Summer Movie #1 – Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015): SPOILER-FREE In case you were worried that years of making movies like “Babe” and “Happy Feet” had dulled Miller’s edge – don’t, the guy who made the original Mad Max is still there. In some ways this movie feels more like a sequel to that original film. The Max we meet at the beginning doesn’t feel like the guy who helped the people in “The Road Warrior” or saved the kids in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.” This guy is mad – as in insane. Tom Hardy does a decent job, but this is really Charlize Theron’s movie – and that is not a bad thing at all. The wasteland here is even more horrific than in the earlier films, but it is also beautiful. Some of the shots are like John Ford – if he embraced hyper-violence and decided to do a movie set in hell. Miller managed to do something rare, for me anyway, in this movie. It is an almost constant violent car chase from beginning to end (all the action in the movie basically takes place over two days), but at no time did I find myself so dulled by the stunts (practical, for the most part) and explosions that I lost interest. If you loved the first two movies with that strange visual sensibility and insane 1970s Australian film violence, you’ll love this movie. BTW – Parents, you might not want to take the kids to this one.
Summer Movie #2 – The Cars that Ate Paris (Peter Weir, 1974): There is a straight line to be driven from this movie to the other one I saw today (Mad Max: Fury Road) – and probably driven with in a car covered with spikes. This movie is weird and stylistic and weird and brutal and weird. Peter Weir made this (his first feature film) the year before “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and it is every bit as enigmatic, and even – in spots – as lyrical. The plot, to the extent that it has one, centers on a remote Australian town which causes traffic accidents and then profits from the victims and their cars (including the efforts of a Dr. Mengele-like figure who does unspecified “experiments”). I couldn’t help but think about the old tales of coastal “wreckers” who lured ships to their destruction in order to profit from them. It just gets weirder from there. In a way this is the Australia of “Mad Max” (the original, not the sequels) – towns on the outer fringes of a seemingly decaying society where ruthless violence is the norm and which the movies personify using cars. In both films, the cars becomes the monster of a monster movie – except you never forget it is men operating those monsters. All this symbolism, though, is hidden between an exterior of black comedy. Through most of the running time of this film it has moments that work and moments that don’t, but stick until the ending and you’ll see some genius. For those who know some Australian film, look for appearances by John Meillon and Chris Haywood. There are some “Mad Max” connections in the cast as well: Bruce Spense (the Gyro Captain in “The Road Warrior” and Jedediah the Pilot in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome”) and Max Phipps (the Toadie in “The Road Warrior”) both have significant roles. If you can love a movie for being enigmatic and weird, and especially for being Australian, check it out.
Summer Movie #3 – I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller, 1949): This was Fuller’s directorial debut and he also wrote the film. At first glance this looks like a standard western, but it has some significant elements to it. First, even though Fuller depicts James (played by Reed Hadley) as an affable man with a devotion to his wife, we also see him gunning down tellers in a bank and later hear about the toll his life took on the wife he was devoted too. Fuller doesn’t seem to buy into the “Robin Hood” version of Jesse James that was frequent in Hollywood films and was celebrated in the “Ballad of Jesse James” which is used throughout this movie. Robert Ford, the man who killed James and who is played by John ireland, is depicted as a guilt-ridden and not very smart man who did something he is simultaneously celebrated and despised for. His motivation was love – but unlike many Hollywood films, that is never enough to justify shooting his friend in the back, nor is it enough to save Ford in the end. It is interesting that top billing for the film went to Preston Foster, who played the man who shot Ford, john Kelley. Kelley’s character is a standard Hollywood western hero in many ways. What makes this interesting is that it is clearly Ford who is the protagonist of the film. The result is a more complicated film than most westerns of the day – a film about choices and guilt and how even the best intentions can lead to a man’s destruction.
Summer Movie #4 – The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950): Another western and another film written and directed by Fuller, this time telling the, heavily fictionalized, story of James Reavis who forged documents to support an attempt to lay claim to the then territory of Arizona. Again this is a western that isn’t really a western. It is more of a heist movie, following Reavis’ elaborate plan until it is foiled by the work of a government agent played by Reed Hadley and undermined by love, in a very Hollywood plot. The most interesting thing about this movie is that Reavis is played by Vincent Price in one of the only major non-horror roles of his film career. There is also something here that we see in a lot of Fuller’s films – moral ambiguity. Reavis is a conman who convinces a young girl she is the Baroness of Arizona and then has her raised and educated to assume that role. He then marries her to cement his own claim. However, he is presented as actually falling in love with her, and she with him. On the other side we have angry ranchers and business owners who are ready to either sell-out to protect themselves or commit murder to save their property. Griff – the government agent – is the only traditional “good guy” in the film and much like John Kelley in “I Shot Jesse James” he is one of the least developed of the major characters. One thing that is very clear from these two movies though – they are very entertaining and Fuller is showing promise of the filmmaker he is to become, but he has no idea how to write female characters. Still, this is 1950, so he’s not alone in that then (nor today, for that matter).
Summer Movie #5 – The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller, 1951): This is generally regarded as one of the best war films ever made. Fuller wrote, directed, and produced this movie in 1951 and it was the first film about the Korean War. The best thing about this movie, and about much of Fuller’s work, is how it tells an exciting war story without romanticizing either war or the soldiers who fight. Fuller steadfastly refuses to allow the audience to look away from what war makes men do, but also refuses to take the easy road of condemnation. These men aren’t heroes. These men aren’t villains. War isn’t a heroic quest. War isn’t just hypocritical exploitation. The same ambiguity he brings to war, Fuller also brings to his examination of racism. He uses a North Korean POW to issue a bill of indictment of American racism, and every item is true. He also issues no defense or obfuscation – his only answer is that racism in America is an issue for Americans to solve, not outsiders. It isn’t fully satisfying, but it isn’t supposed to be. All of this is packaged inside what could easily be a fairly trite story, but that Fuller’s directing and many good performances transform into an exciting and powerful film.
Summer Movie #6 – Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963): Another Fuller “cult classic”. Roger Corman is so often held up as the low-budget auteur of American film, but I think that title needs to go to Fuller. Like the other films of his I’ve just watched and written about, he shot this in less than two weeks for almost no money. Fuller doesn’t deal much in subtlety, and this film might be his least subtle – yet it still has layers to it. On top it is a fairly trite story of a reporter (Peter Brock, basically competent as always) faking mental illness to get s sensational story about a murder in an asylum. But then we have the relationship with his girlfriend (Fuller’s then-wife, Constance Towers) which is used as part of the plot to get him committed (with a lurid claim of incest and the lie that she is his sister) but which seems to be somewhat abusive and codependent in “reality.” Also, the scene of her doing a striptease – her job – while singing a lyrical song about love – her passion – is just the beginning of the weird psycho-sexual elements in this movie. Then we have the inmates, depicted with scenery-chewing obviousness by a cast of B-actors. But under that we have wonderful scenes using color stock-footage (in a black-and-white film) to show their inner reality and also some wonderful acting by James Best (I never thought to write that sentence), Hari Rhodes (who is exceptional in this), and Gene Evans (who Fuller introduced in “The Steel Helmet”). Adding a further layer, in each case their insanity can be laid at the feet of elements of American political culture (racism, nuclear arms, the Korean War, etc…) Finally, while not a constant in his work, Fuller once again is dealing with the destructive power of ambition here. Check this out.
Summer Movie #7 – Pather Panchali (Santyajit Ray, 1955): I’ve been hearing about Ray and the “Apu Trilogy” for a long time and this was everything I had hoped for. It was by turns funny and heart-rending in its depiction of a events surrounding the life of a young boy growing up in Bengal. There is no melodrama here, just the drama that happens in people’s lives. I know people have drawn comparisons to Italian neo-realism, but what I kept thinking of were the films of Yasujiro Ozu. The cinematography is beautiful. This is a new restoration by Criterion and it is well worth the seeing. I’m really looking forward to the other two parts.
Summer Movie #8 – Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014): “Starship Troopers” was one of my favorite novels when I was a kid (I also love the movie, but for very different reasons). I wish there was an adaptation of that novel that was more like this movie – more earnest and less satire. This movie was much better than I expected it to be. It has a good story with enough character development to raise it above most modern action/sci-fi films and both Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt give good performances to support that story. The action scenes are well-paced and interesting. The movie has some real moments of both humor and drama. The aliens visual design is good and they are an interesting take on the alien invader theme. The battle suits are very good. No, this is not ground-breaking cinema, but it is a cut above many action movies and deserves a better reputation than it has. If you like this style of movie at all, you owe it to yourself to check this out.
Summer Movie #9 – The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964): I’d be surprised if this movie isn’t one of David Lynch’s inspirations for “Twin Peaks.” Fuller’s love for the lurid is on full display here – prostitution, molestation, and small-town hypocrisy. All of this was a showcase for some powerful performances, especially by Constance Towers) displayed in a movie that is by turns lurid, sensational, and surreal. The story is, frankly, weak. What saves this movie is its style and direction.
Summer Movie #10 – Let the Fire Burn (Jason Osder, 2013): This is a documentary about the 1985 confrontation between the City of Philadelphia and members of the group MOVE. A fire resulting from a police explosive dropped on the roof to clear a bunker the MOVE members had constructed there and the ensuing decision on the part of city officials to “let the fire burn” led to the deaths of seven MOVE members (including that of its founder, John Africa) and four children living in the house, as well as the destruction of 65 homes in the neighborhood. Osder keeps this both visceral and immediate by not using any latter day interviews or analysis. The whole of the movie is constructed from contemporary news reports, film of the commission of inquiry the city held, and a tape of a legal deposition of the only child to survive the fire. The result is a frank and somewhat negative view of the movement, but is absolutely damning in its view of the city government, particularly the police. However, what is damning here isn’t what others say, but what these people say about themselves and the film of their actions before, during, and after this tragedy. In light of everything happening today (Ferguson, Baltimore, what have you…) this film is even more significant than it was at the time of its release. Watch it.