Saturday, June 23, 2007

Tag, You're It

I’m going to be away for the next week or so starting Saturday, doing various things at the National Audio Theater Workshop in West Plains, MO. So you won’t see updates until next Saturday at earliest.

Before I go, though, I’ve been tagged with the “Thinking Blogger Award” by Jim Magovern over at his Talkingmoviezzz blog, which is something given to blogs you read regularly and that make you think. In turn, I have to tag five more. Pinning down the more “intellectual” entries on my regular blogreading rounds was a bit difficult, since nobody takes themselves *too* seriously, but on reflection many of them present things from new perspectives, and smartly enough to make it interesting.

I ended up with all comics blogs, since I mostly read those and I think Moviezzz covered the movie ones I read already.

The rules:

1) If, and only if your blog is one that is tagged on my list below, you must write a post with links to five other blogs you like that consistently make you think (hence, the Thinking Blogger’s Award).

2) Link to this post so people will know whose good idea all this was.

3) Proudly display the “Thinking Blogger Award” logo with a link to the post you wrote.

And here goes:

Written World- “Ragnell the Foul” blogs on comics and comic fandom from a feminist perspective (as well as a connoisseur of Green Lantern butts, but that’s another issue altogether.) Though I take a sort of Cronenbergian “an artist has no social responsibility whatsoever” approach to the issue of how sociopolitical concerns should influence the shaping of art/entertainment, American comics are a bit of a boys’ club at the moment, and it’s nice to hear from female fans what the industry could be doing to not push them away so much. I don’t always agree with her on specific issues, but her reasoning is sound and her ideas worth considering.

Comics Should Be Good- A group blog founded on the premise that, well, see the title. Which is to say the thrust of the blog is looking at comics in a way that’s more about quality than continuity or how specific characters are faring. There’s praise for what the writers think deserves it, snark for what doesn’t, and the standard of writing and criticism is generally high. Vaguely academic, but not so much that they can’t devote an entry to singing the praises of Hoppy the Marvel Bunny.

Postmodern Barney- Dorian is a comic store worker, a comic fan, and a gay man, and blogs with an urbane, snarky combination of these perspectives and others. Some politics (at least in the sense of looking at, again, the mostly male and heterosexual orientation of mainstream US comics), peppered with funny images and beefcake. (I also like the layout quite a bit for some reason.)

Progressive Ruin- Mike Sterling writes from his perspective as a guy who sells comics for a living, often commenting on how titles are doing, what he thinks will come of X development in terms of the industry and whatnot, and most enjoyably the weird crap that gets solicited in PREVIEWS every month. There’s a nice “behind the desk” quality to it.

Polite Dissent- And to round it off, comics (and HOUSE episodes) from a medical perspective. This one is just plain informative- Scott manages to note all sorts of little errors and medical trivia without it actually seeming too nitpicky. And in the process, you learn a lot, often about things other than medicine.

So, there you go, five blogs that make you think. Or make me think, anyway. Enjoy them. And see you in a bit.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Random Movie Report #29: Invasion of Astro Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero)

We come now to another one of my favorites of the Godzilla saga, albeit one released under a bad title. Toho seemed to come up with the default English title for this one out of a hat (complete with the lack of articles), and GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO Is much better, but Classic Media’s going with the “official” titles and so here we are. Anyway, this is another classic monster romp from Toho, with a number of interesting distinctions, the biggest one being its emphasis on its human protagonists. Godzilla’s still the star, but he shares the spotlight more than usual.

A new planet has been discovered in the solar system, somewhere in Jupiter’s shadow. After creatively naming it “Planet X”, the World Space Authority sends two astronauts, Glenn (Nick Adams) and Fuji (Akira Takarada) to explore the strange new world. They soon meet the planet’s inhabitants, who ask for the Earthlings’ help in driving off the attacks of Monster Zero, a.k.a. King Ghidorah. The Xians ask for Earth’s permission to borrow Godzilla and Rodan to drive off the menace, in exchange for a drug that will cure either all known diseases or cancer (depending on whether you watch the US or Japanese version, respectively.) Earth gladly agrees, but the aliens seem to be hiding something, something relating to Glenn’s girlfriend Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno), who is a representative of a toy company that has bought the rights to a new invention by Tetsuo Teri (Akira Kubo), who wants to marry Fuji’s sister Haruno (Keiko Sawai), but Fuji doesn’t approve. In the end, I suppose it’s not spoiling anything to say that the aliens are indeed up to no good, and once they have Godzilla and Rodan they embark on a plan to invade the Earth using all three monsters. It’s up to our heroes to find a way to defeat the invaders, or at least break the control they have over Earth’s critters.

INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER represents a high point of sorts for the collaboration between Toho Studios and Henry G. Saperstein, the man responsible for the distribution of many of Toho’s Godzilla and other sci-fi/fantasy films during this period. Saperstein served as an executive producer on this entry alongside Reuben Bercovitch, and at least a few creative decisions were made with an eye towards the American market; Nick Adams, an Oscar nominee and prolific B-list actor was placed in the lead for international appeal (an approach that Toho would also take for FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS), and Saperstein persuaded the filmmakers to cut a long opening expository scene he believed would bore American audiences. Though cuts to the films by American distributors have long been the bane of U.S. Godzilla fans, this more collaborative approach results in a film that is nicely attuned to tastes in both cultures; the “Americanization”, as such, is subtle and doesn’t intrude on the distinct atmosphere that Inoshiro Honda helped create for Toho’s 60s monster outings.

This may actually be the most character-driven of the Godzilla movies; the monsters are used as pawns in the aliens’ game, and it falls to Glenn, Fuji, Tetsuo, and Haruno to find a way to fix things. Even when the monsters are fighting, the humans aren’t reduced to Greek chorus as they sometimes are in these movies. For once, we get a number of notable performances; Adams (whose mysterious death in 1968 from an overdose of prescription drugs has become one of those weird Hollywood stories movie buffs love) contributes a lot of gusto and charm, making lines such as “You stinkin’ rats!” and “We’ll fight to the last man, baby” rather memorable in their cheesiness. (His voice is dubbed in the Japanese version by Tadashi Okabe, and his dialogue is sadly much less creative.) Takarada holds his own, as does Akira Kubo in a nice geeky turn. As the Controller of Planet X, Yoshio Tsuchiya brings a deliberate stiffness to his performance, as well as some oddly precise hand gestures, playing nicely into the idea of the Xians as mechanized, soulless beings who live their lives under computer guidance. Kumi Mizuno is also affecting as the sultry and mysterious Miss Namikawa.

One shortcoming the film has in comparison to other Godzilla movies is that, with all the story action given to the humans, the monsters get a bit shortchanged. Godzilla, Rodan, and Ghidorah get an entertaining fight on Planet X as well as a nice marathon of property destruction on Earth, but the final battle is tragically short and anticlimactic. (This also appears to be one of the first films in which Toho recycled monster and other effects footage from earlier movies, in this case a few bits and pieces from RODAN.) Godzilla continues his move towards heroism, with a friendlier look and more playful attitude; in the Planet X battle, he engages in a Western-style “shootout” with Ghidorah and does a little dance when he wins (a move improvised by suit actor Haruo Nakajima, kept in the film despite much debate.) Eiji Tsubaraya’s FX remain wonderfully elaborate and impressive, and the visual design of the film is elegant and colorful, with Planet X looking pretty much like you’d expect a place called “Planet X” to look. The theme music is one of Akira Ifukube’s peppier marches, used to great effect.

INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER has a sophisticated kind of craziness to it, one in which banter about mutual trust and brotherly overprotectiveness shares screen time with Godzilla smashing houses and aliens watching dots on computer monitors. It’s slick, hip, urbane, and very fun; if not the best Godzilla film, one of the most endearing. The series was on a roll, achieving a surrealistic zen of monster action and creative plotting and visual splendor that was unlike anything American films could offer. One of the reasons reviewing these films is so fun is that they’re almost time capsules; no other culture, in no other decade, could produce something like INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER, and more’s the pity.

Written by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: A-

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Comics Page #14: Showcase Presents The War That Time Forgot

DC’s Showcases continue to plumb genuinely odd and obscure territory, much to the delight of the comics blogosphere. There is a certain segment of fandom for whom words like “World War II soldiers fighting dinosaurs” mean more than the death of Captain America ever could. Sadly, we’re pretty much in the minority, but at least some part of comics publishing is catering to us. THE WAR THAT TIME FORGOT doesn’t quite live up to what I expected, and suffers from the fact that one big collection isn’t really an ideal format for these hugely episodic and oft-repetitive stories, but it does deliver what it promises, and with a bit of skill.

Some background may be helpful. In the 1960s, war comics were in a decline. You had Sgt. Rock, and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes, but the Comics Code prevented these and other titles from featuring the kind of lurid and gritty violence that had distinguished the EC-style war books. You could still have plenty of shootings and explosions, but basically you needed a gimmick to get noticed amongst an increasing flood of superheroes. So, for DC’s STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES, idea man Robert Kanigher started writing stories about soldiers encountering dinosaurs (because everyone loves dinosaurs, right?) It was enough of a success to become a regular feature for at least six years (that’s where the collection cuts off, anyway) and dominated covers, but Kanigher treated almost every entry as a wholly self-contained story with no reference to past episodes. Back in those days, comics were still mostly considered cheap and disposable entertainment, so you could get away with this (though the end was already in sight.)

The plot of each story tends to follow a formula. The focus is on a very small group of soldiers- from as few as one to as many as five- in various branches of the armed forces in the War in the Pacific (apparently Europe was dinosaur-free), usually on assignments to find missing platoons or scout out enemy operations. A sudden attack by a prehistoric creature (pterodactyls and other flyers were the most common) lands them in a lost world, generally an island. They have to use what gear they have and good old Army ingenuity (or Navy ingenuity, or Air Force ingenuity, or Marine ingenuity) to get out alive, often while resolving personal conflicts.

A couple of times Kanigher broke the pattern and tried to establish ongoing characters. For three nicely insane little issues, a GI gets paired with “Joe”, a robot soldier designed to obey his commands. That, needless to say, is awesome, but either sales didn’t merit keeping with that premise or Kanigher just got bored. Later, he works in the Suicide Squad, a kind of American Foreign Legion in which GIs with checkered pasts sign on for missions they’re not likely to return from. From this we get Morgan and Mace, two G.I.s who, as the covers and narrative text constantly remind us, hate each other more than the enemy. See, Mace was an Olympic bobsled runner who froze up on a tough turn and sent the sled flying, which killed Morgan’s brother, and so Morgan gets assigned to make sure Mace never panics during a critical moment again. By making menacing remarks and pointing a .45 at him throughout. While they fight dinosaurs. (Dear GOD I hope these two exist in the canon DCU somewhere.) Kanigher was also fond of teams of acrobats-turned-soldiers, for some reason.

Here’s where I run into a dilemma. Is it really fair to judge these stories by how they read in a collection, when of course they were never intended to be collected? Read together, the stories are fairly repetitive, particularly in the time spent getting the soldiers to the lost world to start with; also, each story being complete in itself means that the potential of a group of soldiers fighting for their lives amidst prehistoric monsters is never fully exploited. I would’ve loved to see an ongoing “Swiss Family Robinson with guns and dinosaurs” approach to the material. But then again, I’m criticizing it for being something it never tried to be, based on my expectations. All I can say is that the pterodactyl dive-bombings do get tiresome after a while. And I never thought I’d write that sentence.

Overall, though, the stories work on their own terms, in the old anthology style that’s all but completely vanished from modern comics. The characters are given just enough definition and personality to last us for 15 pages, often with simple, clear, elegant arcs. At times one feels that Kanigher is just writing normal war stories and putting in dinosaurs to grab our attention, which may well have been the case. And it helps- the art, credited to Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, and others, reflects the classic, scientifically inaccurate view of dinosaurs as big, ponderous reptile monsters, with even the herbivores displaying sharp teeth and a mean attitude. We even get a giant white gorilla and a friendly baby pterodactyl, and some monsters that never show up at the natural history museum. It’s all in fun.

Most of us in this book’s target audience would gladly buy and read it regardless of quality, but for anyone who’s the least bit apprehensive, this is actually good stuff. This is one of those neat collections that brings up material you didn’t even know existed, and though 500+ pages seems like a bit much for such a narrow niche, it actually holds up well. Besides, you never know when you might want to read a story where former circus performers throw torpedoes at a giant snapping turtle monster. It comes up more often than you’d think.

Grade: B

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Random Movie Report #28: Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster

After their release of the original GODZILLA, Classic Media have decided to follow up with slim-case special editions of the other kaiju films in their library. I’ve had a few for a while, and instead of actually going in chronological order, I’m going to first review the one I’ve watched most recently. I may get to the others afterwards.

GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER may well mark a high point for the Godzilla series in the sixties. It was a good decade for the big guy, as Toho Studios produced an increasingly elaborate and epic series of monster mash-ups, bursting with color, imagination, and humor. It was an odd career move for a monster created as an allegory for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but audiences, especially children, found themselves cheering him on. And so Toho, having portrayed him as the heavy for four movies, decided to soften up the character just a bit. Hence, this film, in which Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra- the three biggest stars in Toho’s monster lineup- confront the greater evil of a golden outer space dragon named King Ghidorah. The DVD of this film contains both the American and Japanese versions, though they don’t differ significantly from each other as far as I could tell.

It’s January, and despite this there’s a massive heatwave in Japan, as well as shooting stars and other phenomena that UFO believers think is pointing to something very unusual happening. The shooting stars actually lead up to a meteor impact up in a remote mountain range, and Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi) leads an expedition which finds a glowing, magnetic meteorite. Meanwhile, Mas Selina Salno (Akiko Wakabayashi), a visiting princess from the made-up country of Sergina, is on her way to Japan when her plane is blown up by assassins. She’s assumed dead, but actually was whisked away by a UFO moments before, and soon turns up in Japan claiming to be a Venusian (Martian in the US version), warning the people of great disaster. This attracts the attention of reporter Naoko Shindo (Yuriko Hoshi), as well as her brother (Yosuke Natsuki), a detective who had been assigned as bodyguard to the princess before she was presumed dead. The Venusian girl’s predictions of terror quickly start coming true, first when the monster Rodan emerges from under a volcano, second when Godzilla arrives from the sea. The two monsters begin to do battle (as they are wont to do), but their destructive melee is just the prelude. The meteorite “hatches”, unleashing a ball of flame that forms into King Ghidorah, our titular menace. According to Princess Salno, the space monster Ghidorah managed to destroy all life on Venus and intends to do the same for Earth. The military really doesn’t even try to stop the monster this time; instead, Naoko and the Professor hit on the idea of asking the good-hearted Mothra and her tiny twin fairy guardians (Emi and Yumi Ito) for help, with the so-outrageous-it-just-might-work plan of getting Mothra to convince Godzilla and Rodan to team up and fight this new menace.

I could not write that last sentence without breaking into a smile. This is the film that really cemented Toho’s attitude towards their stable of monsters; not giant animals, not plausible sci-fi menaces, but goofy mythological figures with distinct, almost-human personalities, living in a larger-than-life world. There is a reckless joy in the film’s seemingly-random plundering of comic book concepts and genre conventions; you have gunplay with assassins (led by the ever-sunglassed Hisaya Ito), alien prophecies, three returning kaiju plus one brand-new one (Godzilla had fought other monsters one-on-one up to this point, but nothing like this melange had been seen since the Universal horror romps of the forties), even a musical number. It’s all done with a sense of good humor and playfulness, the height of which is a brilliant scene in which Mothra actually “talks” with Godzilla and Rodan, the fairies translating. It almost comes across as a goofy kind of political negotiation, and in the dubbed version gives us the immortal line, “Oh, Godzilla, such terrible language!”

Camp is a bit of a dirty word within Godzilla fandom, not without reason. The series’ decline and hiatus in the Seventies was seen to result from the movies having become too childish and cheesy, and the nadir of this approach (1973’s GODZILLA VS. MEGALON) bears the odd distinction of being one of the most widely seen Godzilla films in America, thanks to a 1976 TV airing hosted by John Belushi in a monster suit and the film’s confused stint in the public domain thereafter. But in this film, and in most of the sixties films, there is a kind of balance; the filmmakers know that what they’re showing is outlandish and silly, and they acknowledge it, but they don’t let it get in the way of the excitement. To stereotype broadly, the Japanese have never been quite as hung up on “realism” in fiction the way we are; their standards for suspension of disbelief are such that giant monster peace talks and tiny singing fairies just barely stretch credulity. It also helped that this was the Sixties, a decade in which lighthearted surrealism was rapidly becoming the “in” thing. To be sure, this is a lavish spectacle; the miniatures are detailed, the monsters imaginatively designed, the music brassy and vivid, the cinematography lush and colorful. The actors all come across as game, doing solid turns despite the fact that they’re really not the stars.

GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER was a watershed for the series in many ways. It set Godzilla on the track towards becoming a hero. It established all of Toho’s kaiju as existing in a shared universe, available to fight each other whenever the studio came up with a good grouping. Most importantly, it established said universe as one where all sorts of weird and magical things could happen, where the boundary between science fiction and fantasy was non-existent, and where giants not only roamed and fought, but occasionally had a good argument as well. (And if I keep coming back to that scene, well, it’s sort of a litmus test for just how much you’re going to like these kinds of movies to start with.) There’s no doubt in my mind that the original GODZILLA is the best in the series, and a high point of the science fiction genre; that said, if you want to see the best example of a “Godzilla movie”, this is it.

Written by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: A

Monday, June 11, 2007

Academy of the Underrated: Grease 2

I never officially signed on to the Grease 2 Blog-A-Thon, but I put the film at the top of my queue anyway and gave it a watch over a couple of nights. In some ways I’m the ideal target audience, in that A) I like offbeat musicals and B) I hold no particular reverence for the original GREASE. It’s a good movie and a good play, mind you (friend of mine once played Jan), but it’s never resonated with me on any deep level. (Petty as it is, the fact that it’s a high school story about the popular kids may play a role. If Olivia Newton John is going steady with you, you’ve pretty much got no problems worth listening to.) If it were not completely in the shadow of a monolith of American pop culture- to the extent that British university students know the moves to “Grease Lightning”- GREASE 2 might actually have gotten some notice. Though not without its problems, the film has a certain sweetness and energy to it that makes it worth a couple of hours.

We start with a new school year for Rydell High School. Sandy and what’s’is’face have ridden off into the sunset, along with others, but Frenchy (Didi Conn) is back, and she’s brought a relative- Michael Carrington (Maxwell Caulfield), a British A-level transfer student. He finds himself instantly bewitched by the Pink Ladies’ new front girl, the sassy and sultry Stephanie Zinone (Michelle Pfeiffer). Trouble is, the Pink Ladies only go out with the T-Birds, and Steph has her heart set on a dream vision of a cool rider with a fast bike. Michael decides to take matters into his own hands; he writes papers for the T-Birds and uses the money they pay him to invest in a motorcycle. Learning to ride in secret, he shows up one night disguised in biker gear, outriding both the T-Birds and a rival motorcycle gang. Stephanie is wowed, but Michael is reluctant to expose himself, and her ex-boyfriend Johnny Nogerelli (Adrian Zmed) is just a little jealous. In the meantime there’s a talent show coming up, and a couple of the other Pink Ladies are having relationship troubles, and come to think of it, that’s about it.

The film zips along pretty quickly, to the extent that it can given that it’s a little under two hours and is not that complicated plot-wise (the talent show business seems to take up a large bulk of the running time.) I actually get the feeling that it may have been subjected to some heavy editing; there’s some business at the start involving a new teacher(Tab Hunter) who pretty much gets forgotten, and similarly, a friendship between Michael and Dolores Rebchuck (Pamela Segall), the young “mascot” for the Pink Ladies, appears in one scene and is ignored until the finale. The movie also seems to jump pretty quickly across the school year- a climactic Luau heralds the coming of summer, which is a bit weird since it comes the day after the talent show which the students have been apparently preparing for since the start of fall. (Then again, the numbers we see are pretty elaborate and probably took a lot of rehearsal time.) One scene I was actually able to verify as having been cut (thanks to the movie's artfully designed fansite) clarifies some questions about who’s where during the movie’s final act, which is important. The pacing issues do give the movie sort of a slight feel.

Weirdly enough, the songs for this musical appear to have been assembled from a veritable army of composers and lyricists; a similar patchwork approach was used for 1983’s THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE, but I'm not sure how it came about since it doesn’t strike me as a recipe for creating a memorable score. Despite this, the score is pretty coherent, and there are quite a few memorable numbers. “Cool Rider”, as performed by Pfeiffer, is a nice 80s version of a 60s girl group song, and Michael’s mysterious alter-ego is introduced with a pretty strong number as well. There’s a funny song about reproduction, one called “Score Tonight” taking place at a bowling alley, and the opening number features vocals by the Four Tops. One disappointment is a song called “Prowlin’”, in which the T-Birds sing about the joys of girl-cruising at the grocery store- it’s a great premise, but apparently they ran out of money before they could film an appropriate grocery-themed dance number and had to settle for a few silhouettes.

Despite a vague half-baked feeling I got from all this, it ultimately charmed me, and the main story was probably the reason. It helps that Caulfield and Pfeiffer actually have a bit of chemistry- a scene between the two of them in a diner plays particularly nicely. When all is said and done, you want to see them together, and you don’t feel like the film is going to try anything too unexpected on that front. There are a lot of neat faces in the supporting cast, including Connie Stevens as a sultry teacher and the Doublemint Twins as a pair of cheerleaders (confusingly billed as “Sorority Girls” in the credits.) Even though none of them get much to do (one failing the film definitely has in comparison to the original GREASE), it’s still nice having them around.

So I’m recommending this one. It’s light, sitcom-like and almost entirely inconsequential, but good-natured enough that it isn’t a big problem. And, as a sequel, it actually manages to feel distinct from the original; there are some obvious echoes, especially in the story, but it’s not just hitting all the same beats as sequels of the time so often did. It deserves a second look.

Written by Ken Finkleman
Directed by Patricia Birch

Grade: B-

Thursday, June 07, 2007

In Theaters: Bug

Image from
After reviewing a past film by William Friedkin, I found it only appropriate to check out his current work. The important thing you should know about BUG is that it is nothing like what its trailer implies. Lions Gate Films, against its better judgement, has promoted this as a horror movie, with ads trying to evoke the atmosphere of movies like SAW or HOSTEL. This is not quite an outright lie, but it's damn close; the film, an adaptation of a stage play, is a character-driven psychological drama. Needless to say this has already pissed off the majority of people who went to see this in the first weekened, and the movie deserves better. Not a film for all tastes, BUG is an intense and claustrophobic look into the depths of paranoid delusion, and the precarious nature of sanity itself.

Ashley Judd is Agnes, a lonely woman living in one of those apartments that looks pretty much like a hotel room in a desert town in California. She keeps getting silent calls from nobody, probably her ex-boyfriend (Harry Connick, Jr.) who has just been released from prison. She works at a lesbian bar (and is bisexual herself), and through a co-worker meets Peter (Michael Shannon, who originated the role on stage), a nice enough, slightly unusual guy. He has, as he says, a tendency to see things that others don't and make connections that others don't. They become friends, and he spends the night on her couch (later floor), and eventually they make love. Soon after, he complains of bedbugs, and "finds" one, and though it's too small for us to see, Agnes eventually sees it too. He becomes fixated on the idea that the apartment is infested, and tries to leave her when he feels that it's somehow his fault, but she gets angry when she thinks he's abandoning her; not only does she have a worthless ex stalking her, but ten years ago her son disappeared in a supermarket and has never been seen since. When she starts to break down, he decides to stay, and together, they obsess about the bloodsucking aphids in their apartment and in their bodies. They develop sores, maybe from the insects, maybe from their own scratches. He tells her his secret, that in the army he was given injections that he now believes are the reason the infestation is taking place. Every so often a helicopter passes over.

I was not reminded of any of William Friedkin's other films while watching this; strangely enough, though, I was reminded of the recent work of David Cronenberg, of whom I'm a big fan. His SPIDER also took a very low-key, inward look at mental illness, and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE had a similar deliberate messiness. Friedkin, a director of considerable technical skill, is working on a smaller scale than usual, but his hand is apparent in the subtle way the stage action is translated to a filmic reality; the story can't be "opened up" too much, because claustrophobia and isolation are key elements of the characters' conditions, and I did notice one moment in the story which was obviously an act break, but the camera is pretty mobile throughout and a number of flashing microscopic images are used to unsettle things. If I didn’t know beforehand that this was a play, I probably wouldn’t have picked up on it.

He’s helped by a good script- Tracy Letts may be taking liberties both with the transmittability of mental illness and the time frame in which it takes place, but beyond those dramatic liberties, the film’s picture of mental illness is a realistic one. One of the more interesting things about it is how gradually Peter’s obsession rises to the surface; at first he seems very lightly eccentric in a way that everyone is, and even the insect theory seems reasonable for a short time. The way Agnes gets sucked into it out of loneliness raises some interesting questions about the fragility of sanity, and how easy it would be to slip away from it. The whole thing is rather ingeniously unsettling. The way the delusion itself is built, through connections and extrapolations and assumptions, has a terrifying sense of escalation to it.

Of course, I’m assuming that the two characters are, in fact, deluded. It’s the most obvious interpretation of events. But it’s not the only one, and a couple of lines and actions hint at alternate possibilities. In the end nothing is completely and absolutely certain. It might actually be reductive to view the movie in this light, given the seeming depths of its psychological layers, but neither Friedkin nor Letts press this angle too much, and it’s more an interesting alternative to a straightforward reading of events.

The two leads do an excellent job of playing into and feeding off of each other- you have to admire Judd’s willingness to inhabit a role at the expense of dignity, and both modulate their performances in a way that, while the climactic scenes are definitely over the top, makes them still believable. The performances are really the highlight of the movie, and if reception to the film hadn’t been so mixed I might predict Oscar nods. Oh, well.

BUG is a unique little picture, and perhaps it’s no surprise that Lions Gate chose the easiest (and most misleading) way of selling it. But hopefully the people who really would appreciate a film like this will find it sooner rather than later. I’m not sure if I’d call this Friedkin’s return to form, per se, but it’s a daring move for a director who up until now seemed to be marking time. There’s something electric in the atmosphere of this movie, a sense of genuine dread that shows a great talent is still at work.

Screenplay by Tracy Letts, based on his play
Directed by William Friedkin

Grade: A-

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Academy of the Underrated: Sorcerer

In any other year, by any other director, and with any other pedigree, SORCERER would be recognized as a towering achievement in filmmaking. But alas, the movie came out after both ANNIE HALL and STAR WARS, and before CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND; it was a remake of a classic (H. G. Clouzot's THE WAGES OF FEAR), helmed by an arrogant auteur, and had gone wildly over budget during a long and extravagant shoot spanning two years and five countries. Ultimately cofinanced by two studios, William Friedkin's SORCERER was dumped into theaters with little promotion (including a trailer which manages to completely avoid explaining the film's central premise), turned off audiences who had no idea what they were supposed to expect anyway, and marked both a long downturn for Friedkin's career and the beginning of the end for the "New Hollywood". And yet it is something of a masterpiece. A rare remake that stands wholly apart from its predecessor, SORCERER takes a great thriller premise and turns it into both a gritty, grueling piece of melodrama and an existential, vaguely mystical journey through Hell itself.

The film starts (except in the European version) with four prologues telling the stories of four men who find themselves on the lam. The first is Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a laconic and well-dressed hitman, and his prologue is nothing more than a quick and easy job in Vera Cruz. The second is Kassem (Amidou), a Palestinian bomber who barely escapes arrest after an attack on a Jerusalem bank (this was in the days before such bombings were of the suicide variety, obviously). The third is Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a French businessman who must leave his wife of ten years when his firm is caught engaging in fraud. Then there's Scanlon (Roy Scheider), driver for a small-time group of Irish mobsters who knock over a church; one of them shoots a priest before a crash wipes out everybody but Scanlon, who escapes the cops but finds out that the priest's brother has a hit out on him. All four men find themselves traveling to an unnamed hole-in-the-wall village in an unnamed South or Central American company, ruled over by a dictator (or at least someone who dresses like one) and dominated by an American oil company. All but Nilo take aliases- Scanlon is "Dominguez", Manzon is "Serrano", and Kassem is "Martinez"- though it does them little good, as the cops can easily tell they're frauds and garnish their already-meager wages accordingly. Nobody wants to stay, but nobody can earn enough money to leave.

One day, local rebels bomb an oil well, starting a fire which feeds on the oil, and thus can only be put out by blowing the hole shut with explosives. The company needs to get the well running again very quickly, and the only cases of nitroglycerine in the area have been kept in a small shack in the jungle. Because the cases haven't been turned over, the nitro has leaked out of the sticks and into the bags, making them extremely volatile and very dangerous to take anywhere. Suddenly the company needs four people to drive two trucks (one is named "Sorcerer", hence the film's title) carrying six cases of leaky nitro across 200 miles of poorly maintained roads, and they're willing to pay unheard-of wages to anyone who's qualified and willing to take on a dangerous job. Dominguez, Serrano, and Martinez all qualify, and Nilo gets in by killing the fourth driver (a German man played by Karl John) hours before the trucks leave. Nobody trusts him, but nobody has much of a choice.

SORCERER takes its time to work up to the journey itself (which is basically the second half of the movie.) It's a risky choice, and makes the film overall rather slow-moving, but it's also effective in establishing both the oppressive atmosphere of the nameless village and the desperation of the characters (and it is desperation that seems to motivate everything they do, from going to the village to escape punishment to taking a job that may kill them in order to escape life in the village.) Despite all the time spent on exposition, there is very little dialogue, especially compared to the original WAGES OF FEAR. The film establishes more through visuals, and as such has to render its characters in fairly broad strokes. They end up less detailed than their Clouzot-ian counterparts- Kassem/"Martinez", in particular, veers close to being a fairly stereotypical terrorist- but strong performances from the cast and an overall low-key approach to the acting keep the characters both real and relatable. (An early scene between Victor and his wife is particularly tenderly played, forming a strong emotional tether for the viewer.) Much of this time is also used to establish the atmosphere of the town, which is another strong point of difference between this film and WAGES; the latter, a wonderfully cynical picture, takes place in an overbright, bleached, bone-dead landscape, while the world of SORCERER is lush, humid, and dark, alive but treacherous. (Unfortunately I cannot compare either film against the original novel by Georges Arnaud, as I have never been able to locate it in English.) Finally, the emphasis on montage gives the film an unusual kind of rhythm, and the film deliberately drifts away from the main characters at times to tell the story through other eyes.

Though the cinematography for the film was divided among two people (with Dick Bush leaving early in production due to conflicts with Friedkin), it is remarkably consistent, adding to the film's heavily naturalistic look. Not only is everything muddy and ugly (there are not very many attractive people in this film, at least by Hollywood standards), but it is presented in a straightforward manner- there are some clever angles, but they are used sparingly, and throughout the camera seems to have no presence; nothing looks staged. No doubt much of the money was spent achieving this verisimilitude (a car crash in Jersey was staged some 14 times before it looked good enough to Friedkin.) I guess the lesson here is, sometimes arrogance and artistic self-indulgence pays off.

The journey itself is a masterful arrangement of setpieces which grow increasingly surreal as the trucks journey through the wilderness. There's a pass on a rotting wooden bridge across a steep hillside (with the wreckage of one truck already sprawled below), a giant tree blocking passage, and most memorably, a windswept crossing over a stormy river on an almost-nonexistent rope bridge- we actually see both trucks make this pass, and it's utterly riveting both times. Just about everything was done full-sized, of course, and the actors did most of their own driving. Even when a wire is noticeably visible in this scene, it doesn't begin to answer the question of how it was achieved. The suspense is grueling, and works on a level I simply haven't seen in any other film. It is somehow larger, more real, more primal and almost mythic.

And this is the film's great paradox. It is, as I said, gritty and real and naturalistic, but it is also almost as much a fantasy as its name would suggest. There is a sense that this nameless town is almost a limbo existing on the edge of Hell- when the four men journey outside of it, they encounter strange sights- a devilish face carved into a mountainside, and an old man who, when asked which road leads to their destination, merely responds that the place is dead. Their sanity begins to break down under the stress, and when a great tree is swept down the river onto the bridge, it is like the hand of a demon. The men seem to seek something like redemption, or new life, absolution maybe, and to do so must travel the underworld. This kind of resonance compensates for scant characterization- we don't need as much detail on the characters because we can project ourselves onto them and understand the quest they are on. This Jungian mysticism is heightened by a heady score by Tangerine Dream- the soundtrack was actually composed and recorded by the group after reading the script, and Friedkin used these early passes (as well as frequent "quotes" from "Spheres (Movement 3)" by Keith Jarrett) to fill the film. The picture was nominated for a Sound Oscar, and the emphasis on the beastlike noises of the trucks gives them an animalistic quality that's quite interesting.

I'm glad that Friedkin was cocky enough to make this movie and spend over twice what STAR WARS cost to do it. It is a unique epic, one which strained the limits of what Hollywood could do at the time, and even now is possessed of a raw and vibrant power. It is alive, just like the groaning, roaring machines which dominate its vistas. As far as comparisons to THE WAGES OF FEAR go, and the question of which is better is concerned, I'm going to chicken out. It's apples and oranges- both films are telling the same story in profoundly different ways, so much that the difference really boils down to what style of filmmaking you prefer, be it Clouzot's post-Noir cynicism or Friedkin's New Hollywood existentialism. Nobody ever said a remake had to be better than, or even as good as, the original- well, actually, a LOT of people have said that, but they're wrong. A remake can get by just being different. SORCERER is such a remarkable movie, such a strange journey through the depths of human desperation, that it would be a shame to cast it aside as merely an imitation of something else. Its accomplishments should be hailed in their own right.

And that's what the Academy of the Underrated is about.

From the novel by Georges Arnaud
Screenplay by Walon Green
Directed by William Friedkin

Grade: A

Friday, June 01, 2007

In Theaters: Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End

Image from Canmag

Interestingly enough, I was spoiled for the ending of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END by visitors to this very site, who somehow found my review of the last movie via Google searches for THIS film's post-credits scene, specifically entering in the exact details of what happened, which naturally found their way into my Statcounter reports. I suppose it can't be helped, but I didn't realize that was a hazard of the job. Anyway, I've always been sort of on the fence about the PIRATES series, liking the films but not loving them as others do, and the conclusion of the trilogy proved to be no exception. It works as a spectacle, but is at the same time a bit of a mess, and it left me with a laundry list of nitpicks and things that could have been done better. It suffers the common trilogy-ending problem of having too much to do all at once, as though screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio realized that, having gone on an entertaining drunken bender of plot complication in the last film, they had less than three hours in which to wrap up some twelve-or-so separate subplots. The results are just a bit unfocused, as every major character (and there are at least eight by this point) has their own agenda, and new pieces of mythology keep getting dropped in while we're trying to keep track of things. It's probably easier to follow if you've seen both of the earlier films right beforehand.

Okay, I'm going to try this. The film opens in a prison camp, where the East India Company has decided to suspend more than a few rights to deal with the pirate problem. As the first batch of pirates and pirate sympathizers are summarily executed, one of them- a small boy- begins to sing, and the other prisoners join in. It turns out this is a mystic signal of sorts, calling the Nine Pirate Lords to meet and decide how they're going to keep from being wiped off the face of the globe. (There's some business involving nine pieces of eight that it's best not to dwell on.) Meanwhile, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) have all gone to Singapore under the guidance of the mysterious Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) to get a map from Pirate Lord Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) that will lead them past the World's End, where they will be able to rescue Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from Limbo. On the way to and from the underworld, our heroes notice an awful lot of lost souls drifting in the waters, as Davey Jones (Bill Nighy), whose job it formerly was to ferry the souls of people who died at sea to the afterlife, has shirked his duties and is now under the control of the EIC and Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who has the cephalopodic monster's heart in a box. Sparrow wants the heart so he can kill Davey Jones and be free from his debt. Will wants the Black Pearl (which was also somehow dragged to limbo, and don't ask me about the metaphysics of that) so that Jones will release his dead father (Stellan Skarsgård) from his service. Tia Dalma wants something best-left-unspoilt from Barbossa. Commander Norrington (Jack Davenport) wants Elizabeth (so does Will, of course.) And Elizabeth just wants revenge once she finds out her father (Jonathan Pryce, rather criminally shortchanged) has been killed by Beckett.

To achieve their various ends, the characters engage in more double-dealing than the cast of RESERVOIR DOGS; we even get a Mexican standoff which is amusingly defused when everyone realizes their guns have been underwater. This poses two basic problems. The first is the lack of a strong central driving thread for the movie. Theoretically it's about the war against the pirates, but this gets completely submerged at a number of points. (It doesn't help that Beckett has no real bite as a villain.) Not to mention that at various points, Jack and Will are both willing to make separate deals with Lord Beckett, which really muddies the waters as regards who the enemy is supposed to be. Sao Feng starts to have an impact on the plot, and would have been a good baddie (Chow Yun-Fat has great presence in the role), but he's very quickly shoved aside. The action jumps back and forth rather clumsily and you're expected to remember a lot of obscure details from the last two pictures. Great if you're a devoted fan, of which the series has many, not so much if you have a casual appreciation.

And this wouldn't be so much of a problem if I were carried along by my connection to the characters. The characterization in this film is really no less strong than in the first two, but since everyone's basically out for their own interests for the majority of the running time, and since they're willing to betray each other if need be, it's kind of hard to sympathize with any of them. Elizabeth, as the one who wants Beckett's head on a block (at least symbolically), is at least in the best position to move the story forward and get the pirates united, but she's there out of a shallow desire for vengeance. Will's devotion to his father is touching, but he's willing to sell out the pirates (though he does specifically want amnesty for Elizabeth and himself.) Sparrow just wants his own freedom, which he'll get by any means necessary. To be sure, we all know that some kind of reconciliation has to happen by the final act. But that leaves us without anyone to closely identify with for nearly two thirds of the running time, and comparatively very little screen time left for them to actually unite and face the common foe and resolve the myriad dangling plot bits. At some point during the planning of these two films, Rossio and Elliot made everything much more complicated than it needed to be. I'm all for ambiguity and complexity and sophisticated plotting, but there's a very thin line between "intricate" and "byzantine". Even the resolution of the central romance between Will and Elizabeth- and I did always want to see those two crazy kids end up together- is given one twist too many, necessitating the fateful post-credits sequence to begin with.

On an up note, the action in this film FINALLY has the bite and the sense of danger that were mysteriously missing from the first two films. It's not perfect- the sequences are still fairly chaotic, without a clear "storyline" for the action- but it does a better job of capturing the classic swashbuckling feel. While some of the contrivances of DEAD MAN'S CHEST (the giant wheel and the rolling wicker cage of doom) seemed to be just a bit much, the weird things that happen in this installment make a goofy kind of sense. The climactic battle, with two ships spiraling down a whirlpool, firing broadsides at each other and sending raiding parties both ways, all under heavy rain, is a doozy. Gore Verbinski also continues to get good performances- the oft-ignored-except-by-young-girls Orlando Bloom does a lot with his limited role, and a beautifully sunburnt Knightley projects a real fighting spirit (an early scene where she's searched for weapons is especially well-played). Depp is always good and ever shall be and there's no point saying any more about that. Geoffrey Rush has a lot of fun with his return to the series, Naomie Harris is nicely creepy, Skarsgård gets to do some interesting stuff, and at long last we get a cameo by Keith Richards as an old pirate who is apparently Jack's father.

On a basic level I have to say the movie does deliver what it promises. We get well-executed pirate action, we get closure (mostly) on the plot, we get tempests and sea goddesses and fish-people and explosions and maps to forbidden lands and Mackenzie Crook being funny and Keira Knightley being pretty in a saucy bad-girl kind of way and so on and so forth. It suffers from a failure to prioritize and maybe too much of a need to form the last act of a trilogy- this would have been better as the last two films in a series of four, really. But there is more on the horizon, and I can't fault these films for reviving a dormant genre as though it had never been out of style and emphasizing characterization and snappy banter and the occasional bit of intense method acting along the way. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END will satisfy the fans, and it's not too bad for the rest of us.

Grade: B-