Monthly Archives: February 2015

White Zombie (1932)

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*. This is a movie that for a long time failed to get the appreciation it deserved. Such neglect came about for a couple of reasons.
*. In the first place, it was lost (or at least out of circulation) for quite a few while, only to be rediscovered in the 1960s.
*. In addition, because it’s a movie in the public domain it’s been mostly available in really lousy prints. I only recently saw a restored version in HD and it was like seeing an entirely new movie compared to what I’ve been used to watching.
*. I think it’s a very good, though not a great movie. It has some interesting camera work (especially shooting with odd frames and foregrounds), an original premise (this is usually described as the first feature-length zombie film), some good sets (left over from previous Universal films), a decent story, and a distinct visual flair.
*. Sure it has faults, but most of them are understandable. It was shot in eleven days, which is a tight schedule. The acting is hammy, but so was the acting in most early sound films. Ditto for the script, which isn’t that concerned with convincing dialogue. You can criticize it for being a bit confusing (just what is the prior relation between Madeleine and Beaumont anyway?), but it moves along at a good pace.
*. Put another way, is this any worse a movie than Browning’s Dracula? Only, I think, for not having a stronger supporting cast in Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler and Edward Van Sloan.

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*. Only one scene strikes me as downright awful, albeit in a fun way. That’s the one where Neil and Dr. Bruner discuss what to do about the situation. This is, unhappily, all done in a single long take and has one of the worst line flubs I’ve ever seen make it into a final print (Neil: “Murdered? So that somebody could steal her dead body? Ah, nonsense!” Dr. Bruner: “Ah, no, not her, uh, not her, uh, her body, yes, but not her dead body.”). Then a bit later it has what seems to be a howler of a miscue when Dr. Bruner asks for a match and Neil picks one up that’s right in front of him and says “here’s one” (Bruner replies lamely “thank you, I didn’t see it”). That’s all approaching Plan 9 From Outer Space territory. But I guess they didn’t have the time or the money to do a re-take.
*. On the other side of the ledger I’d emphasize that visual flair I mentioned earlier. I love the look of the graveyard-on-a-hillside, even though that might not be the most practical location for burying people. The first appearance of the zombie gang (themselves a motley crew) coming down the hill is also quite effective. And Lugosi’s Murder Legendre is a delightful creation, complete with forked beard and threatening, arched unibrow. It could have been as iconic a role as the Count.
*. I also love how Neil and Bruner seem to be glowing against the jungle in their bright whites and white horses. In bad prints they nearly dissolve into a white blob.
*. Is it a political film? Zombies have a way of inviting such interpretations. And this was 1932, the height of the Great Depression. So look again at those labourers in the cane mill and listen to David Skal: “The shuffling spectacle of the walking dead in films like White Zombie (1932) was in many ways a nightmare vision of a breadline. . . . Millions already knew that they were no longer completely in control of their lives; the economic strings were being pulled by faceless, frightening forces. If the force had a face, it was likely to be that of zombie-master Bela Lugosi, commanding you mesmerically. Zombies were especially handy in the present economy, for, as San Francisco reviewer Katherine Hill quipped, ‘They don’t mind about overtime.'”
*. The ending has an odd feel to it, with many of the characters staggering about in a stupor, controlled by Legendre’s curiously clutching hands. Especially worth noting are the lemming-like death plunge of the zombie crew and the intensely sinister scene where Lugosi calmly whittles away as he sits beside the expiring Beaumont. That’s one of the creepiest, most chilling scenes you’ll see in any film.

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I Stand Alone (1998)

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*. “Oh how I love my country. France! Poor France! All the world’s misery is upon you. No more factories. No more work. Nothing but ruins and unemployment.”
*. When did French culture become so depressing and nihilistic? I’m tempted to say WW2 had something to do with it, but Céline was writing his big books in the 1930s. So 1871?
*. Whatever the root cause, it’s clear they still haven’t gotten over it. This book is much of a flavour with a lot of postwar French literature. It’s particularly close in spirit to the novels of Michel Houellebecq. All of the same obsessions are here, from the reductive pop Darwinism (life is a rumble in the jungle, morality is just a meaningless social convention, we’re only here to spread our selfish genes) to the idolization of Robespierre. Even the first-person monologue or rant is part of the same sensibility.
*. Going even further back, isn’t there something of Balzac’s Rastignac in the Butcher’s declaration of war against the world, “seul contre tous” (the original French title)?

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*. As always with a film that crams us into the head of an anti-hero, we have to put a guard up on our empathy. How much can we relate to the Butcher? Aren’t we all a bit sick of the world? That unattractive wife and her mother, that hideous wallpaper, the disco music the truck driver has cranked up . . . the Butcher has a point, doesn’t he? This is an awful world.
*. Philippe Nahon was concerned about getting typecast as a heavy due to being associated with roles like this (it’s why he initially didn’t want to be in High Tension). And you can tell why. He just nails the part of a bitter, violent, middle-aged man.
*. I’ve never thought of slices of meat before as looking like female genitalia. Thanks for that, Gaspar.
*. Itself a sequel to Noé’s first film, Carne, this one in turn leads (a little awkwardly) into Irreversible, where we get a brief intro with the Butcher explaining what’s been happening to him lately.
*. The connections to Irreversible are more thematic though. The Butcher has a speech about the irreversibility of time’s arrow, and yet both films play off such a reversal. Irreversible is a movie told backwards and here we get the erase and rewind of the Butcher’s fantasy of killing his daughter.
*. Both movies also end with a snatch of classical music to go along with what might be taken as scenes of redemption. But both endings are also undercut, so it’s not clear how ironically Noé wants us to take them.
*. Another thematic similarity lies in the way they present the inefficacy, if not entirely self-defeating nature of revenge. The Butcher isn’t getting any payback against the people he sees as his tormentors, and even if he did it wouldn’t do him any good.
*. So what is morality then? Just the strength to act out your biological urges? The will to power? I’m guessing that may be all the point there is to it. And the message: don’t end up like the Butcher, surprised by the void. Gird yourself for battle. And please get more bullets for your gun.

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The Last Boy Scout (1991)

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*. Whatever happened to Damon Wayans? I remember when he left In Living Color to make it big in Hollywood, starting with this high-concept picture. And that was pretty much all she wrote. I think he mainly does stand-up now.
*. Sadly, we know what happened to Taylor Negron. He’s the guy who plays Milo here, a memorable henchman, sadistic and fey. He died too soon of liver cancer.
*. Whatever happened to Shane Black? Oh, I know he made his money. At the time, the script for this one set a record at $1.75 million (a mark that only stood for a couple of months before Joe Eszterhas’s Basic Instinct script blew it away). But this was sort of the high point of his career churning out such garbage. Or at least I thought so until I heard he wrote and directed Iron Man 3, which made a lot of money. So I guess he’s still somehow . . . relevant.
*. It was not a happy shoot. Producer Joel Silver hated it. Director Tony Scott hated it. Composer Michael Kamen hated it. The expensive script was changed on the fly. And in the end Warner Bros. had to do a massive re-edit job. Which didn’t help much because in my opinion it’s still crap.
*. A lot of the blame has to be laid at the feet of that script. Did I mention it set a record? I did. And for what? A tired re-tread of Black’s buddy theme (the one that he made his name with on the Lethal Weapon franchise).
*. But no! Joel Silver saw something more here. In his words, what he saw “went far beyond the standard ‘two-guys-who-don’t-like-each-other-at-first-but-learn-to-respect-each-other’ plotline.” Apparently what appealed to him (and made it different?) is that “at its very heart it’s a tale of redemption . . . two lost souls who find themselves through helping each other and joining efforts in a common cause.” Oh. Well. That’s different.
*. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. There is nothing different about this at all. Willis seems downright bored with his role, which is just another tough-talking private dick up against a complex conspiracy involving L.A.’s high and low elements.

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*. But it’s all very silly. I mean, take the opening. It’s quite memorable with the football player blasting his way into the endzone with a handgun, but what does any of it have to do with the rest of the movie? Almost nothing. And What’s the point of callilng Billy Cole and telling him he has to play better? Don’t you usually pressure players to throw games? “You better start scoring some touchdowns”? What? Do they think he’s not trying hard enough to win?
*. Or take the scene where Wayans decides to fast forward the tape in Willis’s car. What, he’s bored? And then the tape is ruined? When a tape machine “eats” the tape you can usually take it out and it isn’t too damaged. It happened to me all the time, back in the day. So what’s the big deal? Why did they even bother introducing the tape as potential evidence in the first place, just to get rid of it with such a contrived and stupid scene?
*. Then there is the dialogue. Someone calls Willis a bastard and he replies “and then some.” This was apparently such a good line we get to hear it three times. And Wayans’s deathless claim that danger is his middle name? We get that twice. Somebody should have asked for their $1.75 million back.
*. Joe is a crafty dick because he can disarm people with guns by making them laugh. He does so by cracking jokes about sex with fat women, like having to roll them in flour and go for the wet spot, or get this one: he slaps them on the thigh and rides the fifth wave in! My god. Those jokes were ancient when I was a kid.
*. The fat jokes are part of another dismaying part of the script, which I’ll leave to Roger Ebert to break down: “The only consistent theme of the film is its hatred of women. The two heroes (Willis and Wayans) have a wife and a girlfriend, respectively, who cheat on them – the wife with Willis’ best friend, the girlfriend by prostituting herself. Both men are at home in this screenplay, which hates women with a particular viciousness; the verbal violence begins by calling them bitches and whores and worse, over and over again, and the message is that a man can only really trust another man. The end of the movie is peculiar in the way it insists on this; the hero, reconciled with his cheating wife, embraces her and whispers vile obscenities into her ear. We are intended to read them as tender. Then he strolls off lovingly with his buddy.”
*. Well, it comes with the territory. Buddies do complain about their bitches and hos. But what really confused me is the ending, when Joe’s wife says “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.” Huh? What is she asking forgiveness for? Their marriage had clearly broken down completely before any of the adventures we see here. Is it because Willis has successfully demonstrated that he’s a true action hero (read: he-man) that she has to be shown crawling back to him?
*. Such is the conclusion reached by Desson Howe writing in the Washington Post. He sees Willis’s violence as scoring points: “In “Scout,” if a woman isn’t a slut or a bimbo, she’s a bitch. Harris [Danielle Harris, playing Willis’s daughter], like her mother, is estranged from Willis. He’ll have to earn her love by killing large numbers of criminals. See, the world is ranked in muscle or armament strength; you show your love through the body count you’ve achieved.”
*. There are other problems with the script. The ending is ludicrous. I don’t know how the hell Milo was supposed to get away. Killing the senator seems like a rather extreme fall-back plan. Then the idea that everyone has a direct line of sight to the crooked owner’s house where he blows himself up and they can all laugh at his destruction is itself laughable.
*. In the final scene, which holds out the (vain) hope for a franchise as Joe adopts Jimmy as his partner, we stand at the cusp of irony. Joe explains how a real detective/action hero has to deliver lines with panache and humour. When you hit a bad guy with a surf board you cay “Surf’s up!” It’s not a funny lline, but at least it’s self aware. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie (which is to say, all of it) is stuck looking backward. Way, way back.

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Mr. Adam Bitt at Convent (1925)

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*. What’s this? A porn movie?
*. Yes. Or “vintage erotica,” as we like to say in these more sophisticated times.
*. It’s a particular kind of porn movie though, perhaps the earliest surviving example of the “nunsploitation” genre that took off in the 1970s.
*. Why nuns in a convent? Because this is France, and sex and the Church have always been linked in that nation’s cultural consciousness. Authority and taboo. It’s no coincidence that the real historical scandal that Ken Russell’s The Devils was based on took place in a French convent. Or that the Marquis de Sade liked to set so many of his fictions within the walls of satanic cloisters.
*. Already the four-part sex scene had established itself: cunnilingus, fellatio (there’s something pleasantly egalitarian about this reciprocity in 1925), then sex, followed by money shot. Again one thinks of the setting and the idea of sex as a parodic ritual.
*. What I think is most transgressive, even today, is the quick flash of homosexual buggery as the peeping Tom gets surprised from behind. That’s not something you’re likely to see in any mainstream or even gonzo porn film today. A man may take a strap-on up the ass (that’s even there in Myra Breckenridge), but you don’t often see depictions of male homosexuality in heterosexual porn. It’s a real no-go zone.
*. What do the actors look like? Mr. Dupédé has a false beard. As for the others, well, there are close-ups but they aren’t of anyone’s face.
*. What a horrible French-to-English translation job. In the movie L’Abbé Bitt is translated as Mr. Abbot Bitt, which in the title appears as Adam Bitt “at Convent” (the definite article has been dropped).
*. The climactic “blessing” is disappointing. I guess the male talent was chosen more for other qualities. Though I was surprised to see a circumcised penis in the starring role. Wouldn’t that have been rare in France at the time? And perhaps even more rare now.
*. It’s no surprise that voyeurism plays such a key role in the proceedings. A lot of porn has this quality, even when it isn’t explicitly “voyeur porn.” It’s like a laugh track for comedy, reinforcing the feeling that you’re seeing something secret, something that you really shouldn’t be seeing. But porn doesn’t judge. It indulges us, and encourages us to indulge ourselves.

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Forrest Gump (1994)

 

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*. That framing image of the feather is suitable. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the movie. I guess it just means that our lives drift every which way. Later there’s a nod toward the idea of making your own destiny, presented as one of Sally Field’s pearls of wisdom, but it’s no more than a nod. On the commentary Robert Zemeckis sees the feather as a “metaphor for the randomness of life and the destiny of life.” Which is as deep as this movie gets.
*. The feather is also a symbol of fluff and weightlessness. This is a movie that is, on the face of it, resolutely about nothing. Nothing at all. Aside from the essential goodness of God (meaning providence, the film is non-denominational), mom, and America. And being nice to everyone. But maybe that is something, as I’ll get to later.
*. A lot of critics threw their hands up at it. They didn’t see anything there, but perhaps it was all their fault. They were too sophisticated, or had become too jaded. And this movie was all sweetness and innocence. And magic. And destiny. If you didn’t like it, weren’t you somehow un- or anti-American? Careful . . .

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*. Today critical reception is usually described as polarized, though the weight is still toward seeing it as a popular masterpiece.
*. I hate it.
*. I even hated the one commentary on the DVD I listened to by director Zemeckis, producer Steve Starkey and production designer Rick Carter. Nevertheless it does give some insight into the seriousness with which they all took the making of this masterpiece.
*. A sampling of what we learn: “A really great movie is a blend of truth and spectacle.” Hoo-boy. “He [Forrest] has a much greater understanding of mankind and humanity than I think any of us do.” How so? If only we could all be so wise and knowing! “I always thought it was a like Hitchcock MacGuffin or something that Forrest was dumb. Because it was something that everybody followed as though it were true but in fact it actually had no real meaning. In the sense that I think he was actually smart.” Uh-huh. Sort of like the good soldier Svejk then, right? No. “So you have two people [Forrest and Jenny] who are totally polarized in their culture who are romantically attracted. That’s great movie stuff.” Damn right! “Nothing had to be forced.” The movie came together like an act of God. Destiny. And look at all the money it made and statues it took home! Gosh!
*. Part of my reaction is personal. Tom Hanks is, for me, just one of those actors I can’t stand looking at. Everyone has them; he’s one of mine. For what it’s worth, I find his performance entirely unconvincing. He seems to me like an actor trying to play a simpleton. As Anthony Lane observed in his review, he’s just too smart to play this part, and it shows.
*. Hanks apparently described playing the part as being like taking a warm bath. Which I guess he meant as a good thing.
*. Is there anything wrong with fantasy? With a modern fairy tales? I think it depends on what the message of the fairy tale is. As already noted, that message here is one of the triumph of sweetness and innocence over all. Or at least over everything but cancer or AIDS. Which is just, you know, destiny again.
*. Was there a message in there for our times? The ’90s saw the real take-off of the lottery economy, and so what does this movie tell us? That dumb luck beats hard work, talent or intelligence every day of the week. That’s the message we should have been paying attention to. As the saying goes, “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” So since Forrest is rich, “he was actually smart.” Q. E. D.

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*. Somebody actually wrote lines like “Life is like a box of chocolates” and “I wish I was a bird so I could fly far from here” and took them seriously. Literally, even. They were innocent, you see. And in true Gumpian fashion they won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
*. What it was adapted from is a novel by Winston Groom which had a slightly more ironic sense of its material. It was a satire. The film is not a satire of anything. That’s some adaptation. David Thomson: “Eric Roth’s screenplay was artful to a degree, especially in the coddling of sentimentality, mindlessness, and unconscious reactionary spirit.”
*. For a time it seems as though Gary Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan will provide a cynical and bitter commentary on the events of Forrest’s life, but before long he too is absorbed, assimilated into the same American Dream. He gets new titanium legs, a haircut, an ethnic bride, and makes it in America.

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*. And what would such a piece of propaganda be without a bit of product placement? So how about some new Nike shoes! And wear the t-shirt too, Forrest! And don’t forget to invest in Apple! It’s as American as . . . you know, apple pie! Except when they need slave labour to make their iPods in China. But that would come later. As would other calamities. Amy Nicholson: “Let us not forget that the Bubba Gump fortunes only came after a hurricane took out all of Forrest’s competition. Post-Katrina and post-recession, even his seafood riches now have a rotten aftertaste.”
*. Politics, anyone? Anyone? Hanks has said that the film is “non-political and thus non-judgmental.” I think he might have still been in character. A movie about American history in the 1960s and ’70s (civil rights, Vietnam) that is non-political? Non-judgmental? What? I mean, it certainly tries hard on that score, but to pretend it isn’t political is a lie.
*. Forrest is the embodiment of Morning in America: simple and innocent in all things but blessed and strong and victorious. For Zemeckis he represents “the ideal of what America was supposed to be.” Meaning . . . retarded? White, certainly. Fantastically wealthy, of course, but not because he’s interested in money. His politics? Well, let’s just listen to what he really thinks about Vietnam . . .
*. Oh no! Someone has unplugged the microphone!

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*. According to Amy Nicholson the scene where Forrest’s message to the Vietnam protestors is blanked out is “fitting for a movie with nothing to say.” But no, not quite. That act of self-censorship is what the movie has to say. It’s like Jenny of dying of some . . . “virus.” Why upset anyone by saying AIDS?
*. Unplugging the mic wasn’t even necessary. What was Forrest going to say? No doubt something along the lines of  “why can’t we all just get along?”
*. Or, as producer Wendy Finerman puts it on her commentary: “We had a hard time thinking of what Forrest would say about the war in Vietnam and we really couldn’t figure out what his perfect words would be and the idea kind of came in to have the police stop whatever his message would be because we could never quite figure out what words he would use to describe the war in Vietnam. By the time he started talking again, you know it was something brilliant that he must have said even though none of us had heard what it was.”
*. I think David Thomson is on to something when he talks about the essential (if not radical) conservatism of the movie and the link between Gump’s mental condition and that of Ronald Reagan. The bench narrative seems to be set in 1981. You-know-who has just become president: the great American mythographer. His mission? To make Americans feel good about themselves by drawing a picture of a simpler world. It’s a representation of what Thomson calls the “Reagan method”: ordinariness and likeability taken to a lowest common denominator that cannot be challenged.” Except Gump is not ordinary, or low. He’s a member of what would later be dubbed the 1%. But he still cannot be challenged because he is a fortunate son (is the soundtrack possibly ironic here?), a child chosen of God.
*. The conservatism is so obvious and belaboured it nearly beats you unconscious. Gump, our hero, stands for the polar opposite of Jenny’s sex and drugs generation. Hell, he even has a regulation military haircut before he joins the army. And once set on the right track by mom he never changes or evolves. For his virtue he is the big winner in life’s lottery, while Jenny collects the wages of her sins, the best the movie can allow her being a grotesquely pretty death.
*. This is an essential point. You can’t brush off a movie like this as meaningless fluff, despite its best attempts at presenting itself that way. Its innocence is a sham. For one thing, it quite emphatically presents itself as the Truth (blended with spectacle). It is presenting itself as history, made even more real by being identified with personal experience. And it is political. Its politics is that of nostalgia and its history is airbrushed and revised, but those are still positions that are consciously taken. And it’s not that I’m objecting to those positions per se (though I do find them dangerous). What I object to is the movie’s “innocent” denial of any agenda. This is the big lie.
*. Nostalgia? Oh yes. The early parts of the film were deliberately made to seem like they were “out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.” And the rest of the movie drifts along on the soundtrack of our lives.
*. But nostalgia is always a lie. It’s not about what happened but what we imagine we’ve lost. Surely Forrest didn’t grow up in a mansion like that, did he? Well, movies don’t lie.

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*. So it’s a travesty of history, but does it make sense on a more human level? Not really. The central love story is unbelievable, and even at the end it isn’t at all clear what Jenny thinks of Forrest or how she feels toward him. Does she feel sorry for him? Does she understand him? Is she even attracted to him? Or are we just to accept that she’s a basket case since being abused as a child so there’s no figuring her out? And isn’t it a little much to only go crawling back to Forrest after she’s decided that being a single mom with a shit job just isn’t best for Forrest Junior? Not to mention the fact that has no health coverage.
*. I think I’ve said enough. There are other problems. It looks too pretty, even for an airbrushing of America. As someone on the commentary remarks,”you can create digitally a flawless, perfect, moving lie.” Which may be taken as a warning. Personally, I get tired of and then alienated by the postcard settings and sighing crane shots. Damn, but Zemeckis likes that crane! And I think the editing is some of the worst for continuity that I’ve ever seen in a major film. Even on a first viewing a number of shots don’t match up at all. Of course, it won an Academy Award for editing as well. And for Best Picture.
*. Gosh! To hell with it.

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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*. On the face of it, a pretty standard political thriller. Secret agents plotting an assassination. That sort of thing.
*. A little deeper: one of the weirdest movies ever made.
*. How weird is it that it disappeared for over twenty years? And I’m not sure there’s any good explanation for why. The usual story given, that after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 Sinatra (who had the rights) didn’t want it shown, has since been established as a myth. And yet it still vanished, only to be re-released theatrically in 1988. Which, by the way, is when I first saw it. I was blown away by how contemporary it seemed, even before the insanity of the war on terror.

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*. How weird is that karate fight between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva? Very weird. This is often said to be the first karate fight ever in a Hollywood film.
*. How weird is Ben Marco’s reading material? The Principles of Modern Banking, Paintings of Orozco, Modern French Theater, The Jurisprudential Factors of Mafia Administration, Diseases of Horses, Ethnic Choices of Arabs, and the novels of Joyce Cary (you can see Prisoner of Grace in the pile, and in the final scene you’ll see he’s moved on to Ulysses). What is meant by this display of eclectic erudition? I mean, Marco is introduced to us as a reader (improbably reading a book in the cab of the truck when Shaw goes into the bordello), and he says he has a friend with a bookshop in San Francisco who sends him “random” titles, but still.
*. Perhaps he’s just an early type of what would become a later figure of fun: the autodidact conspiracy nut, filling his head with obscure information while in search of meaningful patterns. From the expression on his superior’s face, it seems to be only more evidence that he’s losing it. But what’s wrong with being well read?
*. How weird is it to see Joe Adams playing the army psychiatrist? Very weird. According to the people who keep track of such things, this was one of the first times a black actor had been cast in a part in a major film where the script didn’t specifically call for a black actor.
*. How weird is it that Henry Silva (of Sicilian and Spanish descent) plays the Korean Chunjin? Sort of weird. Hollywood has always had a freestyle attitude toward ethnicity.

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*. How weird is the incestuous kiss on the mouth Mama Iselin gives her boy? Not quite as weird as the scene in Richard Condon’s book, where they actually sleep together. But it’s still pretty far out there for 1962. Not to mention hard to understand, given that the two can’t seem to stand each other.
*. How weird is it that Angela Lansbury was only three years older than Laurence Harvey, who plays her son? Shouldn’t she have been his step-mom?
*. How much weirder would it have been if Lucille Ball had been cast as Eleanor Iselin, as Frank Sinatra originally wanted?

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*. How weird is it that Frank Sinatra plays an action hero who wears glasses (albeit only in one scene)? Perhaps it’s the result of all those big books Marco has been reading.
*. How weird is the speed of both Shaw’s and Marco’s whirlwind courtships? Raymond and Jocie haven’t even had a chance to get out of their costumes from the ball and they’re already hitched!

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*. How weird is Lansbury’s plot? She’s going to get back at her commie bosses by fulfilling their plans? As Ebert puts it, “She plans to have her son assassinate a presidential candidate so that her husband can become president, and she can then use his power to grind down the people who worked with her on this plan in the first place. Do not look for logic here.”
*. How weird is it that Laurence Harvey, born in Lithuania, raised in South Africa, and with an early film career spent in England, is playing the all-American boy Raymond Shaw? Where did he pick up that accent? On the DVD commentary Frankenheimer says that he thinks that “his American accent is quite good in this, but we always knew there was going to be a trace of accent.” A trace? Frankenheimer immediately adds that JFK’s accent “justified any accent that Larry Harvey had.” This makes no sense to me. Kennedy’s accent was Boston, Harvey’s accent is British and doesn’t belong to any American region.
*. How weird is it that Ben Marco uncovers the plot and then decides to just leave Shaw on his own for a while, with absolutely no surveillance, to see what happens? He says he has 1,000 men at his disposal if he needs them, but his office seems a bit understaffed.
*. How weird is it to have two actors in the same scene confronting one another, with one’s face literally dripping in sweat while the other is totally dry? There are at least three scenes like that here. It seems like a recurring continuity error.

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*. How weird is it that John Frankenheimer, not known for a strongly developed or particularly distinctive visual style, put on such a show here? The brainwashing and congressional hearing scenes are standouts, presented as single fluid, kaleidoscopic images that combine different points of view at once, in a way far ahead of their time and still remarkable today.

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*. There are a number of other flourishes as well, like the murder of Senator Jordan (that Frankenhemier confesses to be “a little bit over the top” on the commentary). Frankenheimer was only 32 when he made this movie, and never did anything as good again (though this was part of his “hot” period, and Seven Days in May and Seconds are both good movies).

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*. Most of all, how weird is Janet Leigh’s Rosie? I mean, what the hell is going on there? Most people feel that she may actually be another “control,” presumably in charge of Marco. That would actually make more sense than anything else I can think of. Alas, she’s apparently just weird.
*. I can think of few scenes in the history of film as unconsciously odd as her conversation with Sinatra outside the train’s club car. Unconsciously odd because apparently nothing at all was meant by it. It was just being quoted from the novel, “almost word for word” according to Frankenheimer.
*. Rosie: “Maryland’s a beautiful state.” Marco: “This is Delaware.” Rosie: “I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid this stretch of track. But nonetheless Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.” Marco: “I guess so. Columbus is a tremendous football town.”
*. Then, just a bit later: Marco: “Are you Arabic?” (No, silly! She already told you she’s Chinese!) Rosie: “Are you Arabic? Let me put it another way: Are you married?”
*. Frankenheimer: “Some of this dialogue is really off the wall, it’s very weird dialogue, it’s very strange dialogue.” How then to explain it? I’m guessing it’s just the result of a really clumsy job of adapting the novel into a screenplay. Novels, even highly filmable novels, are filled with stuff that won’t work on screen. Usually it gets left out. Here, for whatever reason, George Axelrod left a lot of it in.
*. So the script is weird. The casting is weird. Laurence Harvey is, in my opinion, dreadful. And yet this is still an effective and durable thriller, a trip behind the looking glass that has managed to stay strange and compelling even after all these years.

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The Expendables 2 (2012)

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*. I liked it better than the first one, and for uncomplicated reasons. It has more explosions and more fights. There are also more in-jokes, though none of these are very funny. As Stallone puts it in one of the promotional featurettes, people are coming to see a movie like this “for the baggage.” Which is an odd way of putting it, but you know what he means.
*. The baggage this time out includes Jean Claude Van Damme as a silky-smooth, almost fey villain named Vilain (a plus) and Chuck Norris as . . . Chuck Norris, again (always a minus).
*. I realize he’s a genuine martial arts bad-ass, but how the hell did Chuck Norris ever make it as a movie star? Being an action hero is a low threshold to pass, but he honestly can’t act at all.
*. Sticking with Norris, just what is he doing in this movie anyway? This has to be one of the most improbable cameos ever, as “Lone Wolf” Booker appears to be just traipsing around Albania killing off bad guys when he runs into the Expendables.
*. It’s a curse of all these films (by which I mean comic book movies) that they gain weight as the franchise rolls downhill, mainly by picking up all sorts of star cameos to go with their bloated budgets. Personally, I would have rather seen more of Van Damme and cut Norris’s character out entirely.

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*. According to one of the producers the desire here was to “go back to basics” with an “old-fashioned” action movie. So more of the same as the first film, but with more production value.
*. Could anything be more painful than listening to Billy tell the tale of his battlefield loss of innocence? I cringed throughout that entire scene (and his earlier scene with Stallone outside the bar, which is another “one of the rare ‘acting’ scenes in the movie,” according to director Simon West). I kept hoping they were going to inject some kind of Tropic Thunder-style satire or irony into his tired war story. But no.
*. Poor Chris Hemsworth. He must have died a little bit inside when he read that part. Thor has better lines. Much better lines.
*. According to West’s commentary, blanks for a .50 calibre run $6 each. He says they went through $25,000 on this movie just for blanks. For some reason I found that interesting. What a monumental waste.

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*. Why does the team spend so much time tracking the missing box and then trying to find out where Vilain is? They know he’s going to the mine because the computer drive contains a blueprint to the mine and says where in the mine the plutonium is. Since I assume the location of the mine itself is common knowledge (it’s kind of big), this makes you wonder why somebody else isn’t stopping him.
*. Vilain has to shanghai more and more local villagers to dig out the plutonium . . . because they’re doing all the digging by hand? They have no machinery? They have no tools whatsoever? Even picks? Come on.
*. According to Norris, the Sangs “are the lowest forms of scum.” How many forms of scum are there?

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*. I don’t know why the team mock the women of the village for shooting at them and missing “by a mile.” I mean none of the bad guys in these movies ever comes close to hitting them.
*. How do the Albanian women know how to speak English?
*. Are there two entrances to the cave? That seems highly unlikely, but Vilain drives out after the main entrance is blown up. I guess they didn’t need that bridge after all!
*. Why does Barney cut Vilain’s head off? A trophy? Proof that he’s dead? I don’t see any point to that. And yet Arnie and Bruce both consider it a “nice touch.” I feel like I’m missing something. Decapitation of dead enemies isn’t something ’80s action heroes did. I can’t remember ever seeing it happen.

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*. What undoes it all is the same problem I had with the first movie: the unironic presentation of ancient clichés, set in a predictable plot that clomps along without a single curve or twist. There’s just nothing new here at all. Could we have had another shot of the gang spread out across the screen as though posing for a movie poster? I didn’t think that was good tactics. It’s typical of West’s style though, which seems as though he’s directing for the trailer.
*. In addition, I noticed some of the editing is off in the fight scenes. At one point in the final airport battle you see two bad guys just waiting, with guns in their hands, to be taken out. And finally the one-liners and in-jokes have absolutely no snap to them at all.
*. For example, when Willis reveals his gift of an old airplane to Stallone, Stallone says “That thing belongs in a museum.” Now tell me you weren’t waiting for the follow-up to that one. Which is, of course, Arnold saying “We all do!” Chuckles and grins all around. Good one, Arnie!
*. West calls this “the best line in the movie.” Really, there’s nothing else to say.

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The Expendables (2010)

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*. There is genre, which turns into formula, which turns into cliché, which turns into irony, which turns into broad parody. The Expendables is a movie that goes down this path, only not far enough, getting hung up somewhere between formula and cliché.
*. Instead of making a 2010 movie looking back at ’80s action films — in the way, for example, that the Scream franchise looked back on ’80s slasher flicks — what we have here is simply an ’80s action film made in 2010. Stallone refers to it on the commentary track as “a variation on a theme” but I don’t see any variation. A team of muscle guys with enormous guns and proficient in all kinds of martial arts invade a despotic island state (of indeterminate ethnicity) and blow things up real good. Women are there to be threatened, abused, and rescued. The bad guys are so much cannon fodder: they can’t hit anything no matter how out in the open their targets are or how many rounds they fire off. The chief villain is a tyrannical military type or a slimy corporate suit (here: both). The heroes live by a code that involves lots of hard living and intense loyalty. I could go on and on but you know the script if you’re of a certain age. And if you’re too young to remember, you could probably figure it out for yourself soon enough anyway.

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*. Do women watch these movies? Why would they? Stallone refers to the team as boys who have refused to grow up and the plot as full of “ultimate male fantasies.”
*. What is the ultimate male fantasy? I’m not sure, but it reeks of homoerotic undertones, from Willis’s question about whether Arnie and Sly are going to suck each other’s dicks, to Li saying he’s never said anything about his (fake) family because he’s never been asked, to Sly and Statham questioning the “boundaries” of their relationship, to Lundgren telling Roberts that he left the Stallone’s team because of a “lover’s quarrel.”

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*. Why get Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger to volunteer in cameos and then give them absolutely nothing to say or do? Cut that scene out and replace it with a phone call and what is lost but the chance to see a couple of familiar faces mugging for the camera?
*. Sylvester Stallone should be billed as the Incredible Franchise Man after heading Rocky, Rambo, and this series (and this series was indeed always planned to be a series of films; the sequel was in the works before the first film was released). Film franchises are based on brand name recognition, usually of a particular star. And so Stallone threw a lengthening laundry list of vets into the credits of this one. Even the title-as-logo is a ready-made brand. You start to feel like you’re watching an advertisement or trailer for the movie you’re watching.
*. About the only thing that’s changed from the ’80s is a faster editing style and the use of CGI. The earlier action films were comic books, but now they’re even more animated.
*. On the commentary over the waterboarding scene Stallone says “do not try this at home.” But you know some people will.

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*. Stallone also commends Bryan Tyler for his score, saying he had only a week to do it. Why? I can’t imagine a big production like this giving a composer only a week to whip up a score. That can’t be right.
*. Is it funny or sad watching Stallone try to run? Apparently it was into a stout wind created by the airplane’s engines, but still. The man has veins on his arms that look like hunks of yarn, but he doesn’t appear to be in very good shape.
*. It’s a disappointing movie. I like a lot of these stars, but you keep hoping for some sign of fresh life, something unexpected to happen, but it all plays out strictly by the book. I’d like to say that it was at least an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I’d even go that far. It’s just a routine commercial production, industrial down to the metallic credits, and without the saving grace of particularly good fight scenes or stunts. It did, however, do great box office. But why? Nostalgia? Could there be something in all of this that we miss?

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The Neanderthal Man (1953)

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*. A very cheap return to the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, transplanted to California’s High Sierra and juiced with some facile nods to human evolution.
*. Yes, Neanderthals did have big brains. But as one of Dr. Groves’ stuffy academic critics correctly points out, brains size wasn’t what was most important. Most people today believe that what defined our species was our ability to use language.
*. A note: On the timeline Professor Groves uses to make his case he has Piltdown Man as one of the steps of human evolution. In fact, Piltdown Man was a hoax, only finally exposed in 1953, the year this film was released.

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*. A bit of a surprise to see Stanley Cortez in the credits as director of photography. The same man who shot The Black Cat, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter and The Three Faces of Eve. I guess any work in Hollywood is nice work if you can get it.
*. I don’t think Cortez exerted himself on this one very much. Among the opening shots of the Sierra Nevadas are several that are obviously just postcards.
*. It really is ridiculous that all of the shots of the tiger in action clearly show that he has no “tusks.” Instead, we only see these in close-ups of what is obviously a stuffed tiger’s head.

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*. But I do have to say that the final attack of the tiger on the Neanderthal Man looks pretty good. He really seems to be going at that stunt man!
*. The film was originally called Madagascar. I have no idea why.
*. Professor Groves’ fiancée doesn’t look any older than his daughter. Though in fact Doris Merrick was ten years older than Joyce Terry.
*. I’m not sure why they even introduced the character of the fiancée in the first place. She has nothing to do, and Professor Groves acts as though he’s not sure who she is or what she’s doing in his house.
*. Then again, why do they bother with the character of the deaf-mute housekeeper? We never see her transform into a beast and she serves no purpose in the story.
*. Is Nola raped? “He ran after me, he started to pull me by my hair, and then he . . . and then he . . . [breaks down sobbing].” I mean, he immediately kills the men he meets, but he keeps the women alive for some reason.
*. Wait: Dr. Harkness gives his eulogy over Professor Groves’ body before Groves is even dead? Pump your brakes, man! Just give him a moment to pass quietly.

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Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

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*. What is it about making movies in the jungle? Is there a worse environment to film in? As evidence, Coppola’s struggles shooting Apocalypse Now were documented in the documentary Hearts of Darkness. Ditto Herzog’s efforts on Fitzcarraldo in Burden of Dreams (and shooting Aguirre was no picnic either).
*. Then there’s this movie, the production of which was, by most accounts, a horror story nearly as miserable as the one Ruggero Deodato was trying to tell. Reports were that Deodato was a cruel, sadistic personality, and that the cast found the material so objectionable they wanted no part of it.
*. That someone like Deodato would put himself through such an experience, just to make such a mean exploitation film, says something about his dedication. Dedication to what is another question. His craft? Some principle of authenticity? The “moral” of his story?
*. That moral, or theme, is pretty simple. The intro sets it up with the contrast between the urban jungle of skyscrapers and modernist boardrooms with the stone-age “green inferno” of the Amazon. It’s the basic Heart of Darkness line: that the heart of an advanced civilization (London in Heart of Darkness, Manhattan here) is also one of the dark places of the earth. “I wonder who the real cannibals are,” the professor concludes, tritely and almost superfluously.
*. It’s a notorious film, sometimes dubbed the most controversial ever made. For an exploitation flick, that’s an achievement. As often happens, a lot of the controversy has died down. This wasn’t a snuff film, but one where the violence (toward humans) was pretty obviously fake. Though the image of the impaled woman is still striking, even iconic, in horror circles.
*. It’s interesting however that one of the most shocking things about it today is the full frontal male nudity. Gore and violence is something we’ve become inured to. But what’s that? A cock?
*. Then there’s the cruelty to animals. I don’t like it. I hate Deodato for doing it. It’s unnecessary. Apparently even Deodato came to regret it.
*. On the other hand, if you’re not a vegetarian what moral ground are you standing on? Isn’t a film like Franju’s Blood of the Beasts even more horrifying? You could say that the animals slaughtered by their millions as livestock every day are being used as food and not being killed for entertainment, but the animals we see killed here were apparently eaten by the natives. Meanwhile, Faye vomits at the killing of the turtle, but then is happy to eat its meat. It’s all rather depressing.
*. But I guess there’s no rule that says movies have to be uplifting.

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*. What’s galling, perhaps intentionally so, is the way the team members ham up the violence for the camera. They’re like a bunch of frat goons set loose on the jungle. Jack holds up the turtle’s severed head and mimes licking it. Then there’s the killing of a small pig. It’s tied to a stake and is shot at point-blank range with a shotgun. This, the kids claim, is evidence of “survival of the fittest . . . the law of the jungle, the strong over the weak”
*. Of course this is yahoo nonsense, and it gets worse once they torch the native village, deliberately forcing the children back inside the burning huts, for no purpose at all. In Nightmare Movies Kim Newman says “the intruders are a team of filmmakers who force the tribe into greater and greater acts of savagery in order to get sensational footage for their next movie.” Is that what’s going on? How savage is the tribe? I thought the filmmakers were trying to instigate some inter-tribal violence. But then why kill the kids? Especially when they are clearly the ones doing all the burning and killing and not a rival tribe. It seems as though they are just being complete idiots.
*. “Just like Cambodia!’ one of them says. Which is . . . what? A good thing? Ironic? Is Deodato saying something about American imperialism or its legacy in Southeast Asia?
*. Later they will gang rape a native girl, setting in motion their final, well-deserved destruction. In some ways then this is a precursor to the “idiot Americans abroad” or tourist-terror genre, later developed even further in films like Hostel, Turistas, and The Ruins (or, for that matter, Apocalypse Now). By the time we get to the end, we’re ready to see these assholes get their comeuppance.
*. Though I want to immediately add that the original team of explorers aren’t recognizably American. I say that not because they look like European actors playing Americans, but because of the way that Faye parades around the three guys while she’s stark naked. That’s not an American thing.
*. Another theme being explored is that of voyeurism. This is also a horror staple, and it’s indulged in quite a bit here, with the team sticking their cameras into the faces of rotting corpses and tortured bodies. Faye will complain during the gang rape scene that the guys are making a “porno,” and that’s a judgment that will be returned on her when she becomes the victim. It’s not a snuff film, but it’s very much a movie about snuff as an aesthetic.
*. Did Riz Ortolani even see the movie he was scoring? I mean, it’s a great theme but it’s so wildly discordant with the crappy quality of the movie we’re watching (though not necessarily with its story) that it’s jarring. It even changes up sharply at different points, and for no apparent reason. And why score the found footage at all? I don’t think it adds anything.
*. As much as I’d like to write it all off as a completely unredeemed piece of shit, the fact is there’s something here. In the first place, the odd structure where the two trips into the jungle echo each other in reverse order is actually well developed. It’s also a very early example of the “found footage” horror film, a genre that would only really take off after the success of The Blair Witch Project. And finally it has an emotional rawness, with the humans even rutting in the mud, and acting more beastly than any of the innocent animals they slaughter.
*. Depressing. But once seen, hard to forget.

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