On The Changing Face of Heroism

I’ve been dealing with some un-fun aspects of Life’s Rich Pageant lately. That means that in a duel between Watching Movies To Relieve Stress & Also Believe Once Again Life Is Capable Of Good Things, or Writing Something Worth Reading About Those Movies, stress relief won. I don’t think you’d blame me for that.

So let’s get started.

Rio_Lobo_1970Rio Lobo (1970) is not regarded as a very good movie, and sadly, it really isn’t. The final film of the legendary Howard Hawks, it’s yet another retread of 1959’s Rio Bravo (one of the best westerns ever made), the other being 1966’s El Dorado (which is, I will admit, another of my favorites). El Dorado, at least, had script problems and Hawks elected, mid-production, to pirate from himself, to good result. I’m not sure of the reasons for returning to that particular trough four years later, but reportedly John Wayne asked, “Do I get to play the drunk this time?”

No, this time Wayne will be playing Cord McNally, a Union colonel still seeking the traitors who sold the secret schedules of trains carrying Union payrolls. McNally pursued the Confederate squad responsible for the robberies, and was even their prisoner for a time, but he turned the tables on them and captured their leaders, Cardona (Jorge Rivero) and Tuscarora (Christopher Mitchum). The three actually wind up respecting each other, and Cord buys the rebels a drink when they’re released after the War ends a few months later. They tell Cord what they know about the traitor and his men, and promise to get in touch if they find out anything else.

4370_5As luck would have it, the traitor and his men, under new names, have taken over the Texas town of Rio Lobo, where Tuscarora’s father Phillips (Jack Elam) has a horse ranch. Phillips is one of the few landowners resisting the new robber baron, and Cordona has journeyed to Texas to help his old friend – when he sees a familiar face, and telegraphs Cord. Mayhem will ensue. G-rated mayhem.

For all the bobbles, this is still identifiably a Howard Hawks movie, mainly for the rapid-fire, witty banter. There are some trademark Hawks women, too, though Shasta (Jennifer O’Neill) isn’t given much to do outside of using a derringer that’s apparently loaded with elephant rounds, and to be a somewhat reluctant love interest for Cardona. Really, the ballsiest female character is a Latina named Amelita (Sherry Lansing), who Cordona surprises while she’s changing (in a G-rated movie, remember. 1970 was amazingly open about such things), and manages to help our heroes on a couple more occasions. Why the hell Cardona is gaga over the rather more vanilla Shasta is puzzling to me.

amelita

Cardona, you idiot.

(Then again, I was puzzled by her in more ways than one, as I was going “Sherry Lansing, Sherry Lansing, why do I know that name? Not much of a filmography, but I’m sure…

(Oh yeah. She gave up on acting, then ran Columbia, then 20th Century Fox, then Paramount in the period from 1977-2005. Cardona, you idiot. Also, she’s married to William Friedkin, who knows talent when he sees it.)

Eventually we get to the mandatory siege-in-the-jailhouse, but that’s rather short-lived as Cord is outmaneuvered by the bad guys, and we head to the other standard that El Dorado managed to forego, a big shootout, this time with the townsmen helping to repel their oppressors. Jack Elam enters the picture at roughly the two-thirds mark, and proceeds to steal the movie right out from underneath its star. Wayne didn’t much care for that, and never worked with him again.

elamRio Lobo did pretty dismal box office, and Hawks felt it was largely due to Wayne’s age – 63, at the time. Rio Bravo had been the first movie to really deal with an aging Duke, and this is the movie where Shasta cuddles up to him for warmth in the desert night because he’s “more comfortable” than the hot-blooded Cardona. This leads to Cord bitching about being “comfortable” for the rest of the movie. Wayne wasn’t doing well health-wise during filming, and apparently had some difficulty getting on and off his horse due to some torn ligaments.

"COMFORTABLE?"

“COMFORTABLE?”

But there is one moment when the Wayne of old shines through. The crooked Sheriff and his deputies accuse Tuscarora of horse stealing, beat him up and slap his girlfriend across the street when she tries to intervene. As they prepare to take Tuscarora to the jailhouse, the Sheriff (being evil) says, “Bring the girl, too.” And Cord McNally, standing tall over the sobbing girl, says one word, loudly: “Why?” It is the single most righteous moment in the movie, Cord willing to throw away his entire mission and possibly his life to protect one person, and it is everything such a moment in a movie should be.

It’s an entertaining enough movie, but light. It’s not going to knock anything else off your playlist when you suddenly remember you have a copy of it, but it’s a harmless way to spend a couple of hours. It mainly looms large in my legend because George Plimpton has a bit part in it, and the resulting TV special held thirteen year-old me rapt:

Buy Rio Lobo on Amazon

I tried to relate that fading 50s-60s concept of heroism to my next couple of movies, which were Kingsman: The Secret Service and Deadpool. Good luck to that, though, since Deadpool is satire, and Kingsman is satire that wants to subvert its subject while still glorying in it.

posterWhen you play the “#NowWatching” hashtag game on Twitter, you find out pretty damned fast what movies people downright hate, and Kingsman fits that bill. It’s the story of a super secret organization of highly-trained troubleshooters with fancy gizmos; they’re all basically 007 without the government oversight.

This seems to be the prime area of peoples’ ire: it is a lovely copy of a fun spy flick from the 60s up to a point. Most people who hate Kingsman weren’t properly prepared by being aware that it is based on a comic written by Mark Millar, and I think Millar’s middle name may be “Piss-taking”. Using the major plot’s opening gambit – as sure a parody of a James Bond opener that ever was – of killing who we think the hero is going to be, and the resulting drive to find his replacement from a hand-picked group of young people, Millar gets to deconstruct the spy novel the same way he deconstructed superheroes in Kickass.

The Kickass movie was quite successful, and after its director, Matthew Vaughn, helmed the pleasantly surprising X-Men: First Class, he dedicated himself to taming another Millar book. I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t bother with the Kickass movie because I despised the book, but seeing how Vaughn has rearranged this particular graphic novel for the better, I’m thinking it’s time to get over myself and watch it.

Firth. Colin FirthThe Kingsman we’re most concerned with here is code-named Galahad, played by Colin Firth – and who knew Mr. Firth had such a butt-kicker hiding inside? Galahad recruits the son of another trainee who died years earlier protecting Galahad and two other Kingsmen. The kid is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), who has potential, but much of it has been short-circuited by a bad home life scarred by his father’s death. Much of the movie is spent turning a chav into a gentleman, and Eggsy proves he has the right stuff, up to a point: in his final exam he refuses to kill a dog (the dog is a pug, so good on you, Eggsy). Still, everything goes pear-shaped and Eggsy is going to wind up in a tailored suit in the bad guy’s secret lair, hoping to stop doomsday.

Kingsman-ValentineThe bad guy is another of the facets of Kingsman that draws ire. He’s Valentine, a billionaire tech wizard played by Samuel L. Jackson, and, like most twisted geniuses, he wants to save the world by killing four-fifths of the world’s population. He will do this by first providing everyone with free cell phones, then broadcasting a low-frequency wave that turns everyone in the vicinity of a cell phone into a homicidal maniac. He tests it out in a Mississippi church full of a hate group meeting – and, not very coincidentally, Galahad in a field investigation. The ensuing bloodbath in the church is another thing that I recall people not liking, because it was too shocking. People need to watch more kung fu movies.

"It's a bulldog, right? It'll get bigger, right?"

“It’s a bulldog, right? It’ll get bigger, right?”

What bugs people about Valentine is that Jackson chose to play him with a lisp. Matthew Vaughn, in the disc’s bonus features, talks about Jackson bringing this up, and saying that he thought this would be a prime motivation in Valentine’s actions, and Vaughn basically said, “What the hell, you’re Samuel L. Jackson, let’s do it.” It was another absurd thing in a movie full of absurd things, and I didn’t mind it. There was something about that year… I think a bunch of actors got together and said, “This year, let’s do all our funny voices. That’ll mess with them.” So you’ve got Jackson in this, Jeff Bridges in Seventh Son and RIPD

It’s a romp. Not sure why people hate it so.

Buy Kingsman: The Secret Service on Amazon

But going from John Wayne standing in a sun-baked Texas street saying “Why?” to Colin Firth being so well-trained he can be the sole survivor of a room packed with 200 maniacs is saying a very ugly thing about what our heroes have become, and moreover, what have we become. In the current world of blockbuster entertainment, heroism tends to be measured by who can punch who through the tallest building, or who has access to the most endless supply of ammunition.

If you will forgive my saying so, that is a very jock-centric way of looking at things.

So I, ladies and gentlemen, am now going to head into the nerd direction.

interstellarLet’s start with Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan likes to be all mysterious in the run-up to his movies’ releases, and Interstellar was not an exception; all we knew was that it was about corn and rocketships and Matthew McConaughey. And it turns out, that is it: in a near-future America, climate change is slowly shutting down farms. McConaughey is Cooper, a former astronaut turned farmer. We find that current textbooks claim that the Moon landings were faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union, so now we need to concentrate all our attention on Earth – not that it’s doing much good. This is all propaganda, as mysterious messages left by a “ghost” haunting his daughter lead him to a secret facility, run not by a shadowy secret cabal, but what is left of NASA (being run by Michael Caine, of course), operating in secret, trying to save the human race.

There is a wormhole near the orbit of Saturn that leads to another part of the galaxy (if not another galaxy altogether). Three expeditions have gone through this anomaly to find other planets suitable for us to move to, because the current one is dying. NASA wants Cooper to fly a new mission, the Endurance, to confirm the prior expeditions’ findings, and hopefully by the time a new planet is found, Caine will have solved “the riddle of gravity” and we can all play Oklahoma Land Rush on another world.

Here’s the problem: physics and relativity is a tricky thing, and Cooper will be leaving his son and daughter for years. There seems little choice, though, and Cooper agrees.

interstellar-movie-still-20The desire to stay consistent with current science runs throughout Interstellar, with helpful bursts of information along the way. Accompanied by Caine’s daughter, Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) and two others (David Gyasi and Wes Bentley), they first must take two years to get to Saturn, then have to deal with the hazards of alien planets and a black hole. This is scary, frontier stuff – the crew is on their own, and when bad choices are made, somebody can and will die. Even the sole survivor of one of the prior expeditions, Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) presents unfortunate complications of his own.

"We've made this spacecraft out of TARDISes - that may help."

“We’ve made this spacecraft out of TARDISes – that may help.”

Dealing with time dilation as a plot device hasn’t been used much in cinema; the only one I can really think of is the anime Gunbuster. I’m sure there’s more, but it’s a difficult concept to visualize in a way that doesn’t confuse or make viewers turn away in annoyance. Cooper watching archived video messages from his children, growing older without him, is very affecting.

Articulated machine to the rescue!

Articulated machine to the rescue!

You may ask, yes, but it’s science fiction, are there robots? Um, not really, what there is is two “articulated machines”, CASE and TARS, which have a fair range of artificial intelligence. They look like slabs of metal with a TV screen inserted, but can unfold in a variety of utilitarian forms. I was ready to hate them but quickly warmed to the concept. The fact that puppeteer Bill Irwin is behind them, doing his damndest to make simple geometric forms personable, probably helped.

interstellar-film-cooper-station-cylindrical-spinning-space-colonyThen the moment you’ve all been waiting for: to make it to the third planet, the damaged Endurance has to slingshot around that black hole, and Cooper sacrifices himself so Brand and the cargo of seed and frozen embryos can make it, and we finally come to our IMAX-mastered “trip” portion of Interstellar. Now, I know that this is Nolan doing Kubrick, and I was expecting to have my mind blown – and then it was blown in an entirely unexpected direction. I wasn’t entirely satisfied, but it did wrap up everything much more neatly than the climax of 2001 so there’s that.

Buy Interstellar on Amazon

martian posterThen I guess we have to forgive Matt Damon for all the trouble he caused in Interstellar so we can root for him in The Martian. This time around, he’s Mark Watney, an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars. A habitat has been set up, experiments are being conducted, when bad luck rears its ugly head: a freak windstorm far beyond the safety protocols aborts the mission and the astronauts struggle through a hurricane made of dirt clods and rocks to get to their launch vehicle. Watney is hit by debris from a communications tower, skewering him and his biometer. Receiving no life readings, he is presumed dead and left behind. The launch vehicle nearly doesn’t make it as it is.

Watney survives, though, and finds himself alone on Mars. After performing emergency surgery on himself, he sets to finding a way to survive. He does have the rations for a full six man crew, but that won’t last forever. Luckily, he’s a botanist, and he sets out to find a way to make potatoes grow in Martian soil.

damonnautSharp eyes on Earth eventually note that the Rover vehicle is moving about the surface of Mars on their satellite feeds, and various pieces of the survival story start arranging themselves; Watney’s potatoes start to grow. He finds ways to maximize the battery life on the Rover, and salvages a Pathfinder probe to set up communications with Earth. All the steps that are taken are so nerdy and so, as Watney puts it, “Sciencing the shit out of it,” that you cannot help but be swept along in the story, thrilled by the sheer ingenuity. The frantic work being done at NASA and the JPL, Watney’s own efforts, all these are beautiful examples of what heroism should be, along with the people who accidentally abandoned Watney, who have not been informed of his survival so as to keep their minds free from regret and second-guessing themselves on the trip back.

martian-gallery13-botanistA radical plan is hatched to rescue Watney, but it would mean that the returning astronauts would have to basically pull a U-turn around the Earth, capture a resupply vessel, and then head back to Mars, essentially spending another two years in space. And it is only with the slightest of hesitations that they agree.

Of course, nothing will go as planned, and some extreme measures have to be taken. This is probably why NASA couldn’t endorse The Martian, even though it is basically a love letter to the organization; there are too many bad ideas acted upon that put everybody in danger just to – once again – rescue Matt Damon.

the-martian-1024x1024-best-movies-of-2015-movie-matt-damon-6528I remember back during Blade Runner when director Ridley Scott said he wanted to become the John Ford of science fiction movies. What became of that, I wonder? Well, Prometheus aside – and I didn’t hate that quite as much as a lot of people did – it’s fine by me that he seems to be back on that track.

Having not read the source novel by Andy Weir, I can’t really say if the callbacks to earlier science fiction movies are actually there, or simple tricks of my nerd perception, even beyond the obvious comparisons with Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Watney manages to survive the breaching of his suit at the beginning by way of the very harshness of the environment, out of Journey to the Seventh Planet. Of course, his eventual escape vehicle must be lightened a la Destination Moon, and there is a bit of jiggery-pokery with improvised thrust in the vacuum of space also reminiscent of that old warhorse.  I was really beginning to expect It! The Terror from Beyond Space or at least a ratbatspider. But noooo, they had to keep on being realistic and rational.

Don’t care. Good movie. Hell of a cast. I understand people don’t like it. Don’t care. Go watch Expendables 19 or something. These guys – all of them, right here – these are my heroes. Simple solutions like guns and super punches are quick and satisfying, but largely inadequate for increasingly complicated problems in a world that is itself complexifying by the moment. We have more than enough heroes that can blow stuff up, we need to recognize the heroes we already have that can build and rebuild stuff, and do so, over and over.

We need heroes that can science the shit out of it.

Although, I will tell you one thing: if I am ever on a space mission with Matt Damon, I am not letting him anywhere near the airlocks.

Buy The Martian on Amazon

Playing Catch-up 2

Inland Empire (2006)

inland-empire-version6-movie-posterTime has been an issue with updating here, to be sure, but I also have to admit that the concept of having to say something coherent about David Lynch’s last theatrical movie to date possesses a reverse magnetism that does not exactly draw me to the keyboard.

This much I can tell you: Laura Dern is Nikki Grace, a Hollywood actress having a bit of a lull in her career. Her comeback movie is a script based on a… I think it’s maybe Polish?… movie called Vier Seben,  which was never released. It is reportedly cursed, causing the death of its stars. Nikki begins falling into the character of her role, Susan Blue, and scenes from the original movie keep inserting themselves into her life, and she even sometimes finds herself in the real-life incidents that inspired the original story and there’s some prostitutes and a woman who claims she was hypnotized into stabbing someone to death with a screwdriver and oh hell I give up.

This movie was born when Lynch called up his pal Dern and asked her if she’d like to “Come over and experiment”. Lynch was playing with the new generation of digital video cameras and kept writing short scenes to film while he messed around with the new technology and discovered the amazing amount of freedom the smaller, versatile cameras allowed. The scenes had nothing to do with each other until Lynch started sensing connecting tissue between them and suddenly we’re all sitting through three hours of what the living fuck.

Inland_Empire_17-720x340Some people were turned off by the digital photography. Some didn’t like sitting through three hours of what the living fuck. I can understand all these stances, which is more than I can say for the plot – if such ever existed – for Inland Empire.

2013-06-15-inland-empire-rabbitsI like Lynch. I like that he’s challenging. I like that you absolutely cannot intellectualize his movies, you have to respond to them on a deeper, instinctual, intuitive level. Needless to say, given my babbling, Inland Empire is a major example of this. Ask stars Laura Dern and Justin Theroux what the movie’s about, and they are not going to be able to give you an answer. I’ve seen some remarkable analyses, and now I need to find those again, now that I’ve seen the movie because at the time it seemed like hallucinatory babbling. It may have been.

Past that, the terrifying existential TV show with the bunnies, impromptu production numbers, that damned red lampshade from Mulholland Drive… I got no idea. Watch at your own risk. I actually sort of  prefer just experiencing and surviving this sort of thing to picking it apart.

Here’s the Italian trailer. I don’t think English would have helped.

I’d tell you to buy Inland Empire on Amazon, but it’s out of print in America

Memento (2000)

MV5BMTc4MjUxNDAwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDMwNDg3OA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_As you’ve figured out by now, it takes me years to get to some movies.

Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man who a) is vengefully tracking down the burglar who raped and killed his wife, and B) after that assault (and his own injury) is left unable to form new memories. His life is now a patchwork of tattoos and polaroid instant pictures annotated in Sharpie, as he continues the quest, each day starting fresh.  His current life is complicated even more by Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who claims to be an undercover cop helping him (though his polaroid portrait says “Don’t believe his lies”) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) who may be his lover but maybe not or maybe she’s the femme fatale in this strangest of films noir?

mementoDirector Christopher Nolan made quite the splash with this, only his second feature. His first, the rarely seen Following, was released on disc by the Criterion Collection a couple of years ago, and features an earlier version of Memento‘s fractured timeline and layered deceptions. This is one of the few times I have regretted watching a director’s films in chronological order, because Following prepared me for the twists and turns of Memento. In the final analysis, that’s no big deal, really, because Memento is still quite remarkable in its concept and execution. The setup is similar to Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist – truly the most elegant example of Wolfe’s penchant for the unreliable narrator – but admirably trimmed down to tell a complete and intriguing story, even if that story is told in reverse order.

I love Nolan when he’s left to his own devices. He rewards and in fact demands attention be paid. There is apparently a remake being planned. You can despair at this new lack of originality in Hollywood, or you can stop and realize that there were three versions of The Maltese Falcon made in ten years. The only real difference is that they stopped when they got it right – and Nolan got it right the first time.

Buy Memento on Amazon

Ace in the Hole (1951)

I thought I was being all kinds of clever when I posted this Tweet:

Capture

Ace-in-the-hole-posterOh, quite quickly was I informed that this was not a good movie for that purpose, no, not at all. Perhaps I would like to try some other Billy Wilder movie, like Sabrina, perhaps?

This is just one more example of why we need a font that signifies sarcasm. Like this was my first Billy Wilder movie.

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-luck expatriate New York journalist who talks his way into a job at a small New Mexico newspaper. A year later, he’s going stir crazy, unable to find the big story that will jump-start his career and get him back into the big papes. Assigned to cover a “Rattlesnake Festival” at a nearby small town, he stumbles upon his big chance: Leo (Richard Benedict), the owner of a cheesy diner and trading post, while mucking about in a nearby ruined cliff dwelling for “genuine Indian artifacts” has been trapped in a cave-in.

By the force of his own brash personality and a cagey partnership with the local corrupt sheriff, Tatum quickly takes possession of this human interest story (the original title of the film), even to the point of interfering with the rescue process by forcing the crew to take a more laborious, time-consuming approach to the trapped man. Tatum needs the story to play out over a week or more for maximum drama and circulation.

ace-in-the-holeHis manipulation extends to the owner’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling, holding her own and occasionally surpassing Douglas), who first sees her husband’s entombment as a chance to split a no-win situation for her, then cashes in on the media frenzy that follows Tatum’s ballyhoo, charging for parking and even admitting a carnival to entertain the flood of bystanders and gawkers crowding the area. Tatum, who started out insufferable, only becomes worse as his power over the story is consolidated, but the inevitable outcome of such hubris is not long in coming. Leo contracts pneumonia and Tatum’s conscience comes roaring back, dooming him as he discovers his insistence on drilling through the cliff to rescue the man has rendered any chance of a speedier recovery impossible.

Ace in the Hole is based on the 1925 death of spelunker Floyd Collins and its ensuing media frenzy, and it may represent Wilder at his most cynical, but certainly at his most perceptive: this movie presents Truth with a capital T and it has aged damned little over the course of 65 years. A few hours after Leo’s death, the crowded field between the highway and the mesa is empty, except for windblown garbage and Leo’s mournful father – Lorraine hitched a ride out in the exodus.

bw-Ace-in-the-HolePerhaps as contrition on my own part after that duplicitous first Tweet that caused so much concern on the part of so many, I bookended the experience with this Tweet:

Capture2

Buy Ace in the Hole on Amazon

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In-the-heat-of-the-night-cartelSpeaking of finding oneself in the present day…

A nighttime patrol finds a dead man in the sleepy streets of Sparta, Georgia late one night. An impromptu dragnet nets an unfamiliar black man waiting at the train station, and as it is 1967 in the Deep South, he is immediately taken into custody. However, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Portier) is a homicide detective from Philadelphia, just trying to get home. When local Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) calls Tibbs’ superior to confirm his identity, said superior offers Tibbs’ services to the Chief, seeing as how there’s a homicide and all. Gillespie doesn’t want Tibbs’ help, and Tibbs would just like to be rid of this town and its cracker population – but the real sticking point is the dead man was a rich industrialist from Chicago who was planning to build a factory in Sparta, and his widow (Lee Grant) threatens to cancel the project unless the “Negro officer” remains on the case.

This movie was very much a cause celebre in my youth, and how the hell I managed to go so long without actually seeing it is one of those puzzles I’d probably need Virgil Tibbs’ talents to unwind. The pedigree of the film is impressive, even outside the two stars: Directed by Norman Jewison, written by Sterling Silliphant, cinematography by Haskell Wexler edited by Hal Ashby, music by Quincy Jones. It’s one of the few winners of the Best Picture Academy Award that I can totally agree with (Steiger, Silliphant and Ashby also took home statues. But not Portier. Don’t be absurd, he wasn’t even nominated).

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, 1967

The script never takes the easy route, and fully exploits the thorny and dangerous difficulties of the set-up. Tibbs is playing Sherlock Holmes without a Watson, against a roomful of Lestrades; Gillespie twice makes the wrong arrest based on partial information. Even then, it’s the character of Gillespie that actually makes the story work so well. Though he verges on stereotype several times (and the rest of the police force is squarely in that category), Gillespie is determined to do the right thing, and however unwillingly, becomes a strong ally. He’s almost as much an outsider in the town as Tibbs, unpopular and threatened with dismissal by a City Council that’s dismayed their Chief didn’t shoot Tibbs when he returned  a rich white planter’s slap.

In-the-Heat-5-Slap(That is one spoiler I’m glad I avoided all these years. Evidence points to the murder victim having been on the planters’ property the night of his death, and when the planter (James Patterson) realizes he’s being interrogated, he slaps the uppity nigra and Tibbs immediately slaps hims back, stunning not only the planter, but Gillespie and the black manservant. That scene must have hit like a thunderbolt in urban theaters in 1967, and I’m glad I had no idea it was coming because it is fucking awesome.)

Steiger is nicely complex as Gillespie. Sidney Portier, as ever, is America’s foremost portrayer of capable black men in difficult circumstances (also in the aftermath of that slap scene is the revelation that Tibbs is concentrating on the planter as a suspect to “bring that fat cat down”, and Gillespie’s quietly surprised “You’re just like the rest of us, man.” It’s a brave script on many levels). Portier would return to the character twice more, in They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization, and I’m curious enough to check those out. Warren Oates, as the officer who discovers the body, arrests Tibbs, and eventually becomes a suspect himself, continues to hone his reputation as America’s foremost portrayer of hapless motherfuckers that you somehow still can’t bring yourself to hate.

inTHOTNThere’s no real open reconciliation between Gillespie and Tibbs, no sudden buddy-buddy, but there is a quiet, realistic respect between the two at the end that feels earned. It really is a stunning, vital piece of 60s cinema, and I have no idea how they managed to make a TV show out of it. Nor am I that interested, even though the cast is full of actors I like; the movie has made that much of an impression on me.

Buy In the Heat of the Night on Amazon

 

The ABCs of March 2014 Part Two

Previously on Yes, I Know: A through E

F: Following (1998)

followingChristopher Nolan’s first feature film, shot on weekends during his student days, has the whole Nolan package in a trim 70 minutes: duplicitous characters, fluidity of timeline, twists, turns, double crosses, and one hell of a final reveal.

Shot in gloriously grainy black-and-white 16mm, Following is the tale of Bill (Jeremy Theobald), a young aspiring writer who starts following random strangers, observing them and hopefully gleaning some material for his work. Then one of his targets turns the tables on him – Cobb (Alex Haw), a professional thief and amateur philosopher. Cobb takes Bill under his tutelage, burglarizing apartments and disrupting peoples’ lives, telling Bill “You take it away… you show them what they had.” Bill becomes enamored of this lifestyle, becomes involved with one of their victims – and then, things get complicated.

Like the best of Nolan’s work, it’s essential to pay attention while the story works its Byzantine path toward that amazing conclusion. Events are played out-of-order, and quite often an unexplained occurrence is explained several scenes later (there is an alternate edit on the Criterion disc that places events in chronological order, but it seems like that would be much less fun – less of a discovery tingle, there). It’s to Nolan’s credit that everything makes sense at the wrap-up.

Probably the best comparison in Nolan’s filmography is The Prestige – and that is pretty high praise. If you liked one, you’re going to love the other. Highly recommended.

Following on Amazon

G: Ganja & Hess (1973)

gan_hThis wasn’t originally in the plan I mocked up for MMM, but this was picked as the movie in focus for the next Daily Grindhouse podcast, so I slipped it into the G spot (so to speak) instead of Godfather III. Perhaps the Universe was doing me a solid.

This was produced largely as an answer to blaxploitation movies so popular at the time – it is smart, challenging, at times deliberately abtruse. It is a vampire movie that never uses the word “vampire”. It stars Duane Jones, who everybody knows from Night of the Living Dead, and that, along with this movie, should have had Hollywood hammering at his door because good God, is he incredible. Writer/director/actor Bill Gunn was some sort of certifiable genius, to be sure, whose career never really took off, and the color of his skin likely had a lot to do with that.

Ganja and Hess got a standing ovation at Cannes, and proceeded to go absolutely nowhere in America: there is whole lot of odd stuff with Gunn’s character before he goes bullgoose looney and stabs Jones with an ancient dagger that somehow infects him with vampirism, and even then your typical horror movie tropes are few and far between. Most people expecting Blacula Part II probably left the theater in the first 15 minutes.

Ganja01I’m not going into much detail here, saving it for the podcast (listen early and often, my droogs), but we’re currently looking for a copy of Blood Couple, a version recut into a more traditional horror movie form.

Recommended, but be prepared for a challenge. It’s been written that you’re supposed to connect with Ganja & Hess not with your brain, but with your core instincts – and they’re probably right. We needed a lot more from Gunn and Jones; it wasn’t so much that these men were born too early as that America had its head up its ass for too long.

Ganja & Hess on Amazon

No trailer, but have two minutes of typically beautiful strangeness:

H: Harold & Maude (1971)

harold_and_maude_ver3_xlgHarold (Bud Cort) a twenty-something rich young man obsessed with death, has several pastimes, most notably practicing suicide in an effort to get a rise out of his remote mother (Vivian Pickles). During another hobby – attending funerals – he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79 year-old lady with a contagiously free spirit. She also attends funerals of people she’s never met, but she regards death as only part of a life to be ferociously, and whimsically, lived. This blossoming relationship will change Harold significantly, and shock audiences as the two become lovers.

This is one of the movies on the MMM list that I had already seen, but not since the late 70s. Unsurprisingly, my head’s in a different place some 35 years later, and I noticed some things I had not in my callow youth. Most significantly, the possibility that Maude’s flaunting of the law (“borrowing” cars and in one case almost getting shot by a cop) may not be due to free-wheeling anti-authoritarianism, but the onset of some form of dementia. The hard-edged satire of Harold’s relationships with every other adult in his circle – his mother, psychiatrist, military uncle, various “computer dates” his mother sets up – all seem more than little heavy-handed, but welcome to 1971: this played so well to my generation, it was beyond reproach.

None of this shook my love for the film; if anything, it reminded me how important Hal Ashby’s movies were to me as my tastes and worldview developed, this one and Being There foremost. I settled into it and its Cat Stevens soundtrack (for some reason, over the years I had thought it was Harry Nilsson) like an old, comfortable friend, and finding fresh nuances was delightful. Perhaps the most surprising part was rediscovering how a movie could be simultaneously so challenging and yet so gentle, so black in its humor and yet so sentimental.

Harold & Maude on Amazon

I: Ivan the Terrible, part one (1944)

1944-Ivan-el-terrible-Sergei-M-Eisenstein-espanol-1Well, enough romances, let’s have some blood and thunder. Well. not too much blood and thunder to be found here, but it’s the basis for a lot of it.

Josef Stalin’s propaganda machine worked on retooling the lives of prominent historical Russian figures to better support the Soviet worldview, and for some reason (sarcasm intended) he especially liked Ivan the Terrible, who ruled Russia for almost forty years, expanded its borders, dragged his country out of the Middle Ages… and killed a whole bunch of people. Sergei Eisenstein. the genius of Russian cinema, undertook the project. It would take three years to shoot, would damn near kill him – he suffered his first heart attack after completing the editing on Part Two, and it certainly killed his career in his native land; Part Two of his epic was banned in Russia until 1958, and the planned third part never lensed.

But we’re here to contemplate the first movie, which is more origin story than anything else, providing the basis for Ivan’s later paranoia and draconian methods. Formerly the Grand Prince of Moscow, he is crowned Tsar of All the Russias at the tender age of 17, and immediately starts making reforms necessary to making Russia an Empire, taxing churches and minimizing the ruling class of Boyars (a flashback demonstrating why Ivan hates the Boyars was excised and placed instead in the reviled Part Two). He puts down a peasant revolt at his own wedding celebration, using only his canny wit, forceful presence, and a timely declaration of war against the Khanate of Kazan.

ivanterHis ultimate triumph over the Khanate is only a small part of the movie – most of it concerns the eddying tides of conspiracy and backbiting around his rule, culminating in the poisoning of his wife by Boyars, which signals the end of his reasonable phase and the beginning of his “Brotherhood of Iron”, a secret army loyal only to him. A brilliant statesman, he retreats to a nearby village and awaits the parade of common folk who beg him to return, one of Eisenstein’s best, most elaborate (and likely most expensive) set-ups.

But that’s the crown jewel in a movie full of tremendous setpieces and striking images. The acting and makeup seem to be still stuck in German Expressionist silent movie mode, but that’s a small thing when presented with such a compelling time capsule – and I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful score by Sergei Prokofiev. This part of the saga received a Stalin Prize, which Eisenstein would enjoy for only a year, until the state censors saw its sequel.

Ivan the Terrible on Amazon

No trailer because that would be bourgeois.

J: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013)

JourneytotheWestConqueringtheDemonsWell, that’s quite a mouthful of a title.

We’re going to go into a couple of autobiographical detours here. First, if you’ve known or read me for any length of time, you know that I loves me some Monkey King. This can be traced back to the deeply strange anime movie Alakazam the Great – deeply weird because the folks involved in dubbing it attempted to Americanize it with great gusto, excising all mention of Buddha or any other Oriental figures. It was based on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, which is like 3 million pages long, and has been the basis of a lot of movies. One of my favorites is the Japanese Adventures of Super Monkey, of which I have a Canadian blu-ray under the title Monkey MagicDespite my determination to only watch movies I’ve never seen this year, that one gets trotted out frequently.

Secondly: Stephen Chow is a filmmaker I’ve been familiar with for many years. When a mania for Asian movies hit America in the early 90s, Chow’s movies were inevitably swept along, only to be met with confusion. I recall one critic bemoaning “some of the best action sequences in Hong Kong cinema” watered down by “goofy comedy”. I’m just going to point out that criticism was also leveled at Jackie Chan’s movies, then move along. Chow was enamored of word play, and the polytonal nature of the major Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, provided rich opportunities for that – opportunities that did not translate well into English. Still movies like the Royal Tramp series and King of Beggars had their fans… and then Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle hit, and Stephen Chow started clicking with American audiences.

journeywest1So now, here’s a combination of the two: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a “Gathering the Team” type version of the novel, a prequel of sorts, especially if you don’t mind messing with the original source material. I haven’t even read Arthur Whaley’s acclaimed abridged translation, so I’m not in the position to judge.

Our main character is novice demon hunter Zhang (Wen Zhang) whose methods of appealing to demons’ better nature is ineffective, to say the least. Constantly upstaged by the more proactive Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who is increasingly smitten with the young monk, Zhang is advised to seek out the imprisoned Monkey King (Huang Bo) for aid in defeating the Pig Demon, currently running amok and too strong to capture.

There is going to be plenty of goofy comedy, but that long-ago critic was right about Chow’s action sequences: they are amazing, varied and entertaining. Throw in rival demon hunters like Prince Important and the Almighty Foot, and a portrayal of the Monkey King so duplicitous and savage that you finally understand why Buddha stuck him under a mountain for 500 years, and you have one crackerjack Chinese fantasy, no matter how many liberties taken.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Amazon

A Movie Weekend

The buildup to this is semi-complex, but I don’t want to be too specific. Perhaps you will see my dilemma.

Back during the last Crapfest, pal Dave gave me back a DVD that had been on perma-loan to him, which was The Prestige. He had borrowed it long, long ago, back when he was living in an apartment, in fact. I had dropped in for a visit, and had stopped at a Hollywood Video (to show you approximately how long ago this was) to raid their pre-viewed DVDs. One of them was The Prestige, Dave asked to borrow it, I said sure, why not, knowing full well it would be a long time before I got around to watching it, anyway. This was also back when I was wasting every evening of my life playing City of Heroes, which squandered many a movie watching hour. Don’t regret it, I enjoyed playing it with my friends. But I’ve now walked away from that particular teat.

Anyway, Dave handed me back the DVD, and off-handedly stated, “You know, I never guessed that (EXTREME SPOILER).” There was a brief pause, after which I said, “Well, now I guess I don’t have to watch it.” There was a brief scene after that, but Dave was far more upset than I. There is, as Penny Arcade points out, a statute of limitations on spoilers. That I had managed to successfully avoid that particular spoiler for 6 years is remarkable, but Dave was innocent of wrongdoing. Even so, he felt really badly about the whole thing.

About a week after, I sent him an e-mail suggesting we get together to watch The Prestige, because, after all, he had said he wanted to watch it again, and I wanted to watch it for the first time. Earlier that year, when he found out I still hadn’t seen Inception, he urged me to come over and “watch a good movie for a change.” Well, I spoiled that by watching Inception one lazy Sunday morning. Much as I love my wife, Dave would have been a better movie-watching companion for that particular movie. Lisa enjoyed it, but wasn’t particularly engaged by the multiple layers of the central caper, which is something Dave and I would have chewed over with gusto.

So. We watched The Prestige.

I like Christopher Nolan movies because you have to pay attention. And I like them because he doesn’t make that hard, at all. The Prestige has a very fluid timeline, constantly jumping back and forth through the chronology of the two main characters, but it is never confusing in that respect. The tale of an increasingly destructive rivalry between two stage magicians, there is a lot about setup, artifice, and pay-offs, and when Nicola Tesla is brought into the mix (a nicely strange turn by David Bowie), things take a turn for the downright weird. As Dave rightly pointed out, every scene means something different on a second viewing, and the movie is as meticulously constructed as a stage illusion. The seeds of Dave’s spoiler run throughout the movie, and I flatter myself that I would have spotted them, though as Dave points out, we’ll never know for sure. Ah well.

There are a couple of “oh, come on” moments for me, a couple of minor plot points that don’t affect the story that much, I just get curious. Nolan’s eye for casting remains solid. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are both great choices, and the supporting cast includes Andy Serkis, Scarlett Johannson and Piper Perabo. Michael Caine is Michael Caine, which is pretty much what you pay him for these days. I swear to God Nolan cut-and-pasted at least one Caine speech from this script into one of the Batman scripts.

Good movie. Quite recommended.

Dave had, just that day, received a disc from Netflix: Cowboys and Aliens. Neither of us had seen it, so into the player it went.

There’s your setup right there: amnesiac Daniel Craig has a high-tech super-weapon locked onto his wrist, aliens keep flying overhead and lassooing innocent people. Hardass cattle baron Harrison Ford recruits Craig to attack the alien’s main base and rescue the people, which is okay by Craig because it seems to be tied into his missing past. In short, this is Terminator: Salvation in a Western setting.

It is also 20-30 minutes too long and wastes a lot of good actors in insignificant roles, like Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell. There is quite a bit too much time spent marshaling forces for a final battle that seems scattered and, like the movie, over-extended. Can’t find fault with the visual effects, at all, and the actors are a solid lot. It’s entertaining. but not enough for a whole-hearted recommendation. Netflix, definitely.

Well, that was Friday night. Saturday night, I usually have The Show, but as there were no reservations, that was cancelled. This is usually a cause for moping more than celebrating, because missing out on that small paycheck puts my fragile economic ecology in danger. But, I thought, none of that this week, dammit. Last Christmas, I got my wife her favorite movie in the world, Doctor Zhivago, on Blu-Ray. I had never seen Zhivago, so I figured it was high time.

Well.

What a dreadfully cramped trailer for a Panavision film!

Zhivago is, no surprise, the life story of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), Russian poet and doctor, and Lara (Julie Christie), the woman whose life keeps intersecting his. The chronology of this relationship passes through World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, more than enough turmoil for a historical romance. On Twitter I opined that this was the longest chick flick ever, which is the sort of thing you say when you are limited to 140 characters.

To be sure, it’s still shorter than that other over-long chick flick, Gone With the Wind, and it covers two vast conflicts instead of GWTW‘s single Civil War – and that is the larger story I took away from my viewing. My wife prefers to think of Zhivago as a great love story; I think of it as the tale of a man buffeted along by events much larger than he. Make no mistake, this is a gorgeous movie – director David Lean, cinematographer Freddy Young, and Omar Sharif’s dreamy countenance provide a very compelling look at how poets view the world. GWTW is very obviously compacting a whole lot of novel into its last half-hour, and I never got that impression with Zhivago – Lean doesn’t make short movies, but those movies are very full without obvious compression.

I’ve long been a fan of the Arthurian legends, probably dating from the first movie I can recall seeing in a theater: The Sword In The Stone. A good friend through college constantly took me to task on this: “How can you possibly like it? It’s a love story based on betrayal.” (Likely because I didn’t focus on the love story, I was more taken with the idea of armored knights as a force for good, rather than medieval stormtroopers, but that’s neither here nor there) Zhivago‘s love story is also one of betrayal, as Yuri falls in love with Lara during their time in a makeshift hospital at the end of WWI. It is to the credit of the characters that nothing comes of it, Lara telling Yuri, “I don’t want you to lie to your wife because of me.”

Yet, after fleeing the wretched conditions of Moscow after the worker’s revolution, Yuri seeks out Lara, and the inevitable betrayal occurs; though both are married, Lara’s husband has been given up for dead (He has in fact reinvented himself as the terrorist insurgent Strelnikov), but Yuri’s wife, mere miles away, is pregnant with their second child. Zhivago is taken from this personal turmoil to another turmoil, as he is press-ganged into a Red Brigade bringing justice (and a whole lot of death) to White Russian forces. During his servitude, his family escapes to Paris, allowing him to live in sin with Lara and her daughter for a time, until the World steps in again.

As is the case with Gone With The Wind, this is not my cup of tea. I can appreciate the craft that has gone into this, the efforts at authenticity, the sheer awesomeness of the cast – but I still honestly cannot connect with what my wife considers to be a great love story. She loves it, I accept that. I shrug and continue on.

That was also the weekend my landline cratered, and because I have DSL, I was incommunicado through everything but my smartphone. So Sunday morning, while my wife was out at the movies with her friends – I had seen everything at the cinemas I had wanted to see; her friends went to Cabin in the Woods and she went to The Lucky One, that pretty much tells the tale – I finally watched Chushingura.

Chushingura, it seems, is the general term for fictional re-tellings of the tale of The 47 Loyal Ronin, which looms large in the landscape of Japanese culture. In the early 18th century, a corrupt Master of Etiquette is dissatisfied with the bribes offered by one of the younger lords, and goads that lord into attacking him in the Shogun’s palace, a breach so serious the young lord is sentenced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, and his clan dissolved. His retainers, now all ronin – masterless samurais – bide their time, as retribution against the offended Master is forbidden. Finally, after two years of pretending to be workmen, monks, and in the case of the Chamberlain, a dissolute, drunken womanizer, forgetful of his duty to his dead master – on the second anniversary of the ritual suicide, the remaining 47 gather and attack the household, finally avenging the death of their master.

This is the 1962 version of the story, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, and I strenuously wished I had been more familiar with the story of the 47 Ronin before I had seen the movie. There are a lot of characters in play throughout, and I’m not just talking about the 47 ronin – wives, hangers-on, courtesans, brothel entertainers, not to mention the crew around the spectacularly corrupt Lord Kira, who feels an existence based entirely on lust and greed will grant him a long life, and that other samurai are fools for their predisposition to die at the slightest provocation. It gets dizzying after a while. Familiar faces like Takashi Shimura helped anchor me, but I still found myself confused as relationships proliferated as the fateful evening approached. Toshiro Mifune, featured prominently on all the advertising materials – especially the ones destined for Western eyes – has only a supporting role, as the lancer Genba Tawaraboshi, who is the hard-drinking badass we always love to see Mifune play.

So curse my blind ignorance, I am unable to make an objective judgment of Chushingura. It is well-made, acted and directed, and on those points alone I rank it highly; though how effective it is as a re-telling of a major legend, I must leave to those more knowledgeable. What it is, I can tell you, is a damned fine snapshot of the layered society in Japan at that time, the grinding rituals of proper etiquette, deference, and station; and the sometimes incredible insanity of the bushido code.

Then that evening, I watched Lolita. The next time I have a weekend like this, I really must find shorter movies.

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