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.

1 Comment

  1. Gotta disagree with you on just one, minor point: Duvall vs. Pepper. Barry Pepper, in my book, didn’t hold a candle to Robert Duvall…it was the one point where I felt the original really outdid the remake.

    Well, and Strother Martin.

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