June 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Man of Steel is a pretty damn good film. Expectations were high, considering the film needed to reboot Superman, update the character, start a new “shared universe” DC series, and managed to be a great summer film all at the same time. Additionally, people wanted different things — including something in the spirit of the Christopher Reeve films — but the final result is remarkably successful. It’s a Superman for the 21st century, a very human, somewhat cautious character who grew up knowing he was different from everyone else, which wouldn’t always be a joy. Particularly for those expecting something in the spirit of a Christopher Reeve film, this would come as something of a surprise. But the studio had already made a film like that (called Superman Returns), and while a good film, it was time for an update.
Henry Cavill gives the role a certain nobility — lucky for them, since that quality isn’t always perfectly clear in the script. Add to that stunning special effects, a good supporting cast, a moving (for me, anyway) back history with his father (and his sudden loss), and you get an updated Superman, mildly cynical Superman film that still has heart. The film seems to have taken a lot of criticism for not being a laugh a minute, but I think his brief, joyous laugh (on discovering he can fly) is a small, human moment that’s more sincere and real than we get from any wise-cracking Marvel film (sorry, Marvel fans).
If I could change a couple of minor things: for goodness sakes, let Lois Lane say “Superman” instead of being too cool for that, and I think it was a mistake for Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent to say “maybe” young Clark should’ve let the kids on the bus die. What, seriously? I think that one moment is the reason people attack the morality of the Superman character, and the point of the scene is that he couldn’t let the kids die, and couldn’t reveal himself either. The Kents need to be the moral centre of old Supes, so that his immense powers are never running rampant. Instead, father Kent is loving but a little wishy-washy.
I’d also have arranged for Superman give a better speech to Zod at the end, instead of simply, “You’re a monster, and I’m going to stop you.” Zod desperately needs to be told at this point that if he cared about Krypton, it could’ve had a different legacy: helping the human race learn from Krypton’s mistakes. If that wasn’t enough for him, he only has his own ego and inflexibility to thank. At the heart of the film is an interesting story about accepting the reality of the world, or being willing to destroy it in order to reshape it, which has horrendous consequences. And, a much snappier comeback from the Man of Steel at that point would’ve helped ensure he’s something more than a dumb hunk, but thankfully Cavill does a lot to help this just with presence. Michael Shannon also deserves mention as a terrific villain. Man of Steel isn’t a perfect superhero film, and it can’t be all things to all people, but I think it does an excellent job of updating the legend, and providing a hell of a ride.
April 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
I’ve been slowly working my way through the Universal collection of Westerns called simply Classic Westerns: 10-Movie Collection. These cheaply produced collections can sometimes be fairly grainy, low-quality affairs, but Universal has chosen some decent films here, at least in terms of the presentation, and I find Westerns endlessly fascinating as simplified morality plays. The trouble here is mainly that viewer expectations are so different all these decades later: these are fairly slow-moving, fairly sexist films, and even the occasional burst of action isn’t even wildly entertaining if it’s ultimately cartoonish scenes of men clutching their chests and falling. To be fair, there are sometimes more impressive stunts to be found in these films.
The Spoilers has an overbearing John Wayne character pressuring the Marlene Dietrich character in various ways (she somewhat inexplicably continues to think he’s absolutely dreamy) and he even puts on blackface at one point, supposedly because he needed it to sneak around but it really serves for a remarkably dated and racist attempt at humour. Randolph Scott is on hand to loan the film a somewhat calmer character and generally improve things, despite acting as the villain. Scott only smiles more than he otherwise would and acts confidently, so that he manages to be oily but not overbearing. It’s a wise choice, as another character as overbearing as the John Wayne character would’ve resulted in a nearly unwatchable film. Scott made dozens of Westerns, and is always a more likeable and trustworthy hero than most actors can manage.
It’s worse when we get to Comanche Territory (not to be confused with Comanche Station, because Budd Boetticher actually directed very well-written Westerns) because the only male lead with any real screen time is Macdonald Carey, and he somehow manages to be quite overbearing and smarmy throughout the film. He’s opposite Maureen O’Hara, playing a character that goes from fiercely independent to doting, which is annoying in itself. Again, a few moments of impressive action can’t redeem 90 minutes with an overbearing hero, standard plot and First Nations characters played by Italians, but it’s a distinctly average Western when it doesn’t even have a single performance — not even a supporting performance — worth writing home about.
Albuquerque fares better, mainly because Randolph Scott in the lead role projects something much more calm and mature. He does this in every film — he featured in a number of Budd Boetticher films — and while the romance is as typical as ever, and some of the supporting actors terribly wooden, the pace and plot are an improvement. Overall, it’s an interesting collection that demonstrates how many Westerns were cranked out, and for decades. Most of the films from the era have a few bright spots of one kind or another to be found somewhere in a formula production. I find them almost endlessly fascinating for the values they collectively try to reinforce, the stripped-down, small town nature of the drama, and the entertainment value. They also have double historical value: they’re films about the old west as imagined decades ago in Hollywood. Science-fiction films from the 1950s that imagine a future in which the women still don’t do anything but get the coffee are just as unintentionally amusing.
Not part of this collection, The Valley of Gwangi is like one of these films on drugs, or to be more accurate, one of these films married to another kind of film entirely: the monster film, and in particular the monster film that suggests we tampered in a domain we should’ve simply left alone. It would be called “Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs” if produced today, and it’s surprising no studio has troubled to remake it. James Franciscus in the leading role means we’re back to a smarmy, beaming, somewhat overbearing lead, even as his character is both a hustler and heroic, which makes little sense. It’s also a full 25 minutes before we’re treated to the first special effect by the late, great Ray Harryhausen. The lead characters are all written fairly blandly, but it’s a convincing portrayal of the discovery of a hidden valley, and in the second half of the film the effects are great fun, providing it isn’t going to bother you a few men can hold off an Allosaurus using sticks and lassos.
In the final twenty minutes the films shifts focus to become a shortened version of King Kong, with the characters dragging the creature out to become part of a show. Freda Jackson has the fairly thankless roll of a Gypsy woman who repeatedly warns them of a curse, and the pending destruction, the final minutes of the film involve an impressive climax in the town cathedral. I’ll leave you to take what you want from that about greed and breaking faith. And while I do find John Wayne overbearing in most films, I’ll take time out to say he’s excellent in a great Howard Hawks film called Red River, where he co-stars with Montgomery Clift. Look to this collection for some average, entertaining films, and look elsewhere for the best the genre has to offer. 7 Men From Now (Randolph Scott, directed by Budd Boetticher) can be found on Netflix.
July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
Produced around ten years after the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and introducing a monster dislodged and empowered by nuclear testing, it isn’t hard to guess at the subtext in the original Japanese film Gojira (1954). What’s surprising is that the original isn’t just about a guy in a suit stepping on models of tanks, it attempts a message, and emotional impact. As the monster destroys the city, a woman huddles in flames and rubble, trying to shelter her children, saying “Not long now, soon we’ll be reunited with father… not long now.” Surprised? I was too. And while the monster is clearly a guy in a suit, the black-and-white is fairly forgiving, and it’s also an example of a era of filmmaking that’s simply gone, as they clearly used models even for simple shots of ships or planes (Night Train to Munich is a great little film, and uses a lot of this kind of model work). Finally, a little-known ultimate weapon is used to defeat Godzilla, even as the inventor attempts to ensure it can never be used again, lending even more potency to the idea the film is attempting a statement.
North Americans have mostly known Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) which is the same film recut with less emphasis on a tragic scientist, inserting scenes with Raymond Burr as a reporter who always seems to be in the right place, chomping on a pipe, shot so that it appears he was at the back of the room saying things like “My Japanese is a little rusty!” so that someone translates. On occasion, he also talks to the back of a head, meant to be one of the Japanese actors. In short, the English cut of the film is far inferior. The 1950s also saw a sequel, hastily produced in Japan after the tremendous success of the first film: Godzilla Raids Again (1955). While an entertaining film, it already begins to dilute the statement about the dangers of ultimate weapons, as Godzilla proves fairly useful taking out some other prehistoric beast, and the performances are already less anxious and sincere: the characters at one point crack a few jokes standing around in the aftermath of Godzilla’s destruction.
I haven’t seen them, but the rest of the century produced dozens of colour monster mash-ups (around thirty films, mostly produced in Japan) as Godzilla fights everyone from King Kong to creatures from space, and I think it’s safe to say it was all done for the entertainment value. Godzilla as a tremendous, painfully obvious metaphor eventually became nothing of the sort, which is why the original film is a pleasant surprise for those who like their monster movies somewhat meaningful and artful.
It takes nearly a lifetime to get to the 2014 film, but sixty years after the original it’s another pleasant surprise. It’s too much to expect serious statements in a summer blockbuster these days, but a good cast (including Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe) lend the film some dignity, and it’s certainly tremendous fun to see impressive, modern-day effects for the monster. Miraculously, the film also takes it’s time, allowing the viewers to get to know the characters a little before putting them in danger, an apparently long-forgotten secret that adds some dramatic strength. The film jumps straight to the idea Godzilla has his uses, though I suppose if you squint and try with all the strength of an English major, the current film could at least be seen as observing our toxic and wasteful way of life. Now that the film has been successful and has apparently restarted the franchise, what’s next for the big fella, long past his youthful artistic days and now roughly the age of a senior citizen? My vote would be for some kind of Godzilla-like take on Moby Dick, with the monster only trying to swim out of sea and someone out for vengeance. Surely it’s one of the few approaches that hasn’t been taken over the decades, though doubtless it wouldn’t be exciting enough.
September 29, 2013 § Leave a comment
Skyfall is the most confident, polished and elegant Bond film since the 1960s. In that sense (and mainly in that sense, as the nods to the past are only occasionally obvious here) it’s a perfect film for the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, certainly demonstrating its ability to reinvent itself. If you go back and watch an earlier film like my personal favourite You Only Live Twice it has a measured pace, confidently switching from a more romantic scene to an action scene that’s not frantic, but is quite engaging and memorable, as when Bond puts together Little Nellie to fly out over a volcano that may be a hidden base, or when he fights a desperate fight with a very large man, and only wins by clonking him over the head with an odd statue. You could accuse this of being a series of set-pieces, but let’s be honest, any critic hauling out this accusation forgets that there was never a Bond film that stood around anywhere for very long. Before I go any further, there are mild and significant details spoiled for both films here.
Skyfall begins with an engaging spy story, but soon takes the time to include more character detail, certain relevant questions about the possibility of outliving your usefulness, even as the action is refreshing, extremely watchable and polished. Finally, the film pays tribute to the past with certain nods to the ejector seat (Goldfinger). And while the first few Daniel Craig films wisely declined to repeat the Bond formula for a while, this one comfortably reintroduces Moneypenny (who is finally a character who can prove her worth in the field, even as Bond jokes she doesn’t) and Q, the technical expert and gadget man, also nicely reimagined. As viewers, we seem to be refreshed and ready for all this. Daniel Craig and Judi Dench, both quite confident in their roles, are both superb. Finally, after fifty years, people who followed the franchise both casually and more seriously can learn more about where Bond came from, and even luxuriate in a whole sequence set there that helps the whole film feel more grounded and in a way, almost anchored.
Star Trek Into Darkness is undoubtedly entertaining and has equally polished action, but suffers, by comparison, with more obvious and almost blandly irritating cultural recycling. I reviewed the first film in the Star Trek reboot series, which confidently both acknowledged and shoved aside any earlier Star Trek as a way to begin a new Trek universe. Not a bad idea, but they rushed things, and I fretted the characters have little backstory as a result. Kirk was now an undisciplined punk who rode a motorbike until he suddenly had a starship. Let’s ignore that he would’ve needed to first be a junior officer here, or posted there.
This time around, there’s a possible attempt to address that and say Kirk is still undisciplined and needs to learn something, but it feels like repeating an idea from only the last film, and at the end of the film it isn’t quite clear what he learned. He recites an oath for captains at the end of the film, but in a misguided moment they used “Space, the final frontier: these are the voyages… ” which has always been a shorthand explanation of the show in the opening credits. It doesn’t work as an oath, as it contains no code of behaviour or loyalty to anything in particular, except to “boldly go,” and all that. This is right after the characters literally stand around saying dialogue along the lines of “Well, what are we going to do now?” The most graceful part of the ending (and a theme the film briefly touches on a few times) is a brief moment it’s acknowledged that in fighting terrorism, we risk awakening demons within ourselves.
As for the story itself, many fans already know it recycles the second-ever Star Trek film from back in the 1980s, The Wrath of Khan. Trek films have borrowed from this one from time to time ever since, and never beaten it. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, it was fashioned into more or less Moby Dick in space, with an extremely vengeful Khan returning from the TV series to defeat and humiliate Kirk at all costs. Wrath of Khan was a gripping tale that left you with absolutely no questions about motivation, how something was accomplished, or anything else. This time around, the action is great, but the story has been retold in ways that don’t work as well, leaving the viewer with assorted questions (provided they think about it, some certainly won’t). Why does Khan hate Starfleet even when he appears to be getting everything he wants? He has a backstory, but Kirk wasn’t there, and neither were we, leaving the character to stand around and explain it. He’s physically impressive and played well by Benedict Cumberbatch, but his backstory is mainly that he’s an enhanced human from another era, fiercely loyal to his people, and determined to destroy Starfleet. In other words, closer to nutbar than proud with a deeply poisoned soul. We get more of Kirk zipping around in a space suit, and more of Kirk and Spock trying to beat the living daylights out of someone, which feels, for a fan, a bit like meatloaf two nights in a row. A scene that was supposed to quite moving, involving the death of a central character, is an interesting reversal from what we saw before, but I wasn’t moved. Perhaps others were, but I somehow didn’t feel these new versions of the characters had earned passionate farewells just yet. Regardless, the rug is almost immediately pulled out from under the idea anyway, as he’s brought back to life.
It was probably a difficult choice for the writers. Do we return to the most respected film the series ever knew, freshen it up somehow and give it to our newly imagined characters? As for the fans, they probably wanted to see it and didn’t want to see it. It’s a fun idea, but not likely to top the original, which is exactly what happened. I’m both glad I saw it and thought they fumbled the ball, overall.
Interestingly, Star Trek is another unstoppable franchise, and is now approaching fifty years old. If they make another film in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Trek, perhaps the filmmakers can take a lesson from Skyfall and confidently strike out on their own with a new story for these characters that pays tribute to the past mainly by reproducing the tone and spirit of the show at its best. Someone in this latest Star Trek film says something along the lines of “We’re supposed to be explorers.” Yes, I think that’s the idea. Unfortunately, they’ve also painted themselves into something of a corner with the shortened backstories they’ve created for the characters. Perhaps Kirk can miss his motorcycle.
March 17, 2013 § Leave a comment
Film serials are old enough that some people may not even know what they are, but if they frequently have one thing in common, it’s a fairly low budget. This presents a problem for serials, as they often don’t have a final episode that feels like much of a climax. Never mind the exploding base, it’s just that somebody finally captures the villain, which could have been done six Saturday afternoons ago, halfway through the series. In other words, it’s critical a film serial — if it’s going to be memorable at all — have lead actors able to carry it through twelve or fifteen episodes. It means a great deal if the actors are remarkably watchable.
Fortunately, The Phantom has Tom Tyler. I’d suggest he’s somewhat underrated as an actor, but he isn’t actually a terrific actor. It’s more that he’s underrated as a presence. He gives The Phantom an extremely watchable quality, taking a part that could be absurd and making it work. Tyler is better known for another serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, but he’s excellent here too. Given his short, fairly tragic life (he’d die fairly young of heart failure about ten years after making this, his last starring role) I’m surprised his personal story has never actually been made into a drama.
The series also benefits from Kenneth MacDonald as the villain, who can according to Wiki, sound “gentle and ominous” at the same time, much like Boris Karloff. This is a fair statement. He’s the only other actor lending anything memorable to the serial, which is ultimately one of the better superhero ones I’ve seen (one sequence on a rope bridge appears to have inspired the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). The fact that MacDonald is defeated off-camera after fifteen episodes nearly derails the ending, except that I’ve come to expect endings that decline to pull out all the stops, or simply can’t afford to do it. MacDonald apparently had a career lasting forty years, but is now largely forgotten, which is nearly as depressing as the Tom Tyler story.
The VCI Entertainment release has a commentary on episode one by Max Allan Collins, who points out Batman owes a certain amount to The Phantom, as a hero with no powers who uses assorted devices — including using fear as a weapon — and swore an oath to his family. The Phantom, however, is one man in a line of descendants, sworn to fight evil based on distant ancestors killed by pirates, and he lives in a fictional African country. And while this may have gone without notice decades ago, today we’re more conscious of stereotypes, and a white man ruling assorted tribes with stories and tricks of smoke is a fairly awkward premise. I’m not suggesting Batman was trying to be politically correct, but it happens to trade this for a straightforward urban setting, and the more direct idea that his parents were killed, not distant ancestors.
The result of all this is that The Phantom will likely always be a relatively obscure hero, or will exist in updated, altered form, and this Tom Tyler serial can hopefully be accepted by most as a product of its time, stereotypes and all. I wonder what Tom Tyler would’ve done with Batman, a serial produced the same year that provides an extremely poor, low budget (even for a serial) start for the caped crusader. Lewis Wilson was a perfectly acceptable Bruce Wayne, but made for a fairly awful Batman. It’s interesting to note that while Batman may be the hero granted a permanent pass to our pop-culture consciousness, there was a time other heroes looked much more impressive.
May 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
Comanche Station (1960) is among a number of low-budget, thematically charged Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, sometimes with the capable help of writer Burt Kennedy. In a scene around a campfire, Kennedy has a character reminisce, in plain dialogue that nevertheless gets right to the heart of a particular feeling: “A good looking woman. Kind of made you go lonely just being around her. Hearing her say words. Seeing her move.”
It’s a small moment, but demonstrates that a Western can have graceful and even poetic touches. Sadly, The Hunting Party (1971) seems to have been influenced by a later film The Wild Bunch (1969), reproducing the harsh landscape without even the redeeming camaraderie in that film. In short, Gene Hackman plays a powerful rancher, busy raping his wife or visiting some kind of combination train-whorehouse to inflict pain on other women until he discovers his wife (Candice Bergen) has been kidnapped by a wanderer (Oliver Reed) and his gang. The fact that the Oliver Reed character only wants her to teach him to read does little to excuse the kidnapping or make his character likeable, and the idea that Bergen and Reed may or may not be starting to fall for each other is watered down by an impenetrably grim performance from Oliver Reed.
Meanwhile, Gene Hackman is believable and even frightening as the husband, but it’s another one-note character in the script. In case you don’t want them in advance, plot details follow. He grabs a high-powered rifle like very few others at the time, follows Reed and company and begins picking them off one at a time. You’d think something would change over the course of the rest of the film, that a character might reconsider one way or another, change or grow in some way. But the entire rest of the movie returns to slow-motion shots of men falling and dying at watering holes or some such thing. By the time Bergen is standing in a river, screaming at Hackman just to shoot them and make it all end, this particular viewer felt pretty much the same way. Certainly, it leaves the viewer wondering about the point of the film. I’ve seen reviews that suggested the film is Shakespearean, but in Shakespeare’s tragedies even the most stubborn characters (King Lear, for example) eventually reflect on the mistakes they’ve made. The Hackman character lets the new couple live on a few occasions, shows no sign of reconsidering, and finally kills them.
Is life occasionally this bleak? Perhaps, but I’d argue we don’t need that in a film when we have it in every newspaper headline. I watched the entire film — which begins, by the way, with the actual killing of a cow using a dull knife — in the hope of some redeeming or graceful moment, only to be disappointed. Perhaps the fault is in me, to some extent, as I do believe a film should have some kind of point, other than don’t enrage a guy with a high-powered rifle. For more thoughtful Westerns, track down Budd Botticher films, or the remake of True Grit (2010) recently. These are films willing to admit that even in almost impossibly-difficult landscapes there are moments of grace. And they seem to know that if you’re going to make your viewers crawl through the desert you can at least give them one or two drinks of water along the way.
September 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
A British film produced during the Second World War, Night Train to Munich is nearly sublime entertainment, full of excellent dialogue and superbly entertaining scenes, and yet it does have certain contradictions, as though the film could have gone in two directions that were at odds with each other. Rex Harrison (probably best known as one of the stars of My Fair Lady) stars as a British spy determined to recover a Czech inventor the Nazi party is just as interested to possess, and Margaret Lockwood plays his love interest, the calm, intelligent daughter of the inventor.
A scene near the beginning portrays a beating in a concentration camp, and it’s somewhat surprisingly graphic for a 1940 film. I briefly wondered if the film would be innovative enough (at this early stage in the war) to portray the conflict as brutal, but the remainder of the film pretty much portrays spying as exchanging witty remarks with gentlemen enemies. Additionally, the end feels like an escape lifted from a Bond film, or a Hitchcock film. Without ruining the ending very much at all — at least, I sincerely hope not — a character who was clearly sacrificing himself manages to escape, for the sake of a completely happy ending. It’s maybe the only element that’s somewhat standard in the film, and prevents it from being an absolute classic.
But let’s put things in perspective a little, here: screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Lauder had worked with Hitchcock a few years earlier, on The Lady Vanishes. They even reproduce a couple of charming supporting characters from that film, though it would be a mistake to consider this film a sequel. Finally, it wasn’t known in 1940 just how brutal the war would become, and it would have been completely unacceptable — and bad for morale — to produce a film during wartime with a British hero that’s killed in the line of duty.
There’s a curious use of detailed models throughout — for shots of trains, landscapes, and even buildings — and while these work quite well, I’d be interested to learn more about why these establishing shots were produced this way. I can only assume it was more cost-effective at the time. It produces another slightly jarring contrast in the film, as it stands apart from some opening stock footage of Nazi soldiers marching confidently around. Perhaps these model shots, introduced later, serve to illustrate that we’re heading into storytelling now, not realism. And there are several brief exchanges in the film that suggest the limited, black-and-white thinking of the Nazi party. Night Train to Munich isn’t Hogan’s Heroes, but it’s closer to morale-boosting adventure film than gritty portrayal of war. It’s a spy thriller that takes a few brief stabs at commenting on the war. And seventy years after it was produced, it remains as entertaining as anything in theatres today.