Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Master (2012)

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*. There’s a recurrent cautionary tale in Hollywood. The lesson is not to give a hot director or auteur his head. What you end up with is Greed. You may, as a studio head, have loved the success of Easy Rider, but then you got The Last Movie. You may have basked in the critical adulation lavished on The Deer Hunter, but then you got Heaven’s Gate. You saw acres of promise in Boogie Nights and then you got Magnolia. Sticking with Paul Thomas Anderson, you scored with There Will Be Blood and then you got The Master.
*. Not to say this is a terrible movie, but after the first half hour I was wondering where the editor was. Then I realized the editor may have been less of a problem than the producer. Who was reining Anderson in? This movie should never have been allowed to go on so long, to so little point.

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*. That opening is a good example of a dead zone. How much useful information does it give us to see Freddie playing around on the island? The business with the sand woman is suggestive, but everything else is only filler.
*. I don’t mind a bit of ambiguity, but my main problem with this movie is my strong sense that a lot less is going on than we are being made to believe.
*. Take Dodd’s fascination with Freddie, his expressed belief that they have some kind of special connection based on who they were in their prior lives. Is any of this genuine, or is it all just part of Dodd’s usual script for adopting a new member to the Cause? I don’t think there’s any way of telling.

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*. I guess Philip Seymour Hoffman is good here, but how interesting is Lancaster Dodd? He seems like a run-of-the-mill religious fraud to me. We are never led to believe he is anything other than exactly what he seems, which is a charlatan. His philosophy is borrowed from L. Ron Hubbard and Philip K. Dick, but he never comes across as a genuine eccentric or particularly invested in his particular line of bullshit. We get to see the façade crack on a few occasions to let us know that there’s nothing underneath but an angry, stupid man.
*. I guess Joaquin Phoenix is good here too, but it’s hard to tell. Anderson seems intent on pushing his performances toward ever greater depths of inarticulateness. But be that as it may, it’s not that I don’t like Freddie Quell — that’s irrelevant — it’s that he’s not somebody I care about. He’s an alcoholic cretin, and I don’t see how you can get much more out of him than that. Yes, he’s messed up, seeing pussy everywhere, but so what?
*. This is disappointing, because the fascinating thing about cults is that they have no problem attracting people who aren’t, or who at least don’t seem to be, so desperate and lost. Well-educated, personable people from good families fall into their clutches all the time. So it’s hard to find anything remarkable or compelling in a piece of human driftwood like Freddie being adopted by the Cause. After leaving the navy, which presumably gave his life purpose and structure, he almost literally fell into the Master’s lap.
*. By my rough reckoning Freddie Quell should be a man in his late 20s. Joaquin Phoenix would have been 38 (give or take a year) when filming. But he looks like he’s pushing 60. Did this not bother anyone? Couldn’t they have at least tried to make him look his own age?

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*. Rounding out the three leads, Amy Adams is a complete cipher. I’ll grant there’s something vaguely sinister about her blankness but there’s nothing else to her. I assumed she had some personal agenda that she wasn’t letting on. You can call that mystery or ambiguity, but I found it to be a dramatic dead end.
*. Of course it looks good, but at the end of the day there’s not enough meat to this story. I’m not sure Anderson should be encouraged as a writer. I think there is an interesting theme here, about the human need to believe in something, to have faith, to connect to others, and also patterns of dominance and bonding that are imprinted on us by our families, but they’re inadequately explored and expressed. We never really see Freddie transforming, or mentally developing, and at the end my conclusion is that he hasn’t, that he’s still looking for love at his mother’s breast. Which means we took over two hours to get nowhere.

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Seconds (1966)

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*. Some people get a reputation for being so good at something it sticks with them no matter what. The credit sequence here was done by the great Saul Bass, and while it’s striking I don’t find it all that relevant or good at setting the tone. I suppose it’s related to the idea of Hamilton/Wilson changing his face, but for me it it’s more just an introduction to the warping of reality we’re about to see a lot more of in James Wong Howe’s wide-angle photography. Either way, I don’t think that’s what this movie is really about.
*. Arthur Hamilton has it all: a good-natured, fully domesticated wife, a great job, a nice house in an upscale suburb, a boat, a daughter who is married to a doctor. But a materialist lifestyle filled with all the good “things” that society sells him, doesn’t give him any pleasure. What’s that song the Babbitish Hamiltons aren’t listening to on the radio? Might it be the latest hit from the Stones? “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was released in 1965. It was something in the air.
*. I love how forcefully the Old Man makes the point. Does Arthur have anything, anything at all? As with joining the military, forging a new identity begins with tearing your original identity down. “What have you got now? What?” Charlie asks over the phone. Hamilton replies that he doesn’t know, effectively renouncing not just everything he owns but everything he’s made of his life.

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*. You can argue over the casting of Rock Hudson (I’ll talk about that in just a bit), but Will Geer as the Old Man is perfect. Of course we could just as easily call him Mr. Scratch and see him as getting Arthur to sign his name on the contract in blood.
*. Geer’s folksy voice is terrific, but I also like all his quaint little mannerisms: the way he just slightly nods his head, smiles, says “mm-hmm,” and blinks his eyes. He blinks his eyes a lot. With his glasses on he strangely resembles a frog looking at John Randolph, and I half expected to see him dart a long tongue out and swallow his prey whole.
*. That image of Randolph as a fly being caught is introduced earlier when he goes into the laundry and brushes against all the fly tape hanging from the ceiling. He’s been limed, I warrant you.

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*. The Old Man’s mysterious first appearance reinforces his demonic nature. Where does he come from? One moment he’s not in the room, and then after the film stops and the lights come on, there he is!
*. The company has this spectral quality throughout. Where does the car come from to pick up Tony Wilson after he leaves his former wife’s house? We just turn the camera a bit and there it is, but Wilson seems not to have noticed it pulling up alongside him.
*. The only thing I don’t like about the Old Man in that first appearance is his line that “there never was a struggle in the soul of a good man that wasn’t hard.” Isn’t the script here tipping its hand a little too far? The Old Man is basically telling Randolph that he’s sold his soul and given into the dark side.

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*. A lot of people didn’t like Rock Hudson for the role of Tony Wilson. Originally the plan was to have Laurence Olivier play both parts (he apparently was keen to do it), but the studio wanted a bigger star. There were few bigger stars at the time than Rock Hudson, though his career had now entered its twilight.
*. But is he too handsome for the part? I’ll concede it’s not realistic that any surgery could turn John Randolph into Rock Hudson, and indeed perhaps the main reason the other seconds are so mad at Tony Wilson at the party isn’t because he’s drunk as that he came out looking so much better than they did. If I were Nedrick Young (Harry Bushman) I’d be getting in touch with the company and asking for a refund.

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*. I don’t think his studly good looks are too out of place though. This movie trades in fantasy, which is always an exaggeration. I also think critics are missing something when they mention how reserved a performance Hudson gives. A typical example is Pauline Kael’s line that “Hudson seems dull to us as well as to himself.” But Hudson is playing John Randolph playing Arthur Hamilton. The point is that he’s not a romantic stud but a depressed middle-aged man.
*. Does it matter that he’s a man? In his essay on the film Henry Blinder points out that all the seconds we meet are men (as they also are in the novel). Nora would seem to be a likely candidate, with her back story of just walking out on her family, but it’s emphasized later that she’s merely an employee of the company, not one of the reborn.
*. This is a point that connects with something else Blinder points out: the relation between this film and The Stepford Wives (and between the two novels the films were based on, by David Ely and Ira Levin respectively). “In both books, suburban men want to improve their imperfect lives: In Ely’s work, the men pay a great deal of money to alter/replace themselves; in Levin’s, the men pay a great deal of money to alter/replace their wives.” In both cases the transformation is driven by male frustration. Men, at least in my experience, do not handle middle age as gracefully as women.
*. Howe’s photography, especially its use of a wide lens, is justifiably praised, but what is its effect? To make the most conventional everyday surroundings — a train carriage, a suburban bedroom, an office — seem fantastic. On the DVD commentary Frankenheimer mentions how much he loves the shot of the Hamiltons’ bedroom, but as you look at it, it makes you wonder at just how big it is. Could it really be that big? Or is it just being stretched on the rack of the frame? Or take that couch that Wilson and Ruby sit at opposite ends of when Wilson returns to the company’s office. It seems a mile long!
*. The bending and stretching (which in the dream sequence was something done to the physical set as well) can be obvious or subtle, but it gives everything a sense of the otherworldly. The day room at the company office seems like something out of Gilliam’s Brazil.

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*. What a depressing room that is. The people in there (they are later referred to simply as “the day room stock”) are waiting for (what they think will be) their second chance while stuck in the living death of a retirement home, playing solitaire and taking tranquilizer pills.
*. For the most part the oddness of the photography works, and is nicely complemented by Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie organ music. One experiment that doesn’t work, however, is the shoulder camera. It seems a very awkward fit with the rest of the shots.
*. Could someone who was on track to becoming a bank manager afford to retire to a beach house in Malibu like that, and leave enough money to take care of his wife and kid? If he had that kind of money why didn’t he just get a divorce?
*. I love that multi-denominational pastor at the end who reads the rites. He seems another figure out of the imagination of Terry Gilliam, with his various religious flavours being just more meaningless consumer products on the conveyor belt of false dreams. Perhaps he knows the woman at the party whose group changes “sects” every month just for variety.
*. Arthur Hamilton’s fantasies of the good life are interesting. He can’t be his first choice, a tennis pro, presumably because that would take real talent. But he can be a semi-famous artist because . . . well, because that doesn’t take any talent. As the psychologist (Khigh Dhiegh, reprising the same role he played in The Manchurian Candidate?) puts it: “You don’t have to prove anything any more. You are accepted.” He’s got the paperwork to prove it. That’s the triumph of credentialism for you.

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*. This film is often lumped in together with The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May as constituting a “paranoia trilogy” by Frankenheimer. Seconds isn’t as political a film, but it has more of that sense of creepy unease, that feeling — that meets us right from the opening scene at Grand Central Station — of fate coming up behind us.
*. Or is it fate? Hamilton/Wilson certainly seem to get carried along by events. Note how the film begins with him getting on a train and then getting into a car that his wife drives. He is merely a passenger. Then at the wine festival he is lifted and carried into the grape tub. At the party he is lifted and carried into his bedroom by the other seconds. All of this prepares us for the final sequence where he is once again a passenger being transported from one place to another, albeit this time even more unwillingly.
*. Perhaps he should have asserted himself earlier. Even at the end he is concerned that “they made decisions for me,” that “mistakes were made” in the passive voice, that where he went wrong was in not exercising more personal choice. He doesn’t seem to recognize that he is responsible for all of this.
*. This is of course the existential bind that the psychologist pronounces: “you are alone in the world, absolved of all responsibility except to your own interest.” That sounds like a good thing, but it’s really a disaster. How could such freedom ever be expected to make someone happy?
*. Happiness is a mirage. This is very effectively brought home to us when Wilson goes back to Scarsdale to see his ex-wife. The film is honest enough to show us that he doesn’t miss the gap that still exists between them. Painting was obviously something that was very important to him, that meant something to him, but she has apparently burned his no doubt worthless paintings when she cleaned out the garage, not even keeping one as a memento. He is hurt, and realizes how much was missing between them. There is no going back then, only the hope of making yet another fresh start.

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*. The note being struck is comparable to that of the mid-life ennui found in films by Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni. Seconds doesn’t seem as deep as the best work of those filmmakers, but underneath its SF trappings and horror-thriller plot it is quite profound. There’s more to it than just a story reminding us that we are what life has made us, that happiness can’t be found in things, and that there are no second chances.
*. I started off by adverting to what this movie is “really about,” so I guess I should wind up with that.
*. That point about there being no second chances goes against the myth of America, the land of renewal. You go to America to leave the old you behind and make yourself anew. Or, if already in America, you head west, to the frontier (this is a theme developed even  more explicitly in Ely’s novel). Hudson’s final speech to his old buddy Charlie is almost quoting Gatsby: of course he can go back and do it all again, only this time fixing what went wrong.
*. That American myth is still there, only embodied in the Old Man’s final speech about how the company keeps moving forward despite its mistakes, forever chasing the dream. Only he’s not talking about people but a corporation, and the dream isn’t happiness but profitability. He won’t personally live to see that dream realized, but he thinks some of the younger executives might. And that makes it all worthwhile. The dream endures, but the individual is disposable. The impersonal, inhuman corporation is immortal, feeding off human weakness, human dreams.

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*. Meanwhile, where did Wilson go wrong? He is undone by his humanity. His tragedy lies in his need to connect with other people. He would have been better off just sitting in his Malibu mansion (Frankenheimer’s own home, though one hopes the paintings were set decoration), being tended to by John, taking long walks on the beach, and posing as an artist, rather than having to socialize with a bunch of other phonies and falling in love with a woman who is also a phoney.
*. Other people always let us down. Even good ol’ Charlie was just using him, and in turn was being used by the company. That’s the sad message of the film. Hudson is wrong when he says that he concentrated on “things, not people.” Both would have been a mistake. There’s an evil conspiracy out there, but it’s the evil conspiracy of life, the way we all have to pretend we’re someone else every day just to get along with the people that we meet and get done the things we have to do.
*. The movie we remember is never the movie we actually see. Films are edited and re-arranged in our own personal and imaginary director’s cut. I first saw this movie years ago, and always remembered the final shot as being a man alone on the beach with his dog. I’d completely forgotten about the kid on his shoulders. It’s purely symbolic, but was apparently footage Frankenheimer had shot for an earlier scene where Hudson was watching a father play with his child on the beach. I look at it now as representing his grandchild (in a scene that was shot but cut Arthur/Tony visits his daughter’s family, his daughter played by Frankenheimer’s wife and his son-in-law played by Leonard Nimoy). But I like it better as being a man alone with his dog. A child is another tie that binds, a hostage to fortune, or perhaps another form of “second” life for the father, one that can be projected on in ways programmed to finally “get it right.” But why prolong the curse? We’d all be better off with just a butler and a dog.

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Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

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*. More of the same. As with J. J. Abrams’s original re-set Star Trek we see more people hanging from ledges and falling through the air. They even duplicate the effect of falling into sudden silence for the scene where Kirk and Khan “dive” into the other ship. There’s also a repeat of the Enterprise rising out of the clouds (of one of Saturn’s moons in Star Trek, on Earth here). As soon as I saw those clouds I knew what the next shot was going to be.
*. It’s also more of the same in being a remake, or revisiting, of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. They even drag Leonard Nimoy back again for his last screen appearance to explain what’s going on.
*. The opening business with Kirk and McCoy being chased through the jungle by natives because Kirk stole a religious artifact (why?) recalls Raiders of the Lost Ark. This made me reflect on how I’m now watching the work of a generation of filmmakers who grew up on Spielberg and Lucas. Shit.
*. I like the fact that Carol (Alice Eve) has sexy underwear on under her short-skirt uniform. I’m just not sure what Carol is doing on the Enterprise in the first place. Is it ever explained? And what is Admiral Marcus’s game? So he took a gamble on wakening a secret weapon and it didn’t pan out. Now he has to go full heel and start killing everyone?
*. Benedict Cumberbatch may be the most improbable leading man of the twenty-first century thus far. He’s a talented actor but the part is a shadow of the original and he never gets to light things up. Basically he’s just a comic-book villain with super strength and intelligence. I also thought it weird how he is undone with a very simple trick at the end.
*. I really didn’t need Spock to have that big “Khaaaaaaaan!” shout out. Not every in-joke is worth it.
*. I take it Khan is meant to be a terrorist with a base in enemy territory. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Klingon. The original plan is to take him out with a Cruise missile but that doesn’t work. At least Kirk ends on a hopeful note about not giving in to the need for vengeance. Though I’m not sure that matters.
*. I think the only reason I’m writing these notes is because I actually sat through the whole thing so I felt I should post something. It’s another videogame dressed up as a movie. The cast works well but in neither of these movies have they had any story to tell. Just more of the same noise. Audiences loved it.

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Star Trek (2009)

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*. Is the auteur theory dead, or just all the auteurs? How well would such a theory apply to Joss Whedon? To J. J. Abrams? Can anyone tell them apart? Which one did this film?
*. Executive producer Jeffrey Chernov: “J. J. is a maverick filmmaker, there’s no denying that.” Mercy. Well, I guess I stand corrected.
*. It was time for a franchise re-set. Actually, a re-set was about twenty-five years late. It took a while because the original gang took a very long ride into the sunset and then the Next Generation had a run. The emphasis here had to be on a youth movement: the crew of the Enterprise as rebels, punks, and hackers. Even Young Mr. Spock is a hot-headed scrapper. What are these little rascals doing in command of a starship? Well, that’s a bit complicated. But make no mistake, they’re up to the task.
*. Pretty much everything here was going to ride on the cast, and for the most part they came up aces. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are perfect as Kirk and Spock, and the rest of the crew are just as good. The only misfire is Simon Pegg as Scotty. I wasn’t buying him in the part at all (he doesn’t even sound Scottish!), or the way he was shoehorned into the plot.
*. In fact, I’d say this film is pretty much saved by the casting. The villain Nero (Nero? really? who would name their kid Nero? at least Tiberius had some good qualities) is a flimsy figure, obviously meant to recall Ricardo Montalban’s Khan in various ways. But he just comes across as a generic bad guy, maybe a bit dim, with a motivation that is hard to figure. Why does he blame Spock for the destruction of his planet? Are we meant to feel some sympathy for him? There’s just not enough presented for us to get our teeth into him either way. I wasn’t even sure what he was. I think he’s supposed to be a miner, a Romulan living “a life of honest labour” who happened to be off world when Romulus was destroyed.

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*. The retro uniforms signal a return to roots as well, and it’s less of a surprise than it is an in-joke when we see a redshirt evaporate in a pillar of fire. Meanwhile, “Bones” can be counted on to spout lines like “Damn it, man, I’m a doctor, not a physicist!” while Scotty cries with exasperation that he’s “giving her all she’s got!”
*. The rest of the script is borderline awful. I really wished they hadn’t gone with another time travel story. As I see it, such a conceit has two ends: it sets up an alternate universe so that perfect consistency need not be maintained between this film and the other films in the franchise, and it allows for the introduction of Leonard Nimoy to effect a passing of the torch (the same sort of thing that had been done in Star Trek: Generations).
*. The downside is that it launches us into all the usual questions about paradoxes and dilutes from the main thrust of the narrative. I really, really didn’t want to see Nimoy in this movie. Indeed the whole business of Kirk being marooned on the ice planet was a waste, just an excuse to have him running away from some CGI monsters before introducing us, in a highly improbable way, to Scotty and his hairless Ewok companion. The movie would have been a lot better without such a detour. Especially since Spock’s whole justification for not revealing himself to Young Spock (so as not to deny him “the revelation of all that you could accomplish together” with Kirk) is pure mush. What the hell does that even mean?
*. Say what you will about the original Star Trek television series, they made up for their low budgets with compelling stories. With this film they knew they would have to “go big” with the special effects and the story was an afterthought. I don’t know if we can speak of there being an inverse rule at work there. The stronger a film’s visuals the weaker the writing? It’s as if good writing has to come to the rescue of low budgets, or big budgets have to compensate for an inadequate script. Well, perhaps this isn’t a law, but I think it works as a general principle.
*. I take it as given that the science makes no sense at all. Warp drive is all part of the suspension of disbelief. But I was still baffled by the idea that you can be sucked into a black hole and then just pop out of it later in another dimension.
*. Red matter. Hm. I’m glad they’re keeping that big ball of it in a glass case so it’s awesome gravitation field doesn’t get out. But why does it have to be injected into the center of a planet to work?
*. It’s nice to see that global warming has had no adverse effects on American agriculture and that there are still endless fields of something growing in Iowa a few centuries from now.
*. The action sequences aren’t very imaginative are they? We see young Kirk hanging from a cliff. We see older Kirk hanging from the platform of the drill. On the Vulcan ship he’s hanging from another ledge. This is pretty standard stuff and I don’t know why you’d repeat it three times unless you just couldn’t come up with anything else to do. They even repeat the shot of his phaser skidding off the ledge twice.
*. If, after Kirk’s warning, everyone accepts that by going to Vulcan they are heading into a trap, why do they still go there? Shouldn’t they have come out of warp drive a little early so they could sneak up on the Romulans?
*. There’s not much point saying anything more. It’s a popcorn film that gave audiences what they wanted: lots of state-of-the-art big-screen special effects and a reintroduction to the old gang made young again. It’s just that the audience has been growing even younger, while time’s arrow has been pointing the other way for me. I remember the original television series being silly but more substantial. Many of the episodes remain with me forty years later, due mainly to the strength of the writing. This movie, on the other hand, is just more loud, expensive nonsense. Somehow, they even got rid of the nostalgia.

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

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*. The general consensus was that with Star Trek: The Motion Picture the franchise had got off to a bad start on the big screen. What’s more, it was pretty obvious what had gong wrong. The first film came in with lots of high intent. The series had become a kind of scripture that couldn’t be treated lightly. But a light touch was exactly what was needed.
*. Was it by design or just propitious that director Nicholas Meyer had no familiarity with Star Trek when he was called on to take the helm here? I think it was just luck, but it was fortunate.
*. The result was, in Pauline Kael’s opinion, “wonderful dumb fun.” Kael liked comic-book movies. It’s why she liked the 1976 King Kong. But then she was writing at a time before comic-book movies became the only game in town.
*. The triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy are creaky, but share a few light moments that recapture some of their magic from the old show. Ricardo Montalban, however, steals the show with his big hair, New Wave-primitive get-up, and plastic bust. He’s not afraid to play it big, and you have to love all he does with his hands, placing one on his hip and waving the other about theatrically or simply wagging his finger in a threatening manner. It’s a ridiculous part and yet he still turns in a classic performance, creating one of the screen’s greatest villains.

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*. There’s something endearing in the fact that Khan has been spending the last fifteen years reading the canon. Paradise Lost (and Regained!), King Lear, Moby-Dick. He’s got all the desert-island classics on his bookshelf. But then, what the hell else is he going to do living in a cargo container in the middle of a desert?
*. On the other hand, a little learning is a dangerous thing. Khan is (supposedly) super-intelligent, but he is not widely read. His literary models are tragic: Lear, Satan, Ahab. That last is the closest analogy, fitting well with Meyer’s wanting to make the movie a naval adventure in deep space. It’s also the source of one of Khan’s flashier lines. In Moby-Dick Ahab declares that he’ll chase the white whale “round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.” And here’s Khan: “I’ll chase him ’round the moons of Nibia and ’round the Antares Maelstrom and ’round Perdition’s flames before I give him up!”
*. He’s also quoting Ahab at the end: “To the last I will grapple with thee.” If only he had had a copy of The Confidence Man with him, or anything slightly more useful to achieving his revenge.

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*. It’s worth quoting from Roger Ebert’s review: “his performance [Montalban’s] is so strong that he helps illustrate a general principle involving not only Star Trek but Star Wars (1977) and all the epic serials, especially the James Bond movies: Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.” This is a fair observations. We can probably all think of exceptions, but as a “general principle” it holds up pretty well.
*. The dogfight in the Mutara Nebula is very pretty what with the purple mist and cloud lightning going on in the background. Let’s face it, most of space is pretty darn boring. You need a good nebula to light things up a bit.

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*. Introducing Kirstie Allie. Now there was an inspired bit of casting. And as the years have gone by hasn’t she begun to look even more the part?
*. The costumes have changed since the first film but are no less startling. Breast flaps with shoulder clasps. Flared trousers. Turtlenecks. What is it about the future that makes fashion designers go wild?
*. Well, Kirk’s son does show up on the bridge with his sweater tied around his neck. I guess he was a prep at the Academy. So what can you do?
*. I know what you may be thinking. Just why does the earwig come crawling out of Chekov’s head? I don’t think anyone is quite sure, though I have heard some interesting attempts made to explain what is going on. According to one interpretation the creature somehow sees Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) kill himself (taking the parasite host with him) and so decides to jump ship, unwinding itself (very quickly) from Chekov’s cerebellum and heading for the nearest exit. But perhaps Chekov has an aneurysm or something and this upsets it. You decide.

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*. It’s understandable that Dr. (Carol) Marcus didn’t want her son (that’s Dr. David Marcus) to grow up to be a space cowboy like his dad, but it seems odd to me that she would go so far as to keep the identify of his father hidden from him, so that she could keep him all to herself (that is, raise him in “her world”). Isn’t this the equivalent of being a space smother-mother? And why would Kirk go along with such a plan so readily?
*. Nicholas Meyer really wanted to kill Spock off at the end. But how realistic a plan was that? Meyer couldn’t have been under any illusions as to how this was (not) going to end.

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*. For my money this is the best of all the Star Trek films. And yes, that’s meant as very faint praise. The franchise made for great television, but the movies ranged from the merely good (this one) to the instantly forgettable and truly terrible. I still think Wrath of Khan goes on a bit too long, but it’s still the only one of these movies I can come back to and watch with any pleasure.

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

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*. We begin with an overture, which gives you some idea of the solemnity of the proceedings (reinforced immediately by the subtitle, which tells us this is not a movie but a “motion picture”). That solemnity would prove to be the film’s undoing, much as it would kill the first Superman film. Both franchises would learn their lesson and go on to much sharper, more entertaining sequels. I think the problem in both cases was that the producers didn’t realize that the audience hadn’t grown up in the interim. This is a mistake the Marvel comic-book films of the twenty-first century would not make. But that’s getting far ahead of ourselves . . .
*. It’s a grand score by Jerry Goldsmith, by the way. I’m not knocking the overture itself.
*. After the credits, we’re thrown straight into an action sequence, which was a good idea. However, I remember seeing the movie at the time it came out and being taken aback by the new look of the Klingons, who weren’t at all like they appeared on the TV show. I guess they figured these were the only aliens we were going to see so they had to do something special with them.
*. The science-fiction films that have dated the worst have done so not because their particular vision of the future turned out to be wildly inaccurate or because special effects have advanced so much, but because they get the clothes wrong.
*. So let’s get this over with. The uniforms. Yes, they’re so bad they’re funny. It’s hard to know where to begin. With the engineering outfits with their quilted targets on the front? The security detail made up to look like 1920s American football players, complete with leather helmets and codpiece? McCoy’s hippie-doctor look? The giant belt buckles that were, apparently, meant to be a kind of medical scanner (but this was never explained). The snug pyjamas that show off the male anatomy at its fullest? The way Ilia-as-probe comes out of the shower stall with no pants and sky-high heels?

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*. Along with the clothes we have to mention the hair. Sideburns were big in the late ’70s, and here they flash like scimitars down the side of nearly everyone’s face. And my jaw dropped at Spock’s startling makeover as a member of the mod squad, only to be outdone (as always) by McCoy’s first appearance as a hirsute naturopath. Next to these, Kirk’s hairpiece, though it seems like a parasitic alien life form (a tribble, perhaps?), looks almost modest.
*. These style matters contribute to giving the film an unmistakeable “camp” feel. This is then further amplified by the special effects, most of which look pretty bad. It pains me to say this, because they involved a lot of work, and I’m no lover of CGI. But the blue-screen effects throughout are weak; the planet Vulcan looks like a trashy dump what with its improbably cluttered sky of matte art and all the red garbage bags piled around; Neo-San Francisco seems to just be a leftover set from Logan’s Run; the wormhole sequence, which involved lots of painstaking animation, plays like a bad trip inside a cheese factory; and V’Ger’s cloud looks like a more relaxed version of the time portal in 2001.

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*. That said, I do like the Enterprise model work. The old girl looks good, even in dry dock.

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*. There are other factors contributing to the feel of a movie that came too late. The cast, especially our three principals, were now too old, and looked it. Indeed I don’t think DeForest Kelly was in good health. This gives the film a sad sort of feel. Then there was what was happening elsewhere in the SF movie-verse. The game had changed. Star Wars had come out a couple of years previously. Alien was just months away. Compared to those two films the lushly-appointed world of Star Trek suddenly seemed passé, old-fashioned. This is very much the future that was, but was no longer.
*. Isaac Asimov got called in to vouch for the science, which earned him a credit. But I have my doubts, especially when it comes to the holes in space. My understanding is that if Voyager 6 had disappeared into a black hole it wouldn’t have come out, and if the Enterprise went through a wormhole there’s no telling where in the universe they would have ended up.
*. There never was a Voyager 6, by the way. At least not “at the end of the twentieth century.” I believe they stopped after two.
*. The V’Ger “orifice” sounds indecent. Wouldn’t a better word have been “aperture”?
*. Where are these “exterior visuals” or “external views” that people get to switch to on their viewing screens coming from? Are there little cameras floating about like Google Cosmos that let them get footage of everything that’s going on in the universe from any angle?
*. I had to laugh at all the useless light displays playing on the monitors, especially at Spock’s console. Sometimes they’re just a honeycomb of blinking lights, sometimes a cross between a lava lamp and a screensaver, sometimes a scrolling page of code, even at one point just the name MARK in all caps filling a screen. I don’t see how any of this could possibly be displaying important information, but it’s another cliché from an earlier tradition of SF filmmaking where computers had to seem to be doing something all the time.

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*. I like the ambition and vision of the story, which is very much in keeping with Roddenberry’s sensibility and the rest of the Star Trek mythos. My problem with it is that it feels like an hour-long TV episode padded out to feature length. And I mean padded. There’s far too much time spent looking out the window at all the nice space scenery, and I even liked the V’Ger cloud, for the most part.
*. With all the time given over to visuals, the cast is left with very little to do. Bones, for example, doesn’t do any doctoring (Doctor — formerly Nurse — Chapel takes care of Chekov’s burned hand), Scotty only gives his usual updates from engineering about how the ship can’t take any more, and Uhura, Chekov and Sulu have literally almost nothing at all to do. Sulu in particular seems shortchanged, despite “taking the con” when everyone leaves the bridge his role consists of nothing but reaction shots, staring in wide-eyed amazement at whatever’s up on the screen in front of him.

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*. Let’s be honest: the original Star Trek cast weren’t great actors, and here they’re pretty much left to play to type. Which leaves the newcomers Persis Khambatta and Stephen Collins to carry the load. It’s curious, but they are really the stars of the movie and the story basically revolves around the two of them. I think they do very well, though they are mainly types as well. She is beautiful and he has a cleft in his chin you could go spelunking in.
*. V’Ger has a nefarious plan to reduce all carbon units to simple patterns for data storage. This was a nightmare scenario in 1979, but today it’s seen as a kind of nerdy rapture, a consummation of our destiny and something devoutly to be wished for. What happened to us? The Internet?

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*. The Star Trek franchise kept on rolling, through various new television series, novels, cartoons, comic books, sequels, and resets. Despite being a big fan of the original series I was never that fond of what came after. The only other Star Trek movie I cared much for was the next one up, The Wrath of Khan. I think it’s clear in retrospect that the basic premise of Star Trek was better suited for episodic adventures on the small screen. Nevertheless, despite being slowed by the stiffness of age, coming in overweight and with hardened arteries, this “motion picture” manages to express something of the show’s romantic questing spirit in all its hammy glory.

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Hercules (2014)

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*. Have we had enough yet? The CGI-comic book revolution seems to be going backward now. These films, never any good to begin with, are actually getting worse.
*. I mean, even the CGI fails to impress, and that right from the start. Those snakes coming out of the statue of Hera’s eyes don’t look remotely real (or threatening). And all of these overhead shots of massed armies that are just so many animated icons on a computer screen are getting tiring. Even the feral army of hill people may as well be more zombies or orcs.
*. The source, naturally, was a comic book (or graphic novel, as they’re now sometimes called). The single twist on the story is that Hercules is no longer a mythological demigod but a sword for hire, leader of a gang of mercenaries.
*. And . . . that’s it. Aside from that the whole thing is so clichéd, predictable, and just downright old that you have to wonder what the attraction was. Why even bother making such a movie? Money yes, but creatively what was the inspiration?
*. As noted, the basic concept is pure CGI-comic book. It’s 300 crossed with the X-Men or The Avengers (and all of those movies/franchises were/are terrible). Each member of the team has their own distinctive super power or weapon. A sexy girl is included who is just as tough and capable as the boys. We start off with a Seven Samurai-style plot that has Herc and his team saving a village from a band of bandits. Then there’s a twist to the plot because they just couldn’t milk 90 minutes out of that idea
*. The dialogue is beyond bad, sounding stilted even for a comic book (the British accents don’t help), and not always making sense. We are told that “Man cannot escape his fate.” Hercules explains to his green recruits that “When a shield wall is strong, nothing can ever defeat it. You must learn to work together, react together. When you do, each individual will become a link in a chain that will be stronger than iron.” But isn’t a chain made of iron? What exactly does he mean?
*. Then there’s his brief pre-battle pep talk: “In this moment, on this day, become the man you were born to be! You have it within yourselves to write your own legends! Let it be to death or victory!” How do we read this? They are writing legends “to” death or victory? Does that make sense?
*. I wonder who thought giving the (temporary) bad guy the name Rhesus was a good idea. Yes, it is a classical name, but it’s a type of monkey for heaven’s sake.
*. Dwayne Johnson is shaggy, bloated, and charismatic. John Hurt must have been embarrassed as hell reciting the lines he’s given.
*. The moral of the story? “You don’t need to be a demigod to be a hero. You just need to believe that you’re a hero.” Hm. The old power of positive thinking. Become the man you were born to be! So if you just believe you can suplex a charging horse, or pull chains out of blocks of stone, or topple a statue weighing thousands of tons, you can do it? I suppose so.
*. It’s a terrible movie and I don’t want to waste any more time on it. I do want to say something about the critical reception, which was generally quite favourable, with reviewers saying it was all good fun and better than you might think. I can’t explain this. Perhaps given the avalanche of this kind of action film we are currently being crushed by reviewers have given up. Or perhaps given how familiar it all is, and how millions of people were going to see it anyway, they think that any criticism would be superfluous. I don’t know. I just don’t know any more.

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House of Cards (1947)

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*. Good luck finding information on this one. As of the date of this post it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet. Nor does the director Joseph Vogel, whose only film I believe this is.
*. I don’t have much I can add to the brief liner notes provided with the Kino DVD. Vogel was born in Poland in 1911 and came to America in 1927. He was mainly known as a painter. He acknowledged being influenced by the surrealists.
*. The link with surrealism is obvious. We begin with a man lying in bed, which introduces the possibility that the whole film is a dream. The various actions we’re witness to, like the murder scene that takes place later, play out like dreams as well, with the figures looking like sleepwalkers or dancers.
*. The film takes the structure of a loosely-linked series of vignettes that recall Buñuel and that make you think that 1947 is a little late to be coming to this particular party.
*. There is the suggestion of a narrative. At some point earlier it seems the Man killed a woman (I say earlier only because he is clean-shaven in this scene, whereas later he has a dirty growth of beard). The murder is being reported in the papers and the Man is on the run, if not from the police then from inner demons.
*. The images, like all dream imagery, are ambiguous. They might be threatening and sinister, but perhaps not. It’s hard to say. Figures appear like those from an alternative pack of tarot cards (the house of cards of the title?): a man sitting on top of a ladder reading a newspaper, a woman at a telescope, a pair of fencers and a blind man, a dancer, a mourning woman dressed in black leading children away.

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*. The ambiguous nature of these figures is reflected in the Man’s relation to them. He is an observer. The film begins with him looking out of a window at a group of children. We cut back to him half a dozen times and each time the shot of him watching from the window is different, while his point of view remains the same. As with the scene where he looks through the telescope and sees an eye looking back at him, our normal sense of perspective has been reversed. Instead of there being an image created out of several different enjambed points of view, it is the observer who is fragmented and indeterminate.
*. That the film concludes on the deck of the Griffith Observatory has some significance then, though it’s also just a great place to shoot a movie (it would appear most famously in Rebel Without a Cause).
*. Along the way there are a few attempts at odd visual effects, none of which work because they’re not filmed very well and it’s very hard to see what is going on in any of them. One suspects Vogel wasn’t quite sure what he was doing.
*. I don’t think this movie is coherent enough or strong enough visually to set itself apart from a lot of other (earlier) experimental filmmaking, and this probably explains why it’s not as well known. I don’t think there’s any correct reading or explanation to it, but the viewer creates their own meaning depending on their own personal background and point of view. How many people are looking out of that window? All of us.

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Leviathan (2014)

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*. The title. It’s invoked by the priest when he brings up the Book of Job, but any reference to the Bible, as with any reference to religion in the movie, is fiercely ironic. Kolya suffers, but is no Job being tested by God.
*. I take it the main connection being made is to Hobbes, with the leviathan being the massive, and massively corrupt, Russian state. There’s an anecdote from the show trials of the 1930s that has a prosecutor, frustrated at being unable to attain a confession from one of the accused, going to meet Stalin. Stalin asks him “How much does the State weigh? All of the buildings, the farms, the weapons and equipment? All of the officials, police, soldiers, and prosecutors?” His point being that no man could resist being crushed by the weight of such a social and political apparatus: the modern leviathan.
*. I also take it that the whale skeleton on the beach (a prop apparently made of metal) is symbolic of the ruins of the Russian/Stalinist state: an awesome corpse of that great weight still having about it an air of threat.
*. This isn’t the only interpretation available. Peter Bradshaw sees Kolya as the beached whale: “with all the burdensome size but none of the power: massive, inert, waiting only for death to put his trial to an end.” I don’t see that, but as I say, it’s available.

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*. On the face of it, it’s a movie about life in modern Russia, or at least some of the bleaker parts of it. The unholy alliance of church and state is one of the most damning ever put on film. If that were all going on, it would have some documentary interest, but little more than that. What I found frightening was how close to home it hit. It was actually inspired by events in the United States, and as anyone who has ever had the misfortune of getting embroiled in municipal politics, or trying to fight city hall, knows, this is what the experience feels like. Money talks and the civic bureaucracy is corrupt, unjust, and incompetent. Things aren’t quite as bad where I live, but still I felt more a sense of recognition than shock. The main difference is that government workers here are better off, wear nicer clothes, and work in nicer offices.
*. I don’t speak Russian, and was surprised to find the expression “bro” used a couple of times and “dude” once in the subtitles. I wonder how accurate this was. Were the Russian words being translated relatively new slang? Western? Or will these subtitles seem ridiculous in another ten or twenty years?

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*. There are a couple of complaints I’ve heard made about this movie that I don’t think stick.
*. In the first place, it’s criticized as being too long and slow-moving. I don’t see this as a real problem. The two remorseless legal monologues, for example, are there for a reason and are effective. And while I thought there were a few short scenes I might have cut (the kids at the campfire, for example), the pacing worked for me and I never found myself bored.
*. A second criticism is that key events are not shown. In particular, Dmitriy’s having sex with Lilya and Lilya’s suicide. In fact, we can’t be sure in either case what exactly happens. Was Lilya raped? Was she killed? By not showing us what happened, Andrey Zvyagintsev creates an air of mystery that I think fits thematically with the rest of the film.

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*. As the mayor Vadim explains to his son during the closing church service, God sees everything. And there’s Jesus on the wall as Big Brother. So God only knows what was really going on between Lilya and Dmitriy, or whether she killed herself or was done in by Roma or the mayor’s goons. That sense of uncertainty feeds into the state of paranoia we’re in. What does God see? Presumably what we don’t. So does God see the truth and wait? Does he have all our misdeeds on file in a dossier being kept back in Moscow?
*. Or is God the camera eye? There’s a very disconcerting moment at the end, just before Vadim explains to his son that God sees everything. He turns from looking to the priest at the front of the church and looks directly at the camera. It’s a very odd, unnerving moment and I can’t explain it. You can feel the fourth wall torn aside like the side of Kolya’s farm house by the excavator, as Vadim seems to be looking, just for a moment, at us.

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*. In brief, where mystery and ambiguity are the point, as they are, say, in L’Avventura, I don’t think anything is lost by such elisions. And here they’re very much to the point.
*. Something I did find to be a flaw was all the drinking. Not because it’s unrealistic. My understanding is that alcoholism is a major problem in Russia and I can believe the local boys are tilting bottles back every chance they can get, drowning in epic quantities of vodka. And apparently the cast actually were getting drunk, as they were drinking for real in the film (which can start to add up over several takes).

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*. My problem with the drinking is that it dilutes my attitude toward the characters. Faced with the loss of Lilya, Kolya spends the final act of the movie in a stupor: not a man suffering but a man drunk. Meanwhile, I can appreciate silence as much as ambiguity, but there’s just not enough to get a hold of here to be compelling on a human level. Who is Dmitriy anyway? How does he feel about any of this? Does he feel, or is he pickled in spirits?
*. For such a human story as this there were only a couple of those quiet moments where I felt something was really going on inside these characters that might be interesting. These were when Kolya tells his friend that he can’t fix his vehicle that day and when Lidya wakes up and decides to go for her walk. For a movie this long, focused on a handful of lives, that’s not enough.
*. It’s beautifully photographed and has some great performances. My main complaint is that it’s underwritten, which, as a fan of nineteenth-century Russian fiction, feels like an odd thing to say. Compared to the people we meet in the pages of Chekov or Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, the characters seem like ghosts. Which, given Russia’s more recent history, is perhaps not that surprising.

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The Dwarf (1912)

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*. This is one of a series of films released under the banner “Life As It Is.” All that was really meant by that was that they were contemporary drama. Life as it is did not connote anything like a documentary perspective.
*. I wonder where the French obsession with ugly men hooking up with beautiful women came from. I don’t want to imply by this that all French men are ugly and French women are all beautiful, but there seems to be a national mythos here. Maybe it got started with Beauty and the Beast (a French fairy tale) or Cyrano de Bergerac (note that Rostand’s play is referenced here in the theatre review). But you can also see it in films as diverse as some of those by Jean Renoir (I’m thinking of The Bitch and Rules of the Game), Jean-Paul Belmondo bedding Jean Seberg in Breathless (how did that happen?), or Vincent Cassel with Monica Belluci in Irreversible (at least I find them an odd couple, though off-screen the two were married).
*. So here we have a dwarf who falls in love with an actress. You know that’s not going to work out, and it doesn’t. But it’s a great romance, one that the ladies at the switchboard can enjoy.
*. That switchboard scene is also a good reminder of how communications surveillance didn’t begin with the Internet. Even back — way back — in the day, one’s privacy was compromised. As a child growing up in a rural area I lived on what was known as a “party line.” It was horrible.

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*. Creepy? Oh yeah. As soon as the film disposes of the superficial actress the Dwarf crawls back on his mother’s lap and lets her comfort him. Yikes! He’s supposed to be a little man, not a child!
*. There really isn’t much to recommend this one unless you’re a cultural historian interested in seeing how sentimental mass entertainment was pre-WW1. Not that we’re any better now. We just have different sentiments.