Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

jodorowskys_dune_xlgJodorowsky’s Dune started making waves on the festival circuit last year, and the more I heard about it, the more I wanted to see it. Here’s the short version, if you’re scratching your head: the celebrated surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) tried, in the 70s, to make a movie version of Dune. This documentary tells that story.

That brief synopsis, though, gives you no real idea of what is waiting for you in this film. I placed my new blu-ray in the player, ready to find out – and found I had the first defective disc I’d encountered since switching to blu-ray several years ago. An exchange was managed easily enough, but it was then late Saturday night before I got the chance to revisit it – and it turned out to be exactly what I needed, at exactly that time and place. And that is so Jodorowsky.

403827678_640I had been aware of the plans to make Dune – I think they were dutifully reported in Heavy Metal magazine, because, after all, Moebius was the first of Jodorowsky’s “spiritual warriors”, and because it was Jodorowsky. In the 70s, I had only the vaguest idea of who this Jodorowsky chap was; I had read about El Topo, but in the cities where I lived, Midnight Movies were composed mainly of all-night Beatles marathons and the occasional screening of Dawn of the Dead or 200 Motels. By the time I moved to a major metropolis, screenings of his work had become rare. For many years my only experience was Santa Sangre, which was marvelous, but not prime Jodo.

So watching Jodorowsky’s Dune was like revisiting those breathless dispatches from thirty some-odd years ago, when this insane artist was trying to make an insane movie and was gathering other insane artists into that purpose.

frame_0000I mentioned “spiritual warrior” earlier, and that is precisely how Jodorowsky viewed his collaborators. His movie wasn’t just going to change movies, it was going to change viewers’ very consciousness. Jean Giraud, aka the amazing French comic artist Moebius, was his camera from the very beginning, dashing out storyboards and costume designs at breathtaking speeds. Douglas Trumbull, fresh off 2001 and Silent Running, was turned down for not being ideally spiritual, and a chance viewing of Dark Star netted the next warrior: Dan O’Bannon.

And so it goes. In a series of interviews, these warriors tell about their being brought into the project; Chris Foss, for spaceship design, a Swiss artist you may have heard of, named H.R. Giger, for the design of the fascistic and depraved Harkonnen clan. But the bulk of Jodorowsky’s Dune is told by Jodorowsky himself, and his tales of the recruiting efforts are marvelous, the stuff of legend. Casting David Carradine as Duke Leto, meeting Mick Jagger at a party and asking him to play Feyd Ruatha on the spot, and getting an immediate “Yes.” Onto the trials of getting agreement from his two dream castings, Orson Welles for Baron Harkonnen and Salvador Dali as the insane Emperor of the Galaxy.

dune2Jodorowsky also planned to have different musical groups compose the music for each House and the systems they controlled: Pink Floyd for House Atreides, Magma for Harkonnen. No mention is made for who would be the group representing Arrakis, the title planet, but one can safely assume it wasn’t Toto.

As we all know, in this Universe, the movie didn’t happen. No studio was willing to put money into a massively expensive movie made by a madman they knew nothing about. (The budget was something like $15 million dollars – quite a chunk of change in those days, but then, Jodorowsky wanted to do things in 1975 that Industrial Light & Magic would not even attempt to do in a live action movie today. Some of the most impressive sequences in Jodorowsky’s Dune use limited animation to bring some of Moebius’ storyboard and Chris Foss’ designs to life)

Also humorous (in a bitter, twisted sort of way) was the concern that the movie would be too long, and it was requested that the script be cut down to an hour and a half. How long was the last Transformers again?

DunePioneerA movie of Dune was eventually made, as we all know, and it also one most people despise. I need to give that one another shot eventually (but not anytime soon). Jodorowsky’s version would have digressed further from Frank Herbert’s novel, but both have virtually the same denouement, the greening of Dune, instead of the open-ended nature of the novel, leading to many sequels. Movies must end, after all.

Jodorowsky’s Dune then goes on to point out how the Greatest Movie Never Made contributed its DNA to many, many movies in the coming years; the most obvious, the disappointed Dan O’Bannon gathering up some of his fellow spiritual warriors for Alien, but other examples resonating right up until the present day. Pretty awesome, really. When it is put forth that if Dune had been made, and if it had hit it big instead of Star Wars… what would be the state of cinema today?

I said this was what I had needed, at this particular time. I was exhausted after two shows, in pain, the torment of two audiences watching a comedy physically resisting the urge to jodorwsky-600-1395238092laugh out loud, all exacerbated by a triple low in the ol’ biorhythms. I was a sullen mess, but watching Jodorowsky exult over the details of a dream project that came this close to reality, the fond reminiscences of the artists he recruited, and his enthusiasm for what he tried to achieve – again, almost four decades after the fact – is exhilarating and beautiful.

It’s impossible to watch Jodorowsky’s Dune without falling at least a little in love with Alejandro Jodorowsky, and falling in love is something we all need to do a little more.

Jodorowsky’s Dune on Amazon

Animal Farm (1954)

animal-farm-movie-poster-1954-1020503519There’s a pretty fair chance that if you went to high school, you wound up reading George Orwell; in my case it was 1984, but another standard was Animal Farm, a fable that retold the Russian Revolution and creation of the Stalinist dictatorship using the livestock at an English farm as stand-ins. I couldn’t with any reliability tell you if this is still the case, but it certainly was when I was in high school (it will also tell you when I went to college, that I am going to mistakenly type the title as Animal House several times before this is finished). Since its publication in 1945, Animal Farm has never gone out of print; would that this 1954 animated version had been so widely available.

Basically, Manor Farm was once a going concern, but as the story begins, its owner, Mr. Jones, has “fallen on evil times, and worse, into bad company”, spending his evenings at the local pub and abusing the animals when he comes home drunk. An ancient and revered hog, Old Major, rouses the animals to revolution on his deathbed, and confronted by a barnyard united against him, Jones flees. He returns with friends, who are similarly chased off, though at a cost – the farm dog is killed, leaving behind her orphaned pups.

vlcsnap-8864The animals make a go of turning the farm around, led by the clever pigs. They have a system of laws, food is plentiful (though the first winter is rough), in general, a worker’s paradise. Unfortunately, the cunning pig Napoleon has been plotting some time, and having raised the orphaned dogs as his personal shock troops, has the idealistic pig Snowball killed… and thus begins the slow corruption of the re-christened Animal Farm.

It’s interesting to note the differences between the book and the movie; the movie is pretty well-considered, compressing some events and omitting others in an effort to engage audiences. There’s a fair amount of humor in the first half, that a lot of people point to as “Disney-fication”, and likely the work of Animation Director John Reed, an import who had worked on several Disney productions, including Fantasia and Three Caballeros. The sight gags are nowhere to be found in Orwell,of course, but provide a light backdrop for the grimness that will come.

rebelionAnd grimness there is. The movie does not shy away from death, though we are spared the worst of it. The assassination of Trotsky is played out as Napoleon literally setting the dogs on Snowball as the prelude to usurping the leadership of Animal Farm. We hear it, though; ditto the execution of the animals involved in an abortive uprising against Napoleon. You may have been suckered into thinking this was Disney at the beginning of the revolution, but this is the aftermath, baby, and it ain’t for children.

Halas and Batchelor Cartoon Films is not a well-known outfit in America; they were largely known for industrial animation, and especially for propaganda shorts made during World War II, a background which positioned them ideally for making a movie out of Animal Farm. The idyllic landscapes have a watercolor beauty which would not be out-of-place in a rival Disney production, to be sure, but it’s the darker, grayer palette of the farm scenes, expecially in the second half, that memorably reinforces the message of the source material. John Halas was a Hungarian emigré who had been trained in design by the Bauhaus school (the Batchelor part of the equation was Joy Batchelor, who began as an assistant but eventually became his wife). That adds a certain Central European flavor to the animation, which also helps to render it distinct.

ferme-des-animaux-1954-03-gI should also mention, while we’re talking about propaganda, that the worst-kept secret in the world is that initial funding for the project came from the CIA. Take that, Commies! That possibly led to the other great departure from Orwell’s novel, the ending, where the animals finally have enough, and march on Napoleon and his fellow suit-wearing pigs in a second revolution. Perhaps it was hoped that copies of the movies smuggled across the Iron Curtain would foment similar unrest; more likely it was the desire to give the movie a more upbeat ending than the source novel, where the animals realize they really have it no better than before, and possibly worse.

Then, as we learned in Battle of Algiers, revolution is a long time coming. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, forty some-odd years after this movie. To say that the new ending to Animal Farm is in any way responsible is absurd, but it has to be admitted that whoever insisted on it was aware of the cycle of history, if not the realities of human nature.

Animal.Farm.1954.mp4v.ruAnother facet of the production definitely worth noting is the voice talent of Maurice Denham, a radio actor who supplies all the voices in the movie, save that of the narrator, Gordon Heath, who was a BBC newsreader. Denham has a wide range of well-considered voices at work here, often making you suspect that someone is fibbing about the solo talent. The score by Matyas Sieber, another Hungarian and longtime collaborator with Halas and Batchelor, has a unique flavor, often using instruments not usually found in movie scores, such as the off-kilter accordion used for the drunken Farmer Jones.

TNT produced a live-action version of Animal Farm in 1999, doubtless made possible by the success of 1995′s Babe, and using the same technology. It was even more widely criticized for variances from the source, and though a much higher-caliber roster of voices lent their talents to the effort, it is still Denham’s version of the animals that lives on.

vlcsnap-10451Though I haven’t seen this version, I am certain I would still prefer the animated one; many of the aspects of Animal Farm are heartbreaking, like the eventual fate of Boxer the draft horse. Hero of the Revolution and hardest working animal on the farm, he is injured in the second great battle with the humans, and eventually unable to work. While the other animals are rebuilding a windmill the embittered Farmer Jones had dynamited, the villainous Napoleon sells Boxer to a glue factory in exchange for a crate of whiskey.

Seeing that transpire, even with animatronic models of real animals, would outright kill me. It was bad enough watching it happen with drawings. And that, good people, is the power of a well-made movie, animated or not.

If there is one thing that I have taken away from this outing – and that is besides the fact that I now want to see more of the Halas and Batchelor output, like their 1966 version of Ruddigore – is that their studio made the 1966 Lone Ranger cartoon, which was strikingly different visually from any other cartoon broadcast on Saturday mornings, much darker, and stylized. It has since vanished into undeserved obscurity, and dammit, I want to see them again.

Get to work on that, Universe.

Animal Farm on Amazon

Crapfest: The Late 70s

If you’ve been with me for any length of time, you are familiar with the phenomenon of the Crapfest. A group of us gathers every two or three months to gasp in wonder at the vast world of the Cinema of Diminished Expectations. Or, ofttimes, to simply gasp.

We had a full complement this time, saving only The Other David, who was healing his voice for an upcoming musical, and felt that shouting in dismay would be counter-productive to that. Fair enough. Break a leg, friend. This left us at myself, Rick, Paul, Alan, Mark, Erik, and your host, Dave.

While planning for this shindig, Host Dave informed us, in the tone usually reserved for doctors telling you to lose weight, that the agenda for this Crapfest had been decided long ago. (Maybe I should have said “In the tone usually reserved for the Lawgiver telling us The Prophecy”, but I’m going to need all my prophecy jokes for later) To that end, he laid out this pre-conceived roster.

it-came-without-warning-movie-poster-1980-1020194389I’m going to have to take some blame for the first feature. You see, once upon a time, we tried to limit the scope of a Crapfest to a single luminary in the realm of Crap Cinema. That luminary was Graydon Clark, and that was a mistake of Biblical proportions. Too much of a bad thing, as it were. But at the very beginning, there was a choice to be made, between Angel’s Brigade or Without Warning. The deciding vote came down to Paul, who reasonably enough, deduced that since Rick “Let’s watch Evilspeak again” Mantler had voted for Without Warning, it was only logical to vote for Angel’s Brigade instead. This was wronger than any deduction Dr. Watson had ever made, but I really can’t fault his logic.

So there was this time I bitched that I was still owed a viewing of Without Warning. So that was our opening salvo.

I think I’m not exactly engaging in spoilers when I tell you Without Warning is about an alien coming to Earth and hunting humans with little flying creatures he throws like frisbees, and yes, this was seven years before Predator. The major difference between the two is a) millions of dollars and b) Predator manages to fill its running time pretty well. The Alien spends the first part of the movie knocking off celebrity guests, or at least affordable C-listers of the era, starting with Cameron Mitchell and moving on to Larry Storch, playing the master of a cub scout troop. Storch was only on set half a day, and it seems to play out in real time.

1 withoutwarningOur protagonists are four teens who ignore the warnings of Professional Harbinger Jack Palance to not go to the lake, there’s trouble there. Half the teens become frisbee kibble fairly quickly, and since one of them is a young David Caruso, the Alien got a standing ovation. The other two (Tarah Nutter and Christopher S. Nelson) try to get help after discovering their pals and several other corpses in a remote shack. They find a believer in Martin Landau, playing a mandatorily shell-shocked veteran called “Sarge”, and, of course, Palance. The bar where they try to get help is notable for featuring Sue Ann Langdon, Neville Brand, and Ralph Meeker (in his last role, no less), none of whom stick around for the big alien fight, such as it is. They leave that to future Oscar winners Landau and Palance.

lobby6There is an interminable period at the end of the second act and before the third, sort of an eternal entre acte, where our two teens, on the lam from the increasingly psychotic Landau, break into somebody’s vacation home and set up shop. Nutter keeps waking up screaming and saying things like, “What if this is Sarge’s house?” which allowed us to kill the next ten minutes of filler with panicked questions like “What if snakes can carry knives?” “What if Zamfir really is master of the pan pipes?” and “What if Iron Man had Spider-Man’s powers?”

If there was one takeaway from this, it is that I wanted to make sure I didn’t buy the upcoming blu-ray from Scream Factory out of misguided nostalgia. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

without-warning-1980The Alien, incidentally, is played by the 7′ 2″ Kevin Peter Hall, because of course he is. And Hall would also play the title character in Predator. Also, Mr. Hall is not finished with us yet, because we are moving on to Prophecy, for which I must also take some blame. You see, back a year ago or more, I reviewed the French movie Prey, noting that it was basically Prophecy with mutated wild boars instead of a bear. I also mentioned I had never seen Prophecy, because I’d read David O. Seltzer’s novel, and immediately thought, “well, I can miss this one.”

To which Dave was all like whaaaaaaat and you are watching this.

Dammit.

220px-ProphecyWell, we already know about the mutant bear. Robert Foxworth is a two-fisted doctor concerned with social justice issues (as we find out in an opening scene set in a ghetto with the cleanest, freshest spray-painted graffiti you have ever seen), who is sent to a northern paper mill to investigate charges of pollution. The charges turn out to be true, as the whole region is lousy with mercury, which Foxworth assures us has “mutagenic” qualities. This is going to produce some tension in his wife, Talia Shire, who is pregnant, she just hasn’t bothered to tell Foxworth yet.

Extra risibility is supplied by Richard Dysart as the front man for the paper mill, essaying a cagey mix of Pepperidge Farm spokesman and Edward G. Robinson. And Armand Assante as an Indian.

The most famous scene in the movie was quoted in the TV trailer, when the bear attacks a family campsite and a kid tries to hop away in his sleeping bag, only to be dashed against a rock in a flurry of downy feathers. This also convinced 1979 Me that avoiding this movie was a good idea. There is no way anybody thought that was going to be anything but laughable, right? Especially when you consider the movie is directed by John freaking Frankenheimer.

Frankenheimer would say in later years that the movie would have been better if he hadn’t been at the height of his alcoholism during its shooting. The truly lamentable thing is there are moments in this movie that are superb. Foxworth examining the camp site where the exploding sleeping bag took place, and finding enormous claw marks on a tree, and then realizing that the claw marks go fifteen feet up the tree.

The best sequence for me, though is a bit later. Shire finds some mutant bear cubs in a fishing net nearby. One is still alive, but barely (no pun intended). It’s in recovering this cub that Foxworth spends too long, and his helicopter ride is socked in by a storm. They make it to an Indian hunting village where Foxworth labors to keep the cub alive until Dysart and the Sheriff can come and see proof of the pollution. Trouble is, Mama Bear also shows up and wants the cub back.

13005prophecyThis is the second great monster movie sequence, when our name actors (plus one or two more) take refuge in a tunnel under one of the tents to hide from the beast and all they can do is listen to the screams of the men still above ground as the monster kills them. Then, silence. Silence for way too long. But who’s going to look out and check?

So that day on the set, Frankenheimer only had half a bottle of Scotch, or something.

imagesWe’re building up to a big showdown with Mama Bear (even the most city-slickerish among us was yelling “Leave the bear cub! PUT IT THE HELL DOWN!” but movie characters never listen), which is… okay, I guess, but has nowhere near the tension it wants to have. It’s kind of like the end of the novel Jaws where the shark suddenly succumbs to all the damage done, but we’re led to believe it’s Foxworth stabbing it with an arrow over and over again. Also, the last shot shows us there’s another mutant bear wandering around, so fuck you, movie.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that was Kevin Peter Hall in the mutant bear suit. See? Connections are everywhere.

The worst part was when I got hungry and mentioned to Rick it was time to start dinner and I was going to help Rick in the kitchen because it was like my idea, but Dave was like, no, motherfucker, you get in there and you watch this movie.

DAMMIT.

I don’t mind crap monster movies – hell, in a way, those are my life. But crap monster movies with a painfully earnest social relevance angle – those hurt me.

Speaking of hurt, I had been saving hurt up for a long time. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Batman and Robin, Highlander II The Goddamn Quickening. I let that all out with something that had been dredged up by the Drive-In Mob: Bob Hope’s 1976 TV special Joys.

wbvideo-055Supposedly, someone has lured a bunch of comedians to Bob Hope’s place to murder them all. You see, it’s Joys because Jaws was really big, and… the murderer is… kinda… like a shark? But not? This is about the level of writing  here; you have several roomfuls of comedians – just look at that list on the IMDb page – and none of them are allowed to do their schtick, outside of Arte Johnson obviously improvising a few and Don Rickles calling people a hockeypuck. Because that many comedians in one place? That would be hilarious. Too bad what they’re given is the most insipid jokes 1976 could dig up. Most disheartening is Groucho Marx, frail and nearing death, not even bothering to pretend he isn’t reading cue cards and still making me laugh. Though Kevin Peter Hall is not there, Larry Storch is, and we also have to deal with disco era Don Knotts and Don Adams.

And commercials from Texaco, which assured us it was working to keep our trust.

Oh, the hatred that was cast my way! Hatred which I fully deserved, but I felt much better for having given vent  to my spleen. And then Dave retaliated magnificently with Playboy’s Roller Disco Pajama Party, which actually aired on ABC in 1979, even though it sounds like an SCTV sketch. I could only look across the room, give him the thumbs up, and say, “Respect.”

vlcsnap-00079Yes, this is a documentary about frolicking in the Playboy Mansion. Richard Dawson is there to make you cringe, and there were lots of astoundingly beautiful women which just about every man in the room had seen naked (I profess admiration of a sort for the guys who could name each and every one of them, even when they weren’t being introduced). Roller skating, and dancing to Village People songs we had never heard.

Rick’s haunted voice came from the back of the room several times, stating, “This isn’t going to get any better, you know. You may think it is, but it ISN’T.” But I was enjoying myself. Pretty women are pretty women, and there were quite a few here.

FILTH!

FILTH!

It had its educational points, too: we’d had no idea that there was a disco version of Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar”. Nor did we know that Waylon Flowers had a black version of his Madam puppet. (My reference source for all things gay, long-time theatre friend Rodney Walsworth, informs me the puppet was named Jiffy, and he saw Flowers perform with her at a club). The clip below has a glimpse of Jiffy, but sadly does not seem to have the bit where Flowers attempts to work his sassy black puppet magic on Jim Brown, who is visibly counting to ten several times just to keep from jamming this puppet up this little peckerwood’s ass.

No, here is this hunk of the show – the whole damn thing’s on YouTube, folks, it’s easy enough to find – that has the high point for us. About 13 seconds in, after a Mork and Mindy promo, is the 30 second throw to the local newscast coming on after Roller Disco Pajama Party, and it’s obvious the station has been getting a lot of calls about the show…

We really wanted that guy to come back.

vlcsnap-00094

A scene from True Detective, Season 2

You don’t have to watch the whole thing, or maybe you do, because you’ll catch a brief glimpse of Marjoe Gortner at the party (he got applause. I love my homies.), the aforementioned Jiffy, Richard Dawson referring to index cards as he interviews some Playmates, and likely the most skin you’ll see in the whole enterprise. Just enough to make our gathering feel all cheated and hollow inside.

Not me, though. I went home feeling purged, cleansed of all the negativity that had been weighing on me. Such is the power of inflicting crap on your fellow man. This feeling did not survive the light of day, but I slept like a baby that night, and I look forward to the next one, where I can start playing the nice guy again.

Dammit.

The Lone Ranger and the Trouble With Reboots

The-Lone-Ranger-International-Character-Movie-PosterSo. We know I take a long time to get to movies. I will go to a movie theater maybe three, four times a year; I like to engage on my own terms. Some movies I know will lose very little impact by waiting a while and watching when I want, not by making an appointment with it. There are some movies, admittedly, that I will strive to see in their natural setting (no matter how degraded that setting has become), but let’s face it: there is much more fare I know can wait. I knew The Lone Ranger was going to be such a movie before the first negative press was ever unleashed.

Yeah, I’m old. I remember watching the Clayton Moore TV series when I was a kid, somehow never realizing he was wearing tights, not jeans. There was a Lone Ranger cartoon in the good old bad old days of violent Saturday morning cartoons that was cheap but thoroughly bizarre, inflected with its prime time contemporary, The Wild Wild West (there was a later, Filmation cartoon that was typically sanitized and useless). In the pulp movie revival fueled by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, there came Legend of the Lone Ranger, which I have never seen.

0Our old pulp heroes have a built-in problem, being creatures of the pop culture of their time, and that is the not terribly-enlightened handling of sidekicks of any color but white. Mandrake the Magician would probably make a decent movie character, being so visually oriented, but the muscle-bound, leopard-skin wearing, be-fezzed Lothar would have to be re-booted several times before he could even begin to be acceptable. More on sidekickery later.

Despite this, Disney still went ahead with The Lone Ranger. Casting a white actor, Johnny Depp, as the traditional “faithful Indian companion, Tonto” is really the least of its problems. America has a particularly shameful history in its dealings with the native population, and most modern Westerns have at least a small portion of their running time devoted to this. The Lone Ranger has at least two instances of genocidal imagery, and in a better-structured movie, either of them might have mattered. But here, it simply becomes part of the white noise that slowly engulfs the story (and no matter what anyone else says, Depp is doing a superb Jay Silverheels imitation).

2013-07-01-http_-www.huffingtonpost.com-marshall-fine-movie-review-ithe-lone-ra_b_3529917.html-lonerangerThrough some judicious editing and – I know this is heretical, but what the hell – another run of the script through the writing mill, unhampered by focus groups, this might have been a much tighter movie at only two hours, and possibly a kickass, exciting one at 90-100 minutes. This is a problem I have with Gore Verbinski movies in general, and the major reason I never got past the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I don’t mind a meandering path in a movie, as long as it builds to its set pieces and provides what I came to an action movie to see: action, preferably of the cathartic kind. But chances are, if you took Verbinski or Depp out of the mix, this movie would not have gotten made.

Now, the Lone Ranger story is such an antique, we did need the origin story retold (I suppose), especially since we’re taking a few liberties with it to give our new version of the character his Hero’s Journey. This time, John Reid is a hastily-deputized Texas Ranger, who follows his brother in a posse tracking escaped outlaw Butch Cavendish, who is now a cannibal (just in case he wasn’t villainous enough before). Surviving the ambush, John is chosen by a “spirit horse” to be the “Spirit Walker”, the man who cannot be killed, at least according to Tonto. Then again, we will also later be told that Tonto was driven insane by causing the death of his tribe by leading two white men to the silver mine that will be the McGuffin for our plot.

THE LONE RANGERI counted three separate instances where the movie’s plot had obviously entered its end game, but the script then undercut that and decided to keep going for an hour or so. The bizarre egregiousness of some of the story problems has no better example than Helena Bonham Carter’s character, Red Harrington (some junior executive took a three-martini lunch and the rest of the day off after coming up with that name), a whorehouse madam with an ivory prosthetic leg that conceals a shotgun. To justify her prominence in the advertising materials, the plot will then twist itself into a few more topologically improbable shapes to accommodate her part in the complex end sequence.

DF-16553-R-jpg_183232Armie Hammer does everything he is asked to as John Reid. Sadly, what he is told to do is often some pretty stupid stuff. There are times when the template seems to be lifted from The Green Hornet movie, where Britt Reid (yes, notice the last name, Warren Ellis fans) is the comic doofus and Kato (again, your mandatory sidekick of color) is the competent one. And more than once The Lone Ranger reminded me of another ill-starred Western reboot, Wild Wild West, especially about the time we go to Red Harrington’s whorehouse, so reminiscent of Fat Can Candy’s that I kept expecting to see Kevin Kline in drag.

There are borrowings from other movies, tributes that I can accept: the use of Monument Valley (though I don’t remember it being in Texas), and a complicated love triangle with two brothers and one’s wife straight out of The Searchers. Three locomotives are wrecked in this movie, one named The Jupiter, in deference to Buster Keaton’s train-centric The General (and Depp’s love for the comedian is indulged in several of the action set pieces). I’m okay with that.

John-Carter-1-680Disney had a similar failure with John Carter, the difference being that John Carter was a much more solidly-constructed  movie and deserved better (it also hedged its bets, as its indigenous noble savages were aliens). The Lone Ranger, though, is a morass of story ideas that are often in the wrong order, and the viewer simply waits, tapping its foot and checking its watch, to get to the action sequences, which are gorgeously shot, exciting, and expensive.

I do get why some people don’t like the movie, and it has a lot to do with what I’ve outlined above. What I don’t get is the hate directed toward it. I’m pretty sure there’s a “worst movie ever made” review or three thousand out there, and my response is always going to be, “You don’t watch near enough movies.” Yes, despite all my bitching, I did enjoy The Lone Ranger. Not enough to watch it again, but I had a fairly pleasant time.

I’ve said it before, I will say it again: my relationship with a movie is very simple. I ask that it entertain me, and I will allow myself to be entertained. It’s not that hard, but a lot of movies manage to fail that simple deed.

And I really feel that sometimes, what is missing from many people’s approach is that, simply, they will not allow themselves to be entertained. Like a character in an Ingmar Bergman movie desperately seeking their one version of God when evidence of God is all around them, a lot of movie-goers demand that rush, that tingle they got the first time the star destroyer rushed overhead and kept rushing, or Indy ran from the boulder. And when that rush does not come, the movie is obviously worse than the heat death of the universe. People. You’re not always going to get that. And if that’s all you’re looking for, you’re going to miss what is offered to you. Permit yourself to have some fun, for God’s sake. And I absolutely, honest-to-God do not understand the concept of “hate-watching”. What the hell. There is a doctoral thesis waiting to be written on that life-wasting nonsense.

the_lone_ranger_trailer_fullHaving said that, I am now going to undercut myself, because that’s another takeaway from Wild Wild West: undercutting and demeaning your source. At the end of WWW, as was traditional in the TV series, when they had some time to fill or a plot point cheat that needed explanation, Artie would ask West, “Mind if I ask you a question?” They did this in the movie, but Will Smith’s answer was a dismissory, “Actually, I would mind.” In The Lone Ranger, Reid finally, finally, rears up on that gorgeous white horse and belts out, “Hiyo Silver! Away!” to which Tonto says, “Never do that again!” It’s supposed to be a laugh line, but we’ve been waiting for that a long time. We have, in fact, been waiting the entire movie to hear that trademark line. And that is probably the reason why “Fuck you, movie!” is the last thing anyone remembers about The Lone Ranger.

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The Summertime Blues

It had been a week since I watched a movie. That’s a long time for me, and it’s a sign of a serious funk. So sorry, folks who come here for acerbic remarks or amateur musings on classic films, all I have to talk about this week is me, so you might not find this interesting at all. I don’t blame you. See you next week.

Then like a lot of things I put up here, that was an untruth. Yesterday – Father’s Day – I actually found myself doing something I NEVER do, which is turn on the TV and flip through the channels. We long ago determined cable was an unfunded mandate, and said goodbye to it with few regrets (mainly Turner Classic Movies and Mythbusters). Lo and behold, a couple of those newfangled digital channels coughed up stuff I would actually watch, even with commercial interruptions – one being David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, which is still superb (and unavailable on domestic blu-ray, grumble gripe bitch complain), and the Danish kaiju flick, Reptilicus, which has somehow gotten even worse. (All you Godzilla 2014 haters go watch this, then get back to me on how bad the modern flick is)

I’ve been put on a mild anti-depressant to help with my sleep problems, which it has, to a degree. I’m not sure if my current tendency toward rumination and self-examination is due to being a bit more rested or a bit less depressed. Anxiety levels are about the same, because little pills do nothing about stressors.

A major cause for pondering was Father’s Day. I’m lucky, my parents are still alive, so I can call the old codger and we can kill some cell phone minutes not talking to each other. But I’m no spring chicken myself, and notes from my mother telling me they’ve paid for their funerals and recently went to see their headstones have my head in a really weird place. Really weird.

As you know, I’m a father myself. That wasn’t something I had really planned for, but my wife, Lisa, having been an excellent, involved teacher and therefore second mother to a lot of children, wanted nothing more than a child of her own, so that had to become one of my priorities, and if I can claim nothing else in my life, I at least did that right. It was a long trip, full of tears and loss, but we finally produced a son, and now we get to worry how he’s going to get to college.

But. That wasn’t what I was pondering. I took stock of the people I hang with, and the number of fathers there is shockingly low. What is shocking about that, though, is the fact that I now regard fatherhood as the default, rather than the extraordinary circumstance. There is nothing profound or life-changing in that realization, as the very fact of fatherhood itself is profound and life-changing enough.

Of course my son has hit his teens, and they’re not as terrible as I had anticipated (and that’s the sort of  statement that will surely come back to haunt me); I guess I’m fairly lucky. He usually only comes out of his pit of a room to ask if dinner is ready yet, then returns to his Xbox. I’d be the same way, except I’m usually the one cooking dinner. I do have my own pit of a room, after all.

I guess I may be in the throes of a slow-motion mid-life crisis, one that crops up every few years like a persistent case of acne. As we all know (because I bitch about it constantly), I work three and often four part-time jobs. Weekends are a foreign concept to me, but then, I was trained as an actor, and for them there is no such thing, anyway.

I’ve been involved with one of those murder mystery dinner theaters for years. I’m going to be saying those lines during my funeral. The money is pretty good, I shouldn’t complain. But there is physical labor involved: loading and unloading the van because it’s a gypsy outfit and we can’t leave any of our stuff up longer than a couple of days. The characters are all human cartoons, and sometimes that gets pretty physical, to the detriment of my bad knee, my asthma and general decrepitude. A lot of the audience have no idea whatsoever what is involved in live theater (and this is loosely categorized as live theater, I guess), have no idea how to behave, and Jesus H. Christ, I hate trying to perform for drunks.

So here we have one of the classic symptoms of what led up to those famous Post Office shootings – remember them? Before they spread out into the community at large? Bad working conditions were coupled with a dependency on the job they hated – the salary, the benefits. I’m not going to go on a murderous rampage, but good God, I’m so tired of it. But the “day job” barely takes care of the utilities – the weekend shows pay for groceries and gas.

Somebody out there is thinking that I should be thankful for what I’ve got. I am. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be reaching for more, for something better.

So tonight I’m going to do something I haven’t done in years. I’m going to an audition at my old theater.

Things have improved since I left for the better financial rewards of dinner theater.  The pay is much better – in fact, it would be almost commensurate with what I’m earning, although the work is spread over several days instead of just two. But there is the bonus of A) portraying an actual human being for a change, and B) doing it for an audience that actually wants to be there, where I’m not perceived as standing in the way of the salad service, or actively attempting to corrupt the frail sensibilities of churchfolk.

This is going to introduce more conflict into my life, if I’m cast. Finding people to replace me at one of the nighttime jobs. A shuffling of cast at the dinner theater. My son won’t be able to work the dinner theater, either, which he does for spending money.

But that might be the sort of thing to shake me out my current doldrums. And then I can complain about not having any time to watch movies, a return to business as usual.

The 39 Steps (1935)

39-3It usually surprises people that I’m not a big Hitchcock fan. Oh, it’s not like I hate his movies. I love Psycho, enjoy Rope (flawed experiment though it may be) and the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he himself directed. But I didn’t care for VertigoThe Birds just sort of leaves me cold, and… well, you get the picture.

I’m spending a lot of Act Three of my life watching movies and often re-appraising how I relate to them. Given that a lot of my opposition to Hitchcock’s work was due to Contrarianism on my part (ask me how long I went refusing to buy any Beatles albums), it’s only fair that I give him another shot every now and then, so why not that most Hitchcockian of Hitchcock movies, The 39 Steps?

knife in the backRichard Hannay (Robert Donat) has his evening at the Music Hall interrupted by a scuffle between drunken ruffians and police, which is itself interrupted by two gunshots. He helps a woman (Lucie Mannheim) out through the crush of panicked people, and she surprises him by asking to go home with him. Being a smooth operator, Hanny complies, and finds she is far more intriguing than he suspected: she fired those two shots to get away from two men who are pursuing her. She is, in fact,  a spy trying to intercept some secret aircraft plans that have been stolen and are destined to smuggled out of England to some unnamed foreign power. She asks for a map of Scotland, and promises to tell Hannay just what the heck “the 39 steps” she mentioned is all about in the morning, if he is still interested.

Well, except the next morning, she has a knife in her back and collapses on the sleeping Hannay, a map of Scotland with a village’s name circled in red clutched in her hand.

donat_and_carroll_handcuffed_39_stepsHannay, presuming the police will not believe him, sneaks out past the two spies watching the front of his building and heads for Scotland, ensuring that the police will think he murdered the lady in his apartment. Thus begins a series of chases and hairsbreadth escapes, as Hannay tries to find out what “The 39 Steps” is, where the plans are, and what he can do to stop the plot without going to jail for murder. Eventually he winds up handcuffed to the lovely Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who has turned him in twice, but the enemy agents assume she knows too much, and once she eventually finds out Hannay is telling the truth, falls in love with him. Which still leaves the problem of the police, the plans, the spies, and just what the heck the 39 Step are anyway.

Hitchcock was on a bit of a roll at this point in his early career; the year before had seen The Man Who Knew Too Much, featuring an exciting young actor from Germany named Peter Lorre, and the next few years would produce Sabotage, Secret Agent, and The Lady Vanishes, before Hitchcock dashed off Jamaica Inn to fulfill his contractual obligations and then split to America and the bigger toybox offered by David O. Selznick.

39-StepsHere, you can see a lot of the elements that Hitchcock would repeat throughout his career: the man wrongfully accused and pursued by both the authorities and the bad guys (I think it’s this trope that causes me to avoid Hitchcock movies, it speaks to a persecution complex on my part), the shadowy McGuffin that drives the plot (and which pales in importance compared to the plot it sets in motion), the spunky blonde heroine who suffers all sorts of abuse. And it is all managed with such panache, perfect pacing and underlying jet black humor that it’s no surprise it was a huge hit. Donat and Carroll are absolutely perfect, but you can say this about any role in this movie. It is just so damn well-made.

For some reason, I had thought that Hitchcock remade The 39 Steps later in his career; though there are two remakes, Hitchcock didn’t direct either one.  I can be forgiven for thinking this, as Hitchcock did remake several of his earlier pictures, and if you get right down to it, he did remake The 39 Steps – he just called it North by Northwest. Which, yeah, is another movie I need to give a second chance. I do recall enjoying it a half a century ago.

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The Questionable Joys of 1963

Something that’s kind of odd, but not even that surprising: Usually WordPress intercepts 30-40 spambot comments on this blog in any given day. In the days since I published my piece on the death of my beloved pug-dog Mavis, that has dropped to three or less a day. Even the bots realize there’s little return in inserting your online casino ads under a sad story. I didn’t know they paid that much attention.

But now I’m imagining a bunch of sad spambots sitting around morosely, playing mumbledy-peg or solitaire to fill in their idle hours. I guess I really should give them something to try to post under.

NattvardsgästernaAfter the hell of that week, when I finally elected to watch a movie, I was of two minds: escapist fare, or something that had been on my Watchlist forever, and was one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light,  which is the exact opposite of “light escapist fare”. Also, by “forever” I mean “since I watched The Seventh Seal last year and decided to fall in love with Gunnar Björnstrand, who played the squire, Jöns.

Björnstrand here plays Tomas Ericsson, the pastor of a Lutheran church in a small fishing town. As the movie opens, Ericsson is presiding over a service for a congregation of eight, including a deacon, the hunchbacked sexton, and Ericsson’s former mistress, who is an atheist. Only five of the eight take communion.

BergmWintlight1This is going to be a rough day for Ericsson. He is coming down with a cold – his fever is increasing, and he still has to fill in for communion at another church later that afternoon. His mistress is pressuring him to get married, and two of the people at the sparse service, the Perssons, a fisherman (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife (Gunnel Lindblom) visit him afterwards. Persson has been consumed of late with fear after reading about the Red Chinese developing nuclear capabilities. The sensationalist article he read stated that the Chinese are raised from infancy to know nothing but hate, and he is crushed by knowledge of sure, ultimate doom.

The former mistress, Marta (Ingrid Thulin) flits in and out of the morning, fussing over Ericsson’s health. While waiting for Persson to return for a private conversation, Ericsson reads a letter Marta wrote him, and here we have but one of many reasons Bergman was considered a master: the letter is not delivered to us as a voiceover, but a single close-up, nearly six minutes long, of Thulin speaking the contents of the letter directly to the camera. Like Ericsson, we are trapped in the room with it, and Thulin’s delivery (and needless to say, Bergman’s writing) is so good our minds never wander, as Marta details what went wrong with their relationship, their mutual complicity in its dissolution, and why they should get married and take care of each other. Drained, Ericsson falls into a fitful sleep at his desk until Persson arrives.

3150738673_bb1767d8fcEricsson gets right down to matters. “How long have you thought about killing yourself?” But as the conferences goes on, the pastor finds his own spiritual gas tank long exhausted, and he can find no comfort to offer the fisherman, only his own misgivings about the very existence of God, a disjoint that began when he was unable to reconcile things he saw during the Spanish Civil War with his concept of the Almighty. Persson, discomforted by this outburst from a clergyman, excuses himself and leaves.

Marta is still waiting for him in the sanctuary. “Now I’m free,” he tells her, but Marta’s relief that he finally agrees with her views on God is cut short by another member of that wan congregation arriving to tell Ericsson that Persson has blown his brains out down by the river.

winter-lightThe day is far from finished with Ericsson. He will sit with Persson’s body until the morgue arrives to claim it. He will deliver the sad news to Persson’s pregnant widow and three children. He will, once and for all, tell Marta how he feels about their relationship, the bookend to her earlier letter, but delivered face-to-face; and he will preside over that evening communion, a service for the only person in the church- Marta the atheist, praying for the ability to understand and somehow get through to Ericsson.

So yeah, Winter Light can be used as Exhibit A in the cultural cliché that “Swedish movies are depressing”.

The film’s title in its native Swedish, Nattvardgästerna, translates to “The Communicants”, a clever title of double meanings; not only are our main characters involved in one of the loneliest sacraments ever performed, but each has their own problems with communication, a very common thread in Bergman films, alongside another: a protagonist so obsessed with finding proof of his own personal version of God, he is blind to every other possibility of God’s nature and existence.

3150738027_0757f99d03The English title, Winter Light, is also brilliantly multi-faceted. The lush detail of Bergman’s earlier movies is here stripped away, and Sven Nykvist, behind the camera of what I think is only his third Bergman film, emphasizes the isolation and bleakness of life under the gray winter skies. There is one literally radiant moment, after Persson takes his leave of the distraught pastor, and in the window behind Ericsson, the sun very briefly breaks through the clouds as the clergyman has a moment of clarity about his relationship to a God that may not even be there. This leads to the “I’m free” moment, but the clouds close again, the news of Persson’s suicide is delivered, and uncertainty again takes hold.

If there is any shred of optimism to be found in Winter Light, it is in the person of the sexton, Algot, played by Allan Edwall. As Ericsson ponders whether or not to hold the Communion service in a nearly-deserted church, Algot asks him about his reading of the Gospels, and how he feels the emphasis on Jesus’ physical suffering is misguided, as he himself has suffered physical pain all his life and is no saint. Algot feels that Christ’s keener suffering must have been the fear that his teachings were misunderstood, that he was truly forsaken. “He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.”

image.aspThese are words that must touch Ericsson, and touch him deeply. He makes the decision to hold the service, because no matter what, there must be Communion. There must be duty.

So I say watch the movie, but be prepared for what it is: a stark portrait that may serve as a mirror when you least expect it.

Buy Winter Light at Amazon

So after such an effervescent, frothy confection, you’d think I’d go for a comedy or a movie where things go boom, but no, I still had a commitment to quality in May (oh, I had such plans for the month!), so my next stop was Akira Kurosawa’s  High and Low.

220px-HIGH_AND_LOW_JP_I’ve seen all of Kurosawa’s samurai flicks – hell, The Seven Samurai was the movie that drew me into my love for film, at 13 or 14 years of age. But those are such a small part of the man’s output, I’m doing him a great disservice. Perhaps I started at the top with Ikiru, but I still have a long trail to walk. There are worse problems.

Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is a successful executive who, on the verge of a risky corporate takeover, is plunged into a dilemma: a kidnapper, attempting to abduct his son, has instead gotten his chauffeur’s child. The kidnapper doesn’t care, he still demands thirty million yen for the boy’s release. The dilemma is that Gondo is mortgaged to the hilt for the takeover, and if he uses that money for the ransom, instead of the controlling stock of the shoe company where he works, he will be ruined financially.

That is the moral quandry that drives the first act of High and Low, and the phrase “first act” has never been more appropriate. Shot almost entirely in Gondo’s spacious living room, with a hilltop vista of Yokohama, Kurosawa rather famously rehearsed and blocked this segment like a stage play, and shot it in long takes. It’s fascinating to watch how this allows Kurosawa to manipulate the negative space around the embattled businessman as he steadfastly refuses to be destroyed for a child that is not even his own. His bubble of isolation expands and contracts, it is violated by his wife and the poor, bereft chauffeur. Eventually, he decides to do the right thing and pay the ransom, and the bubble collapses.

highandlowThe second act lets us out into the world, as Gondo performs a complicated drop of two briefcases stuffed with money, and the police do what they can to identify the people involved. Settle in for the third act, which is a very good police procedural – the cops trying to recover the money before Gondo defaults on his loans, and falls from the grace of his hilltop house.

High and Low is based one of the 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain, aka the prolific Evan Hunter, King’s Ransom. I enjoy those novels, and the source material shows through in the characterization of the cops. Tatsuya Nakadai makes for a cracking Steve Carella analog as the leader of the task force trying to help Gondo. The police are thoroughly professional and prepared; they arrive dressed as delivery men in case Gondo’s house is being watched, and it is. In fact, when the kidnapper calls to ask why Gondo’s curtains are closed, the cop immediately dive to the floor and behind furniture so the curtains can be opened.

high-and-lowSo yeah, I like watching Dragnet re-runs, I like the 87th Precinct novels, and the closest I get to binge watching are the Investigate Discovery murder investigation shows on Netflix. Some folks find this part of High and Low boring; I find it compelling.

High and Low definitely lives up to its title, starting at Gondo’s spacious house and descending slowly into the slums of Yokohama and finally a hellish venue the cops only call “Drug Alley”. It also charts the similar fall of Gondo, who loses his house and worldly possessions, yes, but also begins to rise again. The kidnapper, a medical student living in a slum, whose window has a direct line-of-sight to the Gondo house, seems to have no motivation outside humiliating Gondo – which ultimately fails, because the court of public opinion has found great sympathy for the executive, leaving the young nihilist with nothing but a scream of rage and fear as he is taken away to be executed.

jszptgI can sure pick the uplifting movies, can’t I?

Buy High and Low at Amazon

 

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