera work and grainy look of the film – gives a cinema verite feel to it. Carruth evidently produced this for $7000.00 While it certainly has a low-budget vibe to it, the movie looks more expensive than that. Much like his follow-up film, “Upstream Color,” Carruth doesn’t make the science fiction element the central part of the movie – rather, it is the destruction of the friendship between the two discoverers. This is almost like a SF “Treasure of Sierra Madre” in that the success these two find brings out their moral weaknesses. On another level, this movie also has the best examination of time travel and multiple lines of causality I’ve seen or read. If this seems disjointed, it is because this movie is very hard to follow, very evocative rather than descriptive, and so after just one viewing I can’t be entirely clear. This is a fascinating and intellectually challenging film. I’m looking forward to a second viewing.
Summer Movie #95 – Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Kenneth Bowser, 2003): This documentary is based on a book of the same title by Peter Biskind (which I want to read now). The major theme is not original – how a director-centered environment became prominent in Hollywood after the failure of the traditional studios in the 1960s and the unexpected successes of films like “Bonnie and Clyde” & “Easy Rider.” How this opened the door for a new generation of film-makers (Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdonavich, Copolla, Scorsese, etc…) and how this new group had unparalleled successes with movies like “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist.” Then how these director’s excesses and failures in the mid-70s and how those things changed the attitude of the studios against the new environment. Finally how out of this came Spielberg and Lucas and the “New Hollywood.” This documentary does us the courtesy of not going into a re-hash of 1960s and 1970s political and cultural history and just takes that as a given. Instead it does a good job of following the different threads that were coming together in 1969 and then charts this whole thing using a lot of interviews that are done well. The story basically starts with “Bonnie and Clyde” and ends with “Raging Bull”. This gives a lot of insight into this period of American film.
Summer Movie #96 – Behind the Planet of the Apes (Kevin Burns & David Comtois, 1998): This documentary was shown on AMC as part of their celebration of the 30th anniversary of the original. I caught the last half of it, but not the first hour. My good friend Dana loaned me the DVD awhile back but I just now got around to watching it. The documentary has a lot of interviews and spends most of its time on the first film, but then does a good job of chronicling the story of the four sequels and the TV series (both the live action and the animated). Some interesting (to me, anyway) details emerge – how the “ape” actors in the first movie tended to congregate by “species” while not filming, some of the set and visual design stuff, the presence of a couple of actors I hadn’t realized or remembered were there (Sal Mineo in “Escape” and Mark Lenard in the TV series), and most notably that the ending of the first movie was originally part of one of Rod Serling’s treatments of the script (that shocking reveal of a buried Statue of Liberty and the harrowing implications of one shot – that is just pure Serling). Probably the biggest weakness of this documentary is understandable – it is a bit too celebratory. While acknowledging the declining budgets and their effects on the franchise, the documentary glosses over the growing weaknesses of the sequels – especially “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” Still, there is a lot here about a chapter of Hollywood history that might not appeal to “students of film” but that has had a huge impact on what Hollywood has become. I’ve watched two documentaries recently on 1970s American cinema and neither mentioned this franchise at all – but both ended with the rise of the “Blockbuster”. These documentaries both point out that Spielberg and Lucas had roots in the “New Hollywood”– but then treat the sorts of films they went on to make as if they just spring out of nowhere. There was an existing tradition of big budget effects films before those two guys arrived. The “Planet of the Apes” movies, along with things like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyessy” & “A Clockwork Orange” and other big effects movies like “Silent Running” and “Soylent Green” – and let us not forget “The Exorcist” – meant that Hollywood wasn’t in uncharted territory when it put money behind Spielberg and his ultimately malfunctioning (thank heavens) mechanical shark or Lucas’s vision of space battles and heroism. It certainly is no accident that the studio that had released the “Planet of the Apes” was the one to release “Star Wars.” This strain of films – and the merchandising of the “Apes” franchise in particular, really point the way toward the Hollywood of the “Blockbuster” era we’re still seeing today.
Summer Movie #97 – Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969): Another seminal American film I’m just now getting around to seeing. I went into this already knowing a lot about its position in the genre of road pictures, the counterculture, the rise of the “New Hollywood”, etc… I knew about the ending and the central concept of freedom and the repressive nature of society, yadda, yadda. Frankly, I also bring to this the experiences of having been born into the working middle-class and having really come of age in an era when the “counter-culture” and been thoroughly coopted by corporate America – and thus I’m a bit contemptuous of all that. Hence, I’ve kind of avoided this movie. What I was really surprised by is that one can take some much more subtle shades of meaning from this than the typical interpretation of it as this celebration of the counter-culture. In many ways, the two “heroes” (Billy – Hopper and Wyatt – Peter Fonda) aren’t really the “free men” the George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) character talks about. They succeed by buying low and selling high – it might be cocaine they are selling, but they are still merchants. Before his death, Hanson talks about the threat true freedom poses to those “bought and sold in the market.” Yet the first thing that Wyatt and Billy do upon hitting New Orleans is “buy” two women (Karen Black and Toni Basil as prostitutes). There is a tension there, to me. Then they wander Mardi Gras (scenes more famous for how they were shot than for their content) and then drop acid and experience a “bad trip”. Intended or not, there is an indictment here of their hypocrisy. Contrast their course with the earlier experiences on a ranch and in a commune and the emptiness of the course they’ve chose become clearer. Also striking is the idea that Wyatt, at least, knows he is making a mistake by continuing to follow what is, in essence, a drug culture version of the “American Dream” –something he confirms in his dialogue with Billy about having “blown it” the night before their deaths. This film was much less simple than I had been led to expect, and was therefore much more rewarding.
Summer Film #98 – Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000): Before there was ever a “Hunger Games” (movie or novels) there was this. In a dystopian Japan, high school classes are chosen at random (possibly) and dropped on an island to fight to the death. Like the “Hunger Games” there is an elaborate set-up to ensure that only one can survive. Unlike the “Hunger Games” there is no training or preparation – the students are just kidnapped by the military given supplies and a weapon each, and told the rules. The result is vastly superior to the later American blockbuster. The film takes all of the normal angst and hormonal overcharge of a group of 15-year-olds and then makes it lethal. Many reviews seem to stress the hyper-violent nature of the film – and that is accurate – but it is also very real. Friendship, betrayal, jealousy, despair, courage – all are on display here, written in bright red blood. This is a brilliant movie and far more worth seeing than that other one.
Summer Movie #99 – First Man in Space [aka Satellite of Blood] (Robert Day, 1959): Cocky test pilot flies rocket plane over objections of more level-headed brother (Marshall Thompson); pushes beyond flight plan to become “first man in space”; plane breaks up and crashes; exposure to radioactive dust preserves cocky test pilot, but turns him into a scorched blood-drinking monster; wackiness ensues. Like “The Atomic Submarine” which I watched a week or so ago, this is part of the Criterion collection available streaming on HuluPlus. Like that other movie, I get why Criterion released this. While not a superior movie, it is a good example of the space/radiation/monster “B” movies of the 50’s and 60’s. The script and acting here are a bit above average for these and it uses stock footage and models fairly well. Even the creature make-up looks a bit less ridiculous than the norm. It is a good genre “B” movie – and I enjoy genre “B’ movies.
Summer Movie #100 – The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938): I barely managed to get this in before the “Breaking Bad” premiere. Altogether, I could have ended the summer in a worse fashion than with a Hitchcock film. This is one of his last British films and is probably the best known of them. It is yet another that has been on my “to see” list for a long time. The central idea – a person vanishes, only one other person seems to remember them, a lot of other people deny the vanished person was ever there – has been used in many other thrillers. This movie is nicely plotted and paced and features a lot of comic touches and great character bits – including the creation of two ultimate Englishmen (and cricket fanatics) named Charters and Caldicott who would show up in some other films not directed by Hitchcock. Probably the most interesting thing about the movie is that when the victim (Miss Froy – who turns out to be a British agent) disappears and the people on the train deny having seen her, we discover that their reasons for lying are all individual rather than everyone being connected to the kidnapping. This is a nice example of creating good characters even if they are not central to the plot. Of course, doing so also enhances the mystery by making it unclear to the audience who the real players are until it is time to reveal all. This is just a great example of early Hitchcock and well worth seeing.
Posted by Gerald on August 9, 2013
Summer Movie #81 – Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987): I bought the trilogy on Blu-ray awhile back during one of those Amazon Gold-Box sales, but haven’t watched them. “Shifts in tax structure have made the economy ideal for corporate growth. But community services, in this case law enforcement, have suffered” says Edward O’Herlihy as the CEO of Omni-Consumer Products. If this isn’t one of the most alarmingly prescient movies ever, I’m not sure what would be. Some of it is incredibly dated, but the rest is a bit frightening. Unchecked capitalism, “infotainment”, growing violence in Mexico, also the absurdity of a Detroit that turns over its public services to a private corporation – it all seems too familiar. This movie is also rather ahead of the curve in terms of violence. It was actually originally given an “X” rating for graphic violence and even by current standards the scene where Murphy is literally shot to pieces is quite something. Other reactions: Peter Weller and Miguel Ferrer look like kids in this thing (I’m older now? Really?) So does Ray Wise. Nancy Allen was awesome. Evidently Stephanie Zimbalist was going to play that role, but was brought back for the final season of “Remington Steele” which echoes what happened earlier with Pierce Brosnan and James Bond – kinda. I’m not sure she had it in her. Ronny Cox and Kurtwood Smith should have played many more villains. “Give the man a hand.” Edward O’Herlihy – “Dick… You’re fired!” Finally, ED-209 may be the most hapless robot villain ever. The Daleks at least manage to kill someone occasionally. I’m really skeptical of the upcoming “reboot”.
Summer Movie #82 – Max Payne (John Moore, 2008): This is one of two movies that have been on my shelf for several years. I got both of them by accident – I used to be a member of the Columbia House DVD Club and I forgot to send in my rejection. The reason I still have the movie is that I e-mailed in a cancellation of my membership before mailing the DVD back. So, I thought I’d watch it before chucking it into the bag for Edward McKay’s (which is a chain of used book, movies, etc…, shops – for those of you who aren’t local). The movie is a sub-standard action film from the man who directed “Behind Enemy Lines” (yawn), the remake of “The Omen” (why?), and the most recent Die Hard movie (I think – I lost track after the one with Samuel L. Jackson). It features some decent visuals, a story riddled with inconsistencies, and some sub-standard performances, especially from Mark Wahlberg. I remember that IGN (a gaming site) panned the movie and then gave it an award for “Best Videogame Adaptation of the Year” (then went on to say that is a testament to just how bad videogame adaptations in movies are.) It could have been worse, though. It could have been directed by Uwe Boll. I am somewhat interested in seeing what the game (generally noted as superior) is like.
Summer Movie #83 – Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008): This is the other Columbia House accident I’ve had on the shelf. It is certainly better than “Max Payne,” but that isn’t saying much. The story is a bit idiotic – a shlub finds himself becoming a member of an ancient order of assassins who carry out killings at the instructions of a mystical loom (as interpreted by Morgan Freeman) to “maintain the balance of fate”. The film never really asks questions like why, if people are fated to die, we need killers to accomplish those deaths – as opposed to, say, fate. Instead, wow, look – he’s flipping a car over another one (in slow motion) so he can shoot a guy through the sun roofs of the two cars – cool. This is just a vehicle to frame a lot of cool stunts – and the stunts are very cool in an over-the-top CGI way. It is a bit dark (after all, our protagonist kills people he doesn’t know because a loom told him too) and very violent (though after watching “Oldboy” the other day, I’m almost chuckling when I use the terms “dark” and “violent” to describe this movie). This was another of the vehicles that Angelina Jolie used to try to become an action star – and she isn’t bad here. James McAvoy is the lead and he is pretty good. All in all, it was fun – enough so that I don’t think I’m going to trade this one in.
Summer Movie #84 – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Daniel Alfredson, 2009): I think this might be the weakest of the three movies because it is really just an extended last act of what happened in the second movie. Noomi Rapace is still the core and her performance is great. Unfortunately, she just doesn’t have that much to do here. The movie nods at the very interesting idea of the pathologically independent Lisbeth being forced to rely on others and she plays that well, but there isn’t much of it in the movie. Michael Nyqvist is also not given much to do with his time on-screen. It occurred to me while watching this that the biggest thing missing from these two films is what was best about the first – having those two on-screen together, which we only get to see right at the end of this movie. I’ve also got to say that in this movie (I can’t speak to the novel) the arrival of the cavalry in the form of a special police unit (or something, it is hard to tell) that hands out justice left and right alongside the sudden Big Break when Lisbeth’s hacker buddy gets the goods on the evil psychiatrist – it all just feels false. What felt very real, though, was that in the end Mikael was, as always, willing to burn everyone in pursuit of his vision of the truth and Lisbeth did not just magically come out of the armor her whole life had caused her to build. So the plot was thin, but the emotions and characters remained real. Thus, this was still good, but “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was much better.
Summer Movie #85 – OSS 117 Cairo, Nest of Spies (Michel Hazanavicius, 2006): My friend Richard has been telling me about this movie for a couple of years now. I think this is one of those films that you either love – like I did – or you spend the entire time wondering what anyone sees in it. It is a French comedy that parodies the classic spy films. Evidently (internet research) it is based on a series of French spy films based on a set of novels concerning the adventures of agent OSS 117 that were popular in the 1950s and 60s. The movie itself is a parody, but also a tribute. The cinematography could have been right out of early Bond movies – simple camera moves (no steadicam), big crane shots, everything right down to using rear projection for driving scenes. The film parodies spy movie tropes, French politics, Western arrogance, and the list goes on. The comedy runs from broad slapstick to almost surreal (photos of French President Rene Coty are a running joke, as is something about homoeroticism and paddleball). The main character is played with gusto by Jean Dujardin (of “The Artist”). He is like Maxwell Smart – if Smart was less stupid than ignorant and arrogant – and if he were rather lethal at hand-to-hand combat. I loved this and am looking forward to checking out the sequel.
Summer Movie #86 – The Lost Skeleton of Cadavera (Larry Blamire, 2001): This is a spoof of 1950s scifi “B” movies on the level of what Roger Corman was doing at the time. It revels in its cheap cheesiness (according to the interwebs it was shot over five days for a budget of $100,000 – in California). Much of it was shot in Bronson Canyon and, since they processed the videotape into black-and-white, it looks really familiar. Often these sorts of parodies seem too forced, this (usually) doesn’t. You have some decent character actors (many of who you would recognize in a “wasn’t she that girl in that thing one time?” fashion) deliberately reaching for wooden performances. The editing is perfectly shoddy (just a beat too long here and a beat too short there). If you can enjoy a movie like “Robot Monster” without the MST3K guys, you’ll love this. If “Robot Monster” and “Roger Corman” mean nothing to you – best to avoid this. This guy has evidently directed most of these actors in several other parodies (including a sequel to this movie “Return of the Skeleton”) which I must find.
Summer Movie #87 – Beyond the Time Barrier (Edward G. Ulmer, 1960): The last movie I watched was a spoof of scifi “B” movies – this is a scifi “B” movie (released by American International Pictures, of course). Stalwart test pilot is accidentally propelled into The Future – 2024 to be exact. The world is a shambles, having been devastated by cosmic radiation starting in 1971, fallout from nuclear bomb tests having weakened the Earth “shield of protective particles.” There are mutants, there is a repressive society that is holding out against the mutants, there is the last fertile girl in that society – who, due to radiation, cannot speak but can read minds – and who, of course, falls in love with our stalwart hero. There are fellow time travelers who are most definitely Not To Be Trusted – including an evil femme fatale Russian pilot who is obviously bad due to being brunette and not wearing skirts (also she can speak). Bad people help mutants destroy society, but are killed when they try to interfere with stalwart hero. Blonde skirt-wearing mute girl is killed saving stalwart hero. Stalwart hero returns to his time by simply flying his original profile in reverse – but arrives tragically aged. We end as he warns the world about the terrible nightmare which must be avoided. I love this stuff – even without intentional irony.
Summer Movie #88 – Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013): This movie is described in some places as a “Science fiction thriller” and it is, but it isn’t. If you read a plot synopsis of it – which I did before watching it – it will talk about people reassembling their lives after being abducted and may mention parasites and orchids. All of that is accurate, and doesn’t tell you what the movie is about. This film examines a lot of things, but doesn’t offer any explanations. It has a narrative plot – that is difficult to follow – but that plot isn’t what the movie is about. Like “Oldboy” this movie is less about the hows and whys of a story than it is trying to look at what happens to people in extreme circumstances. It is looking at memory, and identity, and will, and all that sort of thing. It is surreal and beautiful and visually and aurally fascinating. If you watch this, don’t try to follow a plot or constantly ask yourself what is happening – just let it unfold and see where you are at the end. It is quite worth the journey.
Summer Movie #89 – Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973): Watching Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) in his self-destructive spiral in this movie, I kept thinking about a line from – of all things – “Excalibur.” When Arthur observes that Merlin must have loved Uther Pendragon despite his failings, Merlin replies “Well, it’s easy to love folly… in a child.” One of the brilliant things about this movie is that even while seeing what a lying weasel punk Johnny is – you can also see why Charlie (Harvey Keitel) loves him. (Charlie – hmmm… “On the Waterfront”? “You was my brother Charlie, you shoulda looked out for me just a little bit.”? Or am I reaching too far?) Writing a review of a movie like this is difficult – it has been called one of the most innovative American films of all time, with good cause. People with better perspectives than mine (and probably some with worse) have written doctoral dissertations about it. I don’t have much (really anything) to add. All of Scorsese’s favorites are here – Italians, New York, Mafiosi, the quest for redemption, the dangers of male-bonding, etc… It has his typically brilliant camera-work, his use of pop-music and other cultural items to set the place, again… all the stuff for which he is so rightly known. It’s just brilliant film-making. Then we add in great performances by young fresh actors with names like Keitel and DeNiro – backed up by great character actors (including two Carradines – David as a drunk and Robert as a young punk who kills him to get in good with the local boss). Just don’t wait until you are almost fifty to see this movie.
Summer Movie #90 – Trumbo (Peter Askin, 2007): This movie is based on a stage play written by Christopher Trumbo and based on his father’s letters. Dalton Trumbo, for those who might not know, was an (multiple) Academy Award-winning screenwriter and novelist. His novel “Johnny Got His Gun” is one of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written. In his film work he contributed stories and screenplays ranging from “Roman Holiday” to “Spartacus”. In 1950 he was blacklisted for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was sentenced to federal prison for contempt of Congress. This movie centers on that period using his letters (read by an all-star cast) along with interviews and documentary footage (including home movies). The historical stuff quickly gives way to the experience of living through this and the joy of Trumbo’s words. The best parts of the movie are the letters – a half-angry and half-humorous response to a price quote; an extended and squirm-inducing homily on the joys and pitfalls of masturbation written to his 12-year-old son; a denunciation of an unnamed “liberal producer” who would condemn the blacklist, but still abide by it; a raging letter to a principal for failing to protect his daughter from the fallout of PTA and other adults who condemned the Trumbos and then passed that on to their children. This is the man who wrote the “I’m Spartacus” scene turning his pen to so many other things. It is a beautiful depiction of facing everything that goes wrong with our country and sad because it seems to be happening again.
Posted by Gerald on August 4, 2013
Summer Movie #71 – Iron Sky (Timo Vuorensola, 2012): When I first saw the trailer for this – a Finnish-German-Australian movie about Nazi emerging from a secret base on the dark side of the moon to attack the Earth, I thought “awesome!” It isn’t. The visual effects of the actual invasion are pretty cool, but these dress up ham-fisted political commentary and borderline racism. The jokes are flat, but not bad enough to be campy. The result is just lame. I read reviews to this effect and wanted them to be wrong. They weren’t. Except for a very few moments, this is, again, lame. Avoid.
Summer Movie #72 – The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974): Let me start by saying I love well-made conspiracy thriller. I also quite like several of Pakula’s film, particularly “All the President’s Men” which was released two years after this movie. Finally, I’m a big fan of bleak 70’s endings. On the basis of all that, I should really like this movie more than I do, but I don’t. It features fine performances, it is visually interesting, and Pakula employs the same interesting sound editing he used in other films. It just doesn’t work as a thriller. The big conspiracy is more murky than intriguing. I never became invested in what happened to any of the main characters. Also, there are a lot of slow and rather pointless shots that serve to stall the film’s momentum rather than building tension. My biggest complaint, though, comes from an extended montage that was supposed to represent some sort of attempted psychological conditioning through visual symbols. The audience is bombarded – for a couple of minutes – with a series of images that are sentimental, patriotic, religious, emotional, erotic, violent, and disturbing. It goes on for too long and the images just become a mish-mash. I would argue that this has been done much better in other films – Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” comes to mind. This movie does try to do something, and for that deserves applause – it just doesn’t succeed. If you are in a mood for some 70’s political paranoia, though, you could do worse.
Summer Movie #73 – Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986): I’ll start off by saying I don’t know enough to have opinions about the accuracy of this film and the portrayals of the various people in it. What makes this film are the performances and the especially Gary Oldman’s Sid. The movie has some really interesting visual moments. Two stood out for me: one was an early shot where the two characters are walking through a near riot but seem completely divorced from it which seems to establish the idea of two people being lost in each other and a second shot of them kissing in a trash-filled alley (the poster) which also played on this idea of love and being lost in one another. All of this contrasts with an endlessly degrading downward spiral into drugs and death. The idea that drug addiction destroys these two lovers is the obvious core of the movie, but I wonder if there isn’t a wider statement about the destruction that comes from losing oneself in anything? The couple is lost in drugs, but they are also lost in each other – and the one addiction seems to fuel the other. We see two naïve and toxic people who seem worse together than either was separately. Finally, the music was great. This may be heresy, but having heard both I think Oldman’s performance of “My Way” for this movie is better than the original by Sid Vicious.
Summer Movie #74 – The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948): “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” This famous line is the last of the movie, and completes a rather pointless and often irritating narration. The last ten minutes, featuring a pretty good chase scene and shootout filmed on location in New York City (which was innovative for the time – a fact the movie makes you aware of by announcing it at the beginning) are quite good; seemingly good enough to win this thing two Academy awards (cinematography and editing). It has to be the last ten minutes they voted for, because the rest is fairly conventional and uninspired. The seventy minutes before the big chase comprise a standard police procedural that seems like a long and noir-ish episode of “Dragnet”. The performances run from competent to almost comically bad. If you are looking for noir or for police procedurals, there’s much better out there.
Summer Movie #75 – Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011): I liked this movie a lot more than I expected. It is a very noir-ish action film that also feels very 1980s – and combines all of this successfully. It is full of long, slow, quiet scenes and then suddenly explodes into car chases and graphic violence – and then goes back to being quiet and slow. Think “Vanishing Point” meets “Miami Vice” as directed by John Carpenter (at his best). It features really good performances by Albert Brooks (no neuroses, no charm, he’s bland and then he’s dangerous), Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, and Ryan Gosling. I’ve not seen any of Ryan Gosling’s other performances except “Gangster Squad” – which was not a good movie. I didn’t get the big deal about him. Now I do. Through the first third of the movie I was thinking he was just wooden – then he starts having scenes where he shows a lot of bottled emotion that explodes into action. It was reminiscent of the attempts at “serious” action films from the 80s – just done better than most. The cinematography was beautiful – again, very reminiscent of stylish stuff from the 80s. That feeling is strengthened by everything from the soundtrack (synthesizers and processed vocals) to the font used in the credits. It’s a stylish action film for grown-ups. See it.
Summer Movie #76 – Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, 2011): This is a decent spy action-thriller with the evil private spy company that betrays an agent as part of a wider plot. It has good action pieces and is nicely paced without being overdone. It has a great set of co-stars, all of who turn in performances of a quality one would expect from them: Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, and a pre-“Magic Mike” Channing Tatum. The only problem with the film is that these are all co-stars. The protagonist is played by Gina Carano – former world-class mixed martial artist and “American Gladiator.” She is predictably great at her action sequences and stunts – and since that is a lot of the movie, that’s a good thing. Unfortunately she is not as good at the whole delivering dialogue and acting thing. She’s not terrible, she just isn’t very good. She treats her lines like opponents to be beaten into submission. As action stars go, she is better than Cynthia Rothrock but is not as good as Linda Hamilton (in either Terminator film). Still, she was competent, and might improve. This is definitely worth watching – if you are in the mood for this kind of movie and, frankly, can’t find a better one.
Summer Movie #77 – The Girl Who Played with Fire (Daniel Alfredson, 2009): I watched “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” several months ago (Swedish version, not English) and really liked it. I liked this one too, but not as much. The two best things about the first film are here as well: Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth (all steely glares and little tiny cracks of humanity) and Michael Nyqvist as Mikael (one of the reasons I’ve not watched the English version is my inability to see Daniel Craig – who I really like – as Mikael; Mikael is not a muscular action guy). The story is good, but not as good as the first film. One of the things I liked about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was that we saw a lot of grey in between the black and the white of the movie. There isn’t a lot of grey here. Also, to me much of the power of both movies comes from a sense of reality. In this film that gets shaken a couple of times. We have a bad guy who can’t feel pain – like an over-the-top Bond villain. Just give him a hat with a metal rim and he’s good to go. Then there is the climax – Lisbeth, having been shot a few times, digs herself out of her grave (using a cigarette case) and goes on to wreak some vengeance. Put this in a Quentin Tarantino film, and I’m down with it, but it felt wrong here. It is a testament to Noomi Rapace’s performance that I was able to put that aside and get back into the (excellent) final confrontation. Finally, while I enjoy the opportunity to watch attractive naked women rolling around together as much as the next guy, there is a lesbian sex scene which seemed rather gratuitous (and a prime example of the “male gaze”). I know I’ve spent most of this talking about weaknesses, but that is really because the first movie was so good. This one is also quite good, especially if you liked the first. This is well worth checking out – but see them in order.
Summer Movie #78 – Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960): This is one of the seminal works of French New Wave, and I’ve never seen it before. While watching it I had a similar reaction to watching both “Psycho” and “Stagecoach” for the first time: what must it have been like to see this when it first came out? What I mean is that these movies have had such a huge influence on what came after them, so seeing them for the first time – at least if you knew what you were seeing – must have been startling. Here we see hand-held camera work, jump-cuts, and dubbed sound around odd framing and interesting long shots – the things that would be used so often by “underground” film in the 1960s and 1970s and then would creep into the mainstream. The way in which the narrative story of the film is really in the background of conversations and character moments is also striking. This was fascinating to watch, but there was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have understood any of that and would have just seen this as seemingly amateurish and pointlessly confusing. There is a story about Rock Hudson walking out of the premiere of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and demanding that someone explain “what the hell that movie was about” – same thing. Now I get it. Jean-Paul Belmondo is really fun to watch. His first line (as translated) is “Well, I’m an asshole.” He then spends 90 minutes demonstrating the truth of this. Jean Seberg is fascinatingly vague as she spends most of the film wavering between possibilities, then only at the end makes a decision – one of conventional morality but personal betrayal. This is another of those classic films that (like “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane”) I think is every bit as good as it has been cracked up to be.
Summer Film #79 – Following (Christopher Nolan, 1998): This was Nolan’s first feature and won several awards. It is a short neo-noir about a would-be writer who begins following people to observe them and who is drawn into a complicated plot. It shows a lot of the elements of Nolan’s later work, such as an unreliable narrator (the film is told as an extended flashback) and urban settings. It is unremittingly bleak and twisted. The movie goes from one violation of privacy and trust to the next. It also features a nicely complex fractured narrative. You can see the techniques he was going to use to such good effect in his next film “Memento” (which is just brilliant). I came across this movie on Netflix because I saw it displayed a four-star rating from me – which was odd given that I’d never seen it. I’m not sure if I accidentally clicked something or what. Still, that is exactly the rating I did give it – which fits nicely into the theme of fractured narrative.
Summer Movie #80 – Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003): Wow. It is almost impossible to describe this movie – you just have to see it. However, if you choose to, be aware that it is violent, gory, and intensely surreal. It is described as being about the depth of vengeance, and it is. It is also about love, identity, reality, and despair. It is funny. It is horrible (remember the icky feeling of that moment in “Chinatown” when John Huston picks up the little girl (his daughter and granddaughter) and says, “I’m your grandpaw”? – like that; oh, and a guy cuts out his own tongue at one point – so like that, too) It is hard to watch. It is brilliant. It is not for weak constitutions. It also has a bleak and uncertain ending. If Spike Lee can replicate this – as opposed to some bloody action film – I’ll regain a lot of the respect I’ve lost for him in recent years. I don’t think this can be an American film, though. I need to watch something happy now…
Posted by Gerald on July 26, 2013
Summer Movie #62 – Dark Passage (Delmer Davies, 1947): This is the third of the films starring one of the great Hollywood on- and off-screen couples, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It is directed by one of the all-time great writer-directors in Davies. It also features a really interesting idea in that the first third of the film is all shot POV from Bogart’s character’s perspective. It features good performances overall and effectively uses San Francisco as almost another character in the film. All of that said, I can’t say the story seems very impressive to me. The characters frequently seem to have weak or muddled motivations – and not in a realistic way reflecting human confusion. Several people assist Bogart’s escaped convict, at considerable risk to themselves, for no better reason than he just seems like he’s a nice guy. The actual murderer, played by Agnes Moorehead, seems to have committed two carefully planned murders for no other reason than being really vindictive. None of this is impossible, but it just didn’t ring true for me. The ending also rang false – he just escapes and then they meet in Peru and dance. Roll credits. I know quite well that this is a typical Hollywood ending, but it just SUCH a typical Hollywood ending. Maybe I’ve just watched too many heavy films recently. This is definitely worth seeing, but I can’t say I’m carrying much away from this one.
Summer Movie #63 – The Expendables 2 (Simon West, 2012): It’s better than the first movie, which isn’t saying all that much. At least it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. If you go in realizing that this is an exercise in creating big action sequences studded with self-referential one-liners and interspersed with moments of pure movie cliché, it can be fun. Whedonverse connection: Charisma Carpenter is back in this one, and is completely wasted here. Sylvester Stallone’s performance makes you realize the quality of Bruce Willis’s; while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s does the same for Stallone’s; Jean-Claude Van Damme’s does the same for Schwarzenegger’s; and Chuck Norris’s makes one appreciate every other actor in the film, including the extras. In a movie where you really have to turn your brain off within the first ten minutes, or just stop watching it, Norris’s appearance strains credibility. He shows up for no reason at all, except to provide a thin justification for an escape by our heroes and an opportunity for some “Lone Wolf” lines. Still, if the idea of an entire movie whose sole purpose is to put Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Norris on-screen for a big gun-fight is appealing to you (it certainly was to me), this movie is going to be fun. I’m glad I saw it… on Netflix.
Summer Theater Movie #9 – Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012): Wow. In this documentary Polley uses the story of discovering her biological father and the wider tale of her parent’s marriage, her mother’s affair(s), and everything connected to that as just a launching point for talking about family and the constructed narratives of our lives. It is brilliant. She combines interview, narration, and constructed “home movies” to blur the lines of truth and memory – and thus show there really are no lines. It is painful, funny, emotional, but not falsely sentimental. It is supremely human. I think I’ve got a lot more to say about this, but I’m going to need to think about it a bit, first. Go see this movie as soon as you can.
Summer Movie #64 – The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012): The July of Whedon continues (I’ll now need to re-watch “Serenity” – darn). I liked this even more the second time – which I can’t say has been true of any of the other superhero movies, although I’ve liked most of them. Whedon has a gift for telling stories about heroes in a way that strongly speaks to me. It is the theme that runs through “Buffy”, “Angel”, and “Firefly.” I think “Dollhouse” was getting there, but not quite. I actually think the best hero role in that series was Felicia Day’s character in “Epitaph One” and “Epitaph Two” – but I digress. Here are a few random observations from this viewing of the movie:
I think that this attempt to tell a Hulk story worked better than either the 2003 Ang Lee movie or the 2008 Louis Leterrier movie is that it concentrated on the idea the Banner needed to accept that part of himself rather than overcome it. He can’t tame the beast because the beast is him. It also addressed the idea that the same rage and power he fears is what makes him able to do things other can’t – it makes him a hero.
I heard more of the jokes this time than last.
I agree with my good friend Steve that the extended shot during the fight in Manhattan was exceptional. It was great in that it looked fantastic, gave you a real sense of the fight, and still told a character story. Each of the heroes has his or her actions multiplied by cooperation with another – it visually tells the story of them becoming one team in a way no amount of dialogue ever could. Also, it ends with Hulk punching Thor in what might be the best visual joke in a film full of good ones.
Damn, I love this movie!
Summer Movie Update – Marvel Double Feature of Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) & Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011): I’ve reviewed these before, so I’m not including them in the count for the summer movies. I was inspired to watch them by my viewing of “The Avengers” last night. When I first heard about both of these movies, I had severe doubts. In both cases, I was completely wrong. Branagh pulls off an effective epic and I think the costumes even work – at least for the stuff on Asgard where everyone is dressed like that. Johnston tells a great adventure story and doesn’t get lost in the action. He also sticks a very serious ending. What struck me watching them back to back is how each is about the main character finding what is heroic in himself, but in completely opposite ways. Thor is stripped of his power, and thus learns humility and self-sacrifice. He begins as an obvious hero, but has to learn how to take the true journey by setting others first. Steve Rogers begins with no power, has it handed to him, and then has to learn both its potential and its limitations. Much like Peter Parker in the Spiderman movies, he isn’t an obvious hero but has one inside him. These movies are fun and uplifting. “Captain America” also manages to be patriotic without being jingoistic – which is no mean feat. I’ve now watched both of these a couple of times through, and I still enjoy them (as I did re-watching “The Avengers”). I’ve never gotten much out of repeat viewings of and of the, much more successful, Spiderman or Iron Man movies (full disclosure, I haven’t re-watched either “The Amazing Spiderman” or “Iron Man 3” – so those could be different). These three movies just make me feel better after watching them.
Summer Movie #65 – Triad Election [also Election 2] (Johnnie To, 2006): This film is a “sequel” to To’s 2005 film “Election” which I watched earlier this summer (Summer Movie #12). Like that film, this is a stylish gangster drama centering on the election of the chairman of one of the triads. It follows the (surviving) characters from the first film. The man who won that election (Lam Lok, played by Simon Yam) is refusing to step down. His main rival and eventual ally, in that film (Jimmy Lee, played by Louis Koos) is again running for the office. Wackiness ensues. It is quite powerful and actually made me think of “The Godfather” several times. The film also features one of the most brutal on-screen killings I’ve ever seen – one as gruesome as the famous chainsaw scene in DePalma’s “Scarface” but more effecting because it is not played over-the-top and the man doing it is more like Michael Corleone and less like Tony Montana. Louis Koos also plays the scene with the restrained emotion of Al Pacino in “The Godfather” and not with the scenery-chewing buffoonery of Al Pacino in “Scarface”. But I digress. This is an excellent movie and has gone further to solidify my admiration for Johnnie To. He is not as well known here as John Woo, but he should be.
Summer Movie #66 – Z (Costa-Gravas, 1969): This film (which is in French) is a fictionalized account of the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a center-left Greek politician. This assassination set in motion a series of events which culminated in the military coup in Greece in 1967. Costa-Gravas tells this story in two parts – the assassination itself and then an investigation by a magistrate who uncovers the plot behind it. The film is tense and engaging, but also filled with moments of dark humor (not many films feature jokes about the Dreyfus Affair). One interesting thing he does is to insert moments of memories into scenes, but without any of the standard visual cues (slow dissolves, soft-lenses, changes in lighting, etc…) that usually mark them. Instead they are cut right into the scene, which gives them a powerful sense of immediacy. The film ends on a realistically dark note as we see that while the magistrate uncovered the plot and indicted those involved – leading to political resignations and a shift in elections. Political violence undoes all of it, culminating in a coup that leads to the arrests, and sometimes deaths, of the film’s protagonists. This was just excellent and it is one of the few films to be nominated for Oscars both for Best Foreign Film and Best Picture. I think I’m going to revisit another of Costa-Gravas’s films, “Missing” which I saw many years ago but not since.
Summer Movie #67 – A Technicolor Dream (Stephen Gammond, 2008): This is a documentary about the London Underground scene and centers on Pink Floyd. The subject is more interesting than the documentary, which is mostly conventional interviews (of varying quality) and contemporary footage. If you find it difficult to take 60s psychedelic culture seriously, this will not change your mind. If you are interested in it, there is something to get from this. Probably the biggest thing one carries away from this film is the not very original insight that Syd Barrett was everything for Pink Floyd in this period and that the other members were quite uninterested in the politics and culture of the underground movement. This was not bad, but not great either.
Summer Movie Update – The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987): My friend Richard Edwards likes to say of Brian Keith’s performance as Teddy Roosevelt in “The Wind and the Lion” that if that character isn’t what Roosevelt was really like, it should be. That is how I feel about Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Al Capone in this movie. I’ve seen it too many times to add it to the summer movie count, but I do love it. Sean Connery’s Oscar-winning performance, the beautiful cinematography, the Armani suits, De Palma’s version of the Odessa Steps Sequence – I just love it every time. I’ve been playing a game called “Omerta: City of Gangsters” where you take on the role of a mobster trying to get control of Prohibition-era Atlantic City (no “Nucky” Thompson, though) and it put me in the mood for a gangster flick. This was it.
Summer Movie #68 – Plunkett and Macleane (Jake Scott, 1999): The director of this movie is the son of Ridley Scott and this, his first film, is solid evidence that directing skill is not inherited. I like movies about 18th century highwaymen, the brutality of the British class system, all that stuff – not this one, though. It isn’t so much bad as unfocused and dull. This film wastes decent performances by some good actors (Robert Carlyle, Albert Finney, Liv Tyler, and more) on walking stereotypes (The Working Man Forced Into A Life Of Crime, The Corrupt Nobleman, The Fiery Noblewoman Who Could Not Be Tamed, etc…) and a predictable script. If you would like to see a swashbuckler with the experienced guy, the young guy, and the spirited woman who all go have adventures together, check out “Nate and Hayes” (Ferdinand Fairfax, 1983) – which is fun. If you want a nice mix of adventure and the whole commentary on the brutalities of 18th century England thing, see “Rob Roy” (Michael Caton-Jones, 1995) – which is good (but fairly inaccurate). If you want to see a period piece about rogues and the social system of 18th century England, see Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” (1975) – which is awesome. Oh, and if you would like to see someone direct a well-shot period piece for their first feature film – see Ridley Scott’s “The Duelists” which won him a Best Debut award at Cannes in 1977 and is similarly awesome. Skip this movie.
Summer Movie #69 – Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937): Yet another classic that I’m just now getting around to watching. This film is brilliant. Renoir lays the foundation for almost every “POW escape” film that would be made for the rest of the 20th century. Not content with this he uses a lens of humanism to examine the end of the old class system in Europe, anti-Semitism, and to critique the rising nationalism and fascism of his day. He manages to do all of this while telling an entertaining story and avoiding any overt “preaching”. I had the same reaction seeing this that I did with “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane” – this movie really is every bit as good as I was told it would be.
Summer Movie #70 – The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003): This is an academy award winning documentary about Robert S. McNamara. It is visually interesting and the subject is fascinating. Morris manages to show parts of McNamara that explain a lot about his time in Washington. Interviews with McNamara himself provide much of the film and he comes across as a brilliant enigma – by turns insightful but oblivious; open but defensive; open to his errors but unwilling to fully accept responsibility for them. You also see quite clearly a man who thinks a lot about presentation; of himself and of the truth. You see footage and hear tapes where he is divorcing the reality of the war from its presentation to the American people. I don’t think this film either absolves or indicts McNamara, and that is its strength.
Posted by Gerald on July 12, 2013
Summer Movie #51 – Behind the Rainbow (Jihan El-Tahri, 2008): This excellent documentary deals with the political rivalry between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma for control of the ANC in South Africa. The film uses this rivalry to give an interesting account of the transition of the ANC from an anti-apartheid liberation movement to a ruling political party and the compromises and problems that transition entailed. The most interesting segment for me was the discussion of the corruption probes that eventually came to involve Zuma directly. The interviews show the thin line that exists between “networking” and corruption and the way that people can dismiss illegalities because they see their actions as morally justified. If you have ever been interested in the story of South Africa after apartheid, this is well worth watching.
Summer Live Movie #8 – Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012): Loads of fun, mostly due to some great acting moments. There were lots of familiar faces from the Whedonverse – so I spent most of the movie going “Buffy…Angel…Firefly…Buffy & Angel…Avengers…oh, Dollhouse!” It was interesting to see Clark Gregg as someone other than Agent Coulson. Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, the Captain of the Watch, was funny as always. I’m always impressed by Alexis Denisof’s (as Benedick) willingness to embrace playing a fool, but then give him a serious core (as he did so well with Wesley on both Buffy and Angel). Reed Diamond was great as Don Pedro – being dignified and mischievious and foolish by turns. The core of the movie though was Amy Acker as Beatrice – clever then foolish, dramatic then comedic, often within the same scene – she was great to watch. Not every scene worked (sometimes the movie is a bit too cute for its own good) but it was still a wonderful adaptation. It was also interesting to compare and contrast this adaptation with Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version (which I really enjoyed). I think seeing both gives a sense of how two different directors can bring different tones to the same material. Branagh’s, unsurprisingly, was broader and more bombastic while Whedon’s was lighthearted and more intimate. I strongly suggest watching both.
Summer Movie #52 – Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012): This movie is brilliant in the way it uses the tropes of the standard horror film while also twisting them. It also asks a couple of uncomfortable questions along the way. By showing this group of people who are creating a scenario and their reactions to what is happening, the movie is also holding a mirror up to me (and you) about the voyeurism involved in watching these movies. The use of sexuality contrasting with violence is such a commonplace in horror films that the viewer has already agreed to participate in it just by buying a ticket. We’re reminded of this as we watch the technicians watching the sex and the violence.
We’re also handed a serious question of morality at the end: Is the sacrifice of one innocent person worth the salvation of six billion? Where does that one person’s right to live end in the face of the lives of everyone (literally everyone) else? The question is put into even sharper relief as we are reminded that if this one person lives, he is just going to die along with everyone else anyway. “Do you want to die with everyone, or do you want to die for everyone?” This isn’t an artificial question just created in a monster movie – it is whether to go to war, it is capital punishment, it is deciding who does and who does not get medical care or where the funding goes, it is even deciding whether we should have speed limits of 55 or 25. These all come down to just how many people – and which ones – are going to die and what we are willing (or not willing) to do to prevent those deaths. That is worth thinking a bit about. That is a lot for a gory monster pic.
Summer Movie #53 – Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997): How much awesomeness can one movie contain? The answer is about this much. Pam Grier and Samuel L. Jackson star in an Elmore Leonard story adapted and directed by Tarantino. I just love this movie. Outside of the typical Tarantino film references (everything from blaxploitation to The Graduate) and the great performances (to my mind this was a career topper for Grier and Robert Forster was fantastic), this movie is just plain well-crafted. The scene where Ordell (Jackson) kills Beaumont (Chris Tucker) is wonderful. The comic build-up that sets up a brutal killing for maximum effect is perfect. Then the shot itself with a car moving out of frame on the right, then the camera cranes up to catch it coming back in from the left at a distance so we don’t really see what happens so much as hear it. It is such a great shot. Have I mentioned that I REALLY like Quentin Tarantino’s work?
Summer Movie #54 – Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976): I saw this movie on TV back when I was a kid (read teenager – I was thirteen when it was released in theaters so I had to be at least fifteen or so when I saw it). It disturbed me – I didn’t like it. I also couldn’t stop thinking about it. From a later point in life I can see that as a sign of something really being a piece of art. It just won’t leave you alone. You aren’t the same person after you’ve encountered it. I’ve not seen it in many years now and – especially after watching these documentaries on underground film and music in New York in the 1970s – I thought now was the time.
The film is famous as a depiction of madness that puts the viewer into a feeling of being in a dream – or a hallucination. It is also famous for how it creates echoes between the violence and madness in the main character with the violence and madness of 1970s New York and of 1970s America. What really struck me is that even while depicting all of this, you still see Scorsese singing a love song to the city; maybe a love song to a psychotic girlfriend who doesn’t really love him back, but still a love song. You can see it in the quirky characters, the little moments of daily life, the shots of architecture – he loves the city, even in its madness. Another stray thought – I don’t buy the idea that the epilogue is a dying fantasy (sorry Roger Ebert) and evidently, neither do Scorsese or Paul Schrader (who wrote it). Instead the ending seems a last act of madness; Bickle is embraced by the media as a hero where, if he had just been quicker at the political rally, the same media would be depicting him as, well, it later would depict John Hinckley (more about that below). That orgasm (there really is no other word that so describes it) of vigilante violence is a result of his earlier failure – his impotence – and we can see at the end, in that last glance in the rearview mirror, that he is still as much of a ticking time-bomb as ever. With that, I’m struck by the similarity to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Both feature a madman in a mad and decaying world who comes to be lauded by that world in a supreme moment of social madness. You’ve got to love 1970s cinema. Finally, I couldn’t help but think of John Hinckley and in particular of how horrible that experience had to be for Jodie Foster. The fear of being the focus of a madman had to be terrible of course, but also the feeling that work you are, justly, proud of has been tainted forever by association with madness and murder (again, similarities to A Clockwork Orange here) had to be almost as bad. Also it had to be terrible to know that your name has become a sort of macabre punch-line. I remember the endless comic allusions to the idea of doing something insane for Jodie Foster.
If you haven’t seen this, you should see it. It isn’t fun, it is great.
Summer Movie #55 – Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969): Here is another film famous for its depiction of New York at its decaying worst. This is one of those notable movies I’d never seen before – the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture. It is a bit amazing to realize that the X-rating didn’t come from the horrifying sequence depicting a remembered rape or from the fascinating depiction of the various psychological associations that the main character has with sex. No, it was rated X because of its “homosexual frame of reference” – an interesting phrase given the deep (almost manic) homophobia of the main character, Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight). I’m not sure I feel qualified (or justified?) in passing judgment on whether the film itself is homophobic. I think it could be argued both ways. On the one hand we are shown a link between Joe’s rape and his homophobia which could be taken as a justification, depictions of violence against gays, and no gay character in the film is shown as anything but a “deviant”. On the other hand, almost every character in the film is depicted as a “deviant” of some sort – which could be a statement about the whole idea. At no point is the anti-gay violence emotionally justified by the film, even in the case of Joe’s attack on the character played by Bernard Hughes. I’m inclined to say the film isn’t homophobic, but that is (as always) ultimately in the eye of the beholder. Great performances all around are part of what makes this film work. After seeing Robert DeNiro at his intense best last night (in Taxi Driver) and Dustin Hoffman burying himself in one of his signature roles tonight, I’m forcibly (and happily) reminded of what these men were before they became stunt casting for light comedies.
Summer Movie #56 – Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953): This is a very simple story about an old couple visiting their grown children in Tokyo. On this simple frame we get ruminations about how parents and children can disappoint one another, how generations change, how family is so much more than blood. All of this is done with little actual exposition or dialogue. Ozu is quite comfortable with just leaving silence when people wouldn’t really speak and letting the audience figure out the inner dialogue of the person on the screen. The pacing is slow and shows how much of life is not made up of big dramatic moments. The camera angles are low and he is constantly shooting deep through different frames (doorways and windows, for example). I think the camera might move once during the entire film – the shots are static and the actors move. The result is beautiful, moving, and slow. American movies usually show a story and we see life along the way in the best ones. This is more like some of French New Wave where we see life happen and discover the story along the way. I have this theory that American movies and television are fixated on redemption (or its failures). There is no redemption here, especially at the moment it would always come in an American film – right after the death of a sympathetic character. Instead, most of the characters learn nothing – they simply are who they are.
Summer Movie #57 – Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950): I woke up early and watched this on TCM rather than getting out of bed – which is to say it was unplanned. This isn’t a new one to me and I actually had my eyes closed through most of it. You really can follow most of this movie on music cues and sound effects alone. This is a famous western directed by a man who made a bunch of them. It has the typical virtues and flaws one would expect of a western released in 1950. Jimmy Stewart gives a great performance as the revenge-driven protagonist. A young Rock Hudson has a minor role as an Indian (white guys in grease paint aren’t Native Americans) and a young Tony Curtis has a one-line role as a soldier. Shelly Winters is the hot saloon girl with visions of settling down. Will Geer, who was 48 at the time, plays a rustic old Wyatt Earp, which is notable given that Earp was 28 at the time the movie is set (it starts on July 4, 1876). The conceit – that the eponymous rifle was a character in the film and following it allows us to unfold the story of two brothers in conflict – was interesting, but I’m not sure it really worked. According to a little internet research, Fritz Lang was originally supposed to direct and saw the rifle as the main character’s sole source of strength. That would have been interesting. This was a competently made movie with some exceptional elements (Stewart’s performance and a somewhat dark tone in spots stand out), but not a great movie to my mind.
Summer Movie #58 – Cloud Atlas (Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, & Tom Tykwer. 2012): This movie seemed to polarize the critics, and I see why. It is big and ambitious, and it doesn’t always succeed. It also looks like it should be a big action movie, but is instead an examination of humanity and how our lives affect each other’s. I have to say that, despite its flaws, I really liked it and think it will reward another viewing. It is a demanding movie, with its non-linear structure that inter-weaves several narratives happening at different times. You have to pay attention to it. If you try texting and holding conversations, you are going to miss some of its subtle cues and turns. You also have to think about it and remember what you’ve already seen. In that it is very reminiscent of another movie I liked despite its flaws, Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” (2006). Like with that film, I’m inclined to think the reviewers who dismiss “Cloud Atlas” are blinded by assumptions about what an imaginative fiction film with a lot of visual effects is supposed to be. These movies aren’t popcorn epics (and I do love popcorn epics). They are both reflective of the best literary science fiction in that they try to use the genre to say something about being human, as does all of the best literature and art. This movie is definitely flawed. It is a bit bloated in spots and uneven in tone. The use of make-up and CGI to reinforce the idea of the same people in different bodies over time doesn’t always work. Still, there are great performances here and when the movie works – which is more often than not – it is sweet, sad, funny, and powerful. It is also feature beautiful cinematography and effects as well as wonderful music. I finished it with tears in my eyes.
Summer Movie #59 – The Atomic Submarine (Spencer Gordon Bennet, 1959): B-movie goodness! A nuclear submarine investigating mysterious attacks in the Arctic discovers a flying saucer piloted by a half-melted hairy eyeball and proceeds to kick its alien ass before it can trigger an invasion of the Earth. Along the way a decent but misguided scientist learns that pacifism will just open the door to the alien menace to come. There are a lot of similarities here to Irwin Allen’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” which was a couple years in the future. This movie made me think about two things: 1) What is the deal with aliens with one giant eyeball? And 2) I really miss Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Summer Movie #60 – I Shot Andy Warhol (Mary Harron, 1996): There is a fine line between a sympathetic portrayal of someone and a defense. I think this film walks that line quite well. The film making and Lili Taylor’s performance show us a damaged person in Valerie Solanas, but one who is smart, energetic, creative, and oddly charming – in a frightening way. We also see a person whose problems may well have been exacerbated by the atmosphere of the Factory, with its combination of creative energy and charisma with a disdain for writing, cliquish weirdness, and personal coldness. The more I’ve learned about the Factory, the more I’m both intrigued and repelled by it. I can’t seem to look away though, which would probably make Warhol happy. I think Stephen Dorff gives the performance of his career as Candy Darling. It was interesting to see faces I know well from TV series in a very different light here such as Jared Harris, Michael Imperioli, and Jill Hennessey. Frankly, I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would, which is the same reaction I had after seeing Harron’s “The Notorious Bettie Page” (2005). I’ve got “American Psycho” in my queue and I might need to check out “The Moth Diaries” as well.
Summer Movie #61 – American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000): I’ve caught bits and pieces of this movie on cable, but I’ve never watched the whole thing. I should also say upfront that I am completely unfamiliar with the novel. Also, I watched the longer un-rated version and not the theatrical release. I’m not sure the whole movie works, but I’m still pretty impressed. Christian Bale’s performance as Bateman is intense and fearless. This film comes across on one level as a parody of 80s era excess, but I think there is more here. Bateman is a sociopath who is constantly trying to mimic the emotions he doesn’t feel. He talks endlessly about music as if he is reciting critical reviews rather than stating an opinion (perhaps he was, in the novel?) He is narcissistic and almost aggressively superficial – all very “80s era excess” in style. More than this, his pretense at humanity fits in very well with the Wall Street/Ivy League crowd and their pretension. But is this just a statement about the 80s, or is this a more subversive statement about class in America? I’m really not sure. I also think Harron did something interesting with the idea that we are dealing with a psychotic narrator. Over the film the depiction of his violence becomes more extreme – but we are left at the end not knowing what parts of that have actually happened. Bateman is clearly delusional, but the people around him are so self-absorbed and impersonal with one another that they are no more reliable as narrators than he is. We have no third person from “Rashomon” here to tell us which parts are true. The result is an ending that is even more ambiguous (or possibly just murky) than that of “Fight Club.” I’m not sure all of this works as well as it might have – but it was an ambitious attempt in any case.
Posted by Gerald on June 23, 2013
Summer Movie #50 – The Foreigner (Amos Poe, 1978): Would you believe this was on TCM last night? Poe was one of the significant figures in the New York underground film scene chronicled in the documentary “Blank City” that I watched earlier this week. This is a sort of Dada noir joint featuring an unabashedly existentialist (quote: “When we dream that we dream we are beginning to wake up”) and largely improvised story about a secret agent who never understands any of the strange events around him – right up until the inevitably bleak ending. The style has Godard and Warhol all over it and looks like it was filmed for about $75 – which it probably was. If you can embrace the deliberately – hell, studiedly – unvarnished aesthetic and guerilla style, this has something to offer. If you need a more polished intro for this type of stuff, and don’t feel bad at all if you do, try Jim Jarmusch (who cites Poe and this film as influences) and work your way backwards. I did.
Summer Movie #49 – Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941): Despite the ending (which evidently reversed the ending of the book it was based upon and which Hitchcock claimed, though this has been disputed, was forced on him by the studio) this is a great psychological thriller. Cary Grant is wonderful as a loveable cad who might be a murderer. Joan Fontaine won an Academy Award as his somewhat stiff wife who may be justified in being suspicious – or who may just be paranoid. Hitchcock does what he does best, building suspense and uncertainty right up until the end.
Summer Movie #48 – The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966): This is a fictionalized account of the Algerian War between the Algerian FLN and French colonial forces. It focuses on the insurgency and counter-insurgency in the city of Algiers from 1954 to 1957 (France recognized Algeria’s independence in 1962). It shows the pattern of actions and responses that escalated the conflict and also shows how the insurgency worked from the inside (organization, tactics, etc…). Several 1960s and 1970s era militant groups, including members of the Black Panthers and the Provisional IRA, claim to have been influenced by this film. It is shot in a pseudo-documentary style with black-and-white photography processed to look as much like newsreel footage as possible (in reality, no newsreel footage is used – which is quite surprising when you see the finished product). Despite the cinematography, the actual camera work is where you can see this isn’t a documentary – little hand-held footage, mostly fixed angels without dolly or moving crane shots. The feel of the film is very sparse – very French New Wave. The emotional reactions you have to film come from its subject matter, not from the sound-track or the camera-work. Probably the most striking thing about the movie is how it deals with the violence by both sides. We are shown the brutality of the French colonial system through the story of the radicalization of one of the leaders of the insurgency. We then see those men committing murders of Algerian civilians and French authorities. A particularly significant portion of the film shows a revenge (for the murders of French police officers) bombing against innocent Algerians by a group of French colonists followed by three retaliatory bombings against similarly innocent French civilians. The camera spends as much time showing the rubble and the dead bodies on both sides – the film even uses the same music in showing the aftermath. This sparks the deployment of French paratroopers who, successfully, use brutality and torture to subdue the FLN. In one of the most frank statements I’ve ever seen about colonialism, there is a scene where reporters ask the commander of the paratroopers in the city about this issue. While skirting the use of the word torture, he basically responds that this is what is necessary if France is to remain in Algeria – that, in essence, colonialism cannot exist without violent coercion. Even these troops are not demonized in the film so much as they are shown to be part of the colonial machine. This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about colonialism and colonial resistance.
Summer Movie #47 – Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936): This is a movie I love in spite of, and because of, its flaws. Its real claim to fame is the art direction and production design. Here you see all of the elements that became cliché in later science fiction. The other thing is the script by H.G. Wells, which depicts a world war beginning in 1940 (and lasting until 1970). This war featured a frequent element for Wells – the idea of overwhelming air power bringing down civilization. This becomes more interesting when you consider that the script was mostly written in 1934 – before Hitler began rearming or expanding, before the Spanish Civil War, even before Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The second act of the film deals with a sort of post-apocalyptic vision of what the endless war did to the world. I find it fascinating because the visual elements – people living in the ruins of the old cities, wearing rags, filthy, and dominated by warlords who combine elements of military uniform with “barbaric” furs and skins – are not that different in some ways from what George Miller did in The Road Warrior, and the look of the whole modern genre of post-apocalyptic films starts with his him. I’m not sure if there had ever been a depiction of that sort of post-apocalyptic world on film before this movie. I can’t think of one, anyway.
Still, this film has no subtlety, least of all in its acting. The pacing is often very slow – which gives you lots of time to drink in the model work or to fall asleep. It has a message that it hits you over the head with repeatedly; one celebrating a utopian vision based on technocracy and a positivistic vision of the power of science. The recovery from the war is long montage of huge machines stripping the mineral wealth of the world and turning it to “productive” ends by building vast new underground cities. We hear that mankind can only meet its true potential by “conquering” and “mastering” (lots of colonialist language) first this world, and then the universe. The white city at the end of the film is perfectly controlled and perfectly artificial. A grandfather explains to his granddaughter about how people once needed things like sunlight and fresh air, but the world is better in the artificial state where they live. Evidently people in this future don’t sneeze (he explains this). When crowds, worked up by a demagogic sculptor, try to destroy the huge “space gun” at the end, they are depicted as reactionaries with no more of a guiding philosophy than fear of change. There is so much here about the early science fiction views of the future and progress. You can draw a line from this right to Rodenberry’s vision in Star Trek – and see the critique of it in everything from Silent Running to Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. This is flawed, but still a gem.
Summer Movie #46 – Blank City (Celine Danhier, 2010): Jon Foster suggested this to me as a good companion piece to the documentary I watched yesterday, Kill Your Idols. This deals with the underground film scene in New York in the 1970s and 1980s with No Wave Cinema and the Cinema of Transgression. It is well shot and interviews filmmakers, actors, and other artists who were involved in this period. It also ties these films to what was happening in New York at the time and to parts of the wider culture such as Reaganism and the early AIDS epidemic. I’m starting to wonder if all current culture might begin with Lydia Lunch? Hmmm….
Summer Movie #45 – Kill Your Idols (Scott Crary, 2004): The reviews for this on Netflix are sharply divided, but generally negative. I’m on the positive side. This documentary starts with some footage and interviews concerning the “No Wave” scene in NYC in the 1970s – about which I knew nothing. It then shifts focus to the NYC alternative music scene of 2003 – about which I know nothing. It seems to have been at this point that most of the negative reviewers stopped watching. Having heard about each group from its own members, Crary then has them speak about each other. The result is, to my mind, an interesting discussion on originality and creativity, the relationship between the music industry, media, and “alternative” artists, and how things have changed across thirty years. Contrary to both the title and the Netflix write-up, this doesn’t end with the newer musicians attacking the older ones for not being original, but the other way around. Many of the negative reviewers wanted this to be a history of NYC alternative music – it isn’t. It is a rumination on art and originality.
Summer Movie #44 – 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002): There was a moment early in this film where I went from liking it to loving it. The movie depicts the music scene in Manchester between about 1976 and 1992 centering on Tony Wilson and Factory Records. In this scene, the Wilson’s first wife is depicted having sex with Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks in a club men’s room. The camera pans to a man at the sink that we discover is the actual Howard Devoto who says “I don’t remember that happening.” At that point the actor playing Wilson (Steve Coogan), who narrates the film and shatters the fourth wall along the way, explains that it didn’t happen – and then cites the line from Fort Apache about how if the truth conflicts with the legend, you print the legend. Knowing nothing about any of this except some band names, I couldn’t tell you what was real and what wasn’t – except I doubt that Manchester was actually visited by a UFO, that God looks that much like either Steve Coogan or Tony Wilson, or that Boethius is a wino in Manchester who looks like Christopher Eccelston. The sense of unreality is heightened by great hand-held camera work that sometimes moves into vintage footage and back again. The whole thing was just artsy and fun.
Summer Movie #43 – Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947): Here is another one I’m sorry I’ve waited so long to watch. This is one of the great film noir and it has it all. Dark cinematography to tell a dark story about dark (ethically) people. Robert Mitchum is the former private eye trying to find redemption for his corrupt life with a new job in a sunny small town and a beautiful girl (Virginia Huston) who loves him even when she learns his secret past. Jane Greer is the classic femme fatale with the face of an angel and the soul of a killer. Kirk Douglas is the gangster with a score to settle with Mitchum and brings him out of his new life and back to his old one. This is film noir, so don’t look for a nice clear plot or a happy ending. This is all about the weight of the past and that you have to die before you can be redeemed. Just great.
Summer Movie #42 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressberger, 1943): I love this movie! I’m embarrassed that is has taken me this long to watch it. I’d heard of the film, particularly in interviews from Martin Scorsese, but it wasn’t until Jon Foster recommended it (my thanks!) that I put it in my Netflix queue. First, it features glorious Technicolor cinematography. The camera work is wonderful – especially a long crane shot out of a high window that melds into a beautiful model shot of 1902 Berlin on a snowy night and then focuses into an interior of a carriage – just beautiful. It has great performances, especially by Roger Livesey. Finally, it has this wonderful tone that looks at the British Army and the Empire and combines satire and sympathy in equal measures. It takes a character that is a bit ridiculous (hence their use of a famous character from British political cartoon – “Colonel Blimp” who was meant to display “the stupidity of colonels” by its creator David Low – in the title of the movie) and renders him as a human being. The movie tells a story about how age will make us all ridiculous to a degree as we find ourselves increasingly out of step with our times. It humanizes and forgives those who become a bit stuck, without denying that times do, in fact, change and people have to adapt. Just amazing – I’ve got to watch more of Powell’s & Pressburger’s work soon; Black Narcissus next, I think.
Summer Live Movie #7 – Star Trek: Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, 2013):
MAJOR SPOILERS HERE
Okay, I loved it it was loads of fun – great action, great pacing, and it dealt with one of my biggest problems from the first movie. I always felt that giving command of the Enterprise to just-out-of-the-academy Kirk was a cheat and this movie addressed this head-on. I’m even getting a little less opposed to the Spock-Uhura romance. Okay, not that last one. Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, and Zoe Saldana were all excellent. I enjoy and appreciate what Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine did in the first movie, and their Spock and Kirk performances were better in this one. Peter Weller has now played two of the better villains I’ve seen in Star Trek (his turn in the last – and best – season of Enterprise as Col. Green was one of my favorite thing in that uneven series). Benedict Cumberbatch was predictably great as Khan and by every objective measure his Khan is better than Ricardo Montalban’s.
But I’ll never really feel his Khan was better, even though I know it was. I can’t.
Finally, I don’t think this movie could have worked if Wrath of Khan weren’t already there. Most of its emotional power lays on the foundation of that movie. That is a good thing. There is no way of denying that the Star Trek movies were in decline. Abrams took what was great, and made something new and, in many ways, better. This will never be my Star Trek – but its a great Star Trek and I can’t wait for the next one.
Summer Movie #41 – Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009): I watched this earlier today before going to see the new one. I enjoy this movie for what it is – a really fun action movie that wears some of the clothes of a franchise in which I am deeply invested. Watching it again, I was struck by the thought that J.J. Abrams is going to have an absolute smash with Star Wars VII. The hectic pace, the huge action, even the big monster chasing (not)Kirk, are all reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels. The people who loved those are going to love his take. At the same time, he has some good character moments and real human depth – which is why I think his take on Star Wars will be more appealing to those who didn’t like the prequels. He is going to get big chunks of both groups – and make Disney some new boatloads of money. Including mine.
Summer Live Movie #5 – Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012): There is a scene in one of the later Buffy episodes where she talks about being cookie dough that isn’t finished baking yet. This is very much where the titular character of this movie finds herself. It is about love, friendship (I think a particularly female sort of friendship), and growing up in your twenties. Just this morning I was watching a show where a character talked about how people are supposed to be a mess in their twenties, and Frances is a mess, creating a comedic and touching character portrait. Even though this story wasn’t close to my life – even in my twenties – it touched places I could recognize and that is art. Finally, Frances is an aspiring dancer and the dance sequences reminded me of something that Jon Foster was also saying as we left the movie: I just don’t get dance. I know there is something there, but I just don’t have the right sensibility, I guess.