Friday, March 25, 2016

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) 3 of 4

** this post contains only mild spoilers **

In this film, the Coen brothers are saying that the "birth of the nation" wasn't the reversal of Reconstruction, as in the D.W. Griffith film, but the New Deal of the 1930s.  That this is a story of national origin is signaled by its recapitulation of Homer's The Odyssey, revised as the story of three fugitives from a Southern prison work-gang.  The film also draws from a younger classic, Sullivan's Travels.  Although the Coens agree with Preston Sturges that movies should entertain, to give us relief from our toils and sorrows, O Brother admits movies have become our national literature, the source and mirror of our values. 

And if we feel our U.S. culture is less magical than old Hellas, we need to look again, as at the haunting scene of supplicants going down to the river.  If you're not sure you believe, well just hang on, and something will turn up -- a hand cart driven by a blind man, a talent scout, a flood -- to change your luck.   

The New Deal of the 1930s was a key part of the rise of the Federal government as the seat of power in the U.S. (note that Americans used to say "these United States are," now we say "the U.S. is").  Thereafter, it was harder for local or regional authorities to abuse prisoners or otherwise deny human rights.  The planned flood, referenced throughout the film and seen at the end, is a baptism for this new nation. 

One unforgettable bit has Everett (George Clooney) repeatedly frustrated by his inability to secure his preferred brand of "pomade" (hair-grease).  It's hilarious, but even here, he's urging his countrymen to a higher standard.  The Coen brothers are known for inventive, off-the-wall humor, but may be unique in their ability to smoothly insert an extended visit with the KKK into a whimsical comedy.   

In summation, good people, since the days of the New Deal (with its many dams), we're closer to our stated ideals about everyone having a chance to pursue happiness, etc., whether ethnic minority or ex-convicts.  The down side is that major corporations now call the shots, and regional cultures tend to be discouraged, unless expressed through the arts, such as music (cue The Soggy Bottom Boys). 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Spaceballs (1987) 2 of 4

** Spaceballs spoils itself, when the characters fast-forward a VHS of their own movie! **

Considering the amount of mockery it inspires, sci-fi hasn't been a fertile field for movie parodies.  In the parody golden-age of the 1970s and 1980s, both Young Frankenstein and The Man With Two Brains favor horror over sci-fi.  Woody Allen's Sleeper was derived from prose science fiction, thus its plot twists are more sophisticated than most serious s.f. films of the era. 

Dark Star (1974) remained sufficiently obscure as to be reworked, just a few years later, as the terrifying Alien.*  GhostbustersBack to the Future, Tremors, and Coneheads were sci-fi comedies, despite containing moments of parody.  Mars Attacks! went splat.  Only in 1999, with Galaxy Quest, was the genre successfully spoofed in a theatrical, English-language movie.   

Many questioned the timing of Spaceballs, a full ten years after the release of Star Wars (or A New Hope, if you insist).  It's more to the point to note that Mel Brooks left science fiction till last amongst his genre parodies, evidently because he had no particular understanding or affection for the genre.  If you look at Brooks's best films, all spoof the pre-1950 movies he saw as a child, with the partial exception of his Hitchcock riff High Anxiety.  By 1987, he was also well past his prime, witness his remaining spoofs going downhill from the title:  Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It

Mainly, Brooks understood that sci-fi and outer space were wildly successful, so we get lots of jokes about merchandising, home video, and sequels.  These don't parody sci-fi so much as 1980s Hollywood, and a space-mad society.  An exception, and one of the film's better jokes, comes when a starship commander orders the ship to "ludicrous speed," which mocks the blithe manner sci-fi throws around made-up terms like "warp speed" and "hyperspace."  (As indicated by the recent Nolan brothers film, many scientists believe interstellar travel is practically impossible.) 

Science fiction is rich for parody, of course, in its moralizing (how is it that every alien race reminds us of social problems on present-day Earth?), its Statue-of-Liberty reveals, and its recycling of adventure movies in the future, but Spaceballs mostly ignores these areas.  Instead, we get endless puns, most of them weak: a dog-man named "Woof," a "Druish princess."  The whole thing is too jokey: most of the gags would work as well on the radio. 

I'll admit Spaceballs offers some laughs, including the sight of stormtroopers "combing the desert" with giant combs.  The lack of CGI helps: it's funny that the production actually created giant combs marked "Ace/Genuine Hard Rubber."
* Also obscure: Flesh Gordon, Strange Invaders, The Stuff, and Space Truckers.  I'm excluding superhero parodies. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Psycho II and III (1983, 1986)

** minor-to-moderate spoilers, except at the end (as indicated) **

In order to enjoy these two films, you need to accept the fact they're not even in the same style as the original.  The original Psycho is an off-its-rocker horror film made by the premier suspense director of cinema history.  The sequels are horror-inflected melodramas, more in the vein of such post-Psycho gaslighting films as Scream of Fear and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.  As such, they resemble Hitchcock's original less than the current, addictive, and feminist Bates Motel

Both the 1980s films turn on Norman's acquaintance with an odd, slight, half-pretty young woman, a go-between for the audience.  In Psycho II, this is Meg Tilly, whose character may not be the rootless outcast she appears to be.  In Psycho III, Diana Scarwid is a failed nun.  You know this right away, as the film opens with her wailing, "There. Is. No. God!!!"  (By that time, Tilly had also played a troubled nun, in Agnes of God.  Hollywood values!)

Psycho II is the work of two non-prolific but estimable horror talents, director Richard Franklin (the enduring Road Games) and writer Tom Holland.  Holland is a seminal figure in 1980s horror, writer of the original Child's Play, and writer/director of Fright NightPsycho III uses different filmmakers (Anthony Perkins directed) but makes for a matched pair, with both films competently paying homage to Hitchcock's signature camera work and set pieces. 

In 1983, the filmmakers lacked the nerve to abandon the Norman-and-his-mother relationship that shocked the world in 1960, which necessitates character(s) pretending to be Norman's mother (or is it a hoax?).  This plotting sets up a franchise, but also lets some of the air out of a claustrophobic universe, making it a typical goth-soaper in which most of the characters are half-nuts.  Whereas the original seemed set in the Southwest, the sequel is vaguely Southern. 

Psycho II is well-directed, but plays out like a good TV-movie, never as good as you want it to be.  (Ironically, Hitchcock shot the original with the crew from his TV show, but at the time, the TV aesthetic meant down-and-dirty and under-the radar.  It also meant black-and-white, an ascetic denial suiting the horror genre.)  The plot of Psycho II is pleasantly twisting, and gratifyingly sicko, and the ending sent 'em home grinning: that-Norman-he's-incorrigible

If II is more of a crowd-pleasing roller-coaster, III is small and gritty, but also meaner, involving the deaths of innocents.  As before, the script lays on the coincidences, as Norman Bates becomes involved with another fleeing blonde with the initials M.C. 

If you haven't seen the movies lately, it's probably impossible to keep their plots separate: which one has Jeff Fahey, and which Dennis Franz?  In which does Norman flash back to poisoning his mother?  Which murders are actually committed by Norman?  This isn't meant as a criticism, in fact the conflation implicitly reflects Norman's mental state. 

These are potboilers, sure, but a slash above most horror sequels; they also have compassion for the mentally ill without soft-soaping the symptoms and possible dangers.  In retrospect, Psycho was a coming-out film for Tony Perkins, not so much for sexuality but for its implications about his mental health.  Perkins already had a successful film career, but had the guts to play possibly the most disturbing character in film history, in a film that many in Hollywood expected to be a disaster (see Hitchcock with Anthony Hopkins).  He was typecast, but that couldn't have been too much of a surprise (I haven't yet read his autobiography), and Perkins made a nice career of sketchy loners: The Trial, Pretty Poison, Crimes of Passion

In the 1980s films, Norman is a serial killer who's spent 20 years in prison; he's also a closeted cross-dresser and voyeur, an isolate, and a socially awkward oddball.  Still, his basic goodness shines through.  He's trying to cope with mental illness, and with the inevitable mocking and scapegoating that go with it.

Psycho II and III don't try to match one of the best films ever made; like Norman, they have some humility.  Norman likes to say "we all go a little mad sometimes."  In the original, he's self-justifying, but in these two sequels the world has caught up to Norman: motels have become notorious, and many people are anxious to harass or exploit a troubled ex-con.  The original Psycho is famous for making viewers identify with a psychopath, but by 1983, Norman had us with the opening credits.  In the current TV series Bates Motel, both young Norman and his smother (a remarkable performance by Vera Farmiga) are sympathetic heroes, despite their massive issues and homicidal ways.    

** major spoilers, remainder of post **

In Psycho II, someone keeps calling Norman claiming to be his mother (who, presumably, is still dead).  The viewer doesn't know if this is part of the gaslight hoax engineered by Lila Loomis (Vera Miles, returning from the original film), one of Norman's hallucinations, or -- ?  Finally Mrs. Spool, a background character, turns out to be the lucky lady: the tag of the film has her visiting Norman at night and revealing she's his mother, although she didn't raise him.  Well past his wit's end, Norman poisons her and, before the poison can fully take affect, brains her with a shovel.

In Psycho III, this plotline is put on hold, as Norman resumes his life's work of killing sexy, available women.  At the end, a nosey-feminist-reporter-type reveals to Norman that Mrs. Spool wasn't his mother, although in her madness she may've thought she was.  Spool was Norman's aunt, and part of a love triangle with her sister and brother-in-law (Norman's parents).  Spool unraveled and killed her lover (Norman's father), then spent years in an asylum.  Upon hearing this news, Norman fights off his demons in order to destroy his mummy (the preserved remains of Mrs. Bates, or is it Mrs. Spool?  I've lost track.) instead of attacking Venable, the reporter.  Since Norman has already killed several others, he's hauled off to the puzzle palace.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Jarhead (2005) 3 of 4

** no major spoilers **

After watching this film it occurs to me that it must be difficult being a Gulf War infantry veteran, at times, due to the perception the war was a picnic.  I wouldn't have thought the Gulf War could produce its own version of Full Metal Jacket -- traumatic training followed by traumatic deployment, the need to be half-crazy to survive, lots of cursing and internal sadism -- but Jarhead is that film.  It's a notch from Kubrick's Vietnam flamethrower, but a good war film in its own right. 

Although admitting the relative lack of combat, and though it never overtly references Gulf War Syndrome, Jarhead inspires respect for veterans with its conviction and accuracy, detailing why Marines called service "the Suck."  It's an episodic film, but every one's potent.

In one sequence, we see a line of Iraqi vehicles that have been blasted by U.S. fire, the occupants now charred corpses.  If you stumble upon this scene, you could mistake it for an episode of The Walking Dead or the like.  This is a frequent parallel, between war films and sci-fi/horror films.  Aliens is part of the Vietnam cycle, even if it never mentions that conflict.  Military units were standard in the sci-fi films of the 1950s. 

The commonality between the two genres, war and the fantastic, is that both venture into alien territory (for most of us), and both have to somehow bargain a compromise between skepticism and subversion on the one hand, and loyalty to the familiar on the other.

On their return, the men are greeted by a Vietnam veteran who boards their bus.  The older man fits the stereotype: while not a total flake, he's seen better days and has lost 2-5 marbles.  Still, the young vets betray no disrespect, no matter how many times he says "Semper Fi."  They'll soon be his age.  More important,  the old dude knows combat and the cost of "heroism": what  we stateside pussies will never know.  This received knowledge may be why vets are so often mistreated, down through history: they've done our dirty work, and we resent them, even as we clap them on the back.  If we didn't resent combat vets, we'd give them what they deserve, and their money would be no good in these 50 states.   


Monday, December 28, 2015

Europa Report (2013) 2 of 4

** minor spoilers only **

This is a found-footage sci-fi film, with a good cast (including Sharlto Copley and Embeth Davidtz), about a manned voyage to the titular moon of Jupiter, in search of life in the solar system.  The film's main boast is its genuine knowledge and love of science, which informs every moment of a slow-burn thriller.  The characters are believable as adventuring scientists, with relatively little of the sexual and relationship gamesmanship you might expect. 

The main problem is that the story could've been covered in about an hour.  The only reason this international co-production is 90 minutes is our definition of a feature film, and perhaps the lack of an Outer Limits-like show to play host.  The film attempts to keep things moving with lots of special effects, mostly via the various screens in the spaceship.  This provides a dense visual look, often using split-screen, but the film's budget is too low for the CGI to really work.   

Europa Report is a close call.  The story has a remarkable resolution which convinced me the film's  an agnostic tract designed to upend the Bible (or religion) as a frame of reference.  I haven't researched that suspicion, but the imdb page describes a U.S.-Russia-China co-production, a provocative combination.  Also, science popularizer (and skeptic of religion) Neil deGrasse Tyson is seen briefly on a video (he says he wants to "go ice fishing" on Europa).

In any case, such deep thoughts are fair game for a smart film.     

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Spider-Man 3 (2007) 2.5 of 4

** contains spoilers **

I've never been a superhero fan, but then how much do you need to know: he's Spider-Man, he swings from buildings, saves damsels, beats up bad guys.  Does whatever a spider can -- except repulse women.  (And that helps us understand why he's a role model to nerds.)         

In this episode: Peter takes Mary Jane to Central Park, spinning a web so they can lie suspended and look up at the stars, just like young men in love have done for ages after being bitten by a radioactive spider.  You know this can't last, and sure enough, some black goo crawls off a just-landed meteorite and makes its way to Peter, who becomes the superhero equivalent of Jerry Lewis's lothario persona in The Nutty Professor (this represents Peter's already inflated ego: he can't muster empathy when Mary Jane gets her first negative review, then gets canned from her Broadway gig).

This installment's middle-aged supervillain (cinema supervillains are always old enough to be the superhero's Dad) is Thomas Haden Church as the Sandman, who can hide easily because, well, he turns into sand.  This allows some impressive effects scenes.  I expected some kind of redemption for Sandman, whose life of crime started with a need for money for his sick daughter, but the movie seems to lose interest.  There may be a parallel with Obamacare.
Eventually, Spidey reconciles with his frenemy Harry, a.k.a. Green Goblin (James Franco), and together they defeat the bad guys, including sleazy photog Eddie (Topher Grace), who's been zapped by the black goo and is having a great time being his own dark side, a.k.a. Venom.  There's a nice little message to the effect that you always have a choice in life, meteorite or no meteorite.

This is the last Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, and feels like a lark.  With Maguire, Topher Grace, and James Franco, this movie really had its eye on young females, especially the ones who like slight, non-threatening white guys.  As for me, I hope to finally remember that Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal are two different people. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) 3 of 4

** this review (especially where noted) has spoilers on the original Planet of the Apes movie-cycle **

In the mid 1980s, I started taking notes on each film viewed.  I have no record of a review of this film, which means I just saw it for the first time in at least 30 years.  It's better than I thought. 

The Planet of the Apes franchise is of course science fiction, so it's all speculative.  Still, this film is clearly offered as a possible future: the characters even discuss whether they can prevent the apocalyptic timeline portrayed in the earlier films.  The story is also framed with a speech by "the Lawgiver" (John Huston), speaking some centuries in the future.  Since the film asserts the possibility of changing the timeline, this frame emphasizes that the characters have choices, that their choices will influence the future, even centuries down the line.   

Battle is the only Apes film in which apes and humans coexist in peace, although that peace doesn't last.  The apes are still led by Caesar (Roddy McDowell), who led the slave revolt in Conquest.  Caesar has created a utopian community of apes and humans, although the apes are dominant.  Although war has killed most of the Earth's population, the idyllic community is sheltered among rolling green hills evocative of Tolkien's Hobbiton, or the legendary Arcadia. 

The premise and setting are inspired, and the film has an eerie charge.  Battle is, I think, significantly better than Conquest, which is just a dutiful recounting of the inevitable ape takeover.  Like Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Conquest is an in-between sequel that never establishes it's own identity.  Also, Fox was uncomfortable with the disturbing ending to Conquest (inspired by the Watts riots); they demanded it be softened with Caesar's promise of mercy for the subjugated humans. 

Although the original ending has been restored on the DVD, we should remember that Battle is a sequel to the softened version of Conquest, thus it starts with an uneasy peace between apes and humans. 

Making a high-profile film series that allegorically addressed the racial tensions of the U.S. took its toll on the filmmakers.  Screenwriter Paul Dehn had to quit Battle for health reasons, and his story was altered.  For example, the new scripters excised Dehn's idea that the apes deliberately deprived humans of their ability to speak (thus the mute humans in Planet of the Apes).  Both Dehn and producer Arthur Jacobs, the prime mover behind the franchise, died within three years of Battle's release.   

Like Conquest, Battle was directed by J. Lee Thompson.  Thompson spent the 1960s making blockbusters: The Guns of Navarone, Taras Bulba.  In the early 1970s, he sobered up, and was looking for a meaningful challenge, and found it in the Apes franchise.  I suspect Thompson was deeply shaken by the shocked reaction to the violent end of Conquest, evidence his dazed quote  about the changed ending:  "It was a copout, but a copout I was fully in favor of." 

** severe spoilers ahead **

I believe this recent stress caused Battle's greatest flaw, action scenes that pull their punches.  The plot turns on the death of Caesar's son when a gorilla chops the branch the youth is standing on.  Unfortunately, the scene is ridiculous as filmed, as we're asked to believe that a young, healthy chimpanzee would die from a fall of about 15 feet.  It doesn't work at all.  Similar flaws plague the climactic battle.  This attack by a human clan on the ape village looks hokey, with a small number of human soldiers, and the continual re-use of the same exploding treehouse. 

Still, the film holds up well as an unsettling, alternate-reality variation on the Blaxploitation genre.  Although not the best of the series, it retains some potency at a point when most movie-series are scraping bottom.  Then and now, Battle for the Planet of the Apes confronts the viewer, because of course, we are the ones deciding possible futures.