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.


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.



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:

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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.

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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

The ABCs of March, Part Four

Blah blah blah Letterboxd.com blah March Movie Madness blah blah Movie starting with “A” on March 1, “B” on March 2, blah.

Miami Connection (1987)

miami_connection_ledeA minor cultural artifact that would be languishing in the used VHS bin at Half-Price Books were it not for Drafthouse Films, who managed to turn it into a sort of cause celebré last year. If you like your heroes to be a rock band made up of five orphans who have sworn friendship forever, and who use the proceeds from their club gigs to pay for college, this is the movie for you. If you’d like these five friends to be “black belts in Tae Kwan Do”, this is especially the movie for you. If you want your five black belt rock stars to fight a bunch of motorcycle-riding, drug-dealing ninja (in Orlando, Florida), then you already own the Blu-Ray.

I put “black belts in Tae Kwan Do” in quotes because it becomes pretty obvious that only three of the members of Dragon Sound have any moves (in fact, the diminutive Gino Vanelli-looking lead guitarist is pretty much the girl of the group), and one of those is star/producer/co-director Y.K. Kim, for whom English is a distant second language.

fyc_5The dialogue is largely improvised, which means I give the movie’s sound man a big thumbs up, because there would be no way to convincingly loop any of the scenes, because everybody talks at once (and not in a good Howard Hawks way). The fight scenes aren’t dreadful, and some are pretty good, though watching the bad guys dutifully line up to attack our heroes one-by-one on a largely empty street is kind of painful.

An interview with Y.K Kim on the DVD reveals that Miami Connection was turned down by every distributor as, quote, “Crap”, unquote, until one guy agreed, but only if they completely re-did the ending, since in the original the bad guy got away and a Dragon Sound member died. With a new bloody showdown and a formerly fatal sword wound downgraded to “Walk it off, wuss” status, Miami Connection went out into the world, to wait 25 years for anyone to appreciate it.

Maybe it’s due to having seen Intercessor only a few days before, but I didn’t find Miami Connection all that bad. Not all that good, either, but a likely candidate for a Crapfest.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

night_of_the_hunter_posterAnd for every story where a distributor said that something was “crap” and was right, there seem to be five stories about the same thing, but the movie in question was a masterpiece that the bean-counter could not appreciate. Such is the case with actor Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter.

Based on the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, Hunter is the tale of serial killer Harry Powell, a travelin’ man who professes to be a preacher, finding widows with money, marrying them, killing them, and moving on. While serving time in prison for auto theft (30 days!), he meets up with Peter Graves, due to be hanged for a bank robbery in which he killed two men. Powell manages to find out that Graves hid the ten thousand dollars, but won’t tell where; after his release, Powell goes searching for this newly-created widow, and the ten thousand.

The story is largely told from the point of view of Graves’ ten year-old son, John (Billy Chapin), sworn to protect his younger sister Pearl and the location of that ten thousand dollars. With an ease born of practice, Powell sweeps their windowed mother off her feet (Shelley Winters, very convincingly projecting a brittle, damaged vulnerability) and eventually murders her, tying her body to an old model T and dumping it in the river, producing one of the movie’s indelible images: Winters’ hair drifting lazily in the current, echoing the surrounding weeds.

img-night-of-the-hunter_095346717469The kids strike out on their own down the same river, Powell in inexorable pursuit (“Don’t he never sleep?” marvels John), eventually winding up in the care of Lillian Gish (who came out of retirement specifically for this role), playing a woman who has found new meaning in her life caring for orphans the Depression has sent her way. She sees through Powell’s guile immediately, and in a nighttime confrontation, the spurious preacher finds himself no match for a good woman with a shotgun.

Part of the genius of Night of the Hunter is that it slips so subtly into the boy’s point of view, we almost don’t realize we’ve left an adult’s mindset behind. We’re surprised that the adults of the tiny town don’t see through Mitchum’s bullshit as easily as we do, but that’s because we’re sharing John’s experience. Powell is a surprising change for sex symbol Mitchum, who must have leapt at the chance to play a character so different from his usual fare.

hunterIn a story that is going to be too familiar, an executive at the first screening called the movie “too arty” and buried it on the second half of a double bill with the now largely forgotten medical potboiler Not As A Stranger, also featuring Mitchum. The posters and advertising materials reveal just how clueless United Artists was as to what approach to take with Night of the Hunter, and it almost vanished from sight, championed only by a very few until its true status as a classic was embraced.

Laughton, never the most confident of artists, took it all very much to heart and never directed another movie. Which is a damned shame.

Orca (1977)

7“I know! Let’s remake Jaws, but rig it so that this time you root for the shark!”

BRILLIANT! Another round!”

Fisherman Nolan (Richard Harris) thinks that capturing a killer whale and selling it to an aquarium or sea park will finally pay off the mortgage on his boat. What he manages to do is harpoon his target’s mate, resulting in a gruesome whale miscarriage on his deck and the unending enmity of a killer whale who, doctor Charlotte Rampling informs us, is capable of feeling grief and unending vengeance.

This is indeed the McGyver of killer whales, causing huge explosions in the seaside town and targeting vulnerable supports of buildings so he can bite off Bo Derek’s leg. Nolan is responsible for four human deaths and millions in property damage by the time we reach the final showdown, and despite attempts to generate sympathy for the character, I never stopped rooting for Orca.

At least I now have seen the movie was that was plastered all over the back of comic books until they invented Megaforce.

Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus-2012-Movie-PosterFinding identical star maps in several ancient civilizations, two scientists (Logan Marshall-Green and Noomi Rapace) have figured out that a race of beings called The Engineers created life on Earth and left this calling card as an invitation. The near-ubiquitous Weyland Corporation funds an expedition to the planet to try and make contact. Things do not go well.

First: Jiminy Christmas, what a cast. Beside Rapace, you have Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Michael Fassbinder, and, eventually, Guy Pearce. That is a hell of a lot of quality acting talent. You have special effects that are often incredible. What you do not have is much of a compelling story. In short, you have a Ridley Scott movie.

Prometheus is at its best when it is functioning as a sense-of-wonder story, a stripped-down-to-the-basics space opera about exploration and first contacts. It veers into horror (and even Cronenbergian medical horror in the movie’s most intense segment) in ways that worked like gangbusters in Alien but seem somehow tacked on here.

PROM-008 -  Aboard an alien vessel, David (Michael Fassbender) makes a discovery that could have world-changing consequences.Because Prometheus, you see, is a prequel to Alien. What our heroes find is a seemingly abandoned Engineer base full of bioweapons that was going to be shipped to Earth but something went wrong and the Engineers themselves were the ones that got destroyed. Exactly why the Engineers, having created life on Earth, were  suddenly so determined to eradicate it is a question left unanswered, and in fact is the entire reason for the movie’s denouement, and possibly a reason for all the bad press and rancor I had heard during the general release. My pal Roger Evans had read an interview with Scott that explained it all, and proceeded, like a kindergartener with a dead rat chasing his classmates all over the playground, to pursue me until I read it. I really don’t need to have everything explained for me. I frequently enjoy the mystery more than the solution. But now I know. And it did kind of bruise my opinion of the movie.

Really, I think  Prometheus works better outside the Alien universe. Trying to shoehorn it in is just going to cause headaches. And this is from someone who strenuously pretends the Alien vs Predator moves never happened.

prometheus_01Honestly, the biggest, most jagged pill for me to swallow in the movie is that it takes place in 2094 or so. Which means interstellar flight in 80 years. I suppose that’s possible, but I’m doubtful. When I was a kid, we sent men to the Moon regularly and you could fly from New York to Paris in a few hours. What the hell happened? Whatever it was, it makes a rapid advancement like that, even financed by a voracious corporation, very dubious to my mind.

Then again, my next movie will be Queen of Blood, which takes place in 1990, when a mere 21 years after the Moon landing, we have a fully functioning Moon Base and  plans to go to Mars. That didn’t seem too far-fetched in 1966, so I’m hoping I’m wrong and we do, indeed, wind up on that road again.