Monthly Archives: June 2018

Quiz the twenty-ninth: Welcome! (Part one)

There’s nothing like a town sign to let you know you’ve come to the right place. Or the wrong place. See how many of these movie locations you can safely arrive at.

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The Parallax View (1974)

*. This is a movie that, once you see it, stays in your head a while for all sorts of reasons. I hadn’t seen it in years before this most recent revisit and two things struck me.
*. First, I was surprised to find that Alan J. Pakula actually made it a couple of years before he made All the President’s Men. I was sure it was the other way around, which would have made more sense: first the reality and then the expanded, paranoid fantasy.
*. But The Parallax View, which is based on a novel published in 1970 (before the Watergate break-in), isn’t a Watergate movie so much as a JFK assassination movie. Yes, Beatty’s Joe Frady is a dogged reporter with a crusty editor, and yes Michael Small’s score sounds a lot like what David Shire would do for All the President’s Men, but as a conspiracy thriller it’s all about grassy knolls and lone gunmen. Roger Ebert thought it would remind audiences of Executive Action, which came out around the same time and was a fitting referent then. Today I don’t think many people have seen Executive Action.

*. Already in 1974 it could cast a cynical eye on conspiracy. Even though the assassination of the senator is supposedly his beat, Frady wants to blow off Lee’s fears as paranoia. He’s not a conspiracy nut, but he knows there are conspiracy nuts out there.
*. The other thing that struck me is how good a movie this is. Two things in particular I thought were worth noting: the silence and the photography.
*. It’s amazing how much of this movie plays out in silence, or perhaps more accurately with no dialogue but only background noise or meaningless chit-chat. The great scene in front of the dam, for instance, is noisy (the alarm and the roaring water), but silent in terms of anyone saying anything (after the sheriff’s wonderfully apologetic “Actually, there just ain’t no Buster”). The whole business on board the plane as Frady tries to warn the crew about the bomb plays out with almost no dialogue. Ditto the end, where Frady is trying to escape.

*. There are two things that make the silence particularly effective. In the first place, sudden noises interrupt the silence in dramatic ways. There’s a moment of quiet on the boat, a long shot, and then boom! Frady is running for the doorway when it pulls open and boom! End of the line. Frady is going through the sheriff’s drawers when the deputy enters, silently. Then the phone rings and it’s like an alarm has gone off. What makes this last scene so brilliant, however, is that it’s only when Frady hears the deputy answer the phone that he knows he’s in trouble.

*. Silence also compounds our sense of unease and mystery. Bill McKinney has no lines at all, which makes him seem all the more dangerous. But then, aside from the recruiter, we never hear any Parallax voices. What are they up to? We never know, and still don’t know at the end. But silence makes us suspicious. It’s like Austin Tucker’s bodyguard. Does he say anything? He seems so damn weird the way he just steers the boat, looking at Frady.

*. Then there is the photography by Gordon Willis. There’s a particular type of shot that’s used throughout, setting up a strong visual motif. It has a dark foreground and a spotlight somewhere in the distance. This is introduced with the opening shot as we draw toward the lit judicial chamber down what seems to be a dark tunnel (a movement that’s reversed at the end). The same sort of thing provides the film’s climax, as Frady runs in the dark toward the brightly lit doorway that opens ahead of him. But as I say, it’s a motif that we see throughout. It’s in the shot of the morgue, for example, and the scene on the children’s train coming out of a tunnel, and the shot looking out the main door of the convention centre, and the interior of the sheriff’s house.

*. The montage is an odd piece of work, again effective for being so enigmatic. Can it be reduced to a specific message? It seems as though patriotic and family values are being undercut by dark, repressed forces (Nazism, racism, even gay S&M images). But then the viewer is supposed to identify with those same dark forces. Is Thor a holy avenger, or a Teutonic warlord? Or are they the same thing?

*. Is it weird that Parallax applicants need have no skills at all but only be disaffected losers? I guess not if they’re just being recruited as patsies.
*. Warren Beatty’s hair. What can you say? His next movie would be Shampoo.
*. I find it a bit curious that there appear to be no women in the Parallax Corporation. In much the same way it’s not clear that there are any women “seconds” in Seconds. But this is one of the great strengths of the film, the way Parallax remains so opaque. Silence is maintained and we never see behind the curtain.

*. There are so many moments in this movie that are unforgettable: the scramble on top of Seattle’s Space Needle, the incident at the dam, the overhead shot of the golf cart rolling into the perfectly arranged red-white-and-blue tables on the floor of the convention centre. Add to that the smart, minimalist script, wonderful photography, and solid lead performance from Beatty playing a man with attitude who is frustrated and baffled, and I think this is one of the classics of political paranoia. That it’s not better known may be down to it’s not having had a decent DVD release. Alas, now that DVDs aren’t such a big thing any more it may have missed its window for reaching a wider audience. That would be a shame.

El Abogado (2016)

*. The title just means The Lawyer, and it’s comforting to know that the legal profession is held in the same high estimation in Spain as it is in the English-speaking world.
*. Cynicism? Yes, definitely. But times have been tough in Spain since the economic crisis adverted to here. It was one of the countries most deeply affected, and the impact has been pariticularly hard on young people. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Hence what the contestants who are vying for a good corporate job have to go through in The Method. Or the young man in this short film, who has decided to turn to kidnapping.
*. The basic conceit is one familiar to American gangster films, where crime is seen as only being another form of business. And if you’re going to do something, why not make sure you do it right? A lawyer can help with this.
*. It’s really a one-joke film, as a lot of shorts are, which gets an extra boost from the current economic climate. Also interesting is the unmistakeable hint that the lawyer is not only without a moral compass but has a whiff of the demonic. This is an association that also has a long history.
*. At the end, do we think the lawyer was being coy in the earlier part of the film, only pretending to be shocked at his client’s modest proposal? Surely his next client will need similar assistance. And if there’s no ink in the pen, the contract can be signed in blood.

Duel (1971)

*. It’s hard to think of the 1970s as any kind of golden age of television. Most of the best-known shows from the period are of interest only to nostalgists today. And the movie-of-the-week format didn’t produce much that has lasted either. Duel is a real anomaly.
*. It was the ABC Movie of the Week in 1971, broadcast in a 74-minute version and then released theatrically in Europe the next year with another fifteen minutes added. What I find remarkable about this is that the added sequences (the phone call David makes to his wife, the scene with the school bus, and the business at the train crossing) don’t seem at all like padding. They actually make the movie better and I couldn’t imagine it without them.
*. To take the most obvious point, it’s the phone call to his wife that introduces the theme of David Mann (yes, that’s his name) having to prove his manhood in the upcoming duel. Dennis Weaver wouldn’t have struck me as the most obvious Caspar Milquetoast figure but apparently Spielberg had his role in Touch of Evil in mind, and so he plays the wimp who gets sand kicked in his face on the beach until he grows a pair and turns the table on his mega-phallic bully. I don’t want to make too much of this, but look at the shot of the tanker truck idling at the edge of the tunnel just before the driver comes to rescue the school bus. That’s a big load of manhood, and it’s about to put David’s ineffective attempt at a rescue to shame.
*. This crisis of masculinity may also be why Duel reminded so much of Straw Dogs (which came out the same year). The whole thing has the scent of Peckinpah about it, and apparently Dustin Hoffman had been considered for the role of David.
*. In hindsight, this was a project that couldn’t miss, uniting Steven Spielberg before he was anoninted wunderkind and Richard Matheson, who was Stephen King before Stephen King. If you wanted a classic popcorn film you were ordering from the right menu.
*. Technically, it’s very accomplished, and set a standard for road thrillers. The tricks Spielberg used to shoot the chase scenes (all on location) became widely adopted. The low camera, for example, to make it look like the vehicles are going faster, would be used a lot by George Miller. And ABC hadn’t even wanted Spielberg to shoot on location! The thought of doing this movie with all process shots is mind-boggling.

*. Pretty much all of Spielberg’s creative decisions paid off. He was a natural. He knew he had to shoot on location. He was right to reject the fiery finish ABC wanted, both because the slow death of the rig (complete with surreal dinosaur groans) plays a lot better and because it makes more sense. Let’s face it, there’s no way that rig was going to be pulling a full load while dueling it out on the highway.
*. Spielberg saw it as Hitchcock on wheels, and felt Hitch whispering over his shoulder while filming, telling him to drag out the suspense. I think he was referring mainly to the diner scene but it really works well at the end, where the climactic chase actually slows things down as David’s car dies and the rig labours climbing up the hill.
*. Another decision was not to show the driver. This pays off as well, as it turns the film into a kind of monster movie where technology is the enemy and being in our car turns out not to be so safe.
*. A later film like Joy Ride would also hide the driver, but Rusty Nail was still the villain, not his truck. It was a psycho-killer movie. That’s not what Duel is. Instead, it stands at the start of a series of killer-machine flicks, including Killdozer! (a 1974 ABC Movie of the Week), The Car (1977), and the Stephen King vehicles Christine (1983) and Maximum Overdrive (1986). And as a thriller it also had an even wider influence. The truck would become a shark in Jaws, and movies would never be the same.
*. I wouldn’t want to build Duel up too much, as it is pretty crude in places and gets a bit repetitive. But it is a highly successful entertainment, from a creative team who understood entertainment better than anyone. As I said, they really couldn’t go wrong. And they didn’t.

Kull the Conqueror (1997)

*. Kull the Conqueror is a mediocre film in a genre with few if any bragging rights to begin with, but I think it’s still possible to say a few words in its defence.
*. It was a bastard project from the start. The intention was for it to be the third part in a Conan trilogy, but Schwarzenegger wanted no part of it. And before you say “smart move, Arnie,” remember that he wanted out of so that he could play Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin. Kull is a crummy movie, but nowhere near that bad.
*. So instead of Conan they subbed in another Robert E. Howard barbarian named Kull. The difference being that Conan was a Cimmerian (who spoke with an Austrian accent) and Kull hails from some antediluvian Atlantis and wields a battle-axe instead of a broadsword. In other words, there was no difference at all between the two characters. In fact, one of the sources for the script here was a story that Howard had originally written about Kull. The names were virtually interchangeable.
*. Instead of Schwarzenegger they signed up Kevin Sorbo, who was playing Hercules on TV in a series called Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Sorbo wasn’t as big a star as Arnold (or as big a “bulging bag of muscle and hair,” as Juba describes him here), but he is a better actor. If you don’t like Kull the Conqueror, don’t blame Sorbo. At least not too much.
*. Just as Conan the Destroyer was a lighter, more humourous affair than Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror takes another step in this same direction. We’re not in full-blown ironic territory yet, but this is a self-aware, funny movie with a heavy metal soundtrack and a handful of well-placed lines (ex: “Your bride is over 3,000 years old.” Kull: “She told me she was 19!”).
*. Tia Carrere and Karina Lombard both look great. Which is pretty much all they have to do. Though Carrere has to show a bit of wildness every now and then before finally transforming into Rider Haggard’s She-who-must-be-obeyed. Speaking of that finale, the move Kull has to pull to destroy Akivasha is pretty amazing, and one of the few things you’re likely to remember from the film.
*. The effects seem pretty crude 20 years later, but they’re no worse than the other Conan movies. The monkey-man in the dungeon is silly, but not quite as silly as the ape-wizard in Conan the Destroyer. And the demon form of Akivasha actually looks pretty good.
*. All of which is just my way of saying that Kull may be bad, but it’s not that bad. Still, it did poorly at the box office and marked the (real) end of the line for the franchise. I don’t think anyone then or since has cared very much.

 

Conan the Destroyer (1984)

*. “What you can see in Conan the Destroyer, if you look closely, is the beginning of a movie dynasty. This is the film that points the way to an indefinite series of Conan adventures — one that could even replace Tarzan in supplying our need for a noble savage in the movies.” So began Roger Ebert’s review of Conan the Destroyer. And indeed what he describes was the plan.
*. There were originally supposed to be four Conan movies, and given the success of Conan the Barbarian there seemed no good reason to give up on the franchise. Alas, Conan the Destroyer was to prove to be the last. It made money and was generally well received but Schwarzenegger had other plans and had fulfilled his contract with Dino De Laurentiis by doing Red Sonja and Raw Deal. So Conan the Conqueror, which was the next up, turned into Kull the Conqueror and that’s where things lay until the 2011 Jason Momoa film.
*. This should have been a better movie. The initial sequel in a franchise is often the best film in the series because it’s still fresh material but it gets a chance to cut loose a bit. And that was the direction they wanted to go here. They wanted a more family-friendly, comic-book approach. A little more silliness, a few more laughs.
*. I say this was the right direction to go in, but Arnie didn’t approve. I’m not sure Schwarzenegger was that great a judge of these things. He didn’t like what they did with Predator 2 either, and yet bringing the alien to Los Angeles seemed to me to be a logical next step for that franchise to take.

*. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out. I’m not sure what went wrong. Maybe Richard Fleischer was the wrong guy for the job. Otherwise it was a cheesy enough production, and the addition of Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones — not actors, but commanding presences — was a plus. Arnie still couldn’t act (he’s just awful in the scene where he gets drunk), but he gets to show off his muscles even more than in the first film.
*. And yet it all seems to drag. It wants to be a funnier movie than the first, but paradoxically it’s the pomposity of Conan the Barbarian that seems funnier today. John Milius took the shit he wrote seriously. This film could have had a field day taking the piss out of Conan but comic book irony wasn’t as well developed in the 1980s as it is now.
*. I think it needed to be a sexier movie too. Jones looks fetching in her leather monokini and fox-tail get-up, but the princess is a virgin and the sexiness of Queen Taramis (the striking Sarah Douglas) is dialed way back. Read the novelization and see what I mean!
*. It’s episodic, by which I mean it just moves from one fight scene to another with some limp gestures toward character and attempts to fill in the narrative during the down time spent around the campfire. But the big action sequences we build toward are nothing special. Conan fights an ape-like creature in a hall of mirrors and then wrestles a bizarre-looking amphibious demon named Dagoth (André the Giant in costume) at the end.
*. I’ve always pronounced Cimmerian (as in Conan the Cimmerian) with a hard “c.” In this movie they pronounce it with a soft “c” (or “s”) sound. I wonder if they’re right. I prefer the alliteration with “Conan.”
*. Was all the dialogue added post-production? It doesn’t even seem synchronized.
*. I think everyone agrees that Malak (Tracey Walter) is one of the worst sidekicks of all time. He’s right up there with Rob Schneider’s Fergie in Judge Dredd. Maybe worse.
*. And so we come to the end of the line. This was only the second Conan movie and Schwarzenegger was already sick of the role. Conan would remain an uncrowned king, as there wasn’t going to be any dynasty. All things considered, I think this was probably for the best, not to mention a wise career move for the Austrian Oak. Next up . . . the Terminator!

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

*. Does anyone still read the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard? I’m sure there’s still a fan base, and the character has been spun off in countless ways, but from the few of them I’ve read I don’t think the originals are very good. Nevertheless, a big dude with a big sword gets people’s attention.
*. Oliver Stone and John Milius? I can certainly understand the latter name, but I was a little surprised to see Stone had a co-writer credit on the screenplay. I’d forgotten his involvement with the project. As it turns out, his initial draft was far from canonical, being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It was also going to run 4 hours and involve a lot of special monster effects. The producers wanted something more orthodox and less expensive. Mainly less expensive.
*. Milius, on the other hand, was definitely the man for the job. He’d already written Dirty Harry and Magnum Force and as far as I can tell took all of this shit seriously. This is a comic book movie before comic book movies discovered irony. We begin with a quote from Nietzsche, though what the philosopher would think of Conan is hard to say. I doubt he would approve of Conan’s crude recipe for happiness. I think Nietzsche meant something a little more by amor fati than just crushing your enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women. And I’m not sure he would have cared much for Crom either.
*. Conan does, however, get to beat up a bunch of hippies and flower children. Milius must have loved that, and knocking the fruity cult priest on the head. This is a world where men are men and women are (a) valkyries; (b) pleasure slaves; (c) breeding units; or (d) witches.
*. Milius had also written Apocalypse Now, and the end of this movie seems a clear echo of the end of that earlier film, with Conan as Willard ritually beheading the cult leader Thulsa Doom/Colonel Kurtz at the top of the stairs.
*. Come to think of it, there’s something of the end of De Palma’s Scarface (written by Stone) there too. It seems to have been a bit of a motif at the time.
*. Shouldn’t a he-man like Conan have been able to chop Thulsa Doom’s head off with one swing of that mighty broadsword? It looks like he’s up there chopping wood.
*. The design of the film was inspired by the art of Frank Frazetta, who I guess is pretty much the only visual source for this kind of material. It looks nice in the traditional fantasy style, with lots of corkscrew stone pillars and scantily-clad slave girls. Aside from the crowd scenes though I don’t think there’s anything else much to be impressed by. Conan’s swords apparently cost $10,000 a piece but they might have been made out of plastic for all I could tell. The giant snake is a bit of a yawn. The ghosts are hardly worth the trouble.
*. Milius took the business of painting magic words on Conan’s body from Kwaidan. Influence is a funny thing.
*. Sandahl Bergman is pretty good, in what was to be her biggest role. She really had a striking look. And for parts like this, what else did she need?
*. Maybe she just plays well against Arnold. Schwarzenegger went on to get a bit better, or at least more comfortable, with acting, but really he’s just terrible here. The only thing he can do is pose (which is something he does a lot). He delivers his lines as though he doesn’t even understand what he’s saying, much less anything about their timing. This was to be a breakout movie for him, but at the time it was hard to see much in the way of promise. He was just another hunk of beefcake.
*. I immediately recognized Basil Poledouris’s familiar stirring score, but it might not have been from this movie. Apparently it has been sampled extensively by other epics. This is understandable, as it’s very good.
*. I guess I’ve been pretty negative here, but to be honest I was actually quite surprised at how well this movie has held up. It’s a bit ponderous and could have really used some more humour, but for its genre it manages to stand out. Mind you, there were a lot of terrible swords-and-sandals movies that came out around this time so that’s not saying much. Still, I enjoyed seeing it again — for the first time in probably thirty years — and I think I might even end up watching it again sometime. I mean, James Earl Jones turns into a snake! That’s something you can never forget.

Quiz the twenty-seventh: Keeping time (Part one)

I’ve heard that this watch is a Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon 5002P, which is apparently quite the thing. It costs well over a million dollars. Really. I don’t know if any of the other timepieces on display in this week’s quiz are quite as pricey, but the degree of difficulty in identifying the movies they appear in has definitely been dialed up. See how many you can match!

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Happy Death Day (2017)

*. Happy Death Day has been described, by pretty much everyone who has seen it, as Groundhog Day meets Scream. It’s not a comparison I think the producers of the film were shy of, as Groundhog Day even gets a plug in the final scene and the links were also made in the promotional material.
*. Now: once you’ve set that out as the premise, is there anything to add?
*. Well, I enjoyed it. It’s clever and kept me interested, though not so clever that I was ever that impressed by it. I had the killer pegged from the start and knew how the red herring business was going to play out. And I don’t say that as a brag. In fact, I’m usually pretty slow on the uptake when it comes to movies like this so I figure that if I knew what was going on then most people would. The killer revealed in the misjudged alternate (and original) ending would have been a more interesting false lead.
*. It’s not a movie that fires on all cylinders. The ending drags a bit. The romantic comedy elements were just OK. The transformation of the mean girl into a sweetie-pie was unnecessary (and unbelievable). I wish they’d left the father out entirely. Tree’s plans for dealing with her predicament all strike me as being pretty dumb, while avoiding the obvious steps she might have taken.
*. I don’t think it’s a scary movie but was impressed (in a good way) that there was no gore. Because it didn’t need it. Nice.
*. So it’s a generally unexceptional but fun flick. If you want to take a darker or more cynical view it’s representative of a late stage of genre filmmaking that has, at least since Scream (and some would say since the original Nightmare on Elm Street) been mainly interested in sending up its own clichés and conventions. But I wasn’t in that cynical a mood when I saw it so I had a good time.