Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Reflections on my Boston Trip (June 2014)

Posted by Gerald on July 1, 2014

As I settle back into NC life, I’ve got a few things I’m taking away from this trip:

1) Park and Go is awesome. Seriously, if you are doing long-term parking at an airport, check this out and see if it is available. The shuttle picks you up from your car and returns you to it at the end of your trip; there is someone there to help if you have a dead battery, etc…; and it is cheaper (at least at Charlotte) – especially if you book and pay in advance.

2) I’ll never fly without an iPod again. Having Gillian Welch, Neko Case, John Vanderslice, and The Decemberists with me made wedging myself into those munchkin-sized coach seats and dealing with the crowds in airports far more tolerable.

3) Speaking of munchkin-sized coach seats, I’m in much better shape than the last time I flew up to Boston. I didn’t have the humiliation of asking for one of those extenders for the belts and my (still) fat ass actually fits in the seats (I’m still too tall for them, though). Also, I had no real problems spending two days doing lots of walking (except for some blisters). That said, I need to get back on my regular exercise schedule before I slip back much more.

4) I’m an irredeemable beer snob (no surprise there). The visceral sense of horror and rejection I experienced when listening to the guy at the Harpoon brewery extolling the virtues of their new cans (*shudder*) is hard for me to put into words. I’ve also come to like the smell of wort.

5) Speaking of beer, I experienced two rye beers during the trip and both were quite good. They have a sort of light and spicy flavor that goes well with warmer weather.

6) The weather was great. Even when it hit 90 on Monday, the humidity was nice and low (by the standards of the swampy south – the realities of which I think my hosts might have forgotten in their years in Beantown). This was driven home as I exited the plane in Charlotte and had to chew the air before breathing – and it really wasn’t that bad for a summer night in NC.

7) In terms of security checks, it is only slightly harder to get on a plane than to get on the USS Constitution. On a related note, had I been a sailor in the early modern era, I’d have died from terminal head trauma before any scurvy, etc…

8) I may be allergic to Paul Revere. I’m certainly allergic to his house.

9) There is a lot to be said for being in a major college town during warm weather.

10) Trips are good. I need to take more of them.

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Summer Movies 2014 #2

Posted by Gerald on June 14, 2014

Summer Movie #11 (Kubrick Film Festival #5) – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964): It is impossible for me to come up with much to say about this that hasn’t been better said by other people.  It isn’t many movies that can be said to define the tone of an era, but this so perfectly captures the insanity of the Cold War that it has that sort of definitive nature.  I guess what strikes me most strongly is that behind the over-the-top caricatures and comedy are scene that are chillingly real.  Except for a couple of minor lines, everything in the B-52 is played absolutely straight.  The scenes there and in the assault on the airbase (the exteriors, not what happens in Ripper’s office) are shot with handheld cameras (something you don’t see much of in Kubrick’s work) and film that looks like newsreel footage which gives them an ultra-realistic feeling (again, Kubrick is not Goddard – he has a completely different esthetic).  I think that is one of the key’s to the movie’s success as a piece of art – the comedy is grounded in a horrible reality.  It isn’t just the subject matter that is “black”.  I was also interested to learn that George C. Scott was, in essence, tricked into playing his role in so over-the-top a fashion.  Kubrick encouraged him to be outrageous for “practice” takes which he promised he would never use – and then used them.  Kubrick always seemed very comfortable with manipulating his actors in any way he felt added to the film.  Many of his actors (such as Scott) never forgave him for how he got the results he wanted.  There is a useful debate to be had here about the ethics of all of this.  Still, as far as the end product – Brilliant.

Summer Movie #12 (Kubrick Film Festival #6) – 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968): Probably unsurprisingly, this is the first Kubrick film I had any real experiences with (I vaguely remember seeing “Dr. Strangelove” on TV – at least I remember seeing Slim Pickens riding the bomb – but I was too young for it to have any real impression beyond that). My personal experiences with this movie seem to parallel its cultural history. When I first saw it, I was a kid who loved “Star Trek” and watched anything with a spaceship in it (neither of those things has really changed) and I had no frame of reference for this – so I rejected it. It was slow, boring, made no sense. There is a story that Rock Hudson (I believe) walked out of the premiere saying “Could someone tell me what the hell that was about?” That summed up my initial reaction. I loved the spacecraft – and that was it. Then I came back to it older and with some understanding of film and was mesmerized by it – as I have been ever since. I think it is Kubrick’s most obviously experimental film – he is trying to create an entirely visual and auditory experience. The narrative, and especially the dialogue, is secondary to the experience of watching and hearing the rest of the movie. Hence, attempts to “explain what it means” are doomed to failure. Kubrick never liked talking about his work in those terms at any point, but even less so here. He once said something to the effect that had Leonardo Da Vinci written “she’s smiling because she is keeping a secret from her lover” at the bottom of the Mona Lisa, it would have destroyed the experience of seeing it. Same thing. Still, that doesn’t mean the viewer shouldn’t try to interpret it, it just means that Kubrick shouldn’t, and so he didn’t. Like any great work of art, I see different things each time I encounter this movie. This time, like with the other films I’ve seen so far this time, I keep coming back to themes of human ineffectuality in the face of larger force. In “The Killers” it was how the elaborate plans of the criminals were destroyed by human weaknesses and sheer chance. In “Paths of Glory” it was how the war rolled over everything before it. Even “Spartacus” shows a powerful man who succeeds in destroying his enemies, but can’t destroy what they stand for. In “Lolita” Humbert is driven to his destruction by his urges and fears despite desperate attempts to control Lolita and his relationship with her. In “Dr. Strangelove” the whole world is destroyed by the machinery it built but couldn’t control. Here, we have the story of human evolution driven by an unknowable force (fate?) represented by the monolith. What humans do in response is to throw their bones up in the air – until they stay there. Confronted with the monolith, the humans on the moon are as mystified and unable to control the forces there as the australopithecines at the beginning of the movie – and David Bowman is reshaped by it without his own volition at the end. In between we see that when Man tries to make God in his own image (HAL) that image carries all of man’s flaws. One last, minor, thing – I had noted earlier that Gareth Edwards used one of the Ligeti scores in “Godzilla” that Kubrick used to such memorable effect here – and the result was the best scene in that movie, to my mind. That can’t be an accident. Brilliant – maybe even transcendent.

Summer Movies #s 13 & 14 (Insomnia Special) – The Mission (Roland Joffe, 1986) & The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973): I really enjoy “The Mission” as a drama, but it is worth noting that the Jesuits did not resist the transfer of the Reductions that led to the Guarani War, nor did any fight on the side of the Guarani or remain with them after the transfer.  The actual fighting is less a depiction of the Guarani War than of events over a hundred years before.  People in reality are frequently less inspirational than in screenplays.  “The Day of the Jackal” is one of my all-time favorite films.  It is a suspenseful movie despite the fact that you already know the outcome (given that DeGaulle was not assassinated, the plot is going to fail).  I’ve not seen the 1997 movie “The Jackal” which I understand has no similarity to the original movie at all.  Director Fred Zinnemann successfully fought the studio to make sure the titles were different and author of the original novel Frederick Forsyth refused to allow his name to be used.

Summer Movie #15 – Restoration (Michael Hoffman, 1995): I’ve been on a bit of a period-piece binge of late and this has been sitting on my Netflix queue for awhile.  I’d actually seen large portions of it on cable, but I never watched the whole thing beginning to end.  Now I have.  Despite a wonderful cast (Robert Downey, Jr., Sam Neill, Polly Walker, David Thewlis, a woefully underused Ian McKellan… uh, and a miscast Meg Ryan), this thing just didn’t work for me.  When it tries to be comic it feels flat and uninteresting.  When it tries to be dramatic, it is sentimental (to the point of cliche) and manipulative.  The only character in the movie I felt anything for was Lulu, the king’s spaniel.  Mixing comedy and drama is hard, and I just don’t think it worked here.  It is, however, quite beautiful.  The art design and costuming won Academy Awards, and seemingly deservedly so.  Certainly the designers did their research and there was a solid depiction of Stuart-era London here.  Unfortunately, that was all there was.

Summer Movie #16 – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2013): This is the first of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies that I didn’t see in a theater.  That wasn’t intentional – I just screwed up making plans, but still – that wouldn’t have happened with the LotR movies.  Much like the first Hobbit film, I liked this movie, but I didn’t love it.  It is well-made, well-acted, and looks beautiful – but something is just missing in these for me.  I was repeatedly moved to tears by the first movies – tears of sorrow and of joy.  Neither of the Hobbit films has had any such impact on me.  I honestly don’t know if it is them or me.  As I think I wrote after the first one; when I walked out of all three of the LotR movies, my first thought was “I want to go right back in there and see that again – now!”  I just don’t feel that way about these movies at all.

Summer Movie #17 – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013): Here is another movie I had intended to catch in the theater and just didn’t for various reasons.  I thought the first of these movies was okay, but was still just a fairly ordinary Scifi actioner with two bright spots – Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson.  I like this one better.  I thought all of the characters were more interesting here than in the first one with one major exception.  I don’t care much for Donald Sutherland’s turn as President Snow.  He isn’t very menacing in this and the air of decadence that surrounds the character in the books is wholly missing.  I’m not sure if this is a failure of writing or acting – or both – but I don’t think it is working.  Overall, I thought this one was more worthwhile than the first, but I still didn’t think it was great.  Also, on a completely personal note, I can never forgive the director, Francis Lawrence, for the horrible 2005 adaptation of “Constantine”.

Summer Movie #18 (Kubrick Film Festival #7) – A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971): This was the first Kubrick movie I saw when I was old enough to have some idea of what it meant, and it had a profound influence on me.  It made me ask myself a question that my upbringing had never prepared me for – can there be any morality in the absence of choice?  Because this film was, along with “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Wild Bunch”, seen as one of the films that began the aestheticisation of violence in movies, I think many people don’t ever see beyond that.  I don’t think Alex is ever meant to be “sympathetic” – I think he is meant to be a charming monster.  The thing is that he is a monster in a monstrous world.  That is one of the thing I admire about this movie – there is no easy answer about good guys or bad guys here.  Nor do I agree that the violence is either excessive or gratuitous – I think it all comes back to the fact that this is Alex’s story about himself.  He sees violence as beautiful, so the violence looks beautiful.  There is a lot of violence, but the vast majority is either done by Alex or at his instigation – it is everything about him.  He is violent and then violence is practiced upon him.  All of this, though, is to set up the next level – the story about morality and free will.  Alex is a monster who is conditioned to not act like a monster.  He stops being violent because he has no choice.  Is that redemption?  Both Burgess and Kubrick say no, but then they part company.  Burgess evidently believed there was redemption out there for Alex – seen in the “final chapter” that wasn’t in the early American versions of the book – which was the one Kubrick used for the adaptation.  Even upon hearing about it, though, Kubrick left it out – of course.  He doesn’t believe Alex can redeem himself and that echoes this theme I keep seeing in these movies about the limitation of human will and human choice.  The state can’t make Alex a “good person” by force, and Alex can’t be anything except what he is – a charming monster.  Visually the film is precise (in its camerawork and editing) and beautiful.  As a story it is disturbing and though-provoking.  Brilliant.

Summer Movie #19 (Kubrick Film Festival #8) – Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975): I first saw this movie on HBO and, much like my initial reaction to “2001″, I didn’t like it.  Again like “2001″ my experience echoed that of most film critics – I initially hated it and later came to love it (of course, I was a teenager and they were supposed to be pros and stuff).  I believe that, despite the very different subject matter, this movie and “2001″ are more similar than not.  In both cases the story isn’t in the dialogue, it is in the images.  The big difference here is that the actors are a much more significant contributor to those images in “Barry Lyndon” than in “2001″.  If you aren’t prepared it seems slow – well it is slow.  This is really a three hour painting.  Kubrick was always precise in blocking his shots and camera movement, but here the camera is often still, or only moving in graceful slow pivots.  The cinematography is full of lush colors and liberal use of natural lighting.  For this movie, Kubrick famously experimented with ultra-fast lenses developed by NASA for the Moon missions in an attempt to minimize his use of electrical lighting.  The result is a movie filled with shots that look like a Baroque painting.  These techniques have become fairly common in later “costume dramas” so that it is easy not to realize how innovative they were at the time.  This sort of work is probably why Martin Scorsese calls this his favorite Kubrick film.  Watch this and then watch “The Age of Innocence” and the influence will stand out (although I think Kubrick did a better job – shocking, I know, that I’d be expressing a preference for Kubrick – of creating delicate tension without it feeling like the movie just wasn’t moving at all).  I think it is remarkable that it took many people decades to realize the level of this achievement. I think another element that led some (including me) to dislike the film is that the story refuses to be a Hollywood costume drama.  It isn’t a biopic, it isn’t a morality tale, it isn’t a romance, and it isn’t a “bawdy romp”.  Barry, like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”, is a charming monster.  His monstrous nature, though, is less about his violence than his nearly complete selfishness.  Still, Kubrick won’t just let him be a simple villain.  He is victimized by the economic, social, and political structures of the world he is part of and his downfall at the end is, to a certain extent, the victory of that system in crushing an upstart.  We can see in his rise and fall the struggle of “Spartacus” but to much more self-serving ends.  But like Spartacus, he loses.  Again, I think we can see a story here about the inability of a single person to completely change the world – the opposite of the heroic film mythology so beloved of Hollywood… and of most movie fans.  Brilliant.

Summer Movie #20 – Swashbuckler (James Goldstone, 1976): I watched this movie many times on HBO back in the late 1970s.  It is one of those attempts by a studio to revive one of its past glories and so features every trope and cliche the swashbuckler movie ever showed.  It is a competent but not very original contribution by a director with a varied filmography that included the 1972 James Garner vehicle “They Only Kill Their Masters” and the on-air pilot for the original Star Trek, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.  The most notable thing about this is the cast.  Robert Shaw, a year off of “Jaws”, and a young and fierce James Earl Jones lead the cast and make this movie watchable by the evident pleasure they are having chewing the scenery.  Genvieve Bujold plays the feisty nobleman’s daughter and Shaw’s love interest.  The movie also features a young Anjelica Huston as the evil Governor’s mistress (credited only as the “Woman of Dark Visage”), a young Beau Bridges as the bumbling commander of the guard, and Trinidadian actor Geoffrey Holder (best remembered as Baron Samedi from “Live and Let Die” and the 7-Up “uncola” commercials) as a sort of assassin.  Also present are a host of familiar faces from the 1970s, most notably Avery Schreiber, an actor whose career is inexplicable in modern terms.  Peter Boyle plays the evil governor.  As always he is good at what he does, but to my mind was wrong for this role.  The governor is presented as this decadent, even foppish, but still deadly character.  Boyle just doesn’t fit the part despite his skill.  I see this as another example of how mainstream Hollywood just couldn’t quite seem to figure out what to do with him.  Nothing in the story or film-making is surprising or unusual.  If you enjoy swashbuckler movies just for being what they are – as I do – you’ll enjoy it.  If the genre holds no inherent appeal for you, I’d avoid this.

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2014 Summer Movies #1

Posted by Gerald on June 6, 2014

Summer Movie #1 – Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014): My first reaction when I heard that there was going to be (another) Godzilla re-make was, roughly, “Oh God, no! Why? Really?” My attitude changed a bit when I found out Gareth Edwards was going to direct it. He had only made one feature film before Godzilla, but it was a very interesting one. It was entitled “Monsters” (2010) and I reviewed it a year or so back. It is the sort of science fiction movie there should be more of – on one level a decent monster film and on another an examination of something deeper (America, its border with Mexico, and the immigrants who cross it). It wasn’t a flawless film, but it was quite good and had a few scenes that really stayed with me. His version of Godzilla is a very good film (again, not flawless) with some beautiful scenes. The story has plenty of time for character and does a great job of telling small stories about people against the titanic backdrop of its main plot. The effects are not just big – they are often used with restraint. The movie manages to encapsulate the transition of Godzilla in the original movies from monster to hero in a way that works well. It also has a wider set of ideas about man’s arrogance in the face of nature that it explores without being overly facile or preachy. Finally, it has scenes that combine the alien and the beautiful. Edwards did this in “Monsters” and does it more effectively here. The scene used in the early trailers of a HALO jump at night was beautiful in its full form and was put against music by Ligeti “Requiem” that Kubrick used in 2001 – and to similar effect of creating a sense of other-worldliness. But in this sense as these men parachute into a world that isn’t ours anymore, and really never was ours – the point of the movie. Go see it – and see “Monsters” too (streaming on Netflix at the time I’m writing this).

Summer Movie(s) #2 & 3 – Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, 1935) & The Sea Hawk (Michael Curtiz, 1940): I decided on a swashbuckler double feature last night and grabbed these out of my collection.  Both star Errol Flynn (I think that these two and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” – which I really need to get – are his three best know films); both are directed by Michael Curtiz, both were adapted from novels by Rafael Sabitini, and both were scored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  As a result of all that, they feel very similar.  “Captain Blood” is the story of how an innocent man is swept up in the political turmoil of the late Stuart period in England, becomes a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation (they actually did use convicts and indentured workers for this as well as the far more numerous African slaves), the escapes, becomes a (great) pirate, then is redeemed by the Glorious Revolution, defeats the evil governor, get the girl (Olivia de Havilland as said evil governor’s niece), happy ending, music swells.  “The Sea Hawk” chronicles the adventures of a fictional member of the group of Elizbethan privateers who went by that name, features an evil Spanish plot concerning the Armada, features Basil Rathbone as the evil Spanish ambassador who our hero needs to defeat, once again the hero is enslaved (in a Spanish galley) and escapes, England is saved, girl is gotten (the much less memorable – than Olivia de Havilland – Brenda Marshall as the ambassador’s niece), happy ending, music swells.  It is interesting that the girl is a niece to the villain in each case; making her easier to introduce and giving an entry into the villain’s world while still leaving the relationship distant enough to justify her betraying him for the hero.  Basil Rathbone is in both movies: as the main villain in “The Sea Hawk” and as a treacherous French pirate who has a great sword fight (over Olivia de Havilland, of course) with the hero in “Captain Blood”.  Finally, both feature the hero being enslaved and then escaping to save the day for England!  Add in much sword fighting and swinging about on ropes and you’ve got the movies.  I love this stuff.

Summer Movie #4 – Patton (Franklin J Schaffner, 1970): I could probably recite the dialog in this movie from memory.  It was a boyhood favorite of mine (aired on ABC in 1972, when I was nine years old) and still is.  As a kid, I loved the war movie.  As an adult I love the biography.  At one point Patton, in what I understand to be an actual quote, responds to an aide expressing concern after an outburst that Patton’s men didn’t know when he was acting by saying “It isn’t important that they know, it’s only important the I know.”  I think many people who have never watched the film simply dismiss it as glorifying him.  I don’t think that is true.  Strange to say, I think the man was a bit of an enigma.  He was certainly egotistical and ambitious, but he also had an ability to inspire great confidence and loyalty in many people (but probably not Omar Bradley – one of the film’s biggest fictions is the idea of a warm relationship between those men, there is solid evidence that Bradley did not like or respect Patton at all but wasn’t the sort of man to ever announce that to the world).  To what extent was the “famous” Patton the real one and to what extent was it a deliberate creation from a man who understood and employed theatricality?  I think the film wisely leaves that to our judgment.  What we do e see in this film a man who is dynamic and charismatic played in a career-defining performance by a brilliant actor.  This movie was co-written by Francis Ford Coppolla, who would go on to make another movie with a dynamic and charismatic leading character played a career-defining performance by a brilliant actor – Vito Corleone in “The Godfather”.  Here we also see a movie that I think has been unjustly accused of simply glorifying its main character.  I would argue that both are about bigger-than-life figures who are also deeply flawed.  Final things – this new digital transfer is brilliant and Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score sounded great on the sound system at the Carolina Theater.

Summer Movie #5 (Kubrick Film Festival #1) – The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956): I bought the Criterion edition of this a few months ago but hadn’t watched it yet.  The Blu-ray transfer is just beautiful.  I don’t think there is a better statement about the futility of all of humanity’s plans in the face of random chance than the stunned expression on Sterling Hayden’s face through the final scenes of this movie.  Elaborate schemes and brilliant execution meet human frailty and a yapping French poodle.  I love it.  This isn’t Kubrick’s first film, but it is really the first one that anyone has much of a chance of seeing.  Already here we can see the experimentation, in this case the use of fractured narrative, and the visual eye of a photographer that will mark all of his work.  If you haven’t guessed, I’m a huge fan.  Kubrick is probably my favorite director.  On this viewing of this movie, the thing that really struck me was how Kubrick filmed the shoot-out in the apartment.  All we see is Elisha Cook enter the room firing, we hear a fusillade of shots while the camera stays on him, and then the slow pan around the room to see the results.  Brilliant.

Summer Movie #6 (Kubrick Film Festival #2) – Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957): Another Criterion edition that has been waiting for me to watch it – and another great transfer (of course).  Here again, Kubrick is playing with genre.  With “The Killing” is was film noir and the “heist” movie, here it is the war movie – but I think his subversion of the tropes is more noticeable.  I don’t mean the anti-war war film, those were not uncommon in the 1950s, but that the hero here – Kirk Douglas – ultimately fails to effect the outcome of the story.  He doesn’t stop an attack he knows to be futile, in fact he is somewhat complicit in that he participates, although his reasons are better than those of his commander.  He doesn’t save his men from being executed.  He brings down General Mireau (played with a wonderful sense of manic ambitiousness by George Macready) but is unable to touch, or even arouse a sense of guilt in, the infinitely more culpable General Broulard (played with amoral aplomb by Adolphe Menjou).  Here we can see the next evolution of the carefully choreographed camerawork that was always Kubrick’s staple.  Having just seen “Patton” a couple nights ago, I was struck by one similarity and one difference.  The similarity comes in an early scene where General Mireau is visiting a hospital in an obviously pro forma nod to caring about his men (to each he says the same thing “Hello soldier.  Are you ready to kill more Germans?”).  He encounters a man who he is told is suffering from “shell shock” and immediately dismisses its existence and then orders the man be removed from the hospital because he is contaminating that place of honor.  The rage, that seems to be covering up an internal fear, and even the language is very similar to what would be used later in “Patton” and I would be shocked if Coppola hadn’t seen this movie.  The difference is in the two depictions of battle – particularly the assault on “the Anthill” at the center of this film, and the major battle scene in North Africa early in “Patton.”  The assault here is a flowing whole, moving across the battlefield, showing how impossible these attacks truly were in a way that not only “feels” real but accords with every account of the war on the Western Front by those who fought there.  The battle in “Patton” is pure Hollywood.  A depiction of an advance by what would have to have been the most incompetent officer in the German army (clumps of men and tanks waiting to be cut down by gunfire and artillery march into a big open plain surrounded on three sides by hills and ridges that the Germans had evidently not thought to scout out or secure – I’ve never spent a day in the military and I know this was ridiculous – I love the movie, but let’s be honest here) leads to intercut shots of big explosions and close-ups of men who are obviously not being shot or wounded.  Kubrick’s film was thirteen years older but captured far more realism than Schaffner’s – and did so with a tightly controlled flowing camera work that is the anti-thesis of film “realism”.  Brilliant.

Summer Movie #7 (Kubrick Film Festival #3) – Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960): I have a real love of Hollywood ancient epics, and this is one of the greatest.  Still, it is a movie that has its flaws.  Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay works on many levels (political commentary, traditional historical epic, lionizing biography…), but has a few flat spots.  Still, when it works, it works.  All the best stuff seems to have been written for the Romans, though – it is Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov who make this movie so endlessly watchable.  I also feel compelled to say that as history goes, this film is nonsense, not just in its little details but in its understanding of how the Roman Republic worked.  Also, the Marcus Licinius Crassus played so memorably by Olivier bears no resemblance to the real one (think less aristocratic tyrant and more successful slum-lord who used his profits to buy political power).  How much of this is from Trumbo’s screenplay and how much from the Howard Fast novel it was adapted from, I couldn’t say.  To be fair, when Fast began writing this while serving time for contempt of Congress after refusing to cooperate with HUAC and when Trumbo adapted it while still blacklisted, I’m not sure fidelity to Roman history was at the forefront of their minds.  As far as Kubrick’s work goes, this is the least Kubrick-like of any of his films in appearance and tone.  Director Anthony Mann was replaced one week into the shooting after having finished the opening sequence at the quarry – yet the rest of the film, which Kubrick directed, looks basically like that opening sequence.  Only rarely do we see the idiosyncrasies that mark his other films.  I think one sequence that really shows them, though, is the gladiatorial fight where Spartacus kills Draba (Woody Strode).  It begins with the four gladiators about to fight sitting in silence listening to the small-talk of the Romans who are paying to watch them die.  Then for most of the first pair’s fight, we just see Strode and Kirk Douglas sitting in this small wooden box listening to the sounds of the fight and reacting to their own fears and thoughts.  Then their fight is mostly shot from very low angles except for a couple higher shots, most notably one from behind the spectators showing them talking and barely paying attention to the life and death struggle they initiated.  Most of the rest of the movie is shot in a fairly typical way – static shots, two-camera coverage, etc…   It is somewhat hard for me to believe that the man who directed this movie directed “Paths of Glory” four years before it and would direct “Lolita” two years later, but he did.  It is a film that he famously disowned due to his not having complete creative control over it (star Kirk Douglas was a producer and they have told very different stories over the years about their working relationship on the film.)  Still, this movie really opened the door for Kubrick in that it was the biggest money-maker in the history of Universal Studios up until the release of “Airport” in 1970.  Not brilliant, but still damned good.

Summer Movies 8 & 9 (Insomnia Special) – War and Peace (King Vidor, 1956) & The Duellists (Ridley Scott, 1977): I’ve been having trouble sleeping the last few nights and have watched both of these movies spread out across the last week.  I’ve reviewed both before, so just a couple of stray observations.  Herbert Lom – best knbown for playing Inspector Dreyfus in the Blake Edwards “Pink Panther” movies – plays Napoleon Bonaparte in “War and Peace” and I’d argue he has the most interesting portrayal of the entire film (Lom also had a small role in “Spartacus”, which I watched last night).  I love big historical epics, but it has to be said that while the stars of this movie (Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, and Mel Ferrer) were certainly doing competent jobs, none of their performances really stand out.  Lom’s does.  “The Duellists” is Scott’s first feature and won a “Best Debut” at Cannes.  It is very authentic and features good performances, but what really stands out is the cinematography (Frank Tidy).  The colors are lush and beautiful, the lighting is naturalistic, and in fact Scott has said he was trying to emulate a film I’ll be doing fairly soon as part of the Kubrick Film Festival – “Barry Lyndon”.

Summer Movie #10 (Kubrick Film Festival #4) – Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962): This was part of my summer movie viewing last summer, so, again, I’ll keep this to a couple of observations.  I love the way that the actors’ physicality is used to convey so many of the emotional dynamics in this movie.  James Mason in particular moves from graceful and poised to clumsy and unsure within the same scene.  There are also these wonderfully blocked scenes, like when a seated Humbert is surrounded by three standing people and obviously trapped, or the entire post-dance sequence with Shelly Winters.  We always see texts with the eyes we’ve got at the moment.  I keep seeing fate, first in “The Killing” and now here in the character of Quilty.  It seems to me that Quilty (Peter Sellers) represents Humbert’s drives, weaknesses, and ultimately his destruction.  His sophistication is a pose, he is pretentious over nothing real about himself, he mistakes shallow wit for humor, he is openly lascivious and devious – he is what Humbert is beneath his pose and what he fears he is in his soul.  These weaknesses are Humbert’s ultimate fate – they will destroy him – and that is the first thing we see in the movie.  When he kills Quilty he is really killing himself.  This is driven home by the scene on the desert highway.  The black car, driven by Quilty, stalks him like his most paranoid fears of discovery, like guilt, like death.  When Humbert has a flat tire ( a “blowout”) the car approaches and Humbert shows the first signs of the heart attack that will eventually kill him.  Final observation, here we see that Stanley Kubrick is the wrong director to go to if you want an adaptation of a novel that is primarily driven by the author’s vision.  Like with “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining” Kubrick wasn’t interested in adapting someone’s vision to film – he was always going to find what inspired his own vision and then created from that.  I have friends who have never forgiven him for how different his film versions are from their source material.  I think that is what made him an artist.  Brilliant.

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Ruminations on Renaissance Binge-viewing, May 2014

Posted by Gerald on May 21, 2014

The Borgia viewing marathon is coming to an end, so a few observations.

First, after this I have to say that, overall, I liked the Neil Jordan (Showtime) version better than the Tom Fontana version. Still, Caterina Sforza got a bit of a whitewash here – she was fascinating and powerful, but the show skipped over her purges and massacres (no worse than those of her male contemporaries – but no better either). The Fontana version started off stronger and did a better job of demonstrating the political complexities of the time, but it also went even further over the top with the Borgia decadence stories, which leads me to my second point.

Second, all of the stuff the screen-writers (and others over history) love so much about this is the product of propaganda by the Borgia family’s worst enemies and probably the worst of it is untrue. In all likelihood, the only sin Alexander VI committed that other Renaissance-era popes didn’t was to be Spanish rather than Roman or Italian. Cesare probably didn’t kill his brother Giovanni (Juan). He and Lucrezia almost certainly didn’t commit incest (ditto her and her father). She probably never killed anyone, despite her somewhat lurid rep. Alexander was certainly ambitious and Cesare was as well, and both were ruthless – but no more so than most of the noble scum around them.

Third, this is not a new insight for me but I really despise the European nobility (others too, but I know these guys better). They were murdering, robbing and raping scum with a sense of entitlement and the exceptions to that do not really alleviate my overall dislike of them.

Finally, the Humble Bundle sale that allowed me to pick up Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV for cheap yesterday was well-timed. I’m in the mood for some Machiavellian political domination.

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2014 Movies #2

Posted by Gerald on April 25, 2014

2014 Movie #11 – Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, 2013): Orson Scott Card is a homophobic ass, but he wrote some great books and the one this movie is based on is arguably his best. The movie isn’t the equal of the novel, but it was much better than I feared it would be. It has some great visuals and some decent action pieces. It also features several decent performances, not least from Asa Butterfield who played Ender. The character as portrayed in the film is less nuanced than in the novel (lacking much of that Ender’s youthful arrogance) but is still interesting. The movie does explore some of the relationships that were so significant in the novel, but not to anywhere near the extent the novel did (particularly disappointing is the lack of development of Ender’s rival and friend Bean). Probably the biggest weakness of the film as an adaptation is that most of the novel takes place in Ender’s head. It was not really a big flashy adventure, but the movie tries to make it into one. The filmmakers deserve credit for injecting some of the moral ambiguities of the novel into the film, especially the idea of how Ender and the other children are rather callously used in pursuit of victory. Overall it is worth seeing, but you should really read the novel if you’ve not done so.

2014 Movie #12 – The Sun (Alexander Sokurov, 2005): This is a biographical movie about Emperor Hirohito during the last weeks of World War II and the beginning of the occupation – except it isn’t. Sokurov seems to have had no interest in either who Hirohito actually was or in the events of that time. He depicts a Hirohito who seems to be a version of Charlie Chaplin’s “little tramp” – a somewhat innocent scamp who happens to be the God Emperor of Japan. This likeness is reinforced by scenes where he gazes, for no discernable reason, at pictures of Hollywood stars – especially Chaplin and a scene where unruly American news photographers begin calling him “Charlie” during a photo session in the imperial garden. Issei Ogata’s portrayal affects a strange physicality that is sometimes reminiscent of Chaplin and at others is reminiscent of someone with Down’s syndrome. There are some wonderful scenes, such as one where the emperor is trying to frame a letter to his son about the surrender or a dream sequence where flying fish become American bombers, but overall this film left me cold. This could be more a personal than an aesthetic reaction. My professional life has centered on the reality of historical lives. The more artists simply ignore that reality in support of a vision that has no grounding in it, the more hostile I tend to become. I’m not sure if this is a “bad” movie, but I didn’t react well to it. It may be worth revisiting at a later point for that very reason.

2014 Movie #13 – The Professionals (Richards Brooks, 1966): There was an article about this on the A.V. Club website that inspired me to revisit this film.  It comes in the midst of the mid-60s era of grittier westerns (same year as “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” and three years before “The Wild Bunch”).  It is a movie about greed, honor, and stained idealism.  It features five icons of manly cool (Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, and Jack Palance) facing off in the fierce desert.  It is too awesome for words.

2014 Movie #14 – Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960): I recently watched “The Professionals” which was also written and directed by Richard Brooks and also starred Burt Lancaster.  I think this movie is the best film depiction of American religion ever made.  I don’t mean faith (although it deals with that) or religious truth, but with the social and cultural practice of religion in America and particularly that American invention, revivalism.  We see true belief and cynical calculation; devotion and hucksterism; patriotism mixed with religion; mass media intersecting with faith; and the inspiration and mistakes that come of the cult of personality – all in one movie.  Lifting this even higher is a cast of beautifully realized character.  I’ve never seen a bad performance from Burt Lancaster, but this is his best (and for which he won his only Best Actor Oscar).  Elmer Gantry is a con-man who truly believes, and it is only his belief that makes him such a good con-man.  This also features (all in my opinion, of course) career bests from both Jean Simmons and Shirley Jones (who also won an Academy Award for this film).  This film also features a stand-out performance from one of the best American character actors of all time, Arthur Kennedy, as the agnostic reporter Jim Lefferts.  All of this is built on an Oscar-winning screenplay by Richard Brooks.  Andre Previn was nominated for the score.  This is a movie of big scenes and quiet moments.  If you haven’t seen it yet, go do so at once!  You’ll be in for a treat.

A quick note for any of you who actually read these; I didn’t write anything about “Sunset Boulevard” last night because I just wrote something about that last summer and didn’t have anything to add.

2014 Movie#15 – The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans, 2011): The writer/producer/director is Welsh but the film is Indonesian.  This is an action film that has gotten a lot of positive critical buzz (though definitely not from the late Roger Ebert) which it deserves – to an extent.  This is a story which is lean to the point of emaciated (SWAT team raids Jakarta crime stronghold – there is some minor character stuff and a corruption angle, but that’s about it – and Things Go Wrong).  This is basically an hour and forty minute long series of action sequences – extremely well-done and choreographed action sequences.  The fights don’t quite rise to the cinematic level of the original “Oldboy” but almost.  The pacing is relentless, save for the last boss-fight which drags a bit.  In some ways this movie reminded me of the original “Assault on Precinct 13” (the 1975 John Carpenter movie, not the pedestrian remake from 2005).  It has the same intensity and claustrophobic feeling that movie had in its second half.  It also has visceral and gritty violence – be warned.  If you love well-done martial arts films (as I do), this is your cup of green tea.  This has been a general success with both critics and fans, so a Hollywood remake to screw it up is, of course, already in the works.

2014 Movie #16 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2014): Here is a big budget action movie that surprised the hell out of me. I thought I’d probably enjoy it, but I didn’t expect to find it impressive. I was impressed. Not “Citizen Kane” impressed, but still impressed. When the press about the making of this film began, I had one big question: what the hell is Robert Redford doing here? Mr. “Sundance Film Festival” certainly didn’t need a career reboot, or the money, so what was up? Having seen the movie, I get it now. First, this was technically good. Not just the big effects, but polished film-making. Most notably, it was well-paced. Enough “high voltage action” to make billions of the dollars, but there was also time for – gasp – character development. I also never had the feeling I get with many modern action films that the action sequences are pointlessly long. It worked. But that wasn’t why I was impressed.

The movie did two things that I found impressive and both concerned story and character. First, it took the Steve Rogers story as presented in the first movie as a way to talk about how war veterans so often come home to find they don’t exactly fit. Rather than just using Roger’s being a “man out of time” as either schmaltz or just comedy, they used it to give him a connection with modern war vet Sam Wilson (“Falcon”) and to say something real about the world we live in. The second thing that impressed me was at the core of this story, the civil war inside SHIELD. Redford as an actor brought what was necessary to make his character more than, well, a comic-book villain. Instead he and Hydra come to embody the very real part of our own country that sees order and security as being worth paying any price. This thinking is what gives us Guantanamo Bay and NSA surveillance. There was always something sinister about SHIELD, with its power and its lack of transparency and a tension between that and it being on the side of our heroes. Rather than just wave hands and say, “well, they’re the good guys” this movie put that tension front and center. Redford’s portrayal of Alexander Pierce sold the reality to ground the movie, but Samuel L. Jackson winds up embodying the conflict. He obviously loves the scary lethal machines and the power they represent. In many ways, his coming to see the problem with that power is a more profound development than Steve Rogers giving up being the “good soldier” and becoming a real hero. This is weighty stuff for a “comic book movie”. I think this was really good… even better than The Avengers.

2014 Movie #17 – The Unknown Known (Errol Morris, 2013): This documentary about Donald Rumsfeld was excellent.  It bookends nicely with the filmmaker’s 2003 film on Robert McNamara, “The Fog of War”.  Both deal with men who were in leadership positions during controversial wars.  Both deal with men who were frequently the smartest guys in the room (or at least thought they were).  Both films use extensive interviews that allow their subjects to write their own indictments with their own words.  What is somewhat depressing is how each of these guys basically followed the same trail of ambition combined with a certain view of American national security into bloody and intractable conflicts and how both men seem incapable of seeing their own culpability in these events.    See this!

2014 Movie #18 – RocknRolla (Guy Ritchie, 2008): Regular readers of my little reviews will know I have a soft spot for British crime dramas. This is one of them. This is a solid, but not exceptional, caper film of the same sort as “Layer Cake”, etc… It is very worth watching if this is your cup of tea, but nothing is being transformed here. The best thing about this movie is the cast: Tom Wilkerson, Mark Strong (you’ve seen him in something), Idris Elba, Toby Kebbell (trust me, you probably have seen him too) Tom Hardy, the usually criminally under-used Thandie Newton, and Gerard Butler – who is actually allowed to do some acting in this movie. The two best scenes in the movie center on dancing. Watch them.

2014 Movie #19 – The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010): I’m a few films behind with this director, having not seen either “Silver Linings Playbook” or “American Hustle” yet. Russell managed something rather impressive here; he told a story about overcoming addiction, dealing with family, and winning a world title – and managed to make it not saccharine. In form, the movie is “Rocky” – ordinary guy from the streets comes from behind for the big win. Add in he has a brother who is a former fighter and a current crack addict. Then add an insane family and finding The Right Woman. You’ve seen the whole damn thing before. What makes this great is that Russell and the actors find the truth in this true story. When we see redemption and triumph, it is earned. The key to much of the success is the performances; Mark Wahlberg is good, Amy Adams is great, but Melissa Leo and Christian Bale make the movie work. She sells every bit of being an insane and toxic mom… who really does love her kids. Bale takes his charming crack-addict character and sells both sides of that equation. You see the screwed up addict and you see the guy that everyone loved. When the big fight comes and we hit that point where our hero needs to come from behind, it is Bale who makes it work. He gives a low voiced speech that sets up the “come from behind win” and makes it feel real – not like the cliché it could so easily seem. Excellent movie.

2014 Movie #20 – The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968): This is a surreal film from a man who specialized in surreal films, Frank Perry. His first movie was “David and Lisa”, a love story featuring two mental patients which tried to show the world through their perceptions and his most famous movie was the Joan Crawford biopic, “Mommie Dearest”. After the first cut of the movie, Perry was fired by producer Sam Spiegel (and, evidently, Burt Lancaster, who stars in the film) and a young Sydney Pollack was brought in to do some re-shoots and finish the film. This movie, based on a John Cheever short story, follows a man (Lancaster) on an afternoon in affluent suburbia as he swims through neighbors’ pools across the county on a route home. The whole thing is filmed as a kind of dream turning into a nightmare as it becomes obvious that he is denying his own memories and holding onto illusions about his life. We watch him progress through the movie and, pool by pool and encounter by encounter, have his poise, his charm, and even his masculinity taken from him. We see a man who had been filled with illusions about himself and who had those illusions broken and so retreated into delusions. Lancaster makes this film great. Lancaster enters the movie like, well, Elmer Gantry, all blue-eyed confidence and masculine charm. At the end, he is left shattered and crouching outside the locked door to an empty house that isn’t his home anymore. Lancaster sells every step of that journey. Technically, I didn’t find the movie that interesting. The camera work is good, but not fantastic, earning more points for being willing to experiment than for being successful at doing so. The music score, by first-time composer Marvin Hamlisch, is really a bit over-wrought. The places this movie works are in the screenplay (by the director’s then wife, Eleanor Perry) and in the performances. Many interesting cameos here by Kim Hunter, Diana Muldaur, and others, including the film debut of a young Joan Rivers.

I somehow saw this film when I was a kid, but didn’t understand it. Still, that last image of Lancaster crouching outside his empty house stayed with me. Many years later, in college I think, I read the short story and remembered the movie (being pre-internet, I couldn’t just look up that there had been a film adaptation). I’ve intended to re-visit this film for a long time, but just now got around to it. I’m very glad I did. The movie is a decent example of the kind of film that began to appear in the late 1960s and then disappeared after 1977, but it is made great by a performance by one of the finest movie actors ever (yes, I am a major fan of Burt Lancaster). It is well worth the seeing.

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2014 Movies I

Posted by Gerald on February 19, 2014

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!

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Fall Movies 2013 Pt. II

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.

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Fall Movies 2013 Special Birthday Edition

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.

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Fall Movie 2013, Pt. I

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.

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Summer Movies 2013 Pt. X

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.

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