Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fantasy if it was written by sci-fi writers...

So, a random tweet made me think of Robert A. Heinlein's LORD OF THE RINGS, which in turn put me in mind of how classic fantasy is usually very conservative (in the little c sense). Science fiction writers usually have their own brand of crazy political ideology, but at least few of them share the same idiosyncrasies.

So without further ado, here are synopses of how sci-fi writers would have handled some classics of fantasy:

MOUNT DOOM IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert A. Heinlein - Clever, plucky adventurer overcomes monolithic state regulation and transformation into giant floating eye to become successful vulture capitalist. When elven and human monopolists try to break up his free-steading organization, he expands his operations and introduces the Industrial Revolution to his land.

I, HOUSE-ELF by Isaac Asimov - When a house-elf by the name of Dobby breaks the 3 Fundamental Rules of Hogwarts, an investigator from the Ministry of Magic has to figure out what caused this. He discovers a man named Dumbledore is trying to create a cult that will preserve magical knowledge after the collapse of wizard society, hidden as a religion built around a figure called "Harry Potter".

THE DOMINATION OF THE WHITE QUEEN by S.M. Stirling - Sexually-liberated pagan woman flees a disintegrating world to found a new one colonized by survivalists, soldiers of fortune and hunters. She subdues the primitive natives with her superior organization skills and weaponry. By her efforts, she slows global warming and does away with a hopelessly repressed, sexist society. Then a fanatical religious leader shows up with four children to serve as his figureheads, and does away with all her achievements.

I encourage you to add your own attempts in the comments.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Post-Christmas Wishlist, Unlikely To Be Fulfilled Edition

I actually had a pretty decent Christmas, but as I get older, the more Christmas becomes about the joys of giving than getting something. Now that I've reached adulthood and have the internet at my disposal, there are fewer and fewer things that I can't buy or at least borrow/rent.

But there are things that are either in legal limbo or hard-to-find (even on the gray market or in archives) that I'd like to see:

  • the notorious Rolling Stone documentary Cocksucker Blues (which apparently paints them in a worse light than Gimme Shelter!). Forever in legal limbo, because apparently it could destroy the Stones' image in a way that their last 30 years of touring and recording have failed to.
  • the 1926 silent film version of W. Somerset Maugham's The Magician, assistant directed by Michael Powell (yes, of Powell & Pressburger fame!). From what I've read about it, it diverges significantly from the novel and is a possible visual and plot inspiration for several major horror films, including Svengali, and the Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein.
  • the famous "last" film of Orson Welles, The Other Side of the Wind. The cast includes Claude Chabrol (RIP), Dennis Hopper (RIP), John Huston, Edmond O'Brien, Susan Strasberg, Rich Little and Cameron Mitchell. It's mostly been edited/completed by Peter Bogdanovich, but it's held up by legal complications from Welles' estate (or more precisely, Welles' daughter).

What films do you guys wish to see, despite similarly impressive obstacles standing in the way of their release?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Such an unlikely Christmas movie...

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
directed by John Hough [who also directed Escape From Witch Mountain, oddly enough.]
Starring Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill and Gayle Hunnicutt

So I watched Legend of Hell House yesterday and I just realized that, since the science team's stay in the house starts on Monday December 20th and runs through Friday December 24th, technically, it's a Christmas movie. I can't remember if the book takes place over the same range of days, but since my copy of the book is packed away, and since Matheson wrote the screenplay and the book, I'm guessing it does.

I also doubt it's a coincidence or random, given the intelligent way Matheson went about his horror. Hell House is probably my favorite work of his, just because he follows through on the haunted house tropes with his own twist, in ways that very few other haunted house stories ever do. He's got the right balance of tastelessness and restraint.

But Hell House certainly isn't a Christmas movie in the sense of Die Hard or Gremlins or Black Christmas, where the Christmas cheer is a counterpoint to the darkness of the human soul. In this film, Christmas just isn't.

And it's not that Legend of Hell House is post-Christian in the way that most haunted house movies seem to be. After all, where vampire movies usually acknowledge the trappings of Christianity, movies like The Haunting and The House on Haunted Hill take place in a world where only science and vague mysticism are the only responses to the supernatural. Amityville Horror might be the only film (off the top of my head at least) that uses religion specifically to combat the haunting (even if it fails).

[Digression: My feeling has always been that hauntings (outside of possession) harken back to our pagan roots. Not that they can't happen in Christian times or areas, but that the very idea is outside the boundaries of the Christian afterlife. After the resurrection, there should be a place in the afterlife for everyone, whether good or bad. No one can slip through the cracks of God's plan, after all. And, especially as a Catholic, I feel like every circumstance is covered by some part of Heaven, Hell or purgatory.

Obviously, that doesn't mean ghosts don't scare me or interest me. There's just something in the concept that conflicts with the idea of an afterlife ruled by an omnipotent god.]

But LoHH does attempt to grapple with the spiritual. Florence Tanner (played by Pamela Franklin with a wonderful mix of naivete, sanctimoniousness and actual innocence) is explicitly Christian. In the book, if memory serves, she's some denomination of American evangelical, though in the film she seems more Anglican. The details of her religiosity are only sketched in, but there's no doubt that she's representing a Christian viewpoint and that the power(s) haunting Hell House attack her faith with blasphemy and mockery. Her faith endangers the investigation ( it's never made clear if her attempted destruction of Barrett's machine is because it could destroy a soul or because she's under Belasco's power, and the question is quite disturbing) but she's not completely wrong about the haunting when she's arguing with Barrett.

Pardon Pamela Franklin. She's just a little cross.

My bad puns aside, the Christ of LoHH, insomuch as he's acknowledged, is the Christ of the Crucifixion.* The suffering, tormented Christ, the Christ with a crown of thorns. At the end, maybe there's a hint of the Christ of the Resurrection, as McDowall's character's final lines hold out hope for salvation even for the evil spirit haunting Hell House.

But the Christ of the Nativity? The one who was greeted with "peace on earth and good will towards men"? That Christ is nowhere in evidence. 

And yet...

When McDowall and Gayle Hunnicut walk out of the house at the end, it is the day of Christmas Eve.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Well, they certainly didn't forget the red. But where's the green?

* I wonder what the origin is of the Christian "Hell House", the evangelical response to Halloween's "haunted houses"? Is there a very religious Matheson fan who was also anti-Halloween? And what does it say that the hell houses often embody a threat more real to their attendees than the haunted houses? Few people leave a haunted house with an enduring existential fear. But a hell house seems meant for the same purpose as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"... 

Hell House   The Legend of Hell HouseThe Haunting

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Wrapping yourself in the flag...

Over on the newly revived Unplanned Misadventures of Mirmir and Bess (come for the anecdotes of fun adventures, stay for the feminist/anti-imperialist dissection of nerdery), Miriam dissects the white supremacist boycott of THOR very well, but I wanted to respond to the fact that she's never been a fan of Captain America.

And that's because Captain America's adventures are probably consistently the most politically complex of any Marvel superhero.

I think Marvel has always known that Cap as a character is loaded with political significance, both due to his wartime popularity and the way he stands for America. Unlike a lot of other "patriotic" heroes who had cute names or historical inspirations, his name proclaims that he represents America. Which immediately

And writers for Marvel certainly figured this out relatively early. While Green Lantern was awkwardly trying to prove that he was concerned about the inner-city when not fighting Sinestro (in what reads now as a Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? argument for tolerance), writers of Cap grappled with more complex issues.

Steve Englehart's run in the early 70s (collected here and here), though sometimes clumsily and earnestly written, was an incredibly ambitious attempt to grapple with the problems of post-Vietnam/Watergate America. Cap acquired a black sidekick from the inner-city who disagreed with Cap's more conservative views. Cap encountered an insane anti-Communist imitator who embodied the worst of 1950s McCarthyism. And he faced a conspiracy led by the Committee to Re-establish America's Principles (just read the bolded words), a clear attack on Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President, which attacked Cap as a left-wing radical for his moderate views. Englehart's first major storyline culminated in a showdown at the White House where a shadowy figure in the Oval Office committed suicide to avoid paying for his crimes against the American people.

And in the 80s, while DC's British Invasion pushed forward the subject matter and tone of comics, Mark Gruenwald's run on Captain America and Squadron Supreme tried to do the same for Marvel's titles. While Squadron Supreme certainly deserves further examination, Gruenwald's attempts to engage with Reagan's "Morning in America" in Cap are also quite canny.

Gruenwald's most important political storyline was one where a Senate Subcommittee decided that Captain America's political loyalties were way too nuanced and unreliable and that Steve Rogers (Cap's alter-ego) had to be replaced by someone else. The irony that a man who fought Nazis in World War II was insufficiently patriotic for Reagan's America was subtly underplayed.

In the ensuing storyline, the Senate selects a character named the Superpatriot to replace Steve Rogers. He gets the job after all sorts of staged and falsely spun PR antics that show him as more "law and order" than Cap. As the storyline unfolded, John Walker (the new Cap) proved himself to be more brutal and less competent than his predecessor and easily manipulated by his enemies. In the end, it falls to Steve Rogers and his more compassionate/moderate left style to save the world where the jingoistic Reaganite asshole failed.

This barely scratches the surface of the ways Cap's been used to comment on America's view of itself and how we define the ideal American. Some of these stories are clunky, especially compared to the more stripped-down "realist" style most superhero comics prefer these days, but they do make ambitious attempts to grapple with America the ideal versus America the reality.

Englehart uses Cap to grapple with Watergate.
(Thanks, Paul Constant for the image.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

One last thing about 55 DAYS AT PEKING...

During one sequence set in the Forbidden City, the camera pans past to take in all the exotic ornamentation... and shows a statue of a white elephant.

Manny Farber would be proud.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

An epic problem's not a problem for me: 55 DAYS AT PEKING (1963)

Directed by Nicholas Ray (and Andrew Marton and Guy Green)
Starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, David Niven, John Ireland and a bunch of white people in yellowface make-up (including poor Robert Helpmann)

I better start off by admitting I've never seen King of Kings. I know Nicholas Ray as the guy who made Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause (among others). And they're big films, epic emotionally and physically, but still personal.

55 Days at Peking doesn't feel personal. It feels like a Samuel Bronston production. Mr. Cairns, whose Late Show Blog-a-thon I'm piggy-backing on, has already gone into Samuel Bronston's gift for Spanish tax shelters and destroying talented auteurs from the '50s (poor Anthony Mann). (At least Uwe Boll's main artistic victim is himself.)

And we're back in Spain (here playing Peking), with star Charlton Heston, and now it's poor Nicholas Ray having a heart attack trying to dramatize an epic historical event.

And it certainly feels like the kind of film that would give someone a heart attack. In most of the crowd scenes, the details are way too busy, overwhelming the eye and the attention, to the detriment of the story and shot composition. Eventually the story itself overwhelms any attempt at characterization by about an hour and a half in (about the time the intermission ends), and characters disappear for long stretches of time, to be replaced by explosions and extras. Spectacle qua spectacle just drains you, weakening previous effective scenes with repetition.

There are some nice grace notes, especially in the first part of the film. When Ray (or whoever is behind the camera) is shooting a couple of people together, it can be very effective. There are two scenes practically back-to-back about an hour and fifteen minutes in which first Heston's character and then Niven's character are put through the wringer as they risk losing someone they love to combat. Heston actually emotes in a subtle way, battling back a mix of prejudice, anger and despair as he tries to tell a half-Chinese girl her American father is dead. And it's framed in a half-ruined church, with a priest checking in from over an altar, in half-light.

On the acting front, Ava Gardner is flirty and beautiful, Charlton Heston is comfortably being Charlton Heston and Robert Helpmann, so wonderful in The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, decides to try out for a role as Republic serial villain.
Robert Helpmann will finally crush Flash Gordon!

David Niven's the one who comes out of this film smelling like roses. It helps that his character is the most complex. He's a good husband, a loving father, and a talented diplomat; he's charming and friendly even to someone as frustrating as Heston's Major Lewis. But in the name of peace he's willing to risk the lives of everyone in the foreign sector, including innocent civilians, and we already know his larger goal of preventing large-spread violence is going to fail.

An interesting sidebar: I wonder if this film could have been released any time other than 1963. Earlier than that and too many people might been bitter about the Korean War to want to see a movie about China's first fight against the West. Make it so much as a year later, and too many people would have seen uncomfortable parallels with what was going on in Vietnam. The muddled politics would have probably made it too hard for either side, left or right, to cheer it on (unlike, say, The Ballad of the Green Berets). As it is, when Heston's Marine says something like, "I'm just a soldier patrolling rice paddies in the back country" before demanding more soldiers, I get an uncomfortable shudder knowing what is coming down the pike for '60s America.

Anyway, the Boxer Rebellion ought to be a dramatically interesting subject for a movie. The problem is that this film is wedded to a "oh no, these white people are in danger" story-line that really limits it. Perhaps the problem is that, after a certain point, all the initiative and maneuvering is taking place in other military camps or in the Forbidden City, so that we only see our heroes reacting to things. The plot itself becomes a war of attrition on our attention, which is thematically appropriate but rather boring when it happens unintentionally.
I'm pretty sure they stole this shot for Ghostbusters.

Maybe part of it is just that I keep thinking a movie about the Peking embassies trying to maintain their Western way of life in the face of logistical and political impossibilities on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion would have been a fascinating film. But it's not one that would have starred Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, let's be honest.

So we get a happy ending where a multi-national force marches in to strip China of its autonomy and Charlton Heston reaches out his hand from astride a horse to a little half-Chinese girl (who is really us, we all suddenly realize in the audience as the horns toot and strings swell and a supporting character gives an approving glance) and offers to give her a ride back to America.

But then again, there's a strain of cynical irony deep down in the grain of the film as we hear Russian aristocrats and Austro-Hungarian diplomats talking about imposing their will on China, not realizing they'll be in the dustbin of history in less than two decades. Or when Heston and Gardner flirt and waltz in an ancient temple, as an austere, ageless, uncaring Buddha stares down at them, knowing that this too shall pass. People come and go, but they won't stay. Nations come and go. Trends come and go.

And an exhausted Charlton Heston, worn out from a day of subduing natives, will collapse on his bed, a cross between the pieta and the dying Marat, and that little half-Chinese girl will look out from behind the rubble, afraid to approach. And she waits.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Three views of Yogi Bear

(Inspired by this FunnyorDie video. With apologies to Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy and Alan Moore)


Yogi and Boo-Boo returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.
Without his fedora, Yogi's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. "Take her off and thow her where you thrown the others," he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.
"She was a talker, wasn't she?" Boo-Boo said, sliding down the ditch with a chuckle.
"She would of been a good woman," Yogi said, "if it had been somebody there to maul her every minute of her life."
"Some fun!" Boo-Boo said.
"Shut up, a-Boo-Boo," Yogi said. "It's no real pleasure in life. Just pic-a-nic baskets."

And they are picnicking, the ground slamming under their jackboots and the rangers grinning hideously under their canted hats. Towering over them all is Yogi and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and dark and hairy, like an enormous teddy-bear. He never sleeps, he says. He says he'll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the Bear. He wafts his fedora and the furry dome of his skull passes under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the pic-a-nic baskets and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and eating at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He picnics in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He says he is smarter than the average bear.  He is picnicking, picnicking. He says that he will never die.

"Hello, Smith. I was hoping we'd have the chance to talk.... I know people think me callous, but I've made myself feel every picnic. By day I imagine endless sandwiches. By night... Well, I dream about walking past the same cave... no, never mind. I'd hoped you'd understand, unlike Boo-Boo..."
"Yes, I understand, without condoning or condemning. Ursine affairs cannot be my concern. I'm leaving this park for one less complicated. Goodbye, Yogi."
"Ranger, wait, before you leave... I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end."
"Nothing ever ends, Yogi. Especially not a Hanna-Barbera cartoon."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Overheard at Runyon Canyon

To be fair, he is a creationist

Wife: How long ago do you think they put this here? A hundred years?
Husband: The trail or the mountain?

Sharon Osbourne's Alaska?

Guy #1: I don't even know who she is.
Guy #2: She's Sarah Palin's daughter. She's the only person to gain weight on that show.
Guy #1: Kelly Osbourne got hot on that show!

Mr. Ed's people had a hard time keeping him in line...
Guy in wife-beater: I couldn't believe I was hearing it from the horse's mouth.
Friend: (sympathetically) That's why you need paper on whoever you're developing.

Friday, December 3, 2010

In case anyone needed an idea for a Christmas gift....

Warner Brothers' Archive (their Burn-On-Demand DVD service) just issued the film version of Richard Stark's The Outfit, one of my favorite Richard Stark novels. It's part of the Parker series, about a sociopathic robber/thug who is also strangely professional. This time, Parker (in the movie, his name is Macklin) and his outlaw cronies decide to start robbing from the mob.

And it's got Robert Duvall, Karen Black, Robert Ryan and Joe Don Baker. The film is a '70s exploitation fan's dream!

I doubt it's as good as the amazing and strangely European New Wave-influenced Point Blank, based on a different Richard Stark novel, but still, I'm excited.*

(And I noticed they just put out Pretty Maids All in a Row as well! Sleazy Roddenberry/Roger Vadim collaboration from the 70s! Yay! )
*Also, I forgot Godard's Made in the USA is based on The Jugger. It's great how love for Stark bridges high-concept action films and artsy weird films. Though now I'm just thinking of Anna Karina and Marianne Faithfull.

The Outfit: A Parker Novel (Parker Novels)Point BlankPretty Maids All In A Row [Remaster]The Jugger: A Parker Novel (Parker Novels)Made in U.S.A. (The Criterion Collection)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Weird trivia you can learn from reading Variety...

I didn't realize that Ronni Chasen (the publicist who was shot and killed recently) was actually Larry Cohen's sister. She worked as a publicist on Hell Up in Harlem & The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.

As much as I love my sister, I doubt we could ever collaborate in any way on a piece of art. More power to her and Larry for getting along well enough to work on two films!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Season of the Witch

The She Beast
d. Michael Reeves, 1966
Starring Barbara Steele, Ian Ogilvy, and John Karlsen

In Communist-era Hungary, a vacationing English couple (Ian Ogilvy and Barbara Steele) find themselves dragged into a supernatural curse from 200 years ago when Veronica is possessed by a witch killed in the 18th century. Unfortunately, the only person able to help John exorcise his wife is a musty old dispossessed descendant of the Van Helsing clan (John Karlsen, who’d later pop up in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure).

            The first Michael Reeves' film I saw, Witchfinder General (a.k.a The Conqueror Worm) was the last one he made before dying at the young age of 25. It’s an epic and effective period horror film, full of amazing performances married to rich visuals. It is one of the few horror films to effectively attack the voyeurism of the crowd without feeling hypocritical.

            And this film is nowhere near that one.

            Now, the DVD Netflix put into my possession is partly to blame. The film has a lot of problems, but they’re exacerbated by an awful print that frequently devolves into a bunch of indistinct blobs, with very poor sound quality. Pity poor Barbara Steele, whose beauty is almost totally invisible. It makes me worry that the rest of Reeves’ films are sitting in a rubbish heap somewhere, rotting away.

            But even if the actual materials were restored, this film would still be problematic. The script is incredibly episodic, with complications and delays inserted into the script to pad it out to feature length. Van Helsing’s acts of incompetence fits his character somewhat, but an endless car chase and comic relief Communist police are just infuriating.

            The shame of it is, there are a few things that hint at Reeves’ talents. The titular she beast, while occasionally ridiculous-looking, has a great concept. Her hideous face and ape-like build, her age belied by furious strength, does make her uncanny. You can see why this woman inspired fear in an entire village. And there a lot of neat little touches, such as a murder timed to coincide with a cock fight.

            But way too little time is spent on the witch and too much time is spent on an arbitrary exorcism process or comic relief. Too bad this makes up half of Reeves’ film oeuvre in print. Hopefully someday we’ll see The Sorcerers, his film with Boris Karloff, in a good print. 
D- for presentation, C- for content
(The link below is supposed to be to a much better transfer supervised by the original producer, in original 'Scope ratio)
The She-Beast
Witchfinder General

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Under construction

Fooling around with new looks for the blog.
In the interim, some recommendations:
Nico's THE END concert album is a pretty damn amazing slice of wintry Nordic depression. You'll probably want to follow it up with something optimistic as a chaser, but it's a great album for a post-hangover mood or a "the holiday is over" feeling.
The End

And maybe that chaser should be Big Boi's recently released Sir Lucious Left Foot... The Son of Chico Dusty, which is a salacious, gleeful and complex glob of funk that I can't stop listening to.
Sir Luscious Left Foot... The Son of Chico Dusty

And if you need a movie that out-actions the summer blockbusters that are finally coming out on DVD, watch The Good, The Bad and The Weird. This Korean kimchee Western is a delicious mix of history, geopolitics, martial arts, gunfights and slapstick, that calls to mind Takashi Miike and Jacques Tati collaborating on an action film.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I hated, hated, hated this movie...

Tim over at Antagony & Ecstasy just posted a review of Song of the South that was calmly reasoned, yet empathetic, dealing with the complexities and problems of race in film in Hollywood's Golden Age. I think he's right about the hypocrisies and blind spots in how and why people decide to whitewash history, and I don't doubt he's right.

However, I had an interesting experience when I sat down to watch The Mask of Fu Manchu, the 1932 version starring Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy. It was just so hateful I just couldn't finish it.

Now, I've watched some films that are notoriously hard to watch (such as Cannibal Holocaust) and I've watched films with bad racial politics (Gone With the Wind). But despite beautiful production design and a wonderfully campy performance by Boris Karloff, I just couldn't watch more than 30 minutes.

Because, in contrast to Song of the South, this is a film bound up in racist ideology, without any sense that anyone involved was trying to do something other than insulting. It is a film that sees miscegenation as more horrifying than any type of torture, that dismisses a variety of cultures and nations as one monolithic evil entity, and indulges in some of the worst "yellowface" casting ever. As far as I watched, there was not one single Asian person in the cast.

And meanwhile, the white "heroes" are such awful assholes and idiots, with no sense that anyone involved thought they are anything but justified. They talk about their servants in the most insulting terms and treat them brutally, and are surprised that they are betrayed! They are aghast at the idea that the Chinese might want Genghis Khan's artifacts for their own use instead of stuck thousands of miles away in the British Museum! They wonder at the glory of an "unplundered tomb" right before they set to destroying and plundering it! There is no irony, no nuance, nothing to betray even a hint that these behaviors are not the white man's right as a superior being.

I certainly don't want it banned, but I'm shocked that this can show on TCM (a channel I admire and watch religiously) without a hint of controversy, while Song of the South remains in limbo. And the next time someone goes on about how we need more movies like in the old days, when men were men and women were women, etc., I'll remember that the era they speak so fondly of also produced filth like this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Between finally catching 5 Million Years to Earth (a.k.a Quatermass & the Pit) and watching a ton of Dr. Who, I'm curious as to what the timeline for each franchise (because Quatermass was a franchise, for a short time) and their various successes have to say about British science fiction and popular taste about science-fiction in general.

Hypothesis: The Quatermass series' subject matter is generally the failings of man and nature, and how man's organizations worsen those traits. Dr. Who's subject matter is the wonders of man and nature, and how most problems are best solved by an individual's bravery, compassion and intelligence. So Quatermass' success suggests a period of disillusionment or uncertainty, Who's success suggests an approaching period of optimism and excitement.

Just an idea. Anyone with any opinions on this? I can already see some flaws with the societal interpretations I've suggested, but anyone with a counter-argument about the way I've characterized the two franchises?
Quatermass & The Pit
Quatermass 2
Doctor Who: The Complete Fourth Series
Doctor Who: The Complete Second Series
Doctor Who: The Complete First Series

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Me? I'm a businessman. You and me are going to do a little business..."

Note: Another old draft I reread and realized was publishable. More new content soon.

Act of Violence (1948; d. Fred Zinneman, starring Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh and Mary Astor)

I'm a Van Heflin fan. That's kind of an odd thing to say, if only because his filmography, while not undistinguished, is fairly minor. An important supporting role in Shane, a lead in the original 3:10 to Yuma, and a bunch of roles in a mix of mostly forgotten films. However, he was one of the stars of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Kirk Douglass' debut! with Barbara Stanwyck), where his unshowy but solid performance provided the whole foundation of the film. Without him, there is no place for Stanwyck and Douglass' neurotic performances to go.

What I loved about his performance in that film is the way he played a tough good guy who is always one bad choice away from becoming a thug. He's got good impulses and empathy, but he usually bristles at the first sign of confrontation, holds onto grudges and loves to play the angles. And these might have served his character well in the army, but in Strange Love they keep pushing him to the edge of criminality.

So I feel vindicated by his performance in this film, where he plays a nice, hard-working family man... with a very dark secret. It's the polar opposite of his role in Strange Love, and he plays it like a craftman, carefully but with no showiness or cheap tricks. The rest of the film is like this, stripped down and sleek, with few frills, but it puts everything in service to the story.

Act of Violence starts with a limping man (Robert Ryan) in a rain-soaked trenchcoat going into his apartment, grabbing his gun and heading straight for the bus depot. He buys a ticket to California,  arriving on Memorial Day in a small town a couple hours outside of LA. He immediately gets a hotel room, ignoring all the festivities, and starts looking in the phonebook for Frank Enley.

Meanwhile, Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is at the dedication of a housing development he helped construct, where his business associates praise his hard work and joke about his distinguished war record.  After the ceremony, Frank, his wife Edith (a young Janet Leigh) and year-old son Georgie head home, where he packs for a weekend fishing trip at the lake with his neighbor Fred (Harry Antrim). He leaves a little bit before the limping man shows up, asking for Frank. Edith tells the stranger that he just left for the lake but he should be back by Monday. So the limping man, gun still concealed in his trenchcoat, sets out for the lake.

Bad timing and Frank's own surprising paranoia keep the limping man away for a day more, but when Frank leaves for a business conference in LA and Edith confronts the limping man, she finds out that Frank's distinguished service in WWII acquired an awful blot while he was in a POW camp and Frank's pursuer is his old army buddy Joe Parkson. As for how Joe got the limp... well, let's just say it's tied to that same POW camp. And by the way, we've still got another hour to go in the film. And we still haven't seen the titular Act of Violence yet...

For a movie that sounds like an '80's action film, Act of Violence is mostly devoted to building tension. Joe's unflagging pursuit of Frank hangs like a cloud over everything, even when Frank doesn't realize he's being chased. The first fifteen to twenty minutes, as we watch Frank barely evade Joe by sheer coincidence, is like a cinematic response to "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", with doom waiting around every corner, never thwarted, just delayed. 

For a film noir, in fact, this film actually contains a fair amount of moral complexity. It never sinks into the easy nihilism that imitators usually pick up (i.e. everyone's flawed and corrupt). Instead, it shows the crucible of war, where a fundamentally decent man makes an awful decision in a moment of weakness and is punished for it. I don't watch the movie wanting Enley let off the hook (there's a sense throughout that Frank knows he deserves to be punished but is afraid to face that), but Parkson murdering him will not solve anything. In fact, it will just corrupt Parkson. Act of Violence actually manages to find a cathartic way out of this conundrum that doesn't feel cheap or sentimental, but offers a hope of redemption all the same. B+

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"It's not a screenplay. It's my life." June Film-log

While I was going through and deleting old drafts that were no more than a half-written sentence, I came across these two entries from my June film-log that were in publishable shape.

Popcorn (1991, d. Mark Herrier/Alan Ormsby?) - The release date says '91, but almost every other aspect of this movie screams '80s. A bunch of college students holding a horror movie marathon at an old movie theatre find themselves getting killed by a face-changing maniac. Most of the murders are committed with props from '50s b-movies (think William Castle-themed murders). Reasonably inoffensive, but does nothing both Scream, Darkman and Waxwork did better, with better casts. Alan Ormsby, as screenwriter and possible co-director, proves that Bob Clark deserves most of the credit for their collaborations. I wasn't even interested in finishing it. D

Up (2009, d. Pete Docter) - Don't know what I can add. Great film about an old man & a little kid finding in each other the family they've lost. The first 15 minutes, which elapses with almost no dialogue, has to be the poignant depiction of love and loss I've seen in a while. Personally, I love how the dog henchmen are still dogs underneath it all, down to the suspicion of mailmen. A+

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Department of "Fan" Service, AFI Edition

Dear Tim,
you should know that Aaron Sorkin likes All the President's Men. As in, really, really, really likes All the President's Men. He said that it's a film that you can watch 8 or a dozen times and still find something new every time. So your good taste is shared by one of the luminaries of screenwriting.

No surprise, really, but sometimes validation is a wonderful thing.
Mr. K
P.S. Everyone else, read Mr. Brayton's review of All the President's Men. He really breaks down why the film is amazing in much better ways than I feel capable of.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

AFI: Hearts & Minds, 1900s Edition

AMIGO, directed by John Sayles, 2010
Starring Garret Dillahunt, Chris Cooper, Lucas Neff and DJ Qualls [Although the main characters are actually the Filipino actors who probably won't get any billing on the poster, if this ever gets theatrical release]

In some ways, the story of how Amigo came about is the most interesting part of it. John Sayles has apparently been working on a screenplay about the 1900s for a while, during which he researched the Spanish-American and Filipino-American War.  He eventually realized that his screenplay was way too ambitious to ever get produced, so he decided to change it into a novel. While he was doing some additional research in the Philippines with Joel Torre, who is a famed actor in the Philippines,  he realized he could shoot at least the portion of the story set in the Philippines for a relatively small budget. So with the help of a Filipino poet, he translated portions of it into an obscure dialect of Tagalog while having his Cantonese actors translate the dialogue themselves, hoping they would tell him if the messed up a line. As of now, it has no distribution, so he's hoping that the Filipino community will help build some word-of-mouth.

Now, I don't want to sell Amigo short. It's just that what I just wrote up there sums up, in miniature, the problems of making movies today and the ways that directors are trying to get around those obstacles, such as filming in cheap locations and aiming at niche markets. And yet, it's also an echo of the relationship that Roger Corman (one of Sayles' mentors) had with Filipino director Eddie Romero in the 1960s.

However, I can see why this film currently lacks distribution. It's not a bad film but... well, I'll get to that in a minute.

Because Amigo's actual story is also pretty fascinating. Brief refresher, for people who aren't history buffs: at the end of the 19th century, America declared war on Spain over what are now thought to be dubious causes (such as the sinking of the USS Maine). The US conquered Cuba very quickly and the Spanish surrendered. The Philippines decided that they would revolt, so they would be democratic like Cuba, and the Spanish handed the Philippines over to the Americans, who found themselves in the awkward position of squashing a pro-democracy revolution. The fight between the Americans and the insurrectos dragged on long after the cessation of hostilities in Cuba, and sparked a major debate about American imperialism that included such luminaries as Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan and Rudyard Kipling.

Of course, Sayles' treatment of the subject only requires you to know that the US is in the Philippines, it's a sideshow to the war in Cuba, and no one quite knows how to handle the natives now that the Spanish have left. When a small unit of American soldiers led by Lieutenant Compton (Dillahunt) set up camp in a rural Filipino village, the village headman Rafael (Joel Torre) has to strike a balance between his village's welfare and the risk of being seen as a collaborator by the insurrectos, whose number includes his brother (Ronnie Lazaro) and his son. All of this, of course, complicated by the communication gap and the long-festering envy and hatred present in any community, no matter how small.

To Sayles' credit, the movie mostly unfolds from Rafael's point-of-view. The American soldiers are definitely the outsiders, an alien element that disrupts a well-established way of life for almost inscrutable reasons. Nor is he romanticizing that way of life. He makes perfectly clear that there were tensions and problems in the community before the Americans came. However, they don't have anywhere near the knowledge or understanding to identify, let alone fix, those problems.

And the movie certainly plays to Sayles' strengths. Both the script and the direction are focused on developing the life of the village, so that, for example, when the soldiers kill the village's water-buffalo, the audience understands the tragic ramifications of this act. The long sequences devoted to the building of a house or the planting of a field help us better understand this world and what is being disrupted (or what could be built).

While Sayles sometimes hits the allegorical elements a little hard (there are more than a few lines about winning hearts and minds or how such-and-such an act isn't "torture"), he does a good job of dramatizing the plight of the village without turning either the guerillas or the American soldiers into mustache-twirling villains. There's one particularly well-edited sequence cutting between Dillahunt's reading of an order and a guerilla proclamation being delivered that drives home the utter impossibility of remaining "neutral" in a conflict where even neutrality is seen as treason. And there are a few clever scenes of Americans giving orders that are translated into cynical asides by their main translator, a disillusioned Spanish priest.

However, the movie has several major flaws. The film is filled with way too many characters, and while we see hints that the actors have done their homework and are inhabiting fully-developed characters, we are rarely privy to anything that proves this. Most of the soldiers are stock war movie cliches, who can be identified as Soldier with a Thing for a Native Girl, The Drunk, The Intellectual, the One With the Clap, the Dutiful Sergeant, and etc. Dillahunt is given a little more to go on, as a man trying his best to be both moral and professional in a situation where neither is possible. And Chris Cooper does manage to give his savage Army colonel a specificity that grounds his cruelty in the real world. Even the villagers, save for Rafael, function more as plot devices or local color than people facing moral dilemnas.

On top of that, Amigo struggles to move out of the idle hangout mode even when a different energy is called for.  When Rafael's two worlds meet for an open shooting war, the movie still maintains a leisurely "let's stay for a while and just watch" quality. The languid feel of the film sometimes works to its advantage, but other times it just makes a two hour film feel much longer.

There are other minor problems as well, such as Sayles' ending, which thematically makes sense but is executed in such a way as to make the viewer feel like Sayles is hammering the point into their head.

So, a noble experiment, but a failed experiment. I hope this signals a new, daring stage in Sayles' career and not a last desperate stab at relevance. Because Amigo inhabits a no-man's-land between the two extremes.
Eight Men Out (20th Anniversary Edition)
Return of the Secaucus 7