Saturday, December 29, 2007

Academy of the Underrated: Orca

The holidays turned out to be pretty busy, so I've not been able to put up any seasonal content. I hope you all enjoyed whatever you saw fit to celebrate, and hope you'll join us for the coming New Year. (And I think that the Christmas haul will lead to quite a few upcoming posts.) Anyway, time to follow up on what I promised last post and have a new Academy induction.

It is a deeply held belief of mine that any premise, approached with the proper conviction, can make for a great movie. ORCA is not quite proof of this, as it is not a great movie, but given the goofy premise and several technical limitations, it’s surprisingly enjoyable. Notorious movie maven Dino De Laurentiis- the man behind some of the most profound and most schlocky movies in cinema history- may have ordered up a simple JAWS ripoff, and the results are often judged on those terms, but the film is not only fairly original but sad and passionate, not to mention an example of another axiom, that a good score can cover any number of flaws. I like this movie quite a bit more than it warrants, but I think there’s some legitimate value here as well.

Richard Harris stars as Nolan, captain of a small fishing boat trying to pay off a mortgage. While hunting for a great white, he runs across Rachel, an alluring marine biologist played by Charlotte Rampling, and sees his quarry on the losing end of a fight with a killer whale, or “orca” as they are sometimes called. Orcas are Rachel’s area of expertise, and Nolan attends a few of her lectures before going off to capture one of these animals to sell to an aquarium for half a million bucks. Rachel warns Nolan not to try this, for a number of reasons, but he presses on ahead. But it all goes awry; Nolan aims
for a male, but hits his mate, who half-kills herself trying to escape from the harpoon before finally being hauled aboard and bloodily miscarrying her unborn fetus. (It’s a fairly horrifying sequence, albeit also a cheap shock.) The male witnesses all of this, and is able to identify Nolan as his mate’s killer. He kills one of the ship’s crew as it heads back to port, and terrorizes the town of South Harbor in an attempt to lure Nolan out to sea for a final vengeful confrontation.

Now, as far as anyone can tell, killer whales don’t do this. At the time the film was made there didn’t seem to be any record at all of a killer whale ever attacking a human being deliberately, and though I think I’ve heard of a couple of cases since, they don’t make a habit of it. Even if one decided to attack a person, they’d not likely go about it as intelligently as this one does; this orca sinks all the boats in a harbor except Nolan’s, destroys gasoline lines to cause a massive explosion at the refinery, and even works out where Nolan and his crew are living. The film makes a big deal out of the supposed intelligence of the killer whale, suggesting it’s actually superior to man’s, particularly in one of Rachel’s lectures which also rather curiously stresses the creature’s “profound instinct for vengeance.” It’s all a bit much to swallow- the film makes it seem as though orcas would dominate the world if only they had opposable thumbs- but then, Charlotte Rampling almost makes it believable. And it’s not like JAWS is a portrait of accuracy either, though its errors are what everyone actually thought was true at the time. (I can’t speak on the state of killer whale research in 1977.) Still, the film’s asking us to make some assumptions that don’t quite line up with reality, much in the way that DOUBLE JEOPARDY asked us to believe the legal system would let you commit murder on a technicality. This level of suspension of disbelief was understandably too much for a lot of people.

But the film works for it, to be sure. Apart from Ms. Rampling’s persuasiveness, the film also takes care to present the proceedings in a very serious manner. This is not a campy monster film, at least not with the same self-effacing tone that characterized other JAWS cash-ins like ALLIGATOR and Joe Dante’s PIRANHA. The story presents itself with the gravitas of a classical tragedy (and the similarities to MOBY DICK aren’t exactly subtle either.) One very interesting thing that the film does is that it makes the whale into a character more than a movie monster; a number of scenes actually seem to take place from its perspective, and though Rachel insists that we can’t really understand how a creature like this thinks, it acts with all the motivation of a bereaved husband and father. The filmmakers relied on the performance of a live killer whale as much as possible- obviously you can’t take them on location, and the use of a prop whale in some shots is fairly obvious (as is the superimposition of the whale on location plates in others), but there are moments where the illusion is quite effective, and the orca definitely takes on a personality of its own. It helps that, though we’re used to Shamu and the friendly captive killer whales of Sea World and related aquariums, these can be genuinely vicious bastards in the open water- human attacks are rare, but watch one of these go to town on a herd of seals sometime (not to mention that the bit about one of them being able to kill a great white is, in fact, true.)

All of this might add up to a slightly better-than-usual exploitation film were it not for the film’s trumpt card; a score by veteran composer Ennio Morricone, generally one of the best people ever to write music for film and not someone to take an assignment lightly just because it’s for a B-movie. Morricone’s chief contribution to the film is a gorgeous nautical dirge, a piece that instantly conveys beauty, tragedy, and the romance of the sea and highlights some strangely lyrical montages, such as an astoundingly good scene where the vengeful orca pushes his dying mate to shore in a macabre funeral procession. Of course, even the score is marred somewhat by a truly dreadful vocal accompaniment during the end credits, so you may want to hit stop just as soon as it sets in. I spent many a year longing for the soundtrack before finally tracking it down thanks to a probably long-defunct horror movie board, and to he who gave me that link, I still owe you my firstborn. We’ll talk.

The acting helps too. Richard Harris was going through one of his heavier drinking periods when he shot this (and who can blame him?), but his performance holds up very well; Nolan comes across as both remorseful and glib, outwardly dismissive of people’s concerns but haunted by the reality of what he’s done. Charlotte Rampling, possessed of an eerie reptilian sexiness (there’s a shot wherein she simultaneously looks like a gecko and is profoundly alluring), lends considerable gravitas to the whole affair, and though her character’s narration is rather obviously tacked on, I’ll take any
excuse to hear her talk. On the downside, Will Sampson, fresh from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, is stuck in one of those patronizing Seventies “wise native” roles and seems to have recorded his entire performance in ADR. On the neutral side, you have a not-yet-famous-for-taking-all-her-clothes-off Bo Derek as Annie and a ye-gods-why-was-that-hair-ever-fashionable Peter Hooten as her shipmate and lover Paul. One of the much-discussed highlights of the film is Derek getting her leg bitten off by the vengeful whale, which isn’t actually spoiling that much, but it’s an interesting scene nonetheless.

Despite all this the film still does stretch credulity at a number of points, and some of the technical shortfalls don’t help- there are obvious mattes, recycled shots, etc. At other times, however, the film is quite beautiful, with great underwater photography and some striking scenes among the Arctic ice. I haven’t been able to track down how much money this film cost, though the difficulty of shooting any film on water probably upped things a bit- it seems sloppier than it should, to be sure, and movies like this were definitely getting slicker. A certain suspension of disbelief is necessary for enjoyment, though if you’re watching a film about a vengeful killer whale, that sort of thing is really implied.

ORCA is a hard film to honestly defend, because so much on the surface is just plain silly and crude. But at heart this is an old-fashioned nautical revenge story, just a bit trashier than most, and on that level it has to be called a success. It’s not so much a question of lowering standards as it is of accepting different standards, of recognizing that we’re leagues away from realism and in more of an operatic vein. The film is beautiful and touching at the same time as it is silly, and I think the former more than makes up for the latter. There’s something here I really think is worth discovering.

Written by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati
Directed by Michael Anderson
Grade: B

Give ORCA a go by buying it here, or by clicking on the picture above, or the one on the sidebar if it's still up by the time you read this. C'mon, the wolves are at ol' Gil's door!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Academy of the Underrated: Exorcist II: The Heretic

As 2007 winds down, it’s time to induct into the Academy a couple of films that had their thirtieth anniversaries this year. I’ve been meaning to do this for a few months, but I think the Christmas season is especially appropriate for recognizing the downtrodden of the cinema world. Hyperbole? Yes. Overdramatization? Probably. But that’s the way we do this.

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is a deeply flawed and deeply fascinating film, one of the most original horror movies of all time despite being a sequel to an adaptation of a novel. John Boorman, not exactly your most restrained director, working from a script by William Goodheart, steered the franchise in a very weird direction from which audiences and critics recoiled violently; the resulting film is as dissimilar to its predecessor as ALIENS was to MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED. I say this not with disdain but with admiration. I recognize that on a technical level, the film is not nearly as good as the original EXORCIST, but I consider it much more substantial on the conceptual level and a lot more interesting to watch and talk about. Of course a film isn’t good simply because it has ideas, it’s the expression of those ideas which counts, but EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC also achieves a kind of mad poetry in weaving together images and ideas of good, evil, flight, nature, science, spirituality, ESP, and at one point tapdancing. Bear with me on this.

So, it’s about four years after the events of THE EXORCIST, and Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is an apple-cheeked teenager (seriously, she’s adorable, almost a chipmunk) living in an extremely nice New York apartment with her best friend Sharon (Kitty Winn), while her mother’s movie-star lifestyle keeps her safely out of the picture. At mom’s insistence Regan visits a therapist, Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) who despite the name is a woman. Regan insists that she remembers nothing of her possession and exorcism beyond being a little sick, and Dr. Tuskin is convinced she’s repressing, so she brings in a “synchronizer”, a kind of advanced hypnosis device which can put two people in a spontaneous trance and allow them to share a consciousness. Meanwhile, there’s been some controversy in the Catholic Church over the unorthodox writings of Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow, shown in flashback), who died exorcising Regan. and one of his supporters, Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton), travels to America to investigate his death and see whether he died in a state of grace or had his soul overcome by the demon he fought. (Father Karras is not mentioned.) Regan allows Lamont to attend a synchronizer session, during which Dr. Tuskin suddenly goes into cardiac arrest. Hooking up to the machine to save Gene, Lamont discovers that Regan still has a demon living dormant inside her: Pazuzu, the Assyrian and Babylonian king of the evil spirits of the air, associated with disease and locust swarms. Lamont also begins to suspect Regan of possessing other supernatural powers, that may be used for good, and that her potential may be what attracted the demon to her to begin with. Seeking to save her, he puts his soul in peril by sharing further visions to look for an answer, as the evil force stirs to life once more.

This actually may sound more conventional than the movie really is; certainly, when first watching the picture, I held no particular hope for it and expected a simple retread. But from the first revelation onwards the picture slowly drifts away from a normal narrative structure, using the device of the synchronizer (possibly the weirdest thing in a plot full of weird things) to link the consciousnesses of the characters and present visions which explore ideas and themes, some old and some new. The pushing of Pazuzu to the forefront is probably the most disconcerting shift from the first film; it’s easy, watching the Friedkin film, to assume that the demon is the plain old Judeo-Christian conception of Satan, but the imagery in early scenes is that of Pazuzu, and here the demon finally names himself. (This no doubt turned off a lot of critics and patrons who expected the Devil but not some esoteric Middle Eastern deity with a weird name.) The script explores the symbols and associations of a demon of the air and carrier of disease, most notably in a series of flashbacks to Ethiopia, where a younger Father Merrin cares for a boy with unusual powers in a village beset by locust swarms. He too was possessed by Pazuzu, and is exorcized in a church located at the top of a mountain amidst sheer cliffs.

Amongst the mythology the film also deals in some decidedly New Age concepts. Regan’s power seems to be a kind of ESP, and Merrin’s controversial theories involve the evolution of the human race towards a higher level of consciousness, a power that could be used for great good or great evil. Pazuzu, we find, is attracted to Regan because of her potential, as he is attracted to the boy, Kokumo (played as a grown-up by James Earl Jones.) This stuff is a little dated, but it adds a mythic, heroic quality to Regan’s story, and though she is still beset by a demon, she grows to assert herself and become more than a victim. The film takes a more nuanced view of modernity than the original as well, the synchronizer bridging the gap between spiritual and scientific worlds, with good and bad effects. The warm environment of Tuskin’s lab- a maze of glass-paneled offices and brightly lit playrooms for challenged kids- is a heavy contrast to the invasive and unpleasant tests Regan was subjected to back in ‘73.

The strongest material overall relates to Pazuzu and the corruption of evil. There’s a heavy emphasis on flight and flying creatures (locusts in particular), with Lamont’s visions of Pazuzu shot from an aerial POV that sweeps across majestic landscapes. A central image is the “brushing of the wings”, taken from the way locusts are driven to swarm and frenzy when they hatch in large numbers- it becomes a communicated form of madness, and Pazuzu’s corruption spreads the same way, threatening to reach beyond Regan to Father Lamont, Dr. Tuskin, and Sharon. The great challenge each character faces is how to survive the brushing of the wings, the shadow of evil that has swept over them.

With all this weighty thematic material, the film becomes clumsy when it reaches the mundane necessity of a plot. Characters fly back and forth, the dialogue is frequently very heavy on the exposition, and there are more than a few instances where the literal action of the picture is hard to decipher. On top of this the film is never very realistic, Boorman’s interest in setting up specific images making the proceedings quite stylized and as a result not that scary. It’s usually a bad idea to sacrifice concrete plausibility for the sake of the abstract, since abstraction without concreteness is more philosophy than art. But the level on which this film works is one that pertains more to poetry than narrative cinema; the picture’s emphasis is not on plot and character and the development thereof, but the grouping of imagery into patterns that establish a theme. Flight, air, shared consciousness, disease, the swarm- it all loops together in an intuitive way to become quite a complex weave.

The film has a warm, multihued look to it that makes you nostalgic for the days when horror movies were filmed in color; the African material is particularly impressive, even though much of it is obviously stagebound. Ennio Morricone provides the score, which is lush, ethereal, and very much of its time. The actors are wrestling with some clumsy dialogue but make a game attempt of it- Linda Blair displays a real charm and sincerity (especially in a brief conversation with an autistic girl) that makes you regret that she didn’t become a bigger star. Burton is more of a mixed bag; his performance is uniformly intense, sometimes to the point where he comes off as a crazy person independent of the supernatural weirdness actually taking place, but in some scenes it’s just what the movie needs, and Burton on autopilot is still pretty enjoyable. Louise Fletcher is as good as ever, and Kitty Winn displays quite a bit of energy.

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC was a critical failure and not terribly popular with audiences (though it did gross over twice its modest budget), and to this day has a poor reputation, even as the third EXORCIST film has developed a cult following. The film’s flaws are obvious enough, but I have to wonder why more people didn’t cotton to the sheer originality and thoughtfulness on display; the picture presents some fascinating ideas couched within beautiful images and an earnest, sincere tone that’s an admirable contrast to many films in the genre. John Boorman really comes across to me as a visionary filmmaker straining against the confines of traditional narrative cinema, and here, as in EXCALIBUR, he stumbles frequently but succeeds so beautifully as to make up for it. There’s a lot of passion on display in this picture, and if you can accept some genuinely crazy ideas (the synchronizer apparently was what set 1977’s audiences laughing), the film unfolds to display a depth well beyond its predecessor. It’s not as good, but it leaves you with a lot more to chew on.

And the tapdancing? Well, it’s there, but, uh, I guess I didn’t really have anything to say about it.

Based on characters created by William Peter Blatty
Screenplay by William Goodheart
Directed by John Boorman

Grade: B

Interested? Buy the film HERE or by clicking on the image above.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

In Theaters: No Country For Old Men

Image from
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a disquieting film, and meant as such. It’s hard to pigeonhole into any given genre, falling somewhere in the crime/thriller/suspense region with maybe a hint of Western, but it’s a particularly bleak patch of land. At the start of the film, I was distracted by many people in the audience murmuring to each other and one man clearing his throat loudly and other distractions (this is a quiet movie in many places so minor things are more noticeable.) However, I wasn’t a half hour in before all that melted away, because I was so completely absorbed by the story. The film is gripping in its simplicity, in its stark visual storytelling, and the unpredictability of its action.

The film, based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, takes place in some particularly blasted and remote part of Texas, and opens with the escape from arrest of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a man who seems as much serial killer as assassin, a sociopath who coldly kills people with an air gun used in slaughterhouses for killing cattle. Meanwhile, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a local man, comes across a massacre stemming from a foiled drug deal, and makes off with a suitcase containing approximately two million dollars. This puts Chigurh on his trail, as well as other men after the money. Meanwhile, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an old and increasingly jaded man, tries to put himself on Chigurh’s trail, but the killer is extremely good at covering his tracks.

It’s hard to know just whose story this is, if anyone’s. Llewelyn is the most protagonist-like of the characters, but Bell’s is the first voice we hear, and Chigurh is the first major character we see, and we follow these threads as they interweave with each other. Of course the money is the key; Llewelyn is in the position of having it but not being able to do much with it, but wants to hold on to it, and Chigurh is after it, and there’s no telling who he’s working for. After a point he seems to be pursuing Moss out of principle. He won’t let anyone escape.

For around the first two thirds, the film plays like a spartan, stripped down kind of thriller; it’s intensely quiet, with little dialogue and not much in the way of music either. (Carter Burwell did the score, but he obviously knew when to use silence.) However, the film makes an abrupt final turn that has divided audiences, violating the conventions of whatever the Hell genre this is supposed to fall into to begin with. It’s one of the darkest turns I’ve ever actually seen from the Coens, which is saying something. It’s unsatisfying in the sort term, dramatically speaking, because it denies immediate closure, but it stays with you, compelling you to think on what’s transpired and what it’s really all about; there are a number of possible interpretations and no one of them dominates. It may be an existentialist film, it may be a nihilistic one, it may be something else entirely.

The violence of the film is brutal, realistic, but also very creative, and it really helps that a lot of attention is paid to the gritty details. Obviously McCarthy did a lot of the work there, but there are so many smart touches and weird devices that it must have taken a considerable effort to make it all work visually. We’re dealing with mostly smart characters, albeit ones prone to lapses of judgment; Llewelyn seems to take the money without thinking of the danger that has to be attendant to it, but once the shooting starts he proves very resourceful. It’s just that Chigurh seems to think of everything.

There’s some great acting in all this as well, from Bardem and Brolin and Jones and a number of supporting players. This is more naturalistic than most of the Coens’ films, but there’s still their characteristic love of dialogue and the way people talk outside of standard exposition and banter. Again, much of this is from the source (I’ve been told, at the very least, that this is a fairly faithful adaptation), but it’s carried over and presented with a lot of care.

There is simply not a lot I have to say about this film other than that it is very good. I don’t want to spoil too much, and I think I have already, but mostly what I remember is a stark and somewhat terrifying beauty. The title has many meanings, applying to characters and events and even literally to the land itself, a desolate part of the world that everyone wants to get away from as quickly as they can. The Coen Bros. are at the top of their game here, and I have a feeling this film is going to be talked about for a good long time.

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Grade: A

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Comics Page #17: Henry and Butcher #2/The Legend of Joe Moon #1

A while back I reviewed a pair of initial offerings from the Argentine small press company Pit Bros. Productions. They’ve since sent me the subsequent issues of these books, and I’m happy to say they’re both still on track. It’s actually a bit hard to write these reviews because there isn’t a major change, but of course other bloggers review series issue-by-issue all the time, so it can be done.

I’ll start with HENRY AND BUTCHER #2 because it’s the one I went to first. This issue sees Henry locked in an insane asylum, the dark, oppressive kind where they still prescribe electric shock for most conditions. Butcher appears in dreams and visions promising to help him escape, which seems to support the “you are crazy” hypothesis, but another visitor to Henry’s cell tells him that some very sinister business is going on. Once again it’s hard to say what’s just insanity and what may be genuine supernatural happenings, and the creepy surrealism is broken up by some very effective fist fights. This story is developing very, very nicely; it’ll be interesting to see how it handles over the long haul. Grade: A-

THE LEGEND OF JOE MOON #1 is once again a much more straightforward affair. I’ve never actually understood the whole “#0” practice in comics, but this does work as a first issue in that it sets up the basics- it’s the Old West, and our main character is a bounty hunter/werewolf. We see him as he collects the bounty from the job in #0, and naturally spends it on whisky and women. All well and good, but the father of the two men he killed is in town and wants payback, and so fighting ensues, with Joe also being put into the awkward position of visibly surviving stabbings and shots that would kill anyone normal. It’s conventional stuff, but the action is sharp and the writing and art solid. Grade: B+

The good news is that you can now actually buy these comics, albeit not on the rack just yet. They’re selling these as POD titles at, a site I’ve never used before but which seems on the up-and-up (reasonable shipping rates, at least.) I’ll list all the direct purchase links below. The company is also soliciting work for a horror anthology, and generally seems to be on an upward trajectory. They’re producing good stuff and if they manage to stay in it for the long haul, things may get interesting.

Henry and Butcher #1
Henry and Butcher #2
The Legend of Joe Moon #0
The Legend of Joe Moon #1

Pit Bros. Productions

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Random Movie Report #39: How Green Was My Valley

HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY has a rather odd distinction in film history; it’s the film that beat the legendary CITIZEN KANE at the Oscars. This isn’t as good as it sounds since critics are generally of the opinion that KANE was the superior film and only lost due to industry politics (and the fact that people booed Orson Welles’ name at the ceremony does support the latter assertion.) So the film has a bit of negative baggage that it didn’t really bring on itself, but fortunately it’s not hard to put that aside when it comes to actually watching the movie. HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY is a strong entry in the “memoir” subgenre, the kind of movie that doesn’t so much tell one story as it does take us through a whole community’s worth over the space of a few years. It’s lush, well-acted, and if it’s too treacly at times it’s got some solid drama to back it up.

The whole thing is set in a Welsh mining town, and for the life of me I can’t remember what the name of it is. It’s in a valley, though. It’s the turn of the century (the last century, that is), and despite the giant coal pit, life in the town is reasonably pleasant. The story is told by young Huw Morgan (Roddy MacDowall), youngest of the Morgan family, all miners except the women and all enjoying a simple small Welsh town kind of life. Simple meals, church on Sunday, everyone singing Welsh songs, etc. After about fifteen minutes of this we get around to the first major dilemma, in which the mine starts cutting wages because people are coming from another town seeking work and they’re willing to take whatever the company will give. Some of the Morgan boys talk of forming a union, but the father (Donald Crisp) won’t hear such socialist talk. Eventually the union gets formed and a strike ensues, and the father becomes a target of threats for his opposition (although he doesn’t break the line as far as I can tell.) This leads to his wife (Sara Allgood) making a stirring speech in the snow, and on the way home she and Huw fall into the river and the townsfolk pull them out, leaving them both bedridden for a time (during which the strike gets mostly resolved.) In the meantime the family’s only daughter, Angharad (Maureen O’ Hara), is coming to be of marriageable age, and though she gets courted by apparently the wealthiest young man in town, she has her eyes and heart set on the local priest, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon.) He’s technically allowed to marry, but is so poor that he doesn’t want to doom her to his life. And so trouble begins, as it does when Huw is sent off to school under a headmaster who makes the guy from Pink Floyd’s THE WALL look like Jaime Escalante.

This is a film with a very episodic structure, which takes some getting used to. It’s very much more about the place and the people than about any specific thing happening. There’s a wedding sequence, complete with all sorts of drunken festivities and songs, that after a while starts to feel like a home movie. A little pageantry goes a long way, for me at least. When the plot actually gets moving, the pace is still casual, unhurried. It’s never actually dull, but sometimes less-than-compelling.

John Ford built his reputation on big movies, and it shows here- the recreation of this unnamed village and a pre-soot-blackened Wales is ripe with detail, creating an authentic sense of place even though the whole thing was shot in Southern California (for reasons that make more sense when you think about it.) Visible low ceilings pop up to remind us that people are living in close quarters, and there’s a lot of contrast between the lush hills and fields outside the village and the black pit at its center. Ford even gets some neat visual tricks out of the two-tiered elevator leading into and out of the mine. If anything, the film goes a bit overboard in establishing the humble, pastoral virtue of town life; even though many of the villagers have flaws a plenty, most everyone we see from the outside is even worse, and the former at least pull together in times of crisis. It’s the sort of community where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking (okay, not all), and all the children are above average. Of course, if the nostalgia is laid on with a trowel at times, it’s partly because a much older Huw is narrating the story and looking back wistfully.

There are some very good performances here- Pidgeon gets a very nice impassioned speech near the end (it’s no “By God, do your duty” but it’ll do), Maureen O’ Hara is bewitching, and there are a lot of bit parts and comic turns that help bring the community to life. “Master” Roddy MacDowall carries his substantial screen time very well, though he confuses things a bit by never aging even though we have to infer that the events of this film take place over years. There may also be a few too many cast members (when a brother dies in a mine accident, one can’t help but feel it would be a lot sadder if one could remember who the heck that one was), but the ensemble feel ultimately works in its favor. A lot goes on and it’s quite diverting.

HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY falls just short of greatness, but it’s never less than well done either. It’s got John Ford doing what he does very well, and several actors showing off their skills, all with a solid script, and if it suffers next to the widely-proclaimed Best Movie Of All Time, that’s a juxtaposition it never really asked for or deserved in the first place. This is a picture worth seeing and judging on its own, a splendid example of a unique dramatic subgenre, and a just plain good two hours of cinema. That’s all anyone can ask.

From the novel by Richard Llewellyn
Screenplay by Philip Dunne
Directed by John Ford

Grade: B+

(HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY can be purchased from Amazon by clicking here or on the image above.)

Monday, December 03, 2007

On Strike: Helping Everyone

So the WGA strike is looking like it’ll last longer than we all hoped- word is that the AMPTP’s latest (apparently incomplete) offer includes very small flat payments (as in $250 at maximum) and the ability of the studios to declare any web content promotional and thus not pay anybody, and though the WGA are technically waiting for the other half and parsing the offer to see what they can use as a basis for a counter-offer, they’re probably not going to accept these terms.

But that’s technically what this post is about. One issue raised by the strike itself is the fact that many other people, mostly the so-called “below-the-line” talent such as technicians and production staff, are being put out of work at a very costly time of year. There’s been some effort by the studios to make this a wedge issue to try and put pressure on the writers to take a deal, but so far union relations remain good. In any case, this is an immediate issue of concern and maybe you’re wondering if you can help the unemployed non-strikers. Fortunately we’ve got options.

United Hollywood has set up the Pencils2MediaMoguls program, which is partly a way for fans to show support for the writers of their favorite shows. For a buck per box you donate pencils to be sent to the studios (who will then rout said boxes to public schools who actually need them), and money after costs will be donated to the Union Solidarity Fund, which has been set up to support non-WGA union members affected by the strike. This is the most well-publicized way to help, with several raffle prizes involved, but conversely it only benefits members of unions (many production assistants and the like are not in any union) and it’s still new so it’s not clear how the fund will be dispersed. (A direct donation system is still in the works, apparently.) Keep watch on this one, but it can’t hurt.

EDIT: I can't believe I forgot this, but the USF is also funded in part by profits from Strike Swag, a store selling T-shirts and arm bands supporting the strike. So you can give that a look as well.

There are two direct charities with the general purpose of helping entertainment industry personnel who have fallen on hard times. First is the Motion Picture & Television Fund, which is a well-established support system of which financial assistance is just a part. Union and non-union people alike are eligible, and these guys have been around for a while so they hopefully know how to help the people who need it.

Then there is the Actors Fund, and don’t let the name confuse you- the group helps anyone in the entertainment industry who is undergoing a financial crisis. George Clooney has given 25 grand to this group specifically to help those affected by the strike, so we know they’re on the case already. They too have been around for a while, 125 years to be exact.

I’ve given some to the Pencils program and plan to give more soon (have to check my finances first), and you can make this a nice Christmas charity gesture on your part as well. Those of us concerned for the writers should also be concerned for the other people out of work because of this dispute, and really the whole lot of people who don’t sign the checks need support if they’re going to get a fair stake in a changing industry. So help the writers, help the technicians, help the interns, and let’s pull together.