Watching The Detectives

Friday was kind of an odd, time-shifted day for me. There was a special, lunch show for a private party, for which I had taken off work, and then there was no show on Saturday. That played havoc enough on my body clock, but then, during a very late lunch, I found myself reading the delightful live-tweeting of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony by a feverish Warren Ellis. Then, after an exhausted nap, I watched the same ceremony, time-delayed by NBC, and I was one of thousands who put in at least one tweet imploring Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer to for God’s sake SHUT THE HELL UP. Then a few hours later the ceremony was broadcast on the West Coast, and the process started all over again.

After the Very Long Ceremony had ended (along with an impressively brisk Parade of Nations, during which our NBC louts informed what was wrong with each nation as they marched), my world consisted of grand spectacle marred by clueless blathering, and time seriously out of joint. I wanted to watch a movie, but I wanted something short and, hopefully undemanding. I really should have reached for one of the low-budget horror movies that used to be my stock in trade, but my eye fell upon a recent acquisition from a Half Price Books run, a movie I had seen on it initial theatrical run in 1975 and hated, a movie I was willing to give a second chance: The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.

Curse my willingness to give things a second chance.

Released a year after Young Frankenstein and starring three of its major stars, we were expecting more of the same; but Smarter Brother never reaches its predecessors frantic heights, and in trying to do so, simply becomes tiresome. When your pre-credit gag involves an unconvincing physical joke followed by a poorly-dubbed Queen Victoria muttering, “Oh, shit,” you pretty much have your experience laid out before you.

Writer/director Gene Wilder is Sigerson Holmes (an arch nod to the Canon, at least), Holmes’ younger and extremely jealous brother; Marty Feldmann is Orville Sacker, Siggy’s assistant and a man with “photographic hearing”; and Madeline Khan is Jenny Hill, the MacGuffin that walks like a woman. The sublime Leo McKern is Professor Moriarty, and the usually reliable Roy Kinnear is his assistant.

The only thing worse than an unfunny comedy is an unfunny comedy with a cast this good. There is the occasional bit of business that raises a chortle from me, but they are few and far between.

I see that on the IMDb, there is a sizable number of people who love this movie. Well, good. I like everybody involved in this picture, and I’m glad that it found an audience. That audience is simply not me.

For a neck-injuring change of course, the next day I finally got to see The Dark Knight Rises, having managed to avoid all but one major spoiler. And by the time the spoiler would have paid off, I was so involved with the story that it didn’t matter, and the major payoff still caught me by surprise.

I found The Dark Knight Rises to be a very fitting trilogy ender, solid in execution. I prefer The Dark Knight, but then, that is more purely a Batman movie. Batman Begins and Dark Knight Rises are more properly Bruce Wayne movies. I enjoyed the call-backs to the earlier two movies, the unexpected guest shots, and agree with everyone that Anne Hathaway as Catwoman and Tom Hardy as Bane stole the show. Hardy, especially – respect to anyone who manages a performance that good with most of his face obscured.

Now to await the inevitable reboot and hope that it brings back the detective part of the character. The Nolan/Bale Batman was pretty much a ninja-trained reactionary, and we lost the portion of the character that studied criminology in various parts of the world along with the martial arts. Probably a minor fanboy cavil about what has been DC’s only really successful foray into the modern superhero cinema. Probably Nolan’s major achievement with this trilogy is producing a series of comic book movies that did not require much explanation to non-comics reading spouses.

Seeking to continue my Nolan buzz, Sunday night I pulled out my recently-acquired Blu-Ray of Insomnia, Nolan’s 2002 remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 movie of the same name (available on Criterion, no less). In an Internet discussion during the lead-up to Dark Knight Rises premiere, Insomnia was held up as Nolan’s weakest work, along with the rejoinder, “If Insomnia were my weakest work, I could die happy.”

You can, indeed, see why Nolan was drawn to the story. Al Pacino plays Will Dormer, an LA police detective who is sent to the town of Nightmute, Alaska, to help an old friend out on a murder investigation. Tagging along is Dormer’s partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan). Both men have been hustled out of LA ahead of an Internal Affairs investigation; Eckhart is going to cooperate with IA, but this endangers some of Dormer’s convictions, and, he feels, his very career. The stress of this and the fact that Nightmute is above the Arctic Circle and in its period of “white nights” – 24 hours sunlight – robs Dormer of any chance of sleep.

Dormer sets a wily trap for the murderer that fails due to some unfortunate incompetence on the part of the local police force (who, admittedly, have had to contend with nothing worse than drunks and wife beaters). This leads to a chase through a foggy beachfront which ends with one of the local cops wounded by the killer and Dormer accidentally shooting and killing Eckhart. Realizing that there is no way anyone will believe it was an accident, and finding the killer’s dropped handgun, he begins to manufacture a case that the killer was the culprit… until the killer calls Dormer in his hotel room, revealing that he witnessed Eckhart’s shooting.

Nolan is all about driven protagonists, and conveys Dormer’s increasing desperation and exhaustion very well. Pacino’s eternally haggard expression plays well into this, and I was actually concerned about the method actor’s health for a while. One thing that’s more satisfying in the consideration than in the witnessing is the matchup between Pacino and Robin Williams as the killer (oh, like that’s a spoiler. Who of the two top-billed actors doesn’t show up for a half-hour?). A pure method actor vs. an extreme extrovert.

But there’s not much in the way of pyrotechnics here. I’m always secretly delighted and not a little smug when people seem surprised that comedians are capable of doing a straight dramatic role. The good ones already understand timing and moving emotions, and the great clowns could always make you cry as well as make you laugh. personally, Williams burned me out ages ago, but I still like him in smaller, more restrained doses, like here and Gilliam’s The Fisher King.

Insomnia still has an identity crisis, though – the story’s tenor still feels Norwegian, somehow. That is, when I wasn’t thinking I was seeing an alternate universe’s version of the pilot for Twin Peaks. The fish out of water component of Dormer’s arc doesn’t really work, except when he’s being stymied by the cops of this podunk frontier town turning out to be better cops than anticipated, especially Hillary Swank’s eager Ellie Burr.

So that’s three Oscar winners in a not-bad but not-terrific remake; but as I said, mediocre Nolan is still better than most movies out in the Redbox, these days. It has made me much more interested in the original, bumping it up several tiers in the “To Be Watched” list.

I also suppose I should mention that Wally Pfister’s cinematography is done full justice on the Blu-Ray, as I was several times left gaping at the beauty of Alaska.

Here, have a completely misleading trailer:

Sword of Doom (1966)

I try to approach movies as tabula rasa as possible. You know, a general understanding of genre and plot, perhaps, no more than you would get from your average video box. That’s part of watching a good movie for the first time; the Discovery Phase, keeping up with the characters, the twists and turns of the plot. Hell, one of my best evenings was going to a sneak preview of John Sayles’ Matewan, when we only knew the name of the movie, period.

Sometimes, though, that blissful ignorance can work against you.

Sword of Doom is a very well-regarded samurai flick. 8 out of 10 at the Internet Movie Database, two different releases from Criterion. This was literally all I needed to know going in.

Sword of Doom is the tale of Ryunosuke Tsukue (a marvelous performance by Tatsuya Nakadai), an extraordinary swordsman, and also apparently an unremittingly evil one. At the movie’s beginning, Ryunosuke comes across an aged Buddhist pilgrim at a roadside shrine, praying for death so he will no longer be a burden on his young daughter. Ryunosuke obligingly kills him on the spot without batting an eyelash. A traveling peddler almost meets the same fate, but is too swift, running away before the disinterested Ryunosuke can slash again. The peddler then finds the old man’s daughter sobbing over the corpse.

Ryunosuke is fighting a duel the next day, with a samurai who, if he wins, will become a fencing master at the school Ryunosuke abandoned; his ailing father begs him to let the man win, and despairs of the fighting style his son has developed, a “cruel style” which draws in the opponent and dispatches him quickly, like a snake striking. He feels the cruelty of the form has taken over his son’s life. This may be true, as that evening, his opponent’s wife arrives to beg Ryunosuke to let him win, and our black-clad anti-hero forces her to give up her body in a decrepit river mill to seal the deal.

The husband gets wind of this however, and the match becomes a duel to the death. This becomes obvious to everyone witnessing this match, the fencing masters as well as the audience, before a blow is even struck. The referee quickly calls a draw, but the husband launches an illegal attack, deftly parried by Ryunosuke, who instantly kills the man… with one blow from a wooden sword. Ryunosuke then leaves town, the widow in tow, while dispatching about twenty clansmen seeking revenge on a country road.

Two years pass, Ryunosuke fathers a child with the widow, and what seemed quiet insanity in the nihilistic samurai becomes slowly more overt as he falls in with a group of pro-Shogunate swordsmen who advance their cause through assassination, letting Ryunosuke handle the tougher targets. Concurrent with this, we find that his dueling victim’s brother is searching for him, and, on advice of Ryunosuke’s own dying father, has begun taking lessons from famed fencing instructor Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune) to defeat Ryunosuke’s Silent style.

All this comes to a head in a party house in Kyoto, where, in a supposedly haunted room, Ryunosuke discovers that the courtesan he is supposed to kill (to keep silent about a plan to murder the head of his gang) is actually the daughter of the old man he killed at the beginning of the movie. This what finally seems to break the hard-drinking samurai, as he sees the shadows of people he has killed in the corners of the room and goes berserk, slashing at the many screens on which the shadows appear. A counterplot to kill Ryunosuke and his co-conspirator interrupts his screen-slashing, and Ryunosuke spends the rest of the picture cutting his way through a seemingly unending throng of swordsmen, who, through sheer force of numbers, manage to wound him enough to slow him down, until the movie ends in a freeze-frame, Ryunosuke in mid-slash.

Here is where the ignorance works counter to your enjoyment. There are several well-developed plot threads left unresolved by this ending, and any uneducated gaijin like myself is going to find himself hell of bewildered. Earlier in the week I had Tweeted that I loved Criterion for continuing to rock the pack-in booklet on its releases, and this one, an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, provided me everything I needed to know, mainly this is the first movie in a trilogy that never got finished.

Based on one of those outlandishly complex serialized novels so popular in Asia, Dai-bosatsu tōge – left unfinished at 41 volumes by the death of its author, Kaizan Nakazato – Sword of Doom is apparently a Greatest Hits version of the first third of the series, very familiar to the Japanese audience of the time. There had already been three movie versions of the novel by this time, two of which were trilogies.

But all we have right now is Sword of Doom, so let’s examine it. It is a beautifully well-made movie (which makes its unfinished qualities more frustrating), with strong performances across many interesting, complex characters. The two formal fencing matches, the first the duel at the beginning, the second a match between Ryunosuke and, unwittingly, the vengeful brother, are marvelously presented, the two fencers standing in silence for what seems an eternity. The counter-intuitive nature of Ryunosike’s silent style, sword down, eyes averted, looks incredibly fiendish in execution.

Director Kihacho Okamoto is more than ably supported by cinematographer Hiroshi Murai, who produces some of the most gorgeous black-and-white photography since Gregg Toland. One especially glorious example is a scene taking place during Winter, when Ryunosuke’s gang ambushes a palanquin containing who they think to be an indolent lord they wish to kill. Unfortunately for them, their information is bad, and the occupant of the chair is none other than fencing master Shimada, who demands an immediate apology. Being thugs, they decline, and attack instead – bad guys, when Toshiro Mifune demands an apology, you fucking say I’m sorry! Shimada proceeds to turn them to thug soup in a heavy snowfall, producing a scenic view of brutal beauty that would crop up later in manga like Lone Wolf and Cub. The sequence is so striking even Ryunosuke is stunned… not to mention dismayed that here might actually be an opponent he cannot best.

The quality of Sword of Doom is such that most of the feeling left from viewing it is of regret that the trilogy was not finished, as there are at least three characters I feel are standing slightly out of frame, waiting for the chance to finish their stories, and now they will never get the chance. Especially now that I know so much of the actual story still lay before them, that conclusion was likely not the one I was expecting, and since my determined ignorance was due to the fact that I love to be surprised by story… that makes me even sadder and more frustrated.

Good movie, though. I should be happy with what I got.

No trailer this time, but here’s footage set to Bauhaus’ “Dark Entries” that will give you some idea of how powerful this movie truly is:

Z (1969)

So here’s another ghost from my past laid to rest. It does seem like the most satisfying part of my movie-watching career over the last couple of decades has been tracking down movies I had heard of in my youth, but never gotten to see, usually because of my youth: questionable fare like Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?, more solid, significant offerings like Bonnie & Clyde. Which brings us to Z.

I remember Z was a talked-about movie back in 1969; it was the #10 top-grossing movie in America that year , was nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film (it won the latter, Midnight Cowboy took the former). There was a fair amount of coverage in the media, yet I don’t think it ever played the local theater, the Rialto in Alice, Texas. I could be wrong about that. In any case, at 12 years of age, it didn’t necessarily sound like something I’d be interested in.

What does interest me is how this movie has faded into the background over the years. That may be part and parcel of the political thriller – you don’t see too many people rhapsodizing over All The President’s Men, for instance, equally successful in its heyday. But it seems to play very rarely anymore. In fact, it was a recent showing on Turner Classic Movies – and if I were better off financially, I would pay for cable just for that one channel – that re-ignited my interest in Z. One of the folks I follow on Twitter was urging everyone to see it, stating, “It’s Godfather good!” That’s pretty high praise; I clicked over to the Criterion site and put it on my wishlist.

Enter Barnes & Noble and their half-price Criterion sale. Before long, it was in my possession. So… is it as good as The Godfather? Well, I’m not sure about that, but it is damn good.

Based on the novel of the same name by Vassilis Vassilikos, Z is a very thinly disguised re-telling of the 1963 assassination of Greek democratic politician Gregoris Lambrakis. Identified only as “The Doctor” in the movie and played by Yves Montand (the movie is in French and was filmed in Algiers), the Doctor is supposed to address an anti-war rally. The rally is denied meeting hall after meeting hall, all due to threats and sudden rule changes by the right-wing government. Finally, they are allowed a small union hall insufficient for the purpose; a large crowd spills into the square outside, where a rightist mob also gathers. After his speech, when the Doctor approaches the government’s Head of Security to ask that the crowd be dispersed before there is trouble, a three-wheeler delivery vehicle bursts throught he crowd and a man in the back clubs the doctor as it hurtles past. The doctor dies during a third round of surgery.

That the Doctor is set up is all to clear to the viewer; one of the Deputies of the party is mistaken for the Doctor earlier, beaten, loaded into an ambulance. The same delivery vehicle later cuts off the ambulance, and the Deputy hauled out and further beaten until the mistake is discovered, his unconscious body left in the road.

Officially, the Doctor was clipped by a drunk driver and hit his head on the curb, resulting in the fatal injury; however, a doctor’s autopsy reveals that could not be the case, and he tells that much to the magistrate in charge of the investigation (Jean-Louis Trintingnant), who turns out to be a man who takes the responsibility of his office quite seriously. So seriously that he, and a journalist who realizes he has happened onto the story of a lifetime (played by Jacques Perrin, who co-produced) begin a detailed investigation into the incident, despite being told at every juncture to stop.

The truly surprising thing about Z is that the story is so absorbing, yet, when one looks back on it, one realizes that almost the entire movie is composed of conversations in offices, hospital rooms, and other places of meeting. This serves to elevate the few action scenes even more in the mind’s eye – scenes which already pretty exciting because the low budget precluded stunt men, so when people are thrown out of the careening three-wheeler, when another deputy is pursued by a car down sidewalks and across a park, those are the actual actors doing their own stunts. This adds to the documentary feel of the proceedings.

Documentary it feels, too. There is quite a bit of satisfaction when, at the end, the Magistrate still hands down his indictments to officials of the Military Police who, are shocked, shocked at this indignity. One turns to his lawyer and asks, “Why does he have it in for me? Is he a Communist?” The lawyer replies, “His father was a Colonel in the Military Police.”

But, documentary it is, and the final scene is the Journalist on a news set, detailing the unusual, often “accidental” deaths of witnesses in the case, and the light sentences given to the perpetrators. Charges against the military officials are dismissed, with only administrative reprimands. The Deputies have unfortunate, fatal strokes or commit suicide while in prison. The journalist suddenly freezes, and a female voice informs us that he was imprisoned for revealing official documents.

In 1967, you see, the military staged a coup d’tat in Greece, rehabilitated the military types, and turned people like the Magistrate and the journalist into villains. Z ends with a list of thing outlawed by the new junta, including pop music, Tolstoy, long hair on men, peace rallies, The Beatles, Mark Twain, Aeschylus, homosexuality, new math, one remarkable entry ” Lurcat??!?”, referring to Jean Lurcat, who was responsible for a revival in woven tapestry in the 20th century (ooh, how radical), and the letter Z.

Z, you see, refers to the old Greek word zei, meaning “he lives”. Thus Z becomes a popular graffiti, inferring that the spirit of the Doctor, and therefore revolution, lives on.  I’m sure banning a letter of the alphabet squashed that sort of thing entirely… which is why the junta was overthrown in 1974.

And that’s your takeaway, right there. In the real world, the man the Magistrate was based on, Christos Sartzetakis, became President of a Democratic Greece in 1985. Outside the purview of the movie, but valuable to consider. The cycles of history are exactly that: cycles, and though it seems for a while that repression has a chokehold on reality, the pendulum inevitably swings the other way.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

It was only logical that if I was going to re-watch Full Metal Jacket for my personal project of watching all 13 of Stanley Kubrick’s features in order, I was also going to have to give Apocalypse Now the same treatment. I had seen both movies in their first theatrical runs, and never again since; and despite Oliver Stone’s Platoon being the one that took a Best Picture Oscar, those were the two Vietnam movies that possessed any stature in my brain, the two that were usually singled out as “masterpieces”.

I really like Full Metal Jacket, but I am unsure as to its masterpiece status. Incredibly well-made, often gorgeous, but still emotionally distancing – which I think was the point. But then what about Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, when, in 1979, I left the theater not sure whether I actually liked the movie or not. Surely now, over 30 years later, I would be able to give the movie a more balanced, assured viewing.



Okay, let’s start with the basics. We know that the movie started back in the 60s, as a John Milius script entitled The Psychedelic Soldier, which used the basic structure of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness as an allegory on war. This was going to be American Zoetrope’s first big project, and the plans were big, high concept, as it were: George Lucas would direct cinema verite style, with 16mm cameras, using real soldiers… in Vietnam, with the actual war going on around them. This is the sort of audacious plan enthusiastic young men come up with, full of excitement and possibility. John Milius smilingly remembers friends who were planning to move to Canada and other draft-dodging techniques, who were ready and willing to go to Nam voluntarily to carry lights and camera equipment.

Somewhere in the very early 70s, that plan petered out… I strongly suspect some money man looking at Coppola and saying, “Are you fucking insane?” (and insane is a word we are going to be using a lot in discussing this movie) But, after two incredibly successful Godfather movies, Coppola was finally able to get this dream project, re-titled Apocalypse Now, green-lit. Lucas was working on something that would be called Star Wars, Milius wasn’t interested, so Coppola took up the direction himself, moving himself and his family to the Philippines for a projected five-month shoot.

Therein lies the stuff of legend; Replacing Harvey Keitel with Martin Sheen was the smallest of stumbling blocks that beset the shoot. The Marcos regime would pull out helicopters in mid-shot to pursue rebels (or, it was felt, to milk more bribes from the production). A typhoon destroyed sets and put the already-besieged production back six weeks. Martin Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack, sidelining him for another six weeks (apparently there are some scenes where we only see Sheen’s character, Willard, from the back, and that’s Emilio Estevez subbing for his dad). Coppola must be feeling that he is in an arm-wrestling contest with the universe to finish this picture. Then Marlon Brando, receiving an at-the-time record 3.5 million dollar paycheck for three week’s work, shows up without losing weight as he had promised, having neither read the script nor the novella.

At some point in all this, Coppola had taken on the mounting debt of the production using his own resources. He, rather understandably, becomes suicidal more than once.

If you’re going to watch Apocalypse Now, I absolutely recommend that you also watch Hearts of Darkness, the 1991 documentary about the making of the movie, which is composed mainly of footage shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor during the grueling process. In the opening, taken, I think from Cannes, Coppola states that the movie parallels Vietnam in that “There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.”

And what is astonishing – even beyond the fact that the movie ever got finished, that Coppola never truly gave in and just walked away from the whole chaotic mess – is that after two years of editing nearly a million feet of film, the movie is gorgeous and compelling. All that money is on the screen.

I don’t think I’m alone in finding the third act disappointing, as Willard finally finds his target, Kurtz, in the ruins he and his Montagnard minions have turned into a base of operations festooned with decapitated heads and dead bodies. An absorbing story suddenly becomes murky and confusing, and if you watch Hearts of Darkness, you will find yourself infuriated by Brando. You also realize that the third act is in about as coherent form as anybody could have gotten out of that mess.

Also found out I had a non-typical experience on my first viewing, back in ’79. The Lionsgate Blu-Ray preserves the original intention of Coppola, fading to black at the end with a copyright notice. The movie was meant to be toured about, with the credits on programs to be handed out to the audience. When that wasn’t practical, there were simple white credits on black appended to the end. But when I saw it, the credits played over footage of Kurtz’s base being blown to smithereens by an airstrike. The footage basically existed because it was in the contract with the Philippine government that the fake temple be removed at shooting’s end, and if you’re going to destroy something like that, might as well film it, right? And you’ve got such spectacular footage, you might as well use it, right?

Except that the airstrike totally contradicts Coppola’s intended ending, which I have now, thanks to the Lionsgate disc, seen, and it sat better with me. I do believe that final bit of confusion at the end there really killed the movie for me back in ’79. Or at least finally administered the coup de grace after Brando’s segment had mortally wounded it.

One final bit about the insanity of the project and its final form, possessing no title card and no end credits: for a while it was Coppola’s intention, if not to tour it, then to build a special theater for it in the exact geographical center of America, where it would be shown year-round, and you would visit it like you visit Mount Rushmore. Much easier to do the program thing there, but still: insane.

Apocalypse Now isn’t truly Vietnam, isn’t truly Heart of Darkness; it uses a phantasmagorical version of Vietnam as a backdrop to a tale of personal concepts of right and wrong challenged by a world of values shifting so quickly that the word values no longer even has any meaning. The deeper Willard gets into this Vietnam fantasia – a world he volunteers to get back into, that when he cannot get back into it with a long-awaited “mission”, he spends long hours slowly killing himself in a Saigon hotel room – the deeper Willard gets into the jungle, the fewer pieces of the chain of command even exist anymore. It’s the Vietnam war as related by Hunter S. Thompson, hardly realistic but nonetheless engrossing.

And it’s taken me a week and a half to get even this coherent about it. Can I please watch another movie now?

The Stanley Kubrick Project: Full Metal Jacket

When I was a younger man… still-in-college young, God’s Gift To Theater young… word came down the pike that Stanley Kubrick was searching for young men for his next movie.  That news hit the drama department like a rock in a pond, which is to say there was a brief amount of activity, which gradually faded away. You were required to send in a tape, and in a small college in the wilds of Texas, there weren’t a lot of resources for that, not at the dawn of the 80s, anyway. Besides, none of us had an agent, and I had done enough writing at that point to know what a “slush pile” was, and what happened to most of the manuscripts/resumes that wound up in one.

Just as well, knowing what I know about Full Metal Jacket these days.

It seems there were two great spurts of Vietnam movies, first in the late 70s, then another later in the 80s. In the 70s, the country was still a little psycho about the subject, and the result was Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and the relatively restrained Boys in Company C. In the 80s you had First Blood Part Two: Rambo, the Oscar winner for Best Picture Platoon, and once again, apparently arriving late to deliver an appropriate coda, Stanley Kubrick and Full Metal Jacket. I’ve seen all of these, so much so that they all tend to blur into one huge swamp of tropes and setpieces, into one huge movie with a hell of a running time… but I find the scenes that really stick out for me come from Kubrick and Coppola.

There are a lot of similarities between The Boys in Company C and Full Metal Jacket, which doesn’t help my befuddled brain, but at least a scene involving soccer was cut from Full Metal, so I can still clutch at that difference. Both movies start at boot camp, where highly-trained drill instructors wear down, tear down and build soldiers; that which can be broken must be broken tout d’suite so it can be repaired or replaced and units formed that will kill on command. Where Full Metal Jacket forges its own unique identity in the crowded Vietnam movie market is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played by R. Lee Ermey in a star-making turn(well, perhaps not star-making, but it resulted in regular work, which I’m sure he’ll take as a consolation prize). Himself a retired Marine (and then only retired due to injuries), not only does Ermey bring life knowledge but an apparently infinite supply of insults, slurs and creative vulgarisms to the role. You fear him almost as much as the recruits, but you cannot take your eyes off him.

The entire first act takes place on Parris Island, as our major characters Joker (Matthew Modine) and Cowboy (Arliss Howard) navigate the grueling eight weeks of basic. The nicknames, of course, are supplied by Hartman, as is the name of  Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’onofrio, in his film debut), the recruit who can get nothing right, and who boot camp finally, truly breaks, with tragic results.

The second act finds us in-country, with Joker assigned to writing for Stars and Stripes, (much to Hartman’s disgust). Joker is pretty much dedicated to staying out of the line of fire and keeping his cameraman, Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) the same. The 1968 Tet Offensive brings the war to their doorstep, however, and Joker and Rafterman find themselves embedded in the Lost Dog Squad (including old buddy Cowboy), who are charged with clearing the bombed-out city of Hue.

This is the third act, again establishing a difference with other Nam movies, which tended to put the war in the jungle or villages of thatched huts; Kubrick’s production designer, Anton Furst, takes an abandoned gasworks near London slated for demolition, and working from photos of Hue after Tet, began the demolition with an artist’s eye. It makes for an enveloping, harrowing portrayal of urban warfare. In the next 24 hours, the Lost Dog Squad will go through three squad leaders, eventually finding themselves lost in the wrong part of Hue and trying to get to the right coordinates, only to find the most dreaded obstacle in any theater of war: one determined sniper with uncanny aim and a near-unfindable location amongst the ruined buildings.

Back at the beginning of the movie, Hartman demands to see Joker’s “War Face”, prompting a scream and the usual derision from the sarge, “Bullshit! You don’t scare me!” The War Face is something that the movie returns to, over and over again. It’s the Full Metal Jacket that Pyle references in the horrific end to the First Act, meaning not only the copper sheath surrounding the lead in his M-14’s ammunition, but also, the War Face, the protective armor the soldier puts around his psyche. Joker, separated from Parris Island, returns to the jovial smartass he  tried to retain during basic, wearing a peace button on his body armor and “Born to Kill” painted across his helmet. Still, in their barracks, the journalists match their war faces and full metal jackets against each other, trying to impress with the number of times they’ve seen action. This dick-measuring contest is cut short by Tet, and although fearfully muttering they are not ready for it, the training takes over and the assault on the base is repelled.

Once he’s reunited with Cowboy, Joker’s War Face comes out again in a pissing contest with Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a character who is basically Pyle without the breaking part. Bristling with ammo belts, he tries to impress Joker with his alpha maleness, until the two are separated, like opponents in a schoolyard scuffle. Later, under sniper fire, Joker is finally going to have to go to the place the Marines built inside him, and take a life, face-to-face. The Full Metal Jacket will only take you so far; eventually the bullet must be fired.

Kubrick’s approach to Vietnam is fairly documentarian; the steadicam fluidly following the men as they crouch and run through shattered concrete canyons. There are a few things that seem out-of-place in a Kubrick movie – the contemporary rock music, as in any Vietnam flick, and a segment with the soldiers being interviewed by a news crew, which had been done by the TV M*A*S*H* years earlier.

Most of the time, however, Kubrick tries to not manipulate your feelings, except through images. There are a couple of times he can’t resist trotting out the black humor, though: Hartman proudly holding out UT Tower sniper Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald as prime examples of Marine rifle training, and a Colonel dressing Joker down for his peace symbol, assuring him that “One day, this peace business will blow over.”

But overall, it’s a solid movie with a problematic structure, seemingly split into two different movies: the one set on Parris Island, and the other in Vietnam. The major problem with the second half is that there is no R. Lee Ermey in it, constantly barking and propelling the story forward. He is deeply missed once we’re in country. And frankly, there’s another Nam movie considered a masterpiece that shares the problematic third act: Apocalypse Now, where once Martin Sheen arrives at his destination and Marlon Brando enters the stage, the movie is suddenly struggling through hardening amber. Yeah, I also watched Apocalypse Now again. Sort of had to.

Actor Dorian Harewood, who plays Eightball, says he asked Kubrick if Full Metal Jacket  was his answer to Apocalypse Now. Kubrick replied, “No. It’s my answer to Rambo.” And there you have it. For some reason I never much cared for PlatoonApocalypse Now is more a nightmare set to film than an attempt at historical accuracy. But in my mental lockbox, where I store imagery and experience, Full Metal Jacket remains my Vietnam of note, capturing so well the banality of hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of terror, and the fact that men that were still not much more than boys were given the power of life and death, and set loose on a landscape not their own.

Movies Before the Fr(a)y

Well, that was certainly a week lost to housekeeping and work. Regular work during the day, City Business at night – Economic Development, School Board Budgets, and a Public Hearing on a non-smoking ordinance (no, we still don’t have one). This week won’t be much better, as tomorrow I face the Valley of the Shadow of Death, also know as the Independence Day Parade. Yes, our parade is on July 3rd, not the 4th. On the 4th we’ll be running cameras at the Fort Bend Symphony concert. Patrons will exit the concert to watch fireworks, if the timing works out. We will be inside packing up cameras and cable.

It’s a living.

I still managed to watch a few movies, though I didn’t have time to say anything about them. Here goes:

Crank (2006) is a gleefully vulgar action comedy which is mainly famous for its directors, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, convincing Jason Statham that he could do comedy. In truth, the comedy is in the situations, as Statham’s hit man Chev Chelios is poisoned by gangsters after a mob contract goes bad. The poison is a “Beijing Cocktail”, and Chelios discovers that adrenalin will stave off the effects of poison temporarily; in order to save the life of his girlfriend and wreak his revenge, he goes on a thrill-ride tour of the city, becoming a one-man wrecking crew and crime spree. Truthfully, all Statham has to do is play it straight to make this stuff hilarious. Dwight Yoakum, as Chelios’ sympathetic doctor, continues to impress me as an actor; always smooth, natural and believable, in whatever role he’s given.

It’s not likely I’ll ever watch Crank again, but I definitely will be seeing its sequel, Crank 2: High Voltage.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: I watched my Criterion Blu-Ray of Godzilla (1954). Godzilla has become such a part of the cultural landscape – no, wait, I need to scratch that, based on a recent experience.

We had a troop of Cub Scouts come by the station for a tour, and as part of such tours we always let the class or den or klatsch or whatever play around in front of the blue screen while we play something in the background. In a staff meeting I joked that this time it needed to be Godzilla footage. That was judged a great idea, so I trimmed down some of the ending of Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster involving the monster four-way at the end.

The footage worked very well, except for one thing: the kids – and their chaperones – had no idea who Godzilla or any of the others were. “Wow, a T Rex!” “Look! It’s a dragon!”

This is how far we have fallen as a nation.

Well, as I was trying to say, Godzilla had been such a part of the cultural landscape that we all thought we knew him, a reptilian fire-breathing good guy who saved us from so many aliens that Hanna-Barbera made a cartoon series about him. That’s a perception gained by increasingly absurd sequels over the years, and the hisei, grittier versions of the 90s never truly caught on in America. We aren’t even going to mention Matthew Broderick’s iguana pal.

So it’s always sobering to revisit the original. Grim, black and white, a force of nature made even more terrible by the H-bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are invoked several times in dialogue, a stark reminder that those were not even a decade in the past, at that time. The investigation and subsequent attempts to kill Godzilla follow a very logical course, but it takes a science fiction weapon to kill a science fiction monster, and the doomed Dr. Serizawa dies alongside Godzilla, lest his “Oxygen Destroyer” become as terrible a weapon as the one which awakened the modern dragon. Essentially, Tokyo Bay is nuked to kill Godzilla, the oxygen destroyer killing everything in the water, a final, nasty irony,

I will always highly recommend this movie, but I find myself very disappointed in the print used by Criterion; it really needed some major restoration work done. Some of the Tokyo rampage footage is in especially dire shape. Since I’ve brought that up, there’s something that’s always bugged me: there is a TV crew broadcasting from a tower, and Godzilla is drawn to the tower by the flashbulbs popping on all the other news cameras around. Godzilla gets pissed and knocks over the tower, killing everyone. But my question is: a flash is only good for about 30 feet from the camera, at most. Why the hell were supposedly professional photographers using flashes at all?

Then came the civics, meetings bang bang bang. I didn’t have a show that Saturday, and instead of bemoaning the financial hit, went over to pal Dave’s to watch movies. No Crapfest this time, we’ve re-started an even older tradition of watching movies of (harrumph) quality. And first up was a movie I had wanted to see for quite some time: the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit. My wife had seen it without me in its theatrical incarnation, then when it cropped up on Netflix, my family watched it without me. Again. This left me the sad owner of a DVD among many DVDs, each crying out for viewing. It was on The List, and Dave really loved it, so we watched it.

Naturally, I now have a yen to watch the 1969 Henry Hathaway version again, just to solidify the differences between the two. The main difference is largely one of texture, of approach; both are identifiably from the same source material, but the ’69 version doesn’t go as revisionist-Western. 1969 was the year of The Wild Bunch, which a lot of folks point to as the death of the Western. To be sure, fewer and fewer were made, and those were in the vein of Doc (71) and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (72), which are, in a way, the children of True Grit and The Wild Bunch. The West of Gunsmoke was gone, replaced by a more feral, grimy creature. Possibly more realistic, possibly not.

I’m definitely giving True Grit (11) the edge in realism – although movie realism is a tricky thing. Images that undeniably real on a movie screen are often the results of layers of trickery; look at a photo of the real thing, and it will look fake to the eye. The Coen’s version of the West just feels right – not mythic, but certainly rough and worn.

It’s also one of the best damned movies I’ve seen. John Wayne’s version of Rooster Cogburn is the sentimental favorite, but Jeff Bridges really is one of our best actors, and shows it. Matt Damon beats Glen Campbell hands down as Texas Ranger La Boeuf. Hailee Steinfeld edges out Kim Darby – just barely – as Mattie Clark, but the battle between Robert Duvall and Barry Pepper as outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper is a draw – the approach of both men is similar, but Pepper more looks the role.

Don’t be an idiot like me and put off seeing this.

Alan was at the viewing as well, and he hadn’t seen True Grit either – but then, thanks to the previews on the DVD, we discovered he hadn’t seen Thor or Captain America either. Given the forthcoming holiday, we watched Captain America. Well, the holiday and the fact that Dave and I both liked it better than Thor.

Director Joe Johnston’s previous period hero flick, The Rocketeer, had left me cold, but even then I felt the period stuff had been done right, and it continued to be done right in Captain America. It’s a strange World War II flick where you don’t see any swastikas, and the Red Skull’s death ray conveniently disintegrates you, so there’s no danger of slipping into R-rated violence. Very slick.

The casting, special effects and pace are all perfect, leading up to this Summer’s blockbuster, The Avengers. Chris Evans does a terrific job playing up the essential decency of Steve Rogers, without making him too much of a Boy Scout to make tough decisions. The story hews fairly close to Canon, and doesn’t even try to associate the Samuel L. Jackson Nick Fury with the Howling Commandos (and I knew I was going to have to see this movie when I spotted Dum Dum Dugan in the trailer). Okay, there was never a Japanese-American in the Howlers, but I don’t recall the US Army ever going up against Hydra, either.

It’s a good movie, one I don’t mind revisiting, but True Grit definitely took that night.

There, we’re all caught up with each other. I report tomorrow at 12:30pm to start frying eggs on the pavement. I hope to see you on the other side. Have a safe Fourth.