Woman in the Moon (1929)

Fritz Lang wasn’t interested in making short movies.

Woman in the Moon was his follow-up to the tremendously successful (and comparatively low-budget) Spies. It finds Lang back to his UFA studio-bankrupting ways; it’s considered one of the first truly serious science-fiction movies I guess Metropolis wasn’t?), and that don’t come cheap.

Industrialist engineer Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch, the star of Spies) visits his old friend Professor Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl) an astronomer who was disgraced thirty years earlier when he announced that there was gold on the Moon to a roomful of serious men with eccentric facial hair. Helius feels he is right, and is, in fact, about to embark on a voyage to the Moon to prove that point. Manfeldt excitedly insists that he must come with, but also warns his young friend that shadowy figures have been trying to acquire his research papers.

600_444828611Helius is also in a funk because his best friend Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) was faster on the draw to proposing marriage to the forewoman of the factory, Friede (Gerda Maurus, also from Spies – Lang was no fool). That personal problem recedes into the background when Helius is waylaid by an attractive woman (she had Louise Brooks hair, and was obviously trouble, but he ignored my shouted warnings), who steals Manfeldt’s papers; he returns to his apartment to find his safe cracked, and all his blueprints, files, even the scale model of the rocket he is building, have been purloined.

Turner (Fritz Rasp) is a representative of the Five Richest People in the World, and they want to control the gold on the Moon. Unless Helius allows Turner to accompany him, Turner’s minions will destroy the nearly-complete rocket. Helius eventually gives in, after reconciling somewhat with Windegger and Friede, who will join him, Turner and Manfeldt for the trip.

1929_frau_im_019It isn’t until almost halfway through the movie that we finally get our rocket launch, but it’s time pretty well spent. Based on the work of  Hermann Oberth, who literally wrote the book on rocket travel while he was working as a high school teacher, much of the launch sequence is prescient, and familiar to anybody who’s followed NASA through the years: the rocket drawn by tractors from its enormous hangar, the countdown (invented for this movie as a dramatic device, but oh so practical!), a multi-stage propulsion system. Lang had cut his teeth on miniature work with Metropolis, and that pays dividends here – those are astounding shots.

Lang also deals with the concept of zero-gravity – presented as a very short period of time on the trip – pragmatically, with straps hanging from the ceiling and leather loops on the floor for feet. It’s all very well-thought out and satisfying.

Then we actually land, and you can forget about all that science nonsense.

"What idiot designed this? Was it you?"

“What idiot designed this? Was it you?”

I can forgive the rocket cockpit, which has instrumentation that was not designed for ease of use during the crush of G’s Helius knows will happen during the first minutes of launch – that’s for dramatic effect. “That’s for dramatic effect” will cover the remainder of the movie.

Earlier, while the Five Rich People are going over Helius’ stolen files, they watch a film made by an earlier rocket that circled the Moon with robot cameras (good work again, Herr Oberth), and mention that on the Far Side of the Moon, there appears to be atmosphere, and possibly swarms of insects. There is definitely atmosphere, our astronauts find.

I moan and groan, and then remember being thrilled by tales of the Blue Area of the Moon, which is where The Watcher lives, you know. So I can’t kvell too much about that.

screen shot 2013-10-04 at 2.37.32 pmOh, the fact that Manfeldt then pulls out a divining rod to find water, that I’m going to moan about plenty. Instead he finds gold, and falls into a ravine when he tries to hide it from Turner. Turner goes off the rails and tries to hijack the ship, though to what freaking purpose because he has no idea how it works. This results in the shortest gunfight in history, and Turner’s errant bullet hits the oxygen tanks, resulting in there only being enough oxygen for the return trip if somebody stays behind – even if two of the crew are now dead.

This leads to a drawing-the-short-straw scene worthy of a movie almost three hours long, as the cowardly, brittle Windegger overacts mightily and thereby convinces Friede she picked the wrong guy. Then again, Helius is being a dick about the whole thing because he knows and we know that he is going to be the one to stay behind in any case, after drugging Windegger and Friede and letting Gustav launch the ship.

Woman-1Oh, did I not mention Gustav? He’s a science-fiction reading kid who stowed away on the ship (apparently one of the SF stories he read was not “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, where an astronaut’s girlfriend stows away and she has to be jettisoned because there isn’t enough fuel for her added weight). Gustav also does all the heavy lifting getting the supplies and a tent out of the ship for a base camp to accommodate whoever stays behind. In this case Helius and Friede, awwwwww.

There was a ton of supplies in that ship, too, against all rationale. Good thing, too, because the flight only took 36 hours – that’s half the time Apollo 11 took to get to the Moon – but they’re going to have to build a new ship to rescue our lunar lovebirds.

Willy Fritsch said in a recent interview that everybody knew there was no air on the Moon, and the sole nod to lighter gravity is everybody wearing platform shoes that were supposed to be lead, but were actually cork, but as I say: dramatic license. The Moon set is pretty impressive otherwise, with over forty truckloads of sand brought in from the Baltic.

5024topFrauIf Lang could have kept up the dedication to actual science, this movie might have supplanted Metropolis in my rankings of his movies, but the third act becomes wearisome with melodrama and nonsensical plot machinations. Really, the stuff preceding that is so technically competent that the Nazis took it out of circulation in the 30s through the 40s because the rocket was too similar to the V-2 missile… made by men building upon the refinements to rocketry designed by Oberth… and paid for by the advertising budget of Woman in the Moon.

Let’s watch that launch (the ship is being lowered into water because “it is too light to stand by itself.”):

Buy Woman in the Moon on Amazon



The Wind in the Willows (1996)

PosterYears ago my friend and fellow actor Jeff Lane, while we talking about the pitfalls of children’s theatre, told me about a movie he had seen almost by accident, a movie of which I had never heard: a live-action version of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows directed by Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones, full of sly details for the older members of the audience. That was my modus operandi in the days when I was directing, and I put that in my To Be Tracked Down folder. It took me damned near 20 years to do it, and the reasons why are almost as obscure as the movie’s existence has become.

I’m going to assume a bit of familiarity with Grahame’s novel to move things along. If you’re not, well… reading is good for you.

MSDWIIN EC007The first notice that you’re watching an adaptation geared toward the kids of the 90s is immediate as Mole (Steve Coogan) – who in the book leaves his underground home because he is bored with spring cleaning – is instead rousted from his burrow when a bunch of heavy machinery (operated by literal weasels) destroys the meadow where it is located. Mole goes to his friend Ratty (Eric Idle), and they travel via boat to Toad Hall, because the meadow was owned by the extremely wealthy and extremely feckless Toad (Terry Jones). This is time-saving compression – in the book, Mole has to meet Rat, then Toad.

The_Wind_in_the_WillowsToad is famously obsessed with the latest fads, monomaniacally embracing one for a few days, then discarding it for the next. The most famous of these – leading to Toad’s downfall – is the motorcar, a hot property in the novel’s 1906 setting. Toad’s constant crashes leads to several unnerving encounters with the weasels of the Wild Wood, and an intervention by an old friend of the Toad family, the stern Badger (Nicol Williamson), who places Toad under house arrest and cancels his order for six new motorcars. But the wily Toad will escape, steal a motorcar, crash it immediately, and go to prison for that crime. This is what the Weasels were waiting for, and they take over Toad Hall.

This brief synopsis covers what happens in most of the adaptations of Willows, ending with Toad’s escape from prison and he and his friends re-taking Toad Hall. What I haven’t gone into yet is Jones’ additions, playing off that initial change to the opening scene: the Weasels bought the meadow to build an enormous Dog Food Factory, and they intend to blow up Toad Hall just because they’re weasels. And say what you will about Kenneth Grahame and his novel, I somehow feel that the weasels preparing to drop Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger into an enormous meat grinder wasn’t even in the preliminary notes for the first draft.

WeaselsI don’t know what this says about Jones, or his view of what would appeal to the kids in the 90s; I will say that I (though as far from a kid in the 90s as you can get) found it tremendously entertaining. This strain of enthusiastic cartoon murder that runs throughout the third act, though, is likely what got the movie a PG rating from the MPAA. There are already tons of much more faithful adaptations in the world; it’s refreshing to find one that is quite its own creature.

The details that so impressed Jeff are about as subtle as one would expect from Jones’ oeuvre, which is to say that they are only subtle insomuch as nobody on screen stops and points at them exclaiming “Cor! Lookit that!” Whenever the ever-present rabbits are used as background characters, they are almost always making out. Similarly for weasels, they are almost always robbing rabbits in the background.

Overall, The Wind in the Willows feels like it’s a production by a well-funded children’s theatre. There is not much done to make the actors look like the animals they portray; Idle has whiskers and a tail, Jones is painted green. Most of the look is instead created by wigs and perfectly lovely costumes, especially Toad’s overly large Edwardian suits and the uniform frockcoats and wigs worn by the Weasels.

Toad, Mole, RatSteve Coogan is properly endearing and pathetic as Mole (even if he does have to follow a truncated Hero’s Journey), and Eric Idle channels a steady British Decency as the boat and picnic-loving Rat. Jones has a tightrope to walk as Toad, making the supercilious ego-maniac with ADHD somehow likeable, and manage it he does. Nicol Williamson is not allowed to have much fun as Badger, but then, that’s the character, innit? (Yes, that was my role in my actor days) Anthony Sher is another standout as the gleefully malevolent Chief Weasel, Stephen Fry has fun as the Judge, and John Cleese jobs in as Toad’s defense attorney, who is so overwhelmed by his client’s guilt that he does a far better job at convicting him than the prosecutor.

Is it Monty Python’s Wind in the Willows? Oh no no no, heavens no. Though I am quite surprised that it wasn’t marketed as such. Ah yes, marketing – you remember I mentioned Jeff’s seeing it almost by accident, and my subsequent inability to find it? There was some sort of shooting war going on between distributors, though I’ve only got hearsay as to causes and whys and wherefores, not much in the way of hard evidence. The Wind in the Willows wasn’t the cause but it was definitely a casualty, as Columbia wound up with the theatrical distribution rights, but Disney the home video rights. Theatrical distribution is vital to home video, and in what I can only interpret as spite, Columbia buried the movie.

Jones and the distribution arm of Columbia

Jones and the distribution arm of Columbia

Jeff’s viewing was one of the cursory screenings in America. There is an infamous tale of Jones in New York City, shooting a documentary, learning that the movie was playing in Times Square. One cab ride later, he found it playing “in a seedy little porno house”.

Disney nonetheless put it out on video in 2004. Ah, there’s the end of your journey, then, you may think. But no, I was still trying to find a copy to watch. My problem was I was looking for The Wind in the Willows. Disney, in order to have yet another movie based on one of their theme park rides, like The Haunted Mansion, had re-titled it Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (some junior marketing executive got lots of three-martini lunches out of that one). I remained unaware of this fact until, I believe, it was mentioned in Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film around 2012 or so. And then I could search for and buy the ancient, non-anamorphic DVD – which is now out of print. You can still buy it crammed onto a single DVD with three other Disney ride movies, and that’s it.

Which is a shame. This marked the end of Jones’ feature direction for almost ten years, and I generally enjoy his work (yes, I’m one of six people who will admit liking Erik the Viking). It kept me entertained for its length, and that can often be dicey for an adult watching children’s fare. The one false note struck is an ancient complaint for me: I regularly curse whoever it was who decided in antiquity that children’s entetainment must always be a musical. I despised these saccharine interruptions as a child, and I regard them no more kindly as an adult. The songs in Willows seem tacked on, with only the Weasel number having any of the wit or creativity of the surrounding material. But they do provide a good-looking sampler which will cue you in to whether or not this is a movie you’ll find worth seeking out (which you should, it’s pretty delightful, and deserving of better treatment):

Buy The Wind in the Willows Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and three other movies on Amazon


The Case for Outlawing August

Sorry, folks. No movie pontificating this week, either. I just came off two weeks of wall-to-wall work, and entered this week with free evenings – well, Sunday through Thursday, anyway. Work reared its head Wednesday night, Monday and Tuesday was spent dealing with financial aid for my son’s imminent college career, then waiting for the results of a meeting involving my wife’s school… my imagined week of movie-watching went up up in smoke. I did get one movie in on Sunday, but you won’t hear about it until October.

I won’t watch a movie when I know it’s going to be interrupted. I prefer not to approach things in a piecemeal fashion. It’s just the way I am. I’ve been told I should just let the movie run in the background while I’m doing something else, and I am aghast. That’s not watching a movie. Movies aren’t wallpaper. Not to me, anyway.

This week on "Supposedly Uplifting Quotations That Are Actually Distressing As Hell"

This week on “Supposedly Uplifting Quotations That Are Actually Grim As Hell”

Looking at my calendar for the approaching month ain’t doing me any favors, either. There are end-of-fiscal-year budget meetings that must be televised, and I’m also taking up the slack for some departments that have run out of budget as September approaches. Lacking some credentials, I job in at a lower rate than others. Moving my son into college will, for some reason, take five days. I’m going to try to pretend that is a vacation, which would be nice, I haven’t had one in years.

All this extra work is necessary, of course, because July and August are not satisfied with merely trying to kill you in Texas, they also have to ruin you financially. I challenge any climate denier to live in Houston in the Summer on a part-timer’s salary. They will have as much success as those people who periodically try to eat healthy on food stamps. Unless they’re iguanas and would thrive in an unairconditioned apartment, then the bet’s off.

The “Dog Days” of Summer supposedly go from July 3- August 11, as Sirius, the Dog Star, rises at the same time as the Sun. August is traditionally the Silly Season in the newspaper trade, when off-the-wall stories proliferate. Add to this one of the most bizarre Presidential campaigns in… well, ever. It’s out of either a well-written Stephen King novel or a poorly written comic book. Yet there is a surprisingly wide variety of Kool-Aid out there and an unbelievable number of people willingly drinking it. There are 10-15 things on my social media feeds that make me prematurely tired every morning, and trust me – I don’t need help to be tired.

I realize there’s no way to get rid of an entire month, but I really wish there was a way for us to just all go somewhere else and let the damn month just do its thing, and we can all come back in September, when things are a little cooler, sweep up the debris, and get back to trying to live our lives as anguish-free as possible. August is a horrible, ugly imposition on us all (My apologies to anyone who was born during this month, like my mother and my brother).

There’s a lot more I want to complain about, but who cares, really? Thanks for reading even this far. Next week begins the meeting schedule anew – I’ll have exactly one evening free next week – but who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to return to a bit of what is, for me, normal. I doubt it, but strange things happen in August. Hope to see you here with better, less bitter, results.