A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Gojira

September 10, 2011

Gojira

I have a long history with the Godzilla films. I’ve been a fan since I first saw the big rubber galoot during the Channel 56 Creature Double Feature. The movies had everything a thirteen year old boy could want in a movie. Aliens. Robots. Giant rubber monsters. Hilarious dubbing. I always wanted, however, to see the movies in a more pure form, un-dubbed and un-cut. I figured when DVD came around that Toho would eventually come out with special editions of the movies with sub-titles for American audiences so we could see the films the way they were meant to be seen. Since the movies are generally considered light-weight pop sci-fi this hasn’t really come to pass unfortunately, but this, the first Godzilla movie is an exception.

This film is not a popcorn sci-fi film for kids – it’s a serious disaster movie and obvious allegory about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. In addition, as the progenitor of the entire Godzilla line, and indeed the beginning of the Japanese giant rubber monster genre, this film has special historical significance. So it was that for the fiftieth anniversary Toho released this deluxe edition DVD set that includes the original Japanese Gojira movie. At last I got to see at least one of the Godzilla movies in its original form.

It’s a good thing, too, because if ever there was a movie that needed to be seen in Japanese with English subtitles to be properly appreciated it is this one. This movie is so quintessentially Japanese. Before the infamous monster ever appears on the screen we spend an awful lot of time being introduced to the little fishing village where he starts his reign of terror. As with many a monstery disaster movie the film starts out as more of a mystery. What has caused a small fleet of fishing boats and the boats sent to rescue them to disappear? There are only a couple survivors and they say that it was a monster that destroyed their boats. A supremely grizzled old man declares that it must be the same monster that used to terrorise the village known as Gojira.

At the heart of this movie are four human characters. There’s the scientifically minded paleontologist Dr Yamane who is the first to piece together just what the monster is. There’s his lovely daughter Emiko. There’s her fiance Ogata, and her childhood friend the one-eyed mad scientist Serizawa. Then of course there’s the two million year old living fossil with radioactive breath from hydrogen bomb tests – Godzilla himself.

Dr. Yamane doesn’t actually want the beast destroyed. He’d rather study the monster to understand it and how its species remained alive on the ocean bottom long after such dinosaurs were thought extinct. This causes some friction with Ogata, who takes a while to gather the nerve to ask the doctor if he can have his daughter’s hand in marriage, but insists that Godzilla is a threat that must be eliminated at all costs. Serizawa, meanwhile, has developed an ultimate weapon called an Oxygen Destructor that could probably destroy the monster, but he doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of politicians who could corrupt it and start a new arms race. He tells only Emiko of his discovery and swears her to secrecy.

A couple things struck me as I watched this again tonight. The first was just how bleak parts of this movie are. After Gojira’s attack on Tokyo there are several scenes in infirmaries and hospitals that drive home that this attack has not just destroyed a bunch of detailed models and set fire to sets – it has had a brutal impact on the people of Japan. There are irradiated children. There is a dead woman and her inconsolable daughter. There are hundreds of bodies on stretchers. It is a powerful scene of emotional devastation which must have been even more intense when the film first came out, less than ten years after Japan became the only nation on the planet ever to be attacked with nuclear weapons.

The other thing that struck me this time was the caliber of the talent brought on board for this movie. Of course the monster itself and the destruction it wreaks are fantastic to watch. The special effects work as well today as they ever did. I also love the actors they have on board. In particular I was amused when I thought I recognised the actor playing Dr. Yamane and checked IMDB to find that he is the ubiquitous Takashi Shimura (who we will also be seeing in The Seven Samurai when we review that for our collection.) Glancing at his resume leads me to believe that he probably starred in every Japanese movie made in the twentieth century. Or close to it.

I still heartily wish that there were a comprehensive Godzilla special edition collection that gave the same kind of attention to even the cheesiest and stupidest of Godzilla movies as is lovingly provided to the original on this DVD, but at least for now I can take comfort in the fact that we have this one movie in our collection. I’ve proposed the idea to Amanda that we should watch the dubbed American version tomorrow as a separate film, since so much was altered to make it more palatable for American audiences. We’ll see how we feel about that tomorrow.

September 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Deadly Mantis

July 18, 2011

The Deadly Mantis

Here’s another movie we bought after seeing it riffed on MST3K. I have always been a fan of fifties monster movies, but I don’t know if I would have added this to our collection if we hadn’t had the MST connection. It’s not quite bad enough to be notable for its laughable qualities (like some of Roger Corman’s movies.) It doesn’t feature actors who went on to be stars in small roles (no Clint Eastwood or Peter Graves.) It doesn’t really stand out in my mind from other movies of the day. It is a great way to look at the tropes of the genre though.

As we watched the movie un-MiSTed for the first time we both commented on the fact that it does kind of require riffing. It starts out so very slowly! I think that the problem is that the movie is trying so hard to make it’s monster plausible. The film makers spend a lot of time trying to ground the events of the film in the real world, which makes things very slow to start.

The first shot of the movie is a very – very – slow pan over a map of the world zooming in on a volcano in the middle of the ocean deep in the southern hemnisphere. Then it pans up to the north pole, where it is implied that the volcanic activity has caused the ice on the edge of a vast glacier to fall away revealing a giant preying mantis encased in the ice. (Presumably this is the same iceberg that let loose the megashark and giant octopus in the Asylum film of the same title.)

Before the mantis can make with the killing and menacing though this movie briefly morphs into a documentary about the radar fences that defend our country from a sneak attack over the north pole. It’s an odd decision that makes the somewhat slow opening of the movie feel even more awkwardly paced.

Now Stephen Spielberg has famously said that in Jaws he built the tension by not showing the shark until the third act of the movie. This movie is evidence that this notion hardly originated with Senior Spielbergo – it’s just common sense in a monster movie. The deadly mantis is slowly built up through a series of attacks where we don’t get to see it in action. It breaks into an isolated radar station in the frozen north and devours a couple of airmen left there to monitor the skies leaving nothing behind but a wrecked shack and a strange clawprint in the Styrofoam snow outside. Then it attack a plane in the sky, again leaving not a sign of the plane’s occupants but breaking off a giant toenail clipping.

Then the movie stops following the mantis’ attacks and instead introduces us to a paleontologist who is brought in to figure out what kind of creature is causing this destruction. The reasoning of the colonel in charge of stopping the attacks, and the crack team of scientists he assembles, is that no creature alive today would leave behind this clipping, so it must have come off of a creature that is thought to be extinct. A paleontologist, they figure, is used to reconstructing a prehistoric creature using only the tiniest scraps of evidence. What’s amazing is they’re perfectly right – this guy figures out exactly what the monster is from just its toenail clippings and so he and his plucky reporter sidekick rush off to the north in search of it – just in time to be there when we finally get a glimpse of the deadly mantis, which wrecks the building they’re having a meeting in.

The enormous insect then proceeds to fly in a generally southwesterly direction, followed by radar, fighter jets and ground spotters who have giant charts of known enemy aircraft (Russian I presume) but no entamological charts. It menaces Washington DC very briefly, then it flies off again – impervious to bullets and missiles, until finally a brave airforce pilot rams it with his plane, and it takes refuge in a tunnel somewhere.

I do have to say that although this movie is strangely paced, kind of bland, and prone to long winded lectures when maybe some action and mayhem would liven things up, it does have a very cool monster. The mantis is a series of well done puppets and a couple shots of a real mantis on tiny models of DC landmarks. (It reminds me a lot of the forced perspective work and locusts on postcards in The Beginning of the End which came out in the same year, but this director doesn’t have Bert I Gordon’s passion for the material.) For the rousing conclusion in the tunnel they even have a parade-float sized version of the monster that waves its serrated fore-limbs about and has an articulated mouth.

It seems that a reasonable amount of actual research went into this movie, or at least the writer read a couple encyclopedia articles while dashing off the script. Certainly the movie misses no opportunity to have one of its characters talk at length about the science behind the creature. In the end though it’s just a kind of bland movie that almost completely failed to keep my attention while it was on. With its odd pacing and constant strange digressions from the main plot of a giant insect crawling around on landmarks and smashing buildings this movie simply begs for riffing. I need to find the tape we recorded the MST episode on now.

July 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

June 13, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It is with a little trepidation that we set out to watch this movie tonight. It does not have a good reputation. Indeed there’s an infamous episode of South Park inspired by this movie where George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg take turns raping Indiana Jones. Based on this and the generally negative word of mouth on the internet I had braced myself before watching this for a Star Wars Episode I level of disappointment. I was prepared for something on a par with Highlander II or Star Trek V. In short I thought that this was going to be a painful experience that sullied my memory of the Indiana Jones movies.

I’m quite relieved to say that I need not have feared. This is my favorite Jones movie since the first one.

Part of the criticism of this movie stems from the fact that Indiana is beginning to show his age. Harrison Ford turns seventy years old next year, and that’s pushing the credible age limit of an action hero. This movie takes place in the 1950s, which means that the character of Indie must be in his fifties or sixties. Then again, Indiana Jones was never really about being a young man. It’s about overcoming ridiculous odds and refusing to stay beaten. In that regard this older, wiser Indie is perhaps even more exciting to watch. The movie makes it clear that he’s a tired old man at the beginning, mourning the loss of his father and his friend Brodie.

The opening scene, which re-introduces us to Indiana Jones twenty years after we last saw him, does a couple of things. It freely admits that he is showing his age. He’s still an adventurer, albeit a reluctant one, but now he’s clashing with kids one third his age. At first, when we see him facing off against his captors I thought that it would be hard to believe that this older man can hope to hold his own against a flight of stairs, mush less a squad of Russian storm troopers. It’s a little startling to see him at first looking so tired, but what’s cool is that this movie does such a good job of aging the character to match the actor. There are all these hints about the adventures Jones has been having in the twenty years we’ve missed. He’s been a spy. He’s worked under cover. He’s been on many missions against the Russians (who, in the nineteen fifties, are the boogeymen of the cold war.) It makes me wish for a new television series – the Middle-Aged Indiana Jones Chronicles.

When he fails to stop the Russians capturing a mysterious artifact from a US government warehouse and it is revealed that his old partner from MI5 is now working with the Russians Indiana comes under suspicion of being a double agent himself. He’s blackballed and forced out of his tenured position as a professor and finds himself alone and at loose ends. Until a young boy who calls himself Mutt shows up and tells Indie that an old friend of his, Ox (short for Oxley,) has been abducted. Ox has always been obsessed with mysterious crystal skulls found throughout history. (In much the way Ravenwood was obsessed with the Ark and Jones Sr. was obsessed with the Grail.) Mutt has a letter given to his mother by Ox which she managed to smuggle away from the Russians ans which he believes only Indiana Jones can translate. (Apparently Mutt’s mother has some history with Jones and believes that he will help her and Ox.)

So off to South America go young Mutt and the aging professor Jones, where Mutt is astonished to find out that Indiana is somewhat of an unorthodox professor. The two of them soon find the legendary crystal skull that Ox had discovered, and they are promptly captured by the Russians again. That’s about the halfway point for the movie. The Russians, led by a sinister woman named Irina Spalko, have Ox, Indie’s traitorous partner Mac, and Mutt’s mother in custody already. I’m a little puzzled as to why Indie is so startled to discover that Mutt’s mother is Marion Ravenwood – especially in light of the fact that when Mutt and Indie first meet Mutt tells him that his mother was named Marion. Then of course comes the heavily telegraphed reveal that Mutt is Indiana’s son.

I think that this must have been part of what people found so distasteful about the movie. Not just that Indie is older, but he has a son now who is already in his twenties. The movie gets a lot of great mileage out of this though. There’s all the baggage Indie has from his relationship with his own father, and it’s subtly layered into the constant banter between the two of them. Then there’s Marion, whom Indiana apparently left shortly before their planned wedding. It all works well for me in the context of how alone Indiana is at the start of the movie. It’s a film about discovering that maybe having a family isn’t such a bad thing after all for an adventurer – particularly a family made up of people perfectly capable of adventuring themselves.

The remainder of the movie is pretty much one long chase scene as the Jones family fight off the Russians, escape from killer ants, brave Amazonian rapids, escape from angry natives, and ultimately do the kind of tomb raiding that Indiana Jones is so well known for.

Another major sticking point that some people have with this movie is that it is all about alien artifacts. Yes, aliens. Which some people seem to think is blasphemy in an Indiana Jones movie. I have no idea why. To date the films have involved an ark full of mystical sand, a trio of magic glowing rocks, and a cup that heals anybody who drinks from it. How is a glowing psychic alien skull such a stretch in this universe? It fits just fine as far as I’m concerned. It’s just the magical MacGuffin that drives the plot and allows for a spectacular light show at the end – perfectly in line with every other Indiana Jones movie.

For me it was just a treat to see Indie doing what he does best. Harrison Ford made me believe that this character could still fight toe to toe with a Russian super-man. It was a delight to see Karen Allen back as Marion – the best love interest Jones ever had and the most capable woman he seems to have ever found. Cate Blanchett makes a great sinister foe for Jones to vie with. I am even able to stomach Shia LaBeouf as Jones Jr. Even better – the movie is packed with great actors in smaller supporting roles. Indie’s steadfast protector in the college is played by Jim Broadbent. The insane professor Ox is played wonderfully by John Hurt. It must have been fun just to be on the set with all these accomplished masters of their craft.

You know what? I had fun tonight. It’s cool to catch up with these characters and see what’s happened to them in the last twenty years. It’s a fun adventure with some great chase scenes. It is like an Indiana Jones greatest hits having him back together kicking ass with Marion. And ultimately – even if he doesn’t get to keep the treasure he’s seeking (which he never does) he gets a greater treasure. It gives me hope that even if we never see him again the character of Indiana Jones has a chance at happiness at last, and I really like that.

June 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

May 4, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Last year for Star Wars Day (May the Fourth) we started our week of Star Wars movies. This year we decided to watch another classic sci-fi movie. One of the greatest sci-fi classics of all time, really.

I don’t feel that there’s much new I can say about this movie. It’s been admired and praised by millions over the last sixty years. Everybody and their grand-dad has talked about the obvious allegorical references and the cold war tensions that inspire the plot. There’s a reason, though, that this movie has accumulated so many accolades over they years. It’s a damned good movie, with fantastic direction and visuals, a charismatic hero, and a message that is no less powerful for being so blatantly obvious.

I doubt there is anybody who watches movies that doesn’t know the plot of this movie. Amanda had not seen it until today, and I’m sure she could have rattled it off to you before we even put it in. That’s because it’s an exceptionally simple plot. An alien space craft lands in Washington D.C. and the mild mannered alien Klaatu steps out of it with his menacing robot Gort. Klaatu demands to speak with all the leaders of Earth and is told that the many petty conflicts that define politics on Earth make this ambition impossible. He breaks out of the hospital where he is being held by the army and tries to fit in with some regular human people, befriending a precocious kid named Bobby and his mother Helen. Klaatu decides to attempt to gather the greatest scientific minds instead of the politicians since they are more likely to listen to reason, and as proof of his superior power arranges a demonstration of how completely helpless the Earth is when confronted by his advanced alien technology. Unfortunately before he can attend this meeting of great minds he is killed by soldiers who are desperate after his little Earth-stopping stunt to end his one-man invasion. But it’s okay because Gort fetches his corpse and reanimates it so that he can deliver his warning: stop being so violent or else aliens will turn the Earth to a burnt out cinder rather than let Humanity’s ways threaten the rest of the universe.

It’s a hokey plot. Indeed We’ve already watched a far more cheesy movie that uses the same basic premise – that of re-animating the dead to warn the people of Earth about their “stupid, stupid minds.” Clearly Ed Wood was inspired by this film, as were so many others. (The many references to this movie in pop culture are proof of it’s impact – from the Globetrotter’s ship in Futurama to Ash’s incantation in Army of Darkness.) But where this could have been a cheesy and silly sci-fi romp in other hands director Robert Wise actually crafts a surprisingly well made movie from this hokey premise.

Part of it is in the exceptional special effects and production design. From Gort to the saucer this movie is packed with great visual accomplishments. The scene of the saucer landing, for example, with its shadow sweeping over the trees and the tiny fleeing people below as it approaches the baseball diamond where it eventually settles. Those are special effects decades ahead of their time. The simple menace of Gort’s raised visor and the deadly light within… it not only makes him a sinister and unstoppable force but I can’t quite figure out how they accomplished it in the days long before blue-screens and digital effects.

Another thing this movie has going for it is Michael Rennie’s performance as Klaatu. He’s such a benign and sympathetic alien. It’s so much fun to see him interacting with Bobby – showing his naivete and at the same time his wisdom. Rennie plays his character with such a sly wit. he has a sort of tolerant and long-suffering attitude. He doesn’t really need to say anything about what fools these petty Humans are – we can see it in his eyes.

Then there’s the shot composition and direction in general. I last watched this movie as a teenager and I remembered it pretty much perfectly, but what I didn’t appreciate at that time was the deft way that Wise used light and shadow to tell his story. Klaatu, when masquerading as Mr. Carpenter, comes to a simple boarding house looking for a room to stay in and he is mostly obscured by shadow when the other residents turn to meet him. As he steps forward we expect him to emerge into the light so they can see how inoffensively human he is, but instead he goes further into the darkness, in stark contrast to the well lit hallway behind him. The entire movie is filled with clever set ups like that. It makes me glad that there doesn’t appear to be a colorised version of this movie, since it is so brilliantly using the stark contrasts only available in black & white.

It’s astonishing to me how well this movie has aged. Yes, I grinned a little at the spooky space-age theramin music. Yes the movie clubs the viewer violently with its message. But it’s an important message, I think, and a hopeful one. if only there were benevolent and all powerful aliens that could intervene and force people to be better to each other. If only rational thought could replace petty differences. If only there were more spectacularly well-made movies like this one.

May 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Hudsucker Proxy

March 2, 2011

The Hudsucker Proxy

Ever since we watched the less-than-great Stephen Spielberg War of the Worlds remake a couple days ago Amanda has wanted to watch a good movie starring Tim Robbins. We have several such films in our archive, because he’s a fantastic actor and stars in many outstanding movies. So here we are – not just a Tim Robbins movie but a Coen Brothers movie as well.

I would not say that this is my favorite Coen Brothers film. It feels almost too light-hearted and simple when compared with the usual Coen weirdness. There’s a kind of edge to the Coens that I’m accustomed to. Even their comedies feel dark in a way. This movie is full of cool visual styling, running gags, larger-than-life caricatures and rapid-fire-patter but it has no real peril in it. The result is that it’s a frothy, campy, light-hearted throwback of a film and although I thoroughly enjoy it every time I watch it I never find myself in awe of it the way I usually am of Coen films.

The plot is simple and straight forward. When the president and founder of Hudsucker Industries abruptly kills himself the board of the company hatch a plan to lower the stock price so they can buy it up cheap. They appoint a patsy – a puppet – a pawn – to head the company. They find an individual they believe to be the most bumbling idiot in the company to head it. That individual is Norville Barnes, a new hire in the mail room with grand ideals but little business experience.

Of course it turns out that Norville actually does have a whopper of a big idea (“You know, for kids”) and he’s able to turn the flagging company around, so instead of the stock price going down it goes up. But his success goes to his head and he soon discovers that it’s harder to be a big shot company president than he might have thought. Meanwhile there’s an intrepid pulitzer winning newspaper reporter by the name of Amy Archer who worms her way into Norville’s confidence in the pursuit of a scoop and finds herself falling for the affable lug. At first Archer thinks that Barnes is a fraud, but she comes to believe in him even when he loses faith in himself. The only question is: can Norville Barnes find a way to give himself a second chance once he realizes how badly he has messed things up?

Because the plot of this film is so simple and so familiar (I’ve seen it before in both The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying) most of what makes this movie extraordinary is in the writing and the directorial flare. And it has both in spades. The dialog is full of rapid fire exchanges, especially for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Amy Archer, who is a hard assed modern career girl who can hold her own is a world of tough news reporters. (Her clipped diction very much reminds me of a young Katharine Hepburn every time I watch this.) The members of the board of the company all speak in a very iconic way, completing each other’s thoughts and repeating themselves. Everybody has an iconic catch phrase from the elevator boy Buzz with his “Buddy” to chairman of the board Mussburger with his “Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure.” (Can I also say what a joy it is to see Paul Newman as the sinister Mussburger. He’s one of the many highlights of this movie.) It’s a joy just to see these spectacular actors delivering this complicated repartee.

Leading the entire cast of course is Tim Robbins, who is the reason we put this in tonight in the first place. He is a great clown, showing us Barnes at his affable, bumbling best. He has a clean, honest, boyish look that makes you want to root for him. And he’s able to do the egotistical mania of Barnes as well. And the soulful desperation as he hits bottom. Just watching him today makes me look forward with great anticipation to The Shawshank Redemption and Bull Durham. We need to get hold of a copy of The Player as well while we’re at it.

It’s also a joy to watch the clever and interesting world on the screen. The whole movie takes place in a stylised retro fifties. It’s more a tribute to the imaginary fifties of the film world than anything realistic and it borrows from any number of familiar aesthetics. There’s a cool art deco feel to the offices of the chairman of the board and the president. The mail room in the bowls of the building looks like something from a Terry Gilliam film. (Amanda wanted to watch Brazil after watching this.) Everything has a sense of heightened reality – everything is a little peculiar and off.

I really do love this movie. It is all style and no substance, but oh, what style it has! It is slick and cool and pretty and impossible to resist. Long live the Hud!

March 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Chocolat

February 14, 2011

Chocolat

When we searched our collection for romances for Valentine’s Day we found none. But we did have a few movies about chocolate, which is kind of the point of the holiday, right? We pondered watching he two Willy Wonka movies we own, but we’re trying to watch more movies from our collection that we haven’t seen, so instead it’s this fun movie about unleashing passion through the magic of confection.

This movie is part fairy story, part folk tale, part morality play – except that perhaps it’s more accurate to describe it as an “immorality play.” It follows the lives of a number of townspeople in a quaint, quiet French village. The folk live a simple, pious life, certain that all is right with their world until one day a mysterious woman blows into town like Mary Poppins on the wind. Vianne, like the wind, is a force of nature. She sweeps into town and proceeds to disrupt everybody’s lives through the liberal application of an uncanny intuitive understanding of every person’s deeply hidden problems – and chocolate. She reunites an ornery grandmother with her disturbed grandson. She awakens the slumbering passion of a somnambulent married couple. She helps a beaten wife discover that she doesn’t need her abusive husband.

I would not say that this is an original movie. It doesn’t hold any surprises. It’s a familiar story and one we’ve seen before in this project. There’s a genre of movies about people living their lives in a small town until they are awakened by a chaotic stranger. We saw it in Keeping Mum. We saw just a couple weeks ago it in To Wong Foo (which bears a striking number of similarities to this movie. Just replace the drag with chocolate.) It is, however a pleasant and delightful movie.

It is obvious at several points that this is adapted from a book. There’s the slightly heavy-handed narration, for example, which seems like somewhat of an unnecessary crutch. I haven’t read the source material, but even so there’s a sort of bookish feel to things here. Perhaps it’s in the clearly episodic story telling, which feels like it comes from the ebb and flow of chapters and doesn’t perfectly suit the storytelling of film as a medium. I’m not sure.

That doesn’t make the movie any less charming though. How can you possibly dislike a movie with Johnny Depp, Judi Dench and Juliette Binoche all at the peak of their games? I love Carrie-Anne Moss as a conflicted mother and daughter who has only the best intentions. Most of all, however, I loved Alfred Molina as the protective mayor who does everything in his power to keep things the way he believes they ought to be. He has a spectacular acting scene near the end of the movie that blew me away. Not to mention Helene Cardona’s Oscar-bait performance.

One word of warning: be sure you eat BEFORE watching this movie. We had dinner and were pretty sated and even so had to make the richest, thickest hot chocolate we could immediately after watching the movie. The sweets featured on the screen here often out-shine the stars. The chocolates, the hot chocolate, the cake. My mouth starts watering again just thinking about it.

February 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 349 – Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good Luck – February 12th, 2011

This is a movie I have actually avoided for some time. I admit it. And it’s not because I thought I would dislike it. After all, it has a cast full of people I like. Full of people I love, actually. I mean, look who’s playing the lead role! David Strathairn! I adore him. He is amazing and I have loved him every time I’ve seen him. And I knew he was excellent in this. I knew it was a good movie. And I knew it would crush me and leave me shaking. And I was right.

I spent a good portion of this movie with my gut in a knot. I felt like I was on the verge of tears through most of it. Like any moment there would be something that would break me. It’s a type of tension I’m not used to but knew to expect given the subject matter. Expecting it did not make it better. The thing is, it’s a movie about a tense time, in a tense situation. And while at no time did I feel like everyone in the movie was in the sort of imminent danger that most thrillers put their characters in – no mad man was after anyone with a butcher knife or anything like that – there was a palpable feeling of fear and worry that, when prolonged, can be devastating. And I felt it. The McCarthy era terrifies me and this movie is smack in the thick of it.

The movie opens with David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow giving a speech about television and the potential it has as a tool for education and information. It then proceeds to go back a bit to follow Murrow and his coworkers at CBS as they decide amongst themselves that they cannot simply sit back and let McCarthy do what he was doing. That their consciences will not allow their silence. That as figures of the media, as people who bring information to the public, they cannot not report on what McCarthy was up to. That the secrecy of it all is directly opposed to what they stand for. And so they undertake the task of bringing to light not necessarily the secrets, but that the secrets existed. That there was information being held back and elided. That something was wrong. And they knew it would put their jobs at risk and potentially cause them to be labeled as Communist sympathizers, putting them under a microscope. And they did it anyhow. Edward Murrow did it anyhow.

Through the course of the movie we follow Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, and his crew as they begin their work on McCarthy and hit various points. The actual shows and facts of the era aren’t the point here. It’s the production of the shows. It’s the work that went into researching them and making them and the stress it put everyone under. It’s the atmosphere of television news production – live news, that is – with the hustle and bustle and sense of urgency. Murrow and Friendly and the rest of the team don’t just sit around even when they are sitting around. They talk events and news and reaction. And the reactions are always present. It’s not just the things going on that they need to know about. It’s how the way they report those things are then themselves reported.

In its way, this is a quiet movie. And that underscores the tense atmosphere. There are raised voices when something is going on and they’re all trying to work out just what it will mean, but for the most part this movie happens in low, serious tones. The smiles are made with closed eyes and ducked heads. The laughter is soft and reluctant. There are people whose lives are in the balance here. And while for the most part that means their livelihoods – their jobs and social standing and the like – it also means lives. One figure in the movie commits suicide near the end after being repeatedly labeled a Communist and harassed by the accusations. And I am not ashamed to say that I felt that moment like a punch to the gut. A slow motion punch to the gut, at that. Because the camera takes its time showing him turn on the gas stove and open the oven and sit down to wait. Because you know. And the movie knows. And it wants the audience to see the stakes here are not the matter of a job or a few friends. They are life and death. And that right there is when the knot in my stomach tightened too much and I started to cry.

I will admit that this topic hits me very close. I chose the profession I chose because I firmly believe that all people have a right to access information. I am in a public library because public libraries grant access to everyone. Or they should. One of the ideals imparted to me in grad school was to treat all patrons equally. I do not talk about politics at work. My patrons do not know whether I agree or disagree with their views. What they know is that they can come to me and ask for me to help them access information and I will do it. Because information is important. It is vital. And these days it’s not just television. It’s not just newspapers. It’s periodicals and books and radio and, of course, the internet. And I do what I do because it means I’m helping to make sure that no matter what social strata my patrons live in, they all have access to information1. The passion of people who want the public to know what is going on around them? I understand that. And it’s clear from the tone and atmosphere of the movie that George Clooney, who co-wrote, directed and starred in it as Fred Friendly, understands it too.

This is a beautifully made movie. The black and white cinematography is stark, throwing everything it shows into a very specific quality of light. The constant curls of smoke and the clear lines of light and shadow are all very deliberate. They set the stage and the whole cast steps up to it. David Strathairn delivers an absolutely amazing performance as Murrow. Every speech he gave made me choke up. Clooney as Friendly is steadfast and driven. In smaller but no less important and significant roles are Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as the secretly married Joe and Shirley Wershba, Frank Langella as station manager Bill Paley and Ray Wise as the maligned and tragic Don Hollenbeck. Every performance contributes to the nervous and determined mood of the film. It is striking and more than a little grim and the ending isn’t a storybook happily ever after. It is an ending that invites us to look at what our media is now and how it behaves and what we expect of it and what it expects of us. And as the credits rolled I cried again. Because this movie did what I knew it would. It made me both hopeful and depressed at the same time, which is, I believe, a perfectly reasonable reaction.


1 This topic started quite a debate in the class I took on Intellectual Freedom, because while it is a stance that espouses neutrality, neutrality itself can be seen as a radical stance. A curious and unfortunate catch-22.

February 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Good Night and Good Luck

February 12, 2011

Goodnight and Good Luck

We needed something weighty and intelligent after the last couple days of brainless fluff. So we turn to this gritty black & white drama about a news man daring to do a piece about the sinister finger pointing of the McCarthy era of American politics. Actually upon refection and after watching this for a second time I realize that McCarthyism is the background for the movie but it’s not really what the movie is about. It is a movie about the power of journalism, television in particular, and the integrity of a group of men who believed that they had a responsibility to act according to their consciences and convictions.

The movie is bookended by an actual speech Edward R Murrow delivered at a broadcaster’s convention about television as a force. He says that there is a danger that this powerful tool could become nothing more than a source of entertainment and of placation for the masses. He knows that it has the potential to be so much more. The rest of the movie explores his commitment to that ideal – as he dares to use television to make a difference.

There’s a quick opening crawl that sets the tone for the time period and tries to explain who Joseph McCarthy was and what his influence was. I found this bit of text a little obtrusive and condescending. I’m guessing that Clooney was forced to add it late in the production because test audiences were unfamiliar with the history of the McCarthy era witch-hunts. I think that the movie does a pretty good job of showing us people living in fear of becoming the subject of inquiries without legal proceedings or evidence, so it seems to me that this bit of exposition is unnecessary, but that is a minor quibble. This is a bold movie, directed with flare by George Clooney who goes to great pains to make everything feel authentic. The black & white look, extensive use of archival footage and vintage advertisements, and the smoke filled rooms thrust us right into the time period he’s depicting. There is also an almost documentary feel at times as the chaos of a live television news broadcast is shown to us. The scenes of the control room at CBS hearken back for me to the way Ron Howard depicted NASA mission control in Apollo 13 – full of people with jobs to do who operate like a well oiled machine but appear to an outsider like they are in complete chaos.

This could have been a movie about Joe McCarthy. He makes a great bad guy. The movie does a good job of demonstrating the way that he used insinuation, implication and outright lies to silence his critics. It was marketed as a film about the David and Goliath story of Murrow daring to speak out against McCarthy’s tactics – placing himself, his staff and his network in danger of being slandered and investigated by McCarthy and his cronies. It’s fascinating to watch the archival footage of McCarthy that Clooney uses in the film – he’s such a clearly damaged and unstable person. We get to see him manic with rage at the notion of Communists infiltrating every corner of government (the central pillar of his political platform.) We get to see him humbled and broken at the end when he finds himself under investigation and censured by his peers. So there’s a great arc there for a thrilling political battle along the lines of Frost/Nixon (which we put in to watch as soon as this movie was over tonight.)

It could also have been a clumsy allegory for the modern politics of fear. Parallels can be drawn between the use of paranoia in the McCarthy era to take political power and the Bush era use of fear of terrorist attacks to cement GWB’s political power. I’m pretty sure, given Clooney’s political leanings, that such analogies were probably in his head as he made this film. But thankfully that is also not the thrust of the movie.

Instead we get a film that concentrates on the power of the media. There’s a side plot about a colleague of Murrow’s who feels himself hounded by the right wing press who have labeled him a communist sympathiser and pinko. And there’s Frank Langella as Murrow’s boss William Paley who pressures Murrow to avoid controversy for the sake of the network. Murrow frequently laments being beholden to a need to appease the advertisers who pay for his production. We also get to see him roped into fluff pieces – pre-recorded “interviews” with celebreties which he clearly abhors as an abomination. That, taken with the speech that bookends the movie, alters the tone. It makes the movie less about the struggle to confront a particular injustice (McCarthyism) and more about the bravery required to stick to an unpopular story which Murrow believes must be addressed.

The entire movie rests on the performance of the lead character. Oh, there are great supporting roles as well. George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Frank Langella and Jeff Daniels all do a great job and ground the film in its own reality. But it is David Strathairn that gets the most screen time and is the central figure. It’s a fantastic performance too. He presents Edward Murrow as a man of deep convictions and powerful beliefs. His intensity, his clipped diction, his precision all speak to the nature of his character. From Midsummer Night’s Dream to Sneakers I have never failed to love David in a role, and this movie is no exception.

Because this movie doesn’t sell itself as a simplistic political thriller and doesn’t try to make a political statement it rises to a higher level. It is a classy, well made, well acted gem that at its heart says that the people tasked with bringing us the news have a responsibility to stick to their guns and deliver tough messages. It makes me want to watch All the President’s Men, which I have never seen but I think would be a good companion piece. It also very much makes me want to watch The Manchurian Candidate – where the McCarthy analogue turns out to be a puppet of evil communists attempting to get a sympathetic figure into political power.

It’s also an even more timely movie now than when it was made. As we have seen in recent days there is considerable power in the new world of the internet and social media to shape the politics of the world. The advent of almost instant and universal communication is clearly going to alter the world – as long as the internet is not simply a tool for entertainment and placation. The difference here is that there is no central authority presenting us with a well researched story for our consideration. In the modern day we can pick and choose the news we observe and believe – which may be part of why discourse has become so fractured and partisan. I present this as simply an observation. I have no solution to this situation we find ourselves in as we move into the future.

Good night, and good luck.

February 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 279 – The Day the Earth Froze

The Day the Earth Froze – December 4th, 2010

Some time back we first saw this movie as an MST3K episode, and it seemed a little odd and poorly dubbed and there was the question of what a Sampo was, but we didn’t think much of it beyond that. Until! We realized that it was actually an adaptation of The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic poem. You know, the poem J.R.R. Tolkien was an expert on and claims to have been inspired by when writing The Silmarillion? And ever since then I’ve enjoyed the MST3K episode, but really paid a lot more attention to the movie itself.

Sadly, the US version is severely truncated. It’s quite short and it’s missing a number of scenes, bringing the running time down to just under 70 minutes. The credits were mucked with and the original cast and crew names replaced with fake ones. It’s very frustrating, but this is the version we could get our hands on in a language we know. We got it as part of a set with two movies on one disc. The other is The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (also done by MST3K) and the two movies don’t have their own running times listed. Instead the back of the box states “Approx. 145 Minuts of Sheer Wonderment”. And really? That is no lie. These are great movies.

Of course, this was made in the late 1950s and was a co-production out of Finland and the Soviet Union, so I guess it’s to be expected that when it showed up in the US in 1962 it would be missing some scenes and the credits would be decidedly Americanized. And the time period it’s from definitely shows in the film quality. There’s a certain feel to the Russian fantasies I’ve seen from the 1950s/1960s, and thanks to MST3K I’ve seen a few. It’s something that might be an acquired taste, but if so, I’ve acquired it. Really, when you look at the movie it’s got fairly high production values. There are elaborate costumes and sets and the special effects are fairly decent. I am fully willing to agree with the box’s claim of sheer wonderment here. Yes, it’s dated and horribly cut down from its original format, but it’s decently made, all things considered, and I do truly enjoy the story.

If you aren’t familiar with the Kalevala, I highly recommend taking a look and reading about it. My personal favorite version is The Canine Kalevala by Mauri and Tarja Kunnas, but I’ve got a soft spot for their style. Being an epic poem, it’s really quite long. This movie (and the book I mentioned above) are very much shortened versions telling only select portions of the story, but when there aren’t a bunch of guys talking over the dialogue it does make sense, I swear.

In the happy land of Kalevala lives a young woman named Annikki. Her brother, a smith named Ilmarinen, has the power to make a magical item called a Sampo. The Sampo can produce salt, flour, gold and many other wonders, but it can only be forged once Annikki falls in love. Unfortunately for the people of Kalevala, as soon as Annikki falls in love with a man named Lemminkainen, the wicked witch of Pohjola, Louhi, kidnaps her in order to force Ilmarinen to make the Sampo for the people of Pohjola. Ilmarinen does so and he and Lemminkainen and Annikki escape, but Lemminkainen returns to Pohjola to destroy the Sampo, since Louhi will only use it for evil. Louhi vows revenge and steals the sun and then there’s a big battle with music that puts the bad guys to sleep.

See? That’s a coherent plot, and there’s a lot that goes on within it. The witch has various winds held prisoner in sacks in a cave and keeps them until she needs them in battle. Ilmarinen makes all sorts of things that aren’t supposed to be forged, like boats and horses. There are tasks to be completed and quests to go on. The people of Kalevala band together to defeat Louhi by means other than force and in the middle of it all there’s Annikki and Lemminkainen’s wedding. I really wish we had an uncut version of this so we could see more of the plot and the lands of Kalevala and Pohjola.

Given that I would never go into this movie expecting slick special effects and all, I don’t really have many complaints. No, the performances of some of the cast aren’t that great but I’m willing to give them a pass as they could be obscured by poor film quality and heavy-handed dubbing. Visual expression is important and all, but without knowing the verbal expression from the original, I refuse to condemn the performances. They’re perfectly decent for a fantasy adventure movie from the 1950s. Everything, for me, is perfectly decent. It’s fun. And maybe I’m biased because I’d already seen this on MST3K and enjoyed it there and knew what to expect, but I don’t care. I like this movie. It’s got a charm to it that I love and it’s telling a story I find really fascinating. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s mine.

December 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Forrest Gump

October 11, 2010

Forrest Gump

That guy from Bosom Buddies won his second Oscar with this movie. But of course he had a lot of help. This movie is one of those dream projects that only very rarely comes along. It has an amazing, touching, heartbreakingly simple script. It has adept and wonderful direction. It has some fun special effects and a playful attitude about the pop culture of the second half of the twentieth century. And of course it has some astonishingly good acting from Tom Hanks.

This is a five-tissue movie for me. I was tearing up from the very beginning when the iconic feather that bookends the movie and the quaint theme music started. To say that this is a movie that tugs at the heart strings would be an understatement. It is a movie that grabs the heart strings and YANKS them. Repeatedly. It is a movie that has as its only purpose the goal of making you care about this simple guy from Greenbow Alabama so that when the improbable circumstances of his life unfold you can cheer or weep along.

I don’t suppose there’s any point in summing up the plot. You’ve probably seen the movie before, and if you haven’t I don’t want to spoil things. It’s the story of the life and times of Forrest Gump, a man with a million catch phrases and a childlike simplicity to him. (Who, at the time that this movie came out, was not sick almost instantly of “Life is like a box of chocolates” or “Stupid is as stupid does” or “Run, Forrest, RUN!”) Through crazy random happenstance he is part of a number of iconic moments of history in the nineteen fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. The movie is very cleverly told through Forrest’s narration as he sits on a bench waiting for his bus and he tells his life story to a series of people sitting next to him. Throughout the movie the central theme is his simple and undying love for the tragic Jenny, his childhood friend who seems to have nothing but trouble in her life and whom he can never quite seem to save from herself and her demons.

The writing in this movie is simply astonishing. It uses a number of clever devices to draw you into Forrest’s story and make you a part of it. For example there are the people listening to his tale, simple random folk like ourselves who start out skeptical and become caught up in the story as he tells it. And there are crowd pleasing get-up-and-cheer moments like Forrest and Jenny meeting in the reflecting pool on the national mall. It’s also fun how Forrest never actually names any of the historic figures he encounters in his life – they’re just folks to him. This not only makes you use your brain a little but makes you an active participant in the story telling as you sort of translate the events he’s describing. I’ve never read the novel the book is based on, so I don’t know how much of this is the work of novelist Winston Groom and how much is that of screenplay writer Eric Roth. All I know is that the script itself is golden, which must have drawn in a lot of the talent that is attached to the film.

Robert Zemeckis has been one of my favorite directors for ages. He always enjoys using special effects as more than story-telling tools. They’re an integral part of his movies. Roger Rabbit for example creates a whole noir mystery around the flawless integration of live action and cartoons. Death Becomes Her revels in the strange ways that it can abuse the re-animated corpses that inhabit the film. And lately he has become the great pioneer into movies that blend motion capture and computer animation so that his more recent films are virtually nothing BUT special effects. This movie must have been a playground for him. Forrest is cleverly integrated into all kinds of archival footage (although in a couple cases – LBJ and John Lennon most notably – the lip replacement used doesn’t quite work.) There’s also a lot of subtle effects work used to remove Gary Sinise’s legs when his character becomes a paraplegic. So for a fan of special effects this film is a treat, and it’s kind of fun to see so many advanced techniques being used in a simple story that involves no time travel or aliens.

Speaking of Gary Sinise – his role as the bitter Lieutenant Dan is another of those things in the movie that really makes it shine. Sure Tom Hanks won the Oscar, and his Forrest is wonderful – able to communicate that though he may be simple minded he actually understands a great deal, but Gary steals the show any time he’s on screen.

I just love this movie. I know it’s manipulative. I know it’s over-the-top. But you can’t help loving Forrest or the people he cares for. It makes me cheer and it makes me cry, and it makes me want to watch it all over again…

And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

November 11, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment