Author Archives: Alex Good

She Dies Tomorrow (2020)

*. Art house meets viral horror. Or the other way around. An intriguing idea, I think, but, perhaps necessarily, excessively abstract. Which means (1) I wasn’t really sure what was going on, and (2) I didn’t feel any sense of dread or horror.
*. The story has it that Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is depressed. Or drunk. Or infected with a curse that passes freely from one person to another when they express the conviction that they will die tomorrow. Once you tell someone that you think you’re going to die tomorrow then they start believing it. Though it’s not clear that anyone does actually die. At least demons don’t come crawling out of television sets to kill them anyway. Instead, awareness of their own imminent demise just gets people down.
*. As I understand it, writer-director Amy Seimetz, one of today’s leading indie filmmakers, wanted the movie to be an allegory for social anxiety, much like venereal horror allegorized STDs. As I said, this is an intriguing idea. But it wasn’t that convincing. Everyone seemed more depressed than anxious, and though the two are related they aren’t the same. But I think if you look at it as a sort of Final Destination for people experiencing mid-life angst then that might help.
*. Seimetz: “This is a horror movie where you never get to see the monster. One of my favorite horror movies is Friday the 13th Part 2. You only see Jason once with a bag over his head, but it’s terrifying!” Leaving aside this strange affection for Friday the 13th Part 2, what she’s saying here is fine as far as it goes. There have been horror movies where the monster is never seen. But in that case you really have to make the audience feel the monster’s presence, and here I felt less dread than confusion.
*. There’s a point here relating to what I said about anxiety and depression. You can make a pseudo-horror movie (even a horror parody) out of anxiety. It’s very hard to make any kind of a movie out of depression. There’s a thread of a plot here, but on the whole the film is inert. It doesn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. It doesn’t even want to get out of its pyjamas.
*. I don’t blame the cast. Sheil is solid and Jane Adams, who plays Amy’s friend and spends most of the movie wandering about in her bedclothes, is also excellent. At least given that both of them are stuck in a kind of narcotized state. But Seimetz’s direction is all over the place. She uses strobe lighting in one sequence but I don’t know why. In another scene she has Amy arrive at a rental house with her boyfriend and sticks the camera on the floor. And I looked at the screen and said “Why is the camera on the floor?” And then the next shot is through a narrow doorway. Which is meant to recall the opening scene, but had me again wondering why she’d put the camera there. Here are the two shots. I don’t see the point.

*. It seems to me that if you’re looking at a movie and you’re noticing the way a shot is set up and you’re noticing because you think it’s really bad and you don’t understand the reason for it, then there’s a problem.
*. So not a thrilling movie, or one to spend that much time thinking about. Which is too bad given that there obviously was some thought and talent behind it. But then it’s hard to shake the feeling that entertainment wasn’t the goal.

Carry On . . . Up the Khyber (1968)

*. One of the skits in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) is set during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and it makes fun of British officers remaining imperturbable in the face of calamity. Of course the military were an endless source of fun for the Python gang, but this particular angle had already been played up in the Carry On films, perhaps most notably in Carry On . . . Up the Khyber.
*. In this, the sixteenth Carry On effort, the usual gang (with Roy Castle subbing in for Jim Dale as the romantic lead) once more represent the Empire under siege, this time by angry natives in the Indian province of Kalabar, which is near the Khyber Pass (rhymes with “ass”). The entire final act of the film plays out like a forerunner of that Python skit, with the officers enjoying a black-tie meal inside the Governor’s Residency, indifferent to the battle raging outside. Which is actually a bit odd, since Carry On movies don’t usually play out one joke at such length.
*. The plot here hinges on the discovery by the locals that the local Scottish regiment, the 3rd Foot and Mouth, actually do have underwear on beneath their kilts. This makes the “devils in skirts” seem less invincible, which leads to the rebellion. Even by Carry On standards I think that’s a stretch, and I can’t say it’s terribly funny either.
*. Many fans and critics consider this to be the very best of the Carry On efforts. I think this is for its generally high production values. It looks good, from the Pinewood sets to the Khyber Pass locations (which were actually shot in Snowdonia). At least I can’t think of any other reason to choose it over many of the other films in the series. It’s mainly more of the same, though there’s a minimum of gay jokes, if that’s a plus or minus for you.
*. The jokes are the usual off-colour puns and bawdy innuendos, but I don’t find them to be any funnier than usual. There’s a labored running gag that has Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond (Sid James) enjoying rounds of “tiffin” (sex) with various harem gals. Once again the men have to get all dressed up in drag at one point. There are a bunch of in-jokes or bits of timely humour that I doubt many people will get today. The banging of a gong is derided as “rank stupidity” (a nod to the Rank Organizations’ symbol). The Burpa leader Bungdit Din wants to teach the Brits a lesson for banning turbans on buses, which refers to a recent strike by Sikh bus drivers in England. A final shot of the Union Jack with the words “I’m Backing Britain” flew over my head.
*. Snowdon still looks beautiful, not having dated nearly as badly as these jokes. I visited Wales once as a kid and it was places like this that I have the fondest memories of. Some day I may even get back to hike around them again. I’d forgotten this movie, however, almost completely since I’d first seen it. Still, it has a few smiles, and if not the best in the series it’s far from the worst.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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*. Restraint? We don’t need any stinking restraint. The play’s first line (after the prologue) is bellowed from the back of a convertible by one of “the Montague boys”: “A dog of the house of Capulet moves me!” We’re not sure why he’s yelling this, who he’s talking to, or what it means. But it’s loud.

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*. The decibel level matches the loud visuals: the bright colours, jumpy editing, quick zooms, etc. It’s a way of inflating the drama of the language. It’s why Mercutio has to both scream and repeat his end of the Queen Mab speech (“This is she!”). And why Romeo has to scream and repeat (three times!) his line to Tybalt just before killing him (“Either thou or I, or both, must go with him!”). Yelling and repeating lines shows you how important they are.

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*. I don’t want to sound stuffy or hyper-critical on this point, but I do think it’s worth stressing. As explained on the DVD commentary “the whole motive of the entire project” was to use “modern-day equivalents to decode the language of Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s “language is clarified because it’s articulated in familiar images.”
*. But is this true? I think the visuals, full of overripe, kitschy Catholic tat, simply overwhelm the language. Luhrmann has made a movie that is so strong visually it doesn’t need any dialogue. If you went through it with a modern audience and asked them to explain any of the trickier parts that have been retained from the text of the play I don’t see where the presentation would help them a bit. Luckily, Romeo and Juliet is not a terribly difficult play, but my point is that the difficulty in the language remains, it’s only that this doesn’t matter if the audience “gets it” by other means. They can follow along by reading other signs, or by observing what kind of a pose is being struck.

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*. The fact that the actors don’t seem that comfortable with Shakespeare doesn’t help. Again this may sound snobby, but the thing is, Shakespeare wasn’t a “story” man. He tended to borrow them from other sources and they didn’t always hold together that well. The language is what you come to Shakespeare for, especially one advertised as sticking to the original text. If you want a modern, music-video style romance there are plenty of other options at the local cineplex.
*. Of course the deal with any production of Shakespeare, on stage or screen, is how to make it seem contemporary and “relevant.” That’s not a huge problem, since Shakespeare was a popular entertainer, but there are a couple of hurdles. The first is the language, which is finessed in the way I’ve just discussed. The other relates to the updating of historical references.
*. Overall, I think the updating is quite successful and creative. I really liked the network news reading the prologue, Queen Mab turning into a tab of party drug, and M. Emmet Walsh in a sadly truncated version of the apothecary scene.

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*. Other aspects, however, are harder to handle. Calling the pistols “swords” made no sense to me, and I guess there was just no way of making the concept of banishment and exile relatable in a contemporary setting. Is there any jurisdiction where this is still practiced as a form of punishment? Apparently it gave Luhrmann a lot of heartache and he tried to cut any mention of it out entirely, but this made nonsense of the plot. Still, there was just no way to make it meaningful for a contemporary audience.
*. As with the visuals, the music is all over the map. I think if they’d stuck with one particular style it might have helped draw thing together better. Instead there are just bits and pieces of different songs in different arrangements and the sense I had was of a mess, with the snatch of Wagner at the end being a cliché.

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*. I don’t understand Luhrmann’s fascination with gay camp. Why make Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) a drag queen? Because, according to the commentary, he is the most poetic character, but also the angriest (pace Tybalt). Apparently queens are poetic, angry types. It’s weird, but I found it tired. And why are these characters so often Black? The fallout from Paris Is Burning? Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element?
*. Some of the creative decisions are both bold and effective. I really like the hint of something going on between Lady Capulet and Tybalt, and the decision to have both Romeo and Juliet alive together at the end to address each other.
*. The cast has hits and misses, but again what works best is a look. Paul Sorvino as Mr. Capulet appears to be another angry homosexual, for whatever reason. John Leguizamo is feral and feline as the Prince of Cats. Pete Postlehtwaite seems to be having a hard time coming down off of some of his herbs, but he’s the only one who is at all at ease speaking Shakespeare’s language. I share Roger Ebert’s mystification at Brian Dennehy’s role as Mr. Montague. Does he have any lines at all?

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*. I think both DiCaprio and Dames are adorable, as they should be, but don’t show off any real acting chops here, or even any feel for the material.
*. What is it with Romeo’s drenched look? He seems to always appear dripping wet, from sticking his head in the sink just before his first seeing Juliet, getting in and out of the pool with his clothes on, or running around outside in the pouring rain. I think Luhrmann just liked seeing water dripping off of DiCaprio’s stylish locks. At one point in the commentary they are about to say something about the water imagery, but the discussion is immediately sidetracked and it never got addressed. I don’t recall it being part of the play at all.
*. Obviously a movie as hip and noisy as this was going to alienate traditionalists, and it did. I think it works a lot better than it should, all things considered. And I don’t think there’s any way of finally sorting out the good from the bad.

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Ghosts of War (2020)

*. Another gift of low expectations! I had heard nothing at all about Ghosts of War going into it, but figured it was probably pretty bad. It is, however, a suitably entertaining dog’s breakfast of a movie, with a bit of something in it for fans of psychological thrillers, horror, and SF. Critics dumped on it and it didn’t find much of an audience, but I found it to be a better than average time-killer.
*. The set-up: during the Second World War a squad of American soldiers in France find themselves custodians of a French chateau formerly occupied by Nazi bigwigs. Historically, this made no sense to me. Were they operating behind enemy lines? Why were they on their own? Well, press pause on all of that. Before things are over you’ll be wondering about a lot more than historical accuracy.
*. It turns out the chateau is haunted by the family of the owners, who had been killed by the Nazis. This led to more questions, some of which are articulated by the squad leader: “What the hell does haunted even mean? Does that mean specific people have ghosts that are somehow anchored to the places they died, or is it places where evil has occurred that makes a portal to demonic forces? Or is evil simply a man-made concept in the first place?”  Hmmm.
*. In any event, this part of the movie plays the way I thought it would: as a mash-up of The Conjuring with Call of Duty. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Sure it’s your standard haunted-house story, with lots of things going bump in the night and some very generic-looking ghosts. You know, the type that like to pop up out of nowhere screaming or saying Boo! with their mouths dripping ichor. But I thought director Eric Bress played it well. And then some Germans show up to crash the party. All well and good. But hold on to your hats because the final act enters strange territory. Which is also spoiler alert territory, if you don’t want to go any further.

*. Well, as things turn out the squad are actually American soldiers who, in some near-future war in Afghanistan, are blown up after failing to protect a family from ISIS fighters. That family then put a curse on the soldiers. The squad are then medevacked to a spiffy hospital where their dismembered bodies are kept on life support while they are entertained by a virtual reality program that has them playing soldiers in World War II France. Only there’s a ghost, or a family of ghosts, in the machine. The curse has infected the virtual-reality program, which leads to the squad being stuck replaying the haunted house scenario we’ve just been watching.
*. So there’s a lot going on here. You can pick up clues as things go along, like the references to Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” And if you know Bress’s previous work (2004’s The Butterfly Effect, or 2009’s The Final Destination) you might be even more on guard. But it’s still quite a twist they throw at the end. Does it make sense? Well, of course not. But given that premise, how could it?
*. I was also a little confused about how we were supposed to view the soldiers. Our first impression is that they are a gang of brutal jerks, except maybe the leader and the guy with glasses (the latter, naturally, being the one who both knows German and how to play the piano). But then at the end they become more sympathetic figures, since in killing Germans they’ve only been playing a video game anyway, and the Afghan curse seems a bit unfair.
*. Today’s horror films have at least given me a greater familiarity with the landscape of Eastern Europe. As I was watching this one I scribbled down the location as being either Hungary or Romania. In fact it was Bulgaria. Hey, I was close.
*. Possibly, just possibly, Bress is trying to say something about PTSD, or the moral equivalence between Nazis and ISIS, but if so that’s a message that’s soon lost. I mean, he may have been trying to say something about theoretical physics too, but I doubt it.
*. The final scene is ambiguous. Either the squad are going to be stuck in an endless loop or somehow the leader is going to get them off the hook somehow. It’s open-ended, which is something a lot of people don’t like but I don’t know how they could have wrapped things up any better.
*. So hardly a classic, but still something silly to have fun with. It’s a movie I’d rate a lot higher than blockbuster crap like The Nun, which is what it sort of reminded me of. The Nun was filmed in Romania.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

*. I guess I have to start with a prefatory note saying that the version of this movie I just watched is the Special Edition which was released in 1980. I was going to watch the Director’s Cut that came out in 1998 but the disc in the three-disc set I’d borrowed from the library was so damaged I couldn’t play it. Seriously: what do people do with these things? Use them for coasters? But I’ve ranted about this before.
*. Anyway, I think the main difference with the Special Edition is that we get to see inside the mothership. Which is kind of underwhelming anyway. Even Spielberg didn’t like it (he preferred keeping it a mystery) and took that scene back out in his Director’s Cut. So I guess you pick your disc and take your chances.
*. I honestly can’t remember what I thought of this the first time I saw it, so I guess it didn’t have the same impression it had on me that it did on others. It was a big hit though, riding the new youth demographic to blockbuster heaven (it came out the same year as Star Wars). But how good is it?

*. Spielberg got the sole writing credit but apparently it was the work of many hands (Paul Schrader wrote the original draft but then wanted his name taken off the project due to creative differences). It’s all a bit of whimsy. Spaceships cruising all over the world, being seen by millions, and yet they remain the stuff of tabloid headlines? Apparently they hide in clouds! Meanwhile, why does such a high-ranking official as Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) not have a translator on his staff when in the field? I mean, I can understand having to use Bob Balaban in a pinch, but then after picking him up in the desert they take the erstwhile cartographer on as a full-time member of the team? What?
*. I find the build-up to still be fun, with Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) chasing his dream after getting sunburn on half his face, but the climax is empty and dull. David Thomson: “thirty years ago, when we were just babes, the climactic light show was awesome.” But it’s more than forty years ago now and Star Wars is still a thrilling adventure story and Close Encounters is just a bunch of Christmas lights hung about a rock in Wyoming. Aliens came all this way just to play Simon with us? They must not think we’re very bright.

*. But how could it be otherwise? I find this to be a movie that is in some essential and even deliberate ways soft-headed. So much so that even critical praise of it takes on this same quality.
*. Pauline Kael saw it as a celebration of “the best-humored of all technological-marvel fantasies. It has visionary magic and a childlike comic spirit, along with a love of surprises and a skeptical, let’s-try-it-on spirit. It sends you out in a sate of blissful satisfaction.” In her review of E.T. Kael would be explicit about the feeling such films engender: “Like Close Encounters, E.T. is bathed in warmth, and it seems to clear all the bad thoughts out of your head. It reminds you of the goofiest dreams you had as a kid, and rehabilitates them.”
*. I think if you love Close Encounters it’s for these qualities. After originally pursuing Steve McQueen for the part of Neary Spielberg came to realize that what he really wanted was not a manly man but a man-child, someone who reminded him of his own sense of childhood wonder staring at the stars. That’s the way this movie works, if it works for you at all.
*. I want to stick with the mushiness of the ending because it relates to three critiques that I think can be leveled at the movie.

*. (1) In the first place, the movie is, chronologically and thematically, very much smack in the middle of the great run of paranoid conspiracy thrillers that were so thick on the ground in the late 1970s. Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Parallax View (1976), Marathon Man (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), Coma (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Once again we have the normal Joe determined to find out “the truth” that’s being concealed behind a vast (really vast, in this case) government cover-up.
*. In some ways Close Encounters would be the most influential of all these films, as its tropes would become the guiding mythology of The X-Files and much else. Before this time the whole “alien abduction” theme was pretty marginal to mainstream culture. After this it would take off. But placed alongside those other conspiracy movies I mentioned how tame and inoffensive it seems. Compare Roy and Jillian looking down on the landing site to Beatty in the rafters of the convention hall, Sutherland above the pod facility, or Michael Moriarty discovering the secret lake of alien ooze in The Stuff (1985). Here there is nothing sinister going on, to the point where it’s unclear why they’re bothering to keep it a secret. The conspiracy was well intentioned and there was no need for feeling paranoid about it. The government doesn’t even kill the farm animals it leaves by the side of the road as a warning but only puts them to sleep for a while. This is a conspiracy thriller that makes the paradoxical point that we have nothing to worry about. Or, as Gene Siskel put it on Sneak Previews, it has the “awfully nice message ‘Don’t be afraid of the unknown, seek it out.'”

*. (2) Audiences have always had trouble with the casual way Roy abandons his family. In his defence, it does seem as though Ronnie (Teri Garr) dumps him, in a one-side telephone call that hints at irreconcilable differences. Still, it is abrupt, and as their kiss on the roadway makes clear he’s clearly thinking of moving on. Also, it’s worth noting that he dumps Jillian as well at the end, after the hint that there might be some romantic connection brewing there.
*. This is a point that Spielberg became sensitive to as well, saying that it was a young man’s movie that dated more than any of his others, in that he couldn’t imagine, after having kids of his own, doing what Roy does. Still, he finds it to be a “sweet, idealistic odyssey of a man who gives up everything to follow his dreams.” What it underlines though is Roy’s essential childishness. He even gets to put on red pyjamas at the end to taken by the hand and led aboard the ship by a little girl. An ascension, or reversion to some state of pre-maturity? So good-bye wife, kids, and even puberty with all of its embarrassing body hair and sexual organs.
*. (3) One must become as a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is my final point about the ending. Not an original point, but necessary. This is the SF version of the Rapture, with Neary and others being taken up from the mountaintop, all to the sounds of a heavenly chorus. It’s no mistake when one of the scientists looks up to the mothership and says “Oh, my God,” or when the crowd in India chant “He has come” in Hindi.
*. But as with the sugar-coating of the conspiracy angle this clothing of the ending in the borrowed robes of religion strikes me as dangerously anodyne. What I think of more than anything now when I see the line-up of Rapture cadets in their jumpsuits is the uniforms of the tragic “away teams” of the Heaven’s Gate cult. I know they were Trekkies, but were they also fans of this movie?

*. Is the title ever explained? It comes from the writings of ufologist J. Allen Hynek but I don’t recall the different levels ever coming up for discussion. Did I miss it? Probably. Or was it assumed that everyone in 1977 knew Hynek’s work?
*. The players are all good, starting with Dreyfuss as the scruffy and half-sunburned Everyman. There’s one of the great child performances of all time by Cary Guffey as Barry. The casting of Truffaut was inspired. Spielberg just wanted his face, but as Thomson observes, his “lack of fluent English placed him quite nicely somewhere between humans and aliens.”
*. All the iconic scenes involve the light show — I can’t remember any scenes just with people interacting — and the effects are state of the art for 1977. Roger Ebert (in 1977): “the last thirty minutes are among the most marvelous things I’ve ever seen on the screen.” I doubt many people feel the same way today, though I think I’d still take what we get here ahead of the end of The Abyss, which would be state of the art ten years later, or any of today’s CGI gee-whizzery. There’s something about the effects here that are charmingly retro in a way that suits the theme of childish wonder. Spielberg, wary after shooting Jaws on location, wanted to do the whole movie in studio, and a number of the process shots with matte paintings look borrowed from an earlier generation of filmmaking. The scene on the road, for example, might have come from Invaders from Mars (1953). But it works with the little boy out late at night, looking at spaceships.

*. So it’s just what its greatest admirers love about it: a film suffused with the glowing Christmas-tree lights of childhood wonder. I mentioned how Spielberg wanted a child-man as his hero, but as his comments about Roy’s abandonment of his family indicate what he may have been thinking of was something a good deal younger or more infantile than that. Perhaps someone little Barry’s age. That is, around three years old. Or maybe as grown-up as the six-year-old girls who played the aliens.
*. Spielberg would later say that the image of Barry opening the door to all the alien lights outside stood as a good summary of his career up to that point: a child standing at a threshold of great promise and danger. That’s a universally relatable feeling, which is what gives the film its strength and is why it’s so fondly remembered today by people who first saw it when they were kids. As I began by saying, it didn’t have the same impact on me. I feel even more today that there’s something missing from it, even if it still has that childhood glow.

The Post (2017)

*. I want to start out by saying that while I’m not a big fan of Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, or Tom Hanks I still went into this one with an open mind. They’re all talented, it’s just that I don’t like their work very much.
*. Unfortunately, The Post started off boring me and ended up being a movie I despised.
*. At the end of the movie Katharine Graham (Streep) says to Ben Bradlee (Hanks) “You know what my husband said about the news? He called it the first rough draft of history.” First, I don’t think Philip L. Graham was the first to come up with that line. Second, while a newspaper may offer a first draft of history, a movie about a story now nearly fifty years old that misrepresents history this badly has no such excuse.
*. By misrepresents I mean the way the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times (for which they won a Pulitzer) is made over into a story broken by the Washington Post, “a little local paper” (that’s what they call it) with a heroic female owner who, through this experience, is empowered. Not only is the Times nudged aside, but it’s done in a way that makes the film into a fawning love letter to Graham and Bradlee. As you would expect, given that it’s based on their memoirs.
*. For example, notice how, at the end, the press flock around the publisher and editor of the Times on the courthouse steps and ignore Graham and Bradlee? Nothing is said, but the message is clearly that she is being ignored just because she is a woman. Not because it was the Times that had been sued first, making it really their case.

*. The rest of the movie is even more heavy-handed. The script just pounds away with crude expository dialogue and preaching. It’s like there’s a flashing red light that comes on to tell us when to cheer. “If the government wins and we’re convicted, the Washington Post as we know it will cease to exist,” Bradlee is warned. To which he heroically replies: “Well, if we live in a world where the government could tell us what we can and cannot print, then the Washington Post as we know it has already ceased to exist.” Yay! Or when Graham passes through her agony in the garden party and tells her various executives that the Post is “my paper now!” Another yay!
*. The whole movie is this clumsy. When Graham goes to court a helpful young woman, presumably a student or clerk, helps her avoid the crowds outside the courtroom and then tells Graham that she works for the government. But then why is she being so kind? Because she really believes in what the Post is doing! Plus, she looks up to Graham as a role model, fighting the old boys’ club. You have to groan as you listen to this, but it actually gets worse as the clerk is humiliated by her (male) boss when she gets into the court. Come on.
*. We get it already. We can’t not get it. Anthony Lane: “If anything, we get the point too much.” Even the big line from the Supreme Court’s decision is read out loud by one of the Post reporters to a silent newsroom, like Sally Field holding up her unionize sign at the cotton mill. Freedom of the press! Yay!

*. The thing is, for all its topicality (and the film was made in a rush, at least partly in response to Donald Trump’s attacks on the press as “enemies of the people”), the points being made are just platitudes. Sexism is bad. A free press is good.
*. I don’t think anything so noble was going on. The decision to run or not to run the Pentagon Papers was a business one, and it paid off. I doubt it had anything much to do with sticking up for the Post‘s employees or the troops in Vietnam, at least at Graham’s level. And Graham herself, while not an old boy, was a wealthy heiress and member of the highest rank of society, not to mention, as her later thoughts on the subject indicate, no die-hard crusader for a free press. But this won’t do in the present political climate so we get to listen to speeches about how hard she has to struggle to make her voice heard in a man’s world and all the rest of it.
*. The script was by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Singer had also written The Fifth Estate and Spotlight, both of which were a lot better than this. I have to blame the crudity of the script here though for most of the film’s failings. Spielberg’s direction might have worked, but I think all the long takes with complicated dolly and tracking shots needed a boost from a more engaged score. I was wondering if this film even had a score in the first hour, and when it did arrive it just seemed to play over obvious cues.
*. As you could have bet your house on, The Post received widespread critical acclaim. Despite agreeing with its politics (how could you not?) I found it a piece of dead spin in an outdated style. It’s less a drama than a lecture, which in the present crisis of journalism is of no use at all.

Quiz the one hundred-and-twenty-sixth: Cover story (Part one)

Could it be that magazines will soon go the way of all things print, consigned to the dustbin of history and leaving us to play with our cell phones while sitting in waiting rooms? If so, my boxes of old movie magazines may finally be worth something. But, alas, there may not be many more quizzes like this week’s incredibly easy offering.  So enjoy this walk in the park, film fans!

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Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935)

*. Charlie Chan returns to the home of his honored ancestors in order to break up an opium ring.
*. There’s nothing new or interesting to report here. Though it seemed for a while that there might have been. I’ve spoken before about how these movies often feature an attractive young couple heading toward getting married and that in solving the murder (or murders) Charlie helps them on their way. Well, for a while in this movie it looks as though the young man might be part of the plot. But you probably won’t be fooled because (1) it’s made too obvious, and (2) you’ve seen the previous movies so you have a pretty good idea how these things work out.
*. Opium was a drug forced upon the Chinese by Europeans in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it’s nice that this is a movie with no villainous Chinese gangsters. The bad guys are all Europeans, of a motley variety. On the other hand, Charlie does kick things off by singing a song to a group of kids about the Emperor Fu Manchu. Which is really dumb.
*. “More physical action than usual,” Leonard Maltin writes. I think this is referring to Keye Luke’s sensational flying tackle off the staircase. It is one of the highlights. Charlie himself isn’t a physical sort of guy. I’m not sure if he even fires his gun.
*. There’s little else to say. They do try to keep things a bit fresh and interesting. Number One Son turns into a master of disguise. There’s the old business of a door opening just a crack and a pistol pointing through, but they add a well-positioned mirror to the scene that helps Charlie get out of the way (this sequence would be repeated, more atmospherically, in Charlie Chan’s Secret). The bad guys really are quite resourceful. They know Charlie’s no dummy so they put a lot of work into fooling him. This works in the early going, but once he’s on to them it’s game over. And so . . . take them away! And keep the serial going.

Jumper (2008)

*. A movie very much launched with a franchise in mind, but things didn’t pan out. Why not? Most if not all of the ingredients were there. Let’s look at where things went off the rails.
*. A formulaic YA novel from 1992 provided a perfectly workable concept. It was adapted very freely here to make it even more formulaic. That formula being the standard superhero stuff of the boy who is given special powers and the girlfriend who has to try to understand just how special he is. Throw in the rival gangs of Montagues and Capulets, or werewolves and vampires, or Paladins and Jumpers. You’re good to go.
*. A likeable star in Hayden Christensen. Though I wouldn’t rate him as more than likeable. I guess he’s not known for much, if anything, outside of being Anakin Skywalker. But then do we remember Mark Hamill for anything aside from playing Luke? Call it the curse of the Skywalkers.
*. As for Christensen: he’s good looking, but while not a hopeless actor he doesn’t project much of anything on screen. Anthony Lane, in his best put-down mode, refers to him as having been “a kind of handsome void where Anakin was supposed to be” before lowering the boom: “One day, I feel sure, the rich mantle of charisma will descend upon him, but Jumper is not that occasion.” Still, in a movie like this Christensen’s handsome void might have been more than enough.
*. Throw in Rachel Bilson as the hero’s girlfriend. There’s at least a bit of chemistry there, as they’d go on to be a couple for a while off-screen. Jamie Bell is the fast-talking Brit who knows the ropes. Apparently his accent is considered “Geordie.” Live and learn. Samuel L. Jackson is here, and for once not tearing down the house with an over-the-top performance loaded with MF-bombs to match his shocking white helmet of hair. But then he may have sensed that he didn’t have to do much to take over the movie completely. And there’s even an already sullen Kristen Stewart popping her head in at the end just to say hello before jumping out of this franchise to start her own, on her way to becoming the highest-paid actress in the world over the next couple of years. We’ll have a good time explaining that, years from now.

*. Speaking of Christensen and Bilson, it was during their scene together at the Colosseum that I was struck by the big gap in their heights. Not surprised by the gap — that’s not uncommon — but surprised that I noticed it. There are many ways to conceal this, most often used when casting a short leading man. Christensen is 6′ and Bilson 5’2″ and I really picked up on it when they were together in Rome. Then you notice things like the heels on her boots (the ones she has such trouble pulling off in bed). Those look like they are 4-inch heels! Have fun walking around Rome in those!
*. Director Doug Liman was a hot property coming off of The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and I give him more credit than most for some decent action sequences. I like that the jumping stuff isn’t always swaddled in effects but looks like pretty basic editing tricks a lot of the time. This allows the fight and chase scenes to whip along quite nicely.
*. Critics panned it but there was decent box office. Which leads back to the question I started with: why didn’t this series have legs? They certainly seemed to be setting us up at the end for a bunch of sequels, as Griffin (Bell) and Roland (Jackson) are both left hanging, literally (the one from a power line the other from a cliff). But aside from a short-lived spin-off series that played on YouTube this was to be it.
*. The bad reviews, or at least their vehemence, didn’t make a lot of sense to me. An incoherent and inexplicable plot? It seemed to make rough sense to me, at least as much as any of these superhero movies do. Sure there isn’t any larger sense of purpose to the goings-on — what is it Jumpers really want to do with their special powers aside from have a good time? why do the Paladins want to kill them off? — but none of this bothered me. Of course none of it makes a lick of sense, but if you’re already tossing out all the most basic laws of physics then who cares about the details?
*. Perhaps the script was to blame. David (Christensen) doesn’t seem very relatable or likeable. The movie begins with his voiceover telling us how he used to be “normal.” I took this as a put-down, and he immediately tells us that this is how it was, indeed, intended, by adding “a chump just like you.” So all of us non-Jumpers are just losers? What a terrible way to alienate an audience right from the get-go. And the producers were well aware of this as they talk about the voiceover “insulting the audience” on the commentary track. Apparently they saw it as making David more realistic and relatable. They thought that audiences would root for the hero more if he would act like a regular guy (or dude, or bro) by “flexing” and being a player. I don’t get it, but then I’m sure I wasn’t in the target demographic.
*. The script was also shoved into the back seat by the decision to have the movie “move at the pace a teleporter lives his life” (this comes from one of the voices on the commentary). That is to say, with all the boring parts (exposition, plot mechanics) taken out. Then add the fact that they were laying the groundwork for a franchise so they wouldn’t want to explain everything all at once (if they’d even figured out where they were going yet, which I suspect they hadn’t). The result is a story that feels like they were making half of it up as they went along.
*. The thing is, despite all the talk on the commentary track about how they were avoiding “normal cliché formula” and “turning the genre on its head,” this is a really conventional picture with a pair of pretty young people making out and doing lots of action stunts in exotic locations, served up with no more interest in character than a typical Marvel production. It also feels very much like what it is: the first part of a likely trilogy that was never made. In sum: I can’t say I feel let down by it, or by the fact that there weren’t any more.

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

*. One of the things I come back to a lot while writing these notes is how movies date. What also dates is the way we talk about them.
*. At the time, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet was seen as being a part of the counterculture. The young leads (Leonard Whiting was 17 and Olivia Hussey 15) were a part of this, but more than that, as Roger Ebert writes, “The movie opened in the tumultuous year of 1968, a time of political upheaval around the world, and somehow the story of the star-crossed lovers caught the mood of rebellious young people who had wearied of their elders’ wars.” And so when, in her contemporary review, Pauline Kael describes John McEnery “as a freaked-out Mercutio,” this is where she’s coming from. Do we still describe people as freaked-out today?
*. I begin with all this because I doubt many people view this movie with any historical perspective. The Summer of Love and Swinging London are so far behind us now that the ’60s zeitgeist no longer means anything to most of us. And so we just see the youths of Verona as typical young men hanging about downtown when there’s nothing better to do. In much the same way, even Baz Luhrmann’s MTV-style Romeo + Juliet is probably unidentifiable as such to younger audiences today, who can’t remember (as the saying goes) when there was music on MTV. I suspect Luhrmann may be incomprehensible twenty years from now.
*. When Zeffirelli died in 2019 his obits highlighted this film as his signature work, what Ebert called “the magical high point of his career.” Less was said about his directing the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor Taming of the Shrew just the year before, or the Mel Gibson Hamlet a couple of decades later. But I’m not sure this is better than either of those movies.

*. One of the things Zeffirelli claimed he learned from making The Taming of the Shrew was that, when it came to Shakespeare’s lines, less would be more. I’ve heard that only about 35% of Romeo and Juliet is included here. Which is fine. You pretty much have to cut a lot out of Shakespeare to bring him to screen (though Kenneth Branagh would prove that even a full-text Hamlet is possible). What I have more trouble with in the process of adaptation is the rearrangement of scenes (which Zeffirelli went crazy with in Hamlet) and lines (as he does here).
*. The balcony scene offers a good example. It begins with Romeo first catching sight of Juliet and declaring “But soft, what light from yonder window breaks? / It is the east and Juliet is the sun!” I would have thought this was easily comprehensible, especially in 1968. Plus it’s a famous line and you’d expect a good part of the audience to know it. But here the second line jumps us ahead in the text to the flaccid “It is my lady, O it is my love!” This sounds awful.
*. But as with any decent production you’re also reminded at times of lines that never stood out to you before. I like Juliet’s look of shock when Romeo asks if she’ll leave him on the balcony unsatisfied. “What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” she asks. I’d never thought about what “satisfaction” might mean in that way before, but I guess it’s obvious. Also, Capulet’s ill-tempered shushing of the Nurse — “Utter your gravity o’er a gossip’s bowl” — had never registered with me before. But it’s a great put-down
*. Unfortunately, those are among the few highlights of what’s left of the text. This is where the film really breaks down. I like the location shooting, the laced codpieces, all the running about (though not the swordfights). I also think, with the exception of Pat Heywood’s nurse, that the cast are a good collection of Renaissance faces (Heywood gives a fine performance, but she looks out of place). And while Whiting and Hussey are young, they at least look the part. Hussey in particular has a moist earnestness. But then they open their mouths.
*. Kael: “Heard in isolated fragments, the lines just seem a funny way of talking that is hard to understand.” True, and also true: “The lines are unintelligible because the actors’ faces and bodies aren’t in tune with the words.”
*. The problem here, or so I’ve heard, is that because of the noise of the camera being used the dialogue was all recorded post. It looks and sounds dubbed because it was. Well, you may say, that’s the way a lot of movies are made. Welles’s Othello, for example, was all dubbed. To which I can only respond by saying that Welles’s Othello didn’t make me feel like I was watching a cheap giallo.
*. Still, it could have been worse. If you were of my generation this movie may have been among your first introductions to Shakespeare, as they used it a lot in high school. And it’s not a bad introduction in some ways. It’s boisterous and full of action. The idea of having kids playing kids was the hook, and we were kids watching kids playing kids. So for that reason alone it will probably always have a place in my memory. Maybe not a magical one, but stuck in my head now for the duration.