I scraped out my penny jar and went out to see a matinee with Ben, Brad, and Paul on Sunday morning. Five dollars. Not too bad. We saw the new Die Hard film (review to follow). But what I really took away from it was how bloody awful the trailers were. Scary Movie 6? Holy crap, it looks terrible. Like Donovan’s Reef, where you see where you know everyone must have thought they were being funny, but can’t for the life of you figure out why. And then…the trailer for The Heat. Good sweet crap. It’s like looking in to the abyss, and knowing in your very soul that it looks back at you. Every moment of the trailer was like having my scrotum wound up on a spinning wheel. Only really unpleasant. Anyway, I really don’t know how I got so many movies and such in this week. Because I also did a lot of reading and some writing. Not to mention some solid music listening time. Whatever the case, it was a good week.
A Good Day to Die Hard: Look, I’m gonna say something that will almost certainly earn me some hate, and I know frustrates the crap out of my co-Dork Brad. I really like the first Die Hard film. It’s a fun, silly 80s action movie with lots of cool stunts and stuff blowing up (though not even one of my favorites of that time/genre). But I absolutely HATE Die Hard 2 in every way. And I think the rest of the sequels are stupid, though mildly entertaining. This new one is no different. The script is crap. The acting (most likely because of the script) is crap. And yeah, it feels PG-13, because except for one bit of CG blood, the violence is very restrained. But a lot of stuff blows up, and frankly, that’s all I expect from this series. They’re not good. Honestly, they’re not even memorable. And I never find myself thinking, “I need to watch a Die Hard film.” I think the only one of the sequels I’ve ever seen a second time was 2, and that was because Brad wanted me to give it another try (still didn’t like it). Beyond the first one, they’re all pretty meh. And so it is with this latest entry. I had fun watching it, but in a week, I won’t remember it. (edit: this latter prediction was brilliantly prescient -Matt of 5 days later).
Destroy All Planets: Gammera doesn’t think too much of aliens in their striped ball-rings. Wacky fun ensues when two boy-scouts play havoc with a submarine. Like some late Godzilla films, this one relies WAY too much on stock footage, showing large chunks of previous films’ Gammera battles in order to pad its run-time. Clearly, a solid script would have been a bit more helpful. Once the kids get on the alien ship, it gets a bit better. Actually, everything that’s not monotonous stock footage is pretty good. The aliens are freaky. And it’s kind of horribly violent. But it also finds a giant turtle riding a giant squid-alien like a jet ski, so all’s fair, I guess.
Attack of the Monsters: “You’re dumb.” Trouble makers are out looking for a space ship when they get more than they bargained for. By this point, these Gammera films were pretty much goofy kids films. None of the seriousness of the first couple is left. And having the little kids as leads is rough. The crappy marching music that plays continuously is aggravating. I like that this one goes to another world, which makes for plenty of weird things to see. This is another one of those movie from this era where people don’t seem to know the difference between various cosmic bodies. In this case, stars and planets seem to mean the same thing. I remember seeing a lot of movies that talk about going to other galaxies, when really they were talking about other star systems. Seems basic, but I guess looking in books was too hard. Whatever the case, untrustworthy space babes are always a concern when traveling between worlds. Keep watch!
Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (aka An American Love Story): Entirely too made-for-TV. Though the story of Jefferson and Hemings could make for a fascinating movie, this ain’t it. Sam Neill is dashing (in a sophisticated intellectual sort of way) as Thomas Jefferson, and Carmen Ejogo is ridiculously fetching as Sally Hemings. This had to have been a complex and fascinating love affair, as Jefferson was a complicated dude, and from what I’ve read, Hemings was quite a woman. However, here we have Jefferson seeing a beautiful woman and wanting her. I have to imagine if it was just a beautiful woman he wanted, he could have had his pick. And while Ejogo is amazingly beautiful and seems to be a talented enough actress, there isn’t enough in the script to make her seem like someone interesting enough to woo Jefferson. It comes off as, well as what it is, a Hallmark made for TV movie. It feels a bit like a visit to a theme park, like all the surface is there, but the content missing. The old age make-up is generally not good, mostly looking like people have lumps of clay splashed on their faces. In the end, it’s a different look at Jefferson than one might be used to, though again, not a very deep one. I feel like there was so much more that could have been done here. Instead, what we get is one of those high school text book renditions of history. A few dates, a few names, a couple of anecdotes for color, and done. No heart or passion. No dirt under the nails.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers: “I don’t have any friends, Doctor Kibner.” The original is a classic. But this is one of those rare-breed, serious, and worthy remakes. Starting on some distant planet, we see weird alien life launch into space, like plant or fungal spoor. It eventually descends on our unsuspecting world in a rain storm, and the horror begins. Right from the start, there is an unsettling, off balance feel to the movie. Weird angles, suspicious faces, and creepy lighting. Paranoia is whipped up with gusto. This is a story archetype that is one of the fundamentals of science fiction. Who can you trust? Is the person you know and love really who you think they are? Or are they something else, something sinister and alien? On of the more obvious and frequent uses of the concept was in the anti-Communist films so popular in the 50s, but it goes far beyond that, becoming a timeless look at our fears of the Other. We can never really know who someone is outside of ourselves. And can we really know even that? And this is 70s PG, so there is some strong language, some pretty nasty violence, and a bit of nudity. It really isn’t a kid-friendly film.
Just Before Dawn: The 70s weren’t quite over for the makers of this film. Was there some kind of subconscious fear of rural life, or the ‘country’ that had infected city folk? So many movies about the horrors of leaving the city were being made. Right off, this has a dash or two of Texas Chainsaw. But the way it’s shot actually reminds me of early Sam Raimi (remember when he was good?) and early Peter Jackson. In fact, the very opening, looking down through the hole in the roof of an ancient chapel felt right out of Peter Jackson’s low budget horror days. Greg Henry leads a group of young people into the mountains for some camping. George Kennedy is the local ranger who warns ‘em not to go. Them woods got the giggling fat guys in ‘em, and nobody wants that. Not to mention all the twins. And as The Slammin’ Salmon tells us, twins are disgusting, man (not my actually feelings, all you twins out there). It doesn’t really cover any new territory. This was all well explored country by 1981. But, it still has a certain charm. And while I can’t say I especially liked any of the characters, unlike most modern horror movies, I didn’t dislike them. Plus, Deborah Benson is cute, especially when she lets her hair down.
Prince Valliant: “Don’t bring in religion to confound me!” The venerable comic gets a 50s Technicolor treatment, staring a young Robert Wagner. Throw in Janet Leigh (good golly, but she’s lovely in this, and Debora Paget is nothing to sneeze at, either) and James Mason, and you’ve got something. It’s Christian Viking VS. Pagan Viking in a duel for the hearts and souls of Scandia. The locations are beautiful, enhanced occasionally with some pretty good mat paintings. One thing that old adventure films have taught me is that I need to do more wandering/adventuring. Because that seems to be the surest way to stumble upon beautiful women bathing, who will quickly fall in love with you. It’s weird seeing King Arthur portrayed as an old man. I just don’t think of Arthur as old. He should have died in the prime of his life. Whatever the case, this is very much in the style and spirit of those other vibrant and somewhat cartoony medieval adventure films, like the Errol Flynn Robin Hood. It reminds me a bit of that sequence in Time Bandits when they meet John Cleese, and he’s in that ridiculous costume.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance: “He’s mocked my dirks.” This is one of those films that explores the oft repeated cinematic mistake of screwing with your hired killer. If movies have taught me anything, it’s that you should always treat your exceptionally competent and deadly help with respect. If you have a great hitman (or woman) in your employ, and he or she chooses to retire, you give them a care package, a nice bonus, and send them a Christmas card every year for what you hope is a long life. If your executioner does a fine job of taking some princeling’s head off, but it becomes politically embarrassing at a later date, you don’t take it out on him, you simply accept that these things happen, be honest, and move on (maybe take the executioner out to dinner at a nice place…nothing too fancy…just to show that everything is A-OK). But don’t kill his wife, or threaten his kid, or sick assassins on him. Don’t go to some mountain village and kill his master or have his brother shot in the street. These things may seem like good ideas in the heat of the moment. But they are not. Anyway, the movie is pretty cool. Very stylized, with extreme sound design and buckets of blood. The violence is pretty extreme. The duel in the sun drenched field is a nasty highlight. There are some crazy dismemberments in this movie. If Akira Kurosawa’s work was inspired by John Ford, I think these movies were inspired by Sergio Leone.
The Island: “It is no fun in an airplane with a 400lb sow gone ape-shit.” This movie is crazy. Crazy. Michael Caine is a stressed out reporter on a quest to find out what’s up with a bunch of missing boats. He hires the greatest pilot ever to take him and his boy to the Caribbean. In the meantime, some sort of nutty killer is roving the waters with a burning crown. Oh, yeah. Then things get weird. I would actually avoid reading up on this movie before you see it. Not knowing where it’s gonna end up is probably a lot more fun. Overall, it doesn’t live up to the madness of its first 15 or 20 minutes. But it’s oddly enjoyable anyway. The violence in the opening is pretty extreme. The rest of the movie tones it down several notches. And the music? That’s crazy and seemingly inappropriate.
El Condor: Jim Brown and Lee Van Cleef are a dirty pair, out for loads of gold in this odd Western. Van Cleef is ultra-goofy and spastic, which is odd to see. And Brown isn’t playing suave, as he normally would. Lots of killing and shooting. Some very odd bits. A bunch of good twists and turns and back stabbings. Frankly, this was a far better movie than it seemed to be, and much more than I was expecting. It was nice seeing Van Cleef in such a different role. And though he gets more serious and more ‘smooth’ as the film goes on, Brown is a bit goofy in the beginning, too. The women are lovely, and there’s a surprising amount of nudity for a movie of its time. The violence is pretty nuts, too.
Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord- Terror of the Veroids: The first story to feature Mel (gah!) finds the Doctor and his companion on a space ship loaded with mystery. Mel is this perky nightmare of frizzy 80s vacuousness. I think I had tuned out of the show at this point when it was on PBS in the 80s, because my first memory of her was with Sylvester McCoy. Dang, she’s aggravating. Still, when the pod people start a rampage, things got rolling. The overall story is not too bad. It’s very Agatha Christi. The whole season, with its trial frame story is kind of blah.
|"I look like a what!?"|
Branded: This satire about advertising, politics, image, and business takes on a bedtime story feel, with a calm, mellow narrator. Setting it in Russia helps capture all that crazy Cold War history, and the Orwellian boogieman of the State as God. The speech about how Lenin created marketing with his propaganda to sell Soviet Communism, and how everyone else learned from that is pretty spot on. There are elements of Brazil, and as one comes to expect in films like this, Kafka, and for some reason, I kept thinking about The Hudsucker Proxy, and by the end, Videodrome. Like a good bedtime story, it features a weird, transformative quest of a hero who must find himself in order to battle great evil. Will or can anyone understand the transformed man and the message he brings? While this movie is kind of a smorgasbord of previously used ideas, it manages to take those ideas in some interesting ways. Certainly non-standard ways. Does the ending ring a bit false? Yeah. But again, it’s like a fairy tale, and fairy tales often wrap up in less than believable ways. I can’t say that the film is any kind of genius, but for what it is, it’s pretty good. In a way, it feels like all the things Cosmopolis wasn’t.
Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession: A documentary about the ground breaking L.A. channel that helped bring movies of all kinds to viewers, presaging HBO, Showtime, and the rest. Wrapped in that is the tragic story of one of the channel’s driving forces, Jerry Harvey, a mad genius. The wide breadth of what the channel showed made it like a televised version of The AFI theater, or Criterion collection. From trash to art, from foreign to simply unusual, it showed movies many would never otherwise see or even be able to see. Sometimes giving movies that bombed a second shot at life, showing what would eventually be known as ‘directors’ cuts.’ Seeing this makes the movie lover in me so hungry for a taste of all these great movies, and reminds me of the pleasure I receive in sharing my love of film with others. Obviously, there’s though, as you know from the start that it ends in death, both for the Z Channel and for its tempestuous champion. Jerry’s life is a depressing spiral that ended where all too many spirals end. His passion for film and for sharing it was impressive. But the man suffered from severe mental illness. Interviews with actors and directors who had their work shown, as well as co-workers and personal friends of Harvey give a human side to the story, both on the part of those involved and those who were effected. It was an emotional film, and you can see it raw in faces of his friends, who still can not fully reconcile the good times with his violent and ugly exit.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx: “Gyaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!” Our strange heroes are back, eating dumplings and taking names. This series of films features an especially bleak vision of feudal Japan, where danger lurks in every glance, life is cheap (if it costs anything at all), and everyone is unhappy like it’s their job. Samurai films in general owed a lot to Westerns, but this series feels like it’s got more than a dash of Film Noir, not in visual style, but ugly human action. Like the first film, this one features extremely disturbing use of sound design, and for that matter, its own visual language. The film certainly reiterates that classic advice, I think it was from Aristotle, ‘watch out for crazy bitches.’ The cackling lady and her deadly maidens are not a group to run afoul of (or work for), ninja or no. If I ever have a kid, I’m getting that stroller. You can see pieces of this film in many other later movies. What’s really weird though, is that this movie (trippy as it is) is much less trippy than the first one. And as I sit her watching what I’m watching (the Three Storms just killed the Wolverines!), that mere fact speaks volumes.
Started watching season two of Game of Thrones. So far, so good. Maybe a bit much on the sex. I mean, it’s not the later books of Niven’s Ringworld we’re watching, right? Still, I’m digging it. And I like a lot of the new cast. Hope they fare better than some of last season’s.
I finally got back into Fraggle Rock. Seriously, one of the best television shows for kids ever. It’s the perfect blend of thoughtful, ethical, creative, funny, and stamped with that intangible Jim Henson genius. And it’s not condescending. I think that’s why I can watch it as an adult and still feel that wistful sense of childhood wonder. If the stars shifted, water changed course, and the pressures of evolution ever let up, allowing me to have children, this is the kind of thing I’d want them to see.
On Sunday afternoon I finished God is Not Great. A solid read, if not my favorite Hitchens book. Still, gets the blood pumping.