The Stanley Kubrick Project: Fear and Desire (1953)

In one of my fits of monthly hubris, I decided that I would watch all of Stanley Kubrick’s movie in chronological order. I do stuff like that all the time, and sometimes I even finish it. Yeah, like that time I decided to read Dave Sim’s Cerebus, all 300 issues of it. I may try to finish that one day, if my bile levels ever descend from the toxic levels those last couple of volumes created. Then, I’m a very happily married man, so as far as Sim is likely concerned, I am irrevocably corrupted.

Cripes, I go off on tangents so quickly, I really should have the ADD demographic sewn up by now. Now, as to where I was going originally: why Kubrick? The only answer I have, I am afraid, is why not? On a purely practical level, I have a box set of his movies that stretches from Spartacus to Eyes Wide Shut, which only left me three movies to chase down, since I already had a copy of Paths of Glory. Over the years, I’ve seen some, but not all, of his movies, and generally enjoyed them. And, in the form of The List, it’s my goal this year to watch more movies which, in the mainstream, are considered “good”, not merely the ones with the best gunfights.

Kubrick’s first movie is called Fear and Desire, and it is an arty, ultra-low-budget war movie. We are not told which war or where; in fact, the opening narration tells us “These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.” Got that?

Four soldiers – a looey, a sergeant and two privates – are stuck behind enemy lines after a plane crash, which economically happened before the movie started. They plan to float down a river to friendly territory, but events keep complicating matters. A local girl stumbles upon them, and they have to take her hostage. A nearby farm house is found to be acting as a garrison, with an enemy general on station, and Sarge starts getting obsessed with the idea of killing the general on the way out.

Now that, at face value, could easily be a Roger Corman war picture; a plot that keeps things moving, a pretty girl shoehorned into the proceedings. Kubrick and screenwright Howard Sackler had a different idea, though. In this “any war”, we are privy to the inner monologues of our soldiers, first as they hike through the enemy forest, and we hear them all at once, four men’s thoughts rising to a fearful cacophony. Sgt. “Mac” has several of them, as he floats on the raft toward a suicide mission for which he himself has chosen, argued, even begged. When the unstable Private Sidney (an amazingly young Paul Mazursky) is left to guard the girl, his private monologue becomes public, ludicrous and pathetic.

Probably the cap on the artsy part comes when Lt. Corby (Kenneth Sharp) and Private Fletcher (Stephen Coit) sneak up on the house to kill the general and his aide while Mac draws the sentries to the river to shoot him up; The General and the Aide are played by… Kenneth Sharp and Stephen Coit. The two men are stalking and murdering themselves.

Aaah, I’m being a horse’s ass, but I’m not alone. Kubrick himself eventually disowned the flick, and it’s rumored he tried to have all prints destroyed, but I haven’t found any real evidence of that. There is evidence he seriously downplayed any showing of it in later retrospectives. He was being too tough on himself, but then, there’s no surprise in that from a notorious perfectionist. You do catch glimpses of genius working its way out at various points, but you also see Kubrick the editor cursing Kubrick the cinematographer, as he has to employ rapid, out-of-place close-ups to cover holes in the coverage.

It’s certainly no worse than a lot of zero-budget first films I’ve seen, and better than many. Of the many questions I have to ask, the most significant one is: Every article about Fear and Desire lists the movie’s length at 72 minutes. My copy – the Eastman House print – ran a few seconds over an hour. So the question here is: Huh?

The List: The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Well, it’s late Sunday and nobody has died yet (knocking on wood) so my movie from The Other List of the day was The Good, The Bad, The Weird, a Korean Spaghetti Western from director Kim Jee-Woon, perhaps most notorious around these parts for A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw the Devil.

In 1930s Manchuria (a canny choice for a substitute wild west), there’s a plan involving a double cross for a map to an unknown treasure somewhere in the Gobi Desert. A small-time thief steals the map before the hit man hired to do the job can reach it, and both men are being pursued by a bounty hunter. There’s our three title characters, very much along the lines of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Also looking for the map is a gang of Manchurian bandits and the Japanese Army, as if things weren’t already going boom enough.

It also makes me wonder what the modern action movie would do if Santa Esmerelda had never done their cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”.

The most expensive Korean film ever shot at the time, there is no doubting the production values on display here; from the opening train robbery to a couple of settlements that are destined to go up in explosions and gunfire, the design and execution is top-notch. Kim really gets his money’s worth from his steadicam and various cranes. The camera work is fluid and frequently dizzying, swooping along with the action like a bird of prey.

If there is anything I would criticize, it would be the movie’s length: at a little over two hours, I – remarkably – got tired of things blowing up real good (same thing happened to me with Terminator 2). There are at least two extended scenes that could be scissored without ruining the overall movie, but… that’s not up to me. It’s a bit lengthy, but still quite enjoyable.

As I ponder this, I realize this movie may be the first casualty of my push to watch films of a higher caliber (to use an unfortunate but all too appropriate turn of phrase). Sheer, zestful entertainment like The Good, The Bad, The Weird was the sort of movie I lived for, and to see it done this well should have me turning cartwheels and calling up people to insist they view it. But good as it is, it’s about as deep as a shell casing; I find I want more dimensions from the movies I watch. The Good The etc. is a very good action movie, it aspires to be nothing more than a very good action movie, and that’s admirable.

I’m just greedy.

The List: Americathon (and some Moebius)

An odd thing, this watching movies because someone has died. I mean, it seems wholly justified to watch Head after the departure of Davy Jones a couple of weeks ago, but I woke up this morning to the sad news of the death of French artist Jean Giraud, better known, perhaps, under his signature as Moebius. His stories were one of the reasons I kept buying Heavy Metal after the readable Ted White years, and long long after the allure of thinking “That’s a really well-drawn breast” had worn off. His stories, besides being brilliantly drawn, were puckish, unusual, and often mind-blowing. And much as I respect his body of work, there is no way in hell I am going to watch the Heavy Metal movie in his honor. Maybe some day, I should examine why I hate that movie so much. Maybe.

The one movie I do possess which would be more in line with my current viewing template is Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, for which he did design work and has a story credit. That, however, is on laserdisc. Current duties prevent me from setting up my mothballed player. He did concept art for Tron and Masters of the Universe, but again, no way in hell. There is Alien, and The Fifth Element (which is everything the Heavy Metal movie should have been, but was not), but I’ve seen both of those too recently.

The movie which would be most appropriate only exists in a parallel dimension: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Dune. I’ve had a strange yen of late to watch the Lynch version again, but that is nowhere near the same thing. I guess I should dig out my copy of The Lost Incal, the impressively whacked-out comic series Moebius did with Jodorowsky – that would be a much better tribute than watching a flick only tangentially associated with his genius.

Anyway.

Yesterday (Friday the 9th, as I write this) brought the news that Peter Bergman of The Firesign Theatre had passed away. It literally stuns me that people only ten years younger than me will say “Firesign what? Who-?” Perhaps Firesign was too distinctly of its era, but I can’t really get my head around that. Funny is funny, and it’s not like the four guys who made up Firesign were overtly political or topical. Perhaps it was the fact that their best work was pretty much in the form of long radio plays, strange science-fiction constructs with pyrotechnic wordplay. Their occasional forays into video were pretty hit and miss, running the gamut from brilliant (Nick Danger and the Case of the Missing Yolks) to disappointing (Eat or Be Eaten).

Well, Number One on The Other List was Americathon, which the box assures us is “Written by Firesign Theatre veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman”. The movie credits claim that the “Adaptation” was by Proctor and Bergman from their play, with a screenplay by director Neal Israel, Michael Mislove, and Monica McGowan Johnson. Such mongrelized credits are not uncommon in Hollywood, but it does cause one to wonder just who is to blame for Americathon.

With a phrase like that, you can assume I was somewhat disappointed.

Now, the movie starts well enough, if you can get past the literal lynching of then-President Jimmy Carter. By 1998, America has run out of gas, oil, and money. It owes 400 billion dollars to multi-billionaire Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), who wants his money in 30 days or he’ll foreclose on the country. Our hero, media expert Eric McMurken (Peter Riegert) wakes up in his car. You see, he lives in a trailer park where all the trailers have been replaced by cars. He gets on his bike and goes to work, on a street, and finally a highway, populated only by bicycles of every make, skateboards, and joggers. Even a passing firetruck is actually mounted on a bicycle.

The freeway actually vacant of any powered vehicles is a pretty bracing sight, and sets you up to hope for great things. The president is Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter), an EST graduate who was elected purely on his last name. He and his First Old Lady are in the Western White House, a condo sub-let in San Diego. McMurkin is called in to help find a media solution to the current crisis, and that ultimate solution is a telethon to raise 400 billion in 30 days.

A villainous Presidential advisor, Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard), though, is in cahoots with the United Hebrab Republic (Israel and the UAE having made peace once they realized they both liked blonde shiksas), which wants to buy America once it’s been foreclosed upon. Vanderhoff attempts to sabotage Americathon first by hiring faded matinee idol and egomaniac Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman) to MC the show, then insisting only government-cleared acts perform, resulting in five days of ventriloquist acts. Ultimately, the money is raised, thanks to Rushmore’s getting wounded live and on the air by Hebrab terrorists attempting to kidnap McMurkin, and Birdwater himself ponying up the last $100,000 because he really liked the show.

I’d love to say Americathon was a glorious mess, but it’s really just a mess. I can see Proctor and Bergman’s sense of absurd insanity peek through every now and then – Birdwater, for instance, made his fortune by foreseeing the great Clown Shoe craze of the 80s, and then high-fashion roller-skates once the gas started giving out. China turning into a major capitalist power is accurately predicted, though it is fast food that powers its rise to prominence. Meat Loaf appears as “Oklahoma Daredevil Roy Budnitz”, whose act on Americathon is dueling “The Last Living Car” with an array of hand weapons. It’s outrageous sketch comedy like that the central concept cries out for – and sadly, never gets.

The real standout for me – at least in the realm of high weirdness – is Vietnamese Puke Rock star Houling Jackson (Vietnam, incidentally, has reinvented itself as the gambling mecca of the world). Zane Buzby plays Houling, and she is terrifying. Roosevelt, of course, falls immediately in lust with her, as she is the extreme polar opposite of his First Old Lady (the extremely lovely girl next door type, Nancy Morgan). Buzby literally chews up and spits out any scene she’s in; she went on to a fitful acting career, and a much more successful – and, I hope, satisfying – career directing sitcoms. I mean, really: I started out thinking what the hell and ended up wanting more of her.

But past that, past isolated bits, Americathon plays out like a TV comedy sketch that goes on too long (so another thing it accurately predicts is SNL movies). The subplot with the Hebrabs never quite reaches its full potential, which would have helped leaven the comedy with some dramatic tension.

For some reason, in my head, Americathon is always connected to the previous Summer’s movie, FM. You never really hear about FM anymore, either; it was up against a re-released Saturday Night Fever and Grease, and sank without a trace. But it did have a very successful soundtrack album – hell, that Steely Dan “No Static At All” song will still crop up occasionally on Classic Rock stations. Americathon tried to till that soil itself, with a theme song by the Beach Boys and a puzzling appearance by Elvis Costello. I had quit my job at the record store about the time the Americathon album came out, but I recall a pretty high-profile release.

So really, it would have been a better tribute for Bergman had I dug out my VHS of the aforementioned Nick Danger or the re-dub jobs of J-Man Forever or Hot Shorts. Those were hilarious, and a lot more indicative of the man’s talents and strengths.

The Boys circa 1971. Peter's the handsome chrome dome on the left. RIP, fella; you done good.

Shaolin (2011)

It has finally happened; all my local Blockbuster videos – or, as I refer to them, “The Used DVD Store” – have closed down. This shouldn’t surprise me in the least – I haven’t rented a movie in years, except through Netflix, and if you’re only interested in renting, I suppose the buck-a-night Redbox deal is pretty sweet. But as befits my encroaching age and incipient dinosaur-hood, I like to own my movies. This was a childhood dream, being able to watch a movie anytime I want, without suffering the cold equations of TV programming. One of the many, many reasons I’m not taking to streaming like everybody says I should. Between people complaining about stuttering feeds and having no control over what is available on any given evening, I just don’t feel the technology is quite there yet. Not to mention I just bought a Blu-Ray player, and my already high expectations of audio and video quality have gone through the roof.

I’m aware this puts me in the same camp as audiophiles who were dismayed that people were really going for those compressed mp3 thingies that JUST. DIDN’T. SOUND RIGHT. So be it. Nothing irks me faster than digital artifacts in a moving picture.

Well, that was a hell of a digression. Didn’t mean to go there. What I was trying to say is that I was one of the vultures picking over the carcass of Blockbuster, buying used discs while I still could. I got mainly stuff I had only sort of wanted – you know, not enough to actually go out and buy them outright, but maybe enough to put on my Amazon Wish List or maybe that dreaded Netflix Instant Queue – but here it is, it’s less than ten bucks (often less than four), I’ll take it. Copies of Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten DreamsSauna, one of the few horror movies in the last few years to actually have an effect on me; Blu-Rays of Raging Bull and Black Dynamite and Vanishing Point. Some flicks I had curiosity about: Suck, Dead Snow, Pontypool, Hobo With A Shotgun. And, finally, Shaolin.

Andy Lau plays General Hou Jie, a warlord who pursues a vanquished enemy into the Shaolin Temple and kills him. (I’ll note here that this is sometime in the early 20th century. Hou appears to be using the Chinese version of the broomstick Mauser pistol, which could place it around 1920 or so). The wheel of karma and movie plots being what it is, Hou will wind up at that selfsame temple with his mortally wounded daughter, far too late to save her. Having lost everything, Hou begs to become a monk, and through the study of kung fu and Buddhist sutras, he attains a state of martial zen; he releases all the greed, fear and hate that made him such a terror in the Outside World. Alas, the subordinate who mutinied against him is still busy, and the Outside World will soon come calling on the Temple again.

That’s a sturdy plot, if somewhat unoriginal. Where Shaolin establishes its own identity is in the wholehearted conversion of Hou. He realizes that he is responsible for the behavior of his former lieutenant, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), and wishes to not only save the people Cao will murder to cover his sale of Chinese relics to foreigners, but to also save Cao himself, to share the state of grace that total repentance has given him.

And, surprisingly, the movie has the moral courage to actually go through with it. The movie has an almost Shakespearean body count by the end, but Cao is one of the survivors, and seeing him shattered and crying in the burning ruins of a battlefield, surrounded by dead bodies, is truly moving.

Shaolin doesn’t follow the template of the last few modern martial arts movies I’ve seen, which also predisposes me toward liking it. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but here we go again: Jet Li’s Fearless, Ip Man & Ip Man 2, True Legend all end with the hero squaring off against a foreign devil – several foreign devils, in the case of True Legend, and some tigers – and the hero must beat the foreign devil for Chinese honor. I’m okay with that concept, but not a steady diet of it. (Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen  Zhen also did this, but I didn’t remotely like that movie, so it doesn’t exist) I fear the chances of getting a movie like this out of mainland China that doesn’t double somehow as propaganda are getting increasingly slim.

There are, absolutely, foreign devils in Shaolin, military types that want to sell machine guns to the local warlords in exchange for building a railroad through their territory. It’s these bastards who are buying the relics, and who, to cover up their own crimes and failures, order the shelling of the Temple during the climactic battle. Man, foreign devils ruin everything.

Jackie Chan is in there, too, playing a supposedly minor role as the Temple Cook, who studied martial arts for a few years, decided he didn’t get it, and took to the kitchen instead. Of course, the Cook slings around huge iron woks and man-sized piles of dough with no trouble, so we know he’s eventually going to get his fight scene. Chan is, as usual, affable and tremendously likable. Lau has always been a fine, charismatic actor, and though he’s not a trained martial artist, moves well enough that a skillful director can always make him look good in the action scenes, and Benny Chan’s been around long enough to know how that works. His camera swoops around the Temple, making it a character in its own right; it and the shanty town built around it by refugees give the proceedings a properly historic heft, a timeless, epic feeling that extends beyond the miserably mundane concerns of the warlords.

Shaolin is a movie that treads ground certainly treaded before, but treads it with ease and solemnity. It may all seem very familiar, but it is familiar like your favorite comfort food: warming and always welcome.

The List: One Word or Less

Man, a lot of noteworthy – well, noteworthy in the sub-spheres I inhabit – noteworthy people died last week. Sheldon Moldoff, an artist who did many berserk covers for comic books in the Golden through early Silver Age; Ralph McQuarrie, another artist, responsible for the look and feel of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T.; and, to bring it into the realm of this blog, Davy Jones.

Jones was, of course, the “face”, the “cute one” who fronted the Monkees. The Monkees are an odd thing to consider. I loved their shows when I was watching it on Saturday mornings, where I recall CBS put the syndicated series on several years after NBC had cancelled the primetime series. Watching them recently… well, not so much. As the boys exerted ore and more influence over the show, it became less stable, more obtuse (though I suspect I would still like the final episode, directed by Mickey. That was hilarious.).

Yes, they were the Pre-Fab Four, auditioned and cast when existing groups like The Lovin’ Spoonful weren’t available.

The more research you do, the more puzzling it becomes: no, they didn’t play the instruments on their first couple of albums, only supplied voice tracks; yes, they could play. Mike, I knew about. Peter came from the folk scene, and knew guitar and keyboards; Mickey could do guitar, but learned the drums because Davy, who could play them, was too short for the cameras to see over the drum set. In spite of the fact that it’s Mickey doing lead vocals on most of the songs.

The self-destruction of The Monkees seems almost scripted as well – or, at least predictable. Conceived as an attempt to emulate Beatlemania, the emulation became truth, and the boys began to chafe under the control of Don Kirschner, wanted to write and perform their own music, to be their own men. The same conceit that birthed them gave their critics their biggest ammo: they couldn’t play their instruments, they used session musicians, they didn’t write their own music. There’s truth in all those, but it was also true of a lot of popular groups. They were perceived as having had success handed to them, unearned, and that hurt.

So it was pretty much by accord that the TV series was cancelled after two years; The Monkees weren’t interested in doing it anymore, and NBC was tired of dealing with them. Producer/Director Bob Rafelson used the box office success of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! to get funding for a Monkees movie. The result was Head, it was a dismal failure at the box office, absolutely buried under an obscure ad campaign and oddly chosen venues… and it is one of my very favorite movies of all time.

So of course, the day Davy died, I had to watch it.

I’m not even going to try to give you a synopsis of what goes on in this movie – that’s like trying to close your fist around a glob of quicksilver. It is possible to recount exactly what happens in HeadChad Plambeck does it pretty effectively here – but even then, it doesn’t match the full effect of the movie. There is no plot, and trying to find one will only frustrate you; but if you follow the advice of a stoned William Hurt in The Big Chill and “let art wash over you”, what you get is the truest translation of an acid trip to film ever accomplished. Neurons firing multi-colored bursts in all directions, someone keeps changing the channel and there’s Monkees on every channel. An idea slides smoothly into another idea, never mind that one has nothing to do with the other.

People like Chad and other folks smarter than me feel they have found the meaning behind the chaos, and they make damned good cases for it, too. Me, I just like to sit and enjoy the madness.

My favorite moments, of course, are the meta moments. During Davy’s tenement romance sub-movie, complete with Annette Funicello love interest (Rafelson, not knowing if he would ever make another movie, said he made about 50 of them in the course of Head) he’s a violin player who wants to be a prize fighter. Davy is getting the living hell beaten out of him by Sonny Liston (yes, really) while Mickey, in the crowd, is yelling “Stay down! Stay down!” When Mike, playing an obvious crime kingpin, calls Mickey a “dummy”, Mickey goes berserk, climbing into the ring and punching out Davy (“Stay down!”) and Sonny, and in fact, all comers, screaming “I’m not the dummy!” until he is calmed down by Peter, who appears against a wall of boxing ring smoke (or is it supposed to be a sort of heavenly haze?) and tells him, in a calm, steady matter-of-fact voice, “You’re not the dummy, Mickey. I’m the dummy. I’m always the dummy.”

In my post-young fella years, I find that Peter is the one I wind up liking the most.

Since we’re doing this in Davy’s honor, though, here he is singing “Daddy’s Song” by Harry Nilsson, dancing with Toni Basil and tripping everybody’s head out. Reminds one that Davy started out as The Artful Dodger in the Broadway Oliver!. And, oh yeah, there’s some guy named Frank Zappa in there, too.

Yeaaaaah, either Columbia didn’t know what to do with it (likely) or just decided to bury it (also likely). In any case, I had never really heard of it until it cropped up on the CBS Late Night Movie one night and I said, “Wait. The Monkees made a movie?” It seemed to have a very healthy life in bootlegs after that, until it got a legit release on VHS and then DVD, and now it’s part of a box set from The Criterion Collection.

I cannot tell you how impressive the Criterion disc of Head looks. I bought the set (America Lost & Found – The BBS Story) before I purchased a Blu-Ray player, and I can only imagine what this sucker looks like in true high-def. The upscaled DVD is almost painfully sharp, allowing me to see details I had never noticed before, like the designs painted on the psychedelic mermaid’s faces in the opening number “Porpoise Song”. In another meta bit, where at the end of a scene “Cut” is yelled and we see the whole film crew bustle about for the next setup, we see Producer/Screenwriter Jack “Lookit me, I’m so young” Nicholson. But what I had never noticed before, in that same bustle, is Dennis Hopper, wearing his Easy Rider togs, which would be Rafelson’s next Producer gig.

On top of that, in an earlier portion – a World War II movie – Peter is trying to get some ammo for his squad, but keeps getting tackled by Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke. Peter escapes with some ammo, Nitschke throws his golden football helmet after him, and Peter gives it to Mickey, who considers his GI issue helmet “a drag”.

The next time we see that golden football helmet, it’s going be on Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. This stuff can make your head spin. Appropriately enough.

I actually did watch other movies last week. Let’s see if I can get through them without blathering 1000 words on each:

Doom is the new Justice League animated movie from DC Universe/Warner Brothers Animation. I was all set to give this one a bye until I found out it was apparently one of Dwayne McDuffie’s last projects, so I went ahead with my pre-order. In a lot of ways, McDuffie was the heart and soul of the animated Justice League series, Static Shock and some of the more exemplary DTV offerings via DC Universe. His untimely death last year was a serious, serious blow, and when movies like Doom come along, you find out all over again just how much we lost.

Based on the Mark Waid JLA story arc, “Tower of Babel”, Doom gives us yet another version of the Legion of Doom, this time headed up by the literally immortal Vandal Savage. Batman (being Batman) has detailed contingency plans on what to do if any member of the Justice League ever turns evil; Savage gets hold of these and refines them to lethal outcomes, then unleashes each superheroes’ arch-nemesis  upon them. It’s a good story, well-done, and features the familiar voice talent from the various animated series, plus Nathan Fillion as Green Lantern once again. I find that sort of continuity comforting; sometimes stunt casting the voices yields good results, sometimes they’re distracting and disastrous. I just know in my head that Batman sounds like Kevin Conroy and Superman sounds like Tim Daly.

Pretty good way to spend 80 minutes or so. Not sure I’m going to be around for any further offerings from DC Universe; I could be wrong, but I get a feeling of diminishing returns over the last year or so.

I followed up Doom with Cube, which was apparently a staple in the good old days of the Sci-Fi Channel before they started deliberately misspelling their name, and was a constant presence on the video store shelves. None of this ever meant I had seen it; there are lots of holes in my viewing history, and that is one of the things The List is about: remedying those absences. Not that Cube was on either of this year’s lists; but I listened to a typically excellent Projection Booth podcast covering it and thought, “Okay. I should nudge that further up the non-list.”

Cube is a low-budget sci-fi film with a fairly simple premise: Five people wake up in a high-tech structure of interlocking rooms. Each room is a cube, with doors on each wall, floor, and ceiling. Each door leads to another cubic room. And some of the rooms are booby-trapped.

With nothing more than the prison-type uniforms they wear, no food or water, they try to find a way out. At first they note sequences of numbers on each door; if the number is prime, the room beyond seems to have no trap. But even that dodge stops working, and they have to find the more devious, complex clues to make it through alive.

So, actually, what we have here is a movie that takes place largely in one room; sure, it changes colors to give the impression of multiple rooms, but that’s a brilliant setup for a low-budget film. What remains is a character study as the process wears away at each of our protagonists. The balance of power tips and changes; weak characters turn out be stronger than anticipated, and vice versa. That’s a tricky road to follow, but the actors, happily, are up to the task.The ending is… well, not anti-climactic, but unsatisfying. To me, anyway. This is one of those movies where you’re not really going to get any answers outside the ones the characters come up with themselves, and those aren’t going to get validated.

So that was three movies I watched last week. But now I’ve gone and brought up that gosh-darned List, and those of you keeping track at home (snort) have noticed that none of these movies is on either list. So I felt I needed to hit one of those movies  or feel myself a shallow mockery of a man. Of course, I was also on a bit of a roll, and I am unable to resist gimmicks. I had just watched three movies with lots of colors: the psychedelia of Head, the four-color mayhem of Doom, and the color-coded rooms of Cube. Did I have a movie on The List that also centered upon color in this fashion? Well, no, I didn’t, but I did have a movie that had a one-word title.

Hello, Inception.

Inception is one of those movies where really, seriously, I have no idea why it took me so long to see it. I was really excited by those trailers, back when nobody had the first damned idea what the movie was about, but those visuals. Well, it was probably a number of reasons that kept me away. Summers are notoriously tight on money for me, what with the AC bills. I still feel an adversarial relationship with most people who go to the movies these days. So anyway, when it came out on DVD, it was the very first Blu-Ray I ever bought, even before I had a player – one of those Blu-Ray/DVD combo packs – so I was probably, subconsciously, waiting until I could watch the Blu-Ray.

Hm.

Probably, most of you know the basic concept, at least, of the movie by now. An “extraction” is the high-tech corporate espionage term for stealing information from a person’s brain while they dream; an “Inception”, then, is the placing of an idea in a person’s brain while they sleep. Much more difficult, and, in the world of the movie, next to impossible. But Leonardo DiCaprio, in order to get back into the country legally (a situation teased out over the course of the movie) is willing to give it a shot.This will require taking his team three dreams deep – a dream within a dream within a dream – to accomplish it. To complicate matters, the target’s mind has been trained to resist such antics, and his resistance takes the form of unrelenting gunmen. And the reason for DiCaprio’s expatriation – his dead wife – keeps cropping up to screw things up, which eventually requires going into a fourth level of dreaming – possibly even a fifth.

This is a real mindfuck of a movie, and I totally respect that. One needs to pay attention, or one is going to get lost. To Christopher Nolan’s credit, it isn’t that hard, if you keep your wits about you. The rules and conventions of this dream invasion stuff is laid out for you, as you need it, causing Joe over at the Daily Grindhouse to call this Exposition: The Movie. Well, we need that information, and it is played out so matter-of-factly, and in easily digestible chunks, that it’s never intrusive, and never slows down the story.

Inception is pretty close to being a perfect movie. Everything is in its place, everything serves a purpose. As far as possible, Nolan keeps his special effects in-camera, heightening the sense of realism, even when that realism starts getting  elastic. I’d say it was worth the wait, except the wait served no real purpose.

By way of coda, after my wife and I had finished watching it, she said, “Well, what was the point of that? Be sure to choose good dreams?” to which I could only reply, “I don’t think movies have to make a point. I’m personally willing to just let a movie take me somewhere else for two hours.” Which it did, and that brings us full circle. I let art wash over me, and I was refreshed for it.

I really need to start just writing about movies one at a time again. This is getting grueling.

The List: Samurai and Spartans

So, about a month back, I shared a couple of lists of movies I intended to watch this year. There was a list of 30 Quality Movies and a list of 30 Movies of the Type I Usually Watch (but have been putting off for one reason or another). The first list, I want to have 15 watched by the arrival of Summer. I am pleased I have finally knocked one off that list; and it was Harakiri (1962).

Harakiri was recommended to me years ago by a movie buff (and compared to this guy’s encyclopedic knowledge, I was an infant) while we were discussing Kurosawa. I was lucky enough to have seen The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo at the impressionable age of 13 or 14 during one of PBS’s World Cinema series. This was back around 1972 or so; for many years, that was it for samurai cinema for me. It wasn’t until the VHS revolution – and my move to Houston – that I was able to see Sanjuro and Rashomon. I was aware there were other Samurai movies out there, but where to start?

Well, one day I brought home a rental tape called Shogun Assassin and holy shit, to put it succinctly. So action-packed and kinetic, it literally ruined me for samurai flicks for many years. I was aware that Assassin was two movies mashed together, but I was still unable to shake the feeling that any other chanbara I saw in this time was slow and plodding.

Well, I’m older now, and am myself slow and plodding. I can now appreciate a movie with more deliberate pacing, and stories that slowly unfold themselves, which is a fair statement about Harakiri. It is also ironic that I go from that set-up to what is unarguably an anti-samurai film.

Harakiri begins with a ronin – a masterless samurai – presenting himself at the house of the Iyi clan, asking permission to use their courtyard to commit harakiri – ritual suicide – in honorable surroundings. The counselor of the house, in charge while the Lord is away, attempts to dissuade the ronin by telling him the tale of another ronin who, earlier that year, made the same request. At the start of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the houses of many provincial lords were summarily dissolved under a number of pretexts, suddenly casting thousands of samurai into unemployment. A current trend of ronin asking to commit harakiri has become a very real problem among the daimyo, who usually just give the ronin a few coins and send them on their way.

The House of Iyi, however, feels itself above such extortion, and forced the young ronin to go ahead with his threat and disembowel himself. In an extra piece of unfeeling cruelty, when the Iyi retainers found the ronin had pawned his swords and was carrying bamboo replicas, they force him to use his blunt wooden wakizashi to kill himself.

The older ronin is unimpressed by the story and emphasizes his desire to die rather than continue his life of abject poverty. The Counselor grants his wish, and once in the courtyard, the ronin asks for a specific Iyi retainer to act as his second, to strike off his head after he has cut his guts out – in fact, the same samurai who acted as the second for the younger ronin, and who ramrodded that unfortunate man’s punishment. He is found to be absent, at his own home, claiming illness. Two more seconds are requested, each of which played a major part in that earlier humiliation and death; each is also absent.

The ronin then reveals that he did indeed know that younger man, that he was, in fact, his son-in-law – and proceeds to tell the tale of their fall from grace with the dissolution of their clan, their attempts to eke out a living in the capital city. Disaster strikes in slow motion: first, his daughter contracts tuberculosis, then his infant grandson is striken with fever. There is no money for a doctor, and the son-in-law desperately tries the one course he can see open to him – the harakiri scam, which might at least garner him the few coins needed for a doctor, or at best – as is rumored to have happened – offered a place in the clan. Unfortunately, he chose the wrong clan.

The story is teased out in flashbacks over the course of two hours; the older ronin’s revenge is spelled out, and is at once most satisfying and appropriate, as well as devious, making his point to the assembled retainers, that samurai honor – bushido – is a thin facade which diminishes life, when life is really all that counts. The storytelling is masterful and often harrowing; the suicide with a bamboo sword is equally as brutal and painful as the scene where the older ronin realizes his adopted son sold his swords to get medicine for his ailing wife – a solution that had never even occurred to the older samurai.

One can’t truly call Harakirichanbara – a sword-fighting film. There are two major fights, both at the end, one magnificently artistic and satisfying, the other messy and desperate. The overall feeling left the viewer is a sense of desperate futility, as the clan efficiently engineers a cover-up, rendering all the courage and suffering we’ve just seen superfluous and useless. Like all classics – and undeniably, Harakiri is one – the story is timeless, though set in the past. Thousands of people suddenly rendered unemployed by thoughtless, unfeeling Powers That Be – that doesn’t sound at all familiar, does it? And good lord, the scenes with the family realizing the baby boy is getting sicker and there is absolutely nothing they can do because they are poor – that hits way, way too close to home.

Yeah, it’s a classic. Don’t think I’ll be re-watching it on a whim anytime soon, though.

Small wonder, then, that I felt the need for somewhat lighter fare the next day, and what did I have to hand but Criterion’s new Blu-Ray of Three Outlaw Samurai (1964). I’m still in the beginning stages of my tour through chanbara, and Three Outlaw Samurai is the first movie of director Hideo Gosha, a name to be reckoned with in that field.

This movie is a sort of prequel for a popular TV series, an origin story of how the three title characters first meet. The first surprise is that the main ronin of the three, Shiba, is played by Tetsuro Tanba, who was also Omodaka, the samurai douchebag of Harakiri. Tanba had a pretty fine career stretching from the 50s to the 20-aughts, apparently acting up until his death in 2006, at the age of 84. Seeing the contrast between, at the very least, these two characters gives you some clue to his longevity.

The second surprise – okay not really a surprise, the Criterion Collection put it out, after all – is just how damned good this movie is, though good in an entirely different way than Harakiri. This is fine entertainment, with echoes of a good Western. At times I felt like I was watching another Sanjuro movie, and that is a really, really good feeling.

Three Outlaw Samurai starts – like Yojimbo – with Shiba wandering aimlessly, and happening upon an abandoned mill where three peasants have taken the local Magistrate’s daughter hostage to force the corrupt official to address the crushing taxes that are slowly starving the villagers in the area. Shiba acts disinterested in the whole matter – he only wants a place to sleep – until the Magistrate’s thugs arrive and assume he is a part of the plot, and Shiba has to administer a samurai butt-kicking to protect the roof over his head. Finding the peasant’s cause to be righteous, he wholeheartedly casts his lot with them. Meantime, the Magistrate is cleaning out his jail cells and offering amnesty and cash rewards to the criminals to go to the mill, kill everyone, and get his daughter back.

One of the jailed is Sakura, our second samurai, who switches sides once he finds out the peasant’s complaint; the third is Kikyo, a mercenary more interested in the money the Magistrate doles out than any moral issues (don’t worry, he’ll eventually come around, thanks to Shiba’s sterling example). It’s a lightning fast story of betrayals, double crosses and ultimate tragedy that ends with our three outlaw samurai, united in friendship, tossing a hairpin into the air at a crossroads to decide where they’ll go next. I can only assume that the series was like Route 66, except with samurai, which sounds like the Best Idea Ever.

So despite the fact that I have these two lists of movies I have sworn to see, the next night I was still in a martial mood, so I finally pulled out that DVD of The 300 Spartans (1962).

I love the story of the Battle of Thermopylae. I loved Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300, even with its flaws and disregard for history. I did not like Zack Snyder’s movie version, which amplified those flaws a thousandfold by dressing them in a tenuous version of reality.

In the first fifteen minutes of The 300 Spartans, we have acknowledgement of the Battle of Marathon and the Athenian Fleet, which already makes it a thousand times better than 300. Unsurprisingly, Sir Ralph Richardson makes a great Themistocles and Richard Egan a rugged, honorable Leonidas (made even better by not being directed to shout all his lines).

Sure, the speech is elevated and florid, but I expect that from the Ancients. David Farrar brings more than a little comic book pulp to his Xerxes, but then, he’s the bad guy. I found the battle scenes and tactics realistic enough (I did a lot of tooth-gnashing at the Spartans breaking ranks to do individual slow-motion combat in 300. The Spartans were known for their close-quarter formations, not for their grandstanding) And… oh my God! ARMOR! Weren’t the Spartans supposed to lug something like 100 pounds of armor into battle? Not so much armor in evidence here, but at least they’re wearing some, which is more than I can say about 300. Frank Miller wanted to emulate the paintings on Greek urns. That’s a fine artist’s conceit, but translated into film, that just means a lot of oiled musclemen prancing about.

I will admit when I first saw the DVD cover art, my first question was “Why are these guys wearing Roman helmets?” Well, likely because they’re the leaders, and the Roman style was more open in the front, so we could see their faces. So I can’t really crow about the historical accuracy of this version either… but hey, dat’s da movies for ya.

So in effect, my weekend viewing was quite the gratifying affair; three good movies, movies I can recommend whole-heartedly, and without falling back on the cautionary phrases I usually have to employ for movies like Things or Darktown Strutters.  If you want excellent drama, go for Harakiri; epic historical fiction, The 300 Spartans; entertaining action with intriguing characters, Three Outlaw Samurai.

It’s rare that I get three movies of such quality in a row.  Hopefully, this is, as they say in Ancient Greece, a good omen.