Author Archives: Alex Good

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.

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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.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

*. Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers. I guess. That’s what the producers called it anyway, and it’s how I’m going to break it down.
*. I’ll start with Groundhog Day, or the narrative of eternal return. The concept is beyond rational explanation, so the script doesn’t even make a pretence of explaining. Aliens (called Mimics) have invaded. The main alien (dubbed “the Omega”) has the ability to control time through some biological mechanism. When a soldier kills an “Alpha” alien he (or she) receives some kind of blood transfusion or plasmic bonding and is granted the same Mimic power to keep going through temporal loops. This is what happens to our reluctant hero Major William Cage (Tom Cruise). The only way for Cage to then get off the roundabout is to kill the Omega.
*. The idea of someone re-living the same period in their life over and over is not, if you spend any time thinking about it, not a fun one to entertain. It strikes me as being a bit too much like hell. It’s depressing too, as our hero has to keep killing himself in order to reset, forcing him to adopt a death wish as a narrative device. All Bill Murray had to do was go to bed.
*. Then, if you stop to think some more about how many lives Cage goes through in this film, you get a kind of vertigo. He must spend several lifetimes reliving just these few days. How does he stand the sheer boredom? When does he sleep?
*. I don’t think the target audience had the same problems I had. By target audience I mean young people (the source is a Japanese YA novel) who have grown up on video games. Both the author of the source novel (Hiroshi Sakurazaka) and the producer-director of Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) explicitly made the connection between the protagonist’s life being reset every time he is killed as coming from video game play. I’ve talked many times before about how much today’s action films borrow from the look of video games, but this structural borrowing marks another level of absorption.
*. Another aspect of this kind of story that has to be finessed is the boredom that goes along with any repetition. Here the target demographic works against the film, as an audience raised on video games bores easily. The (only?) solution is to ramp up the pace and just whip the story along, leaving out all the dull parts. This is certainly something Edge of Tomorrow tries to do, and for the most part it’s successful. It may be brainless and incoherent, but the action rarely lets up enough for you to catch your breath.
*. So much for Groundhog Day, now on to Starship Troopers.
*. By Starship Troopers I mainly mean the retro-futuristic look of the war between soldiers and bugs. Frankly, I still think the FX in Starship Troopers look better, and that movie came out nearly twenty years earlier.
*. As with Starship Troopers the story is set in a strangely atemporal universe. Though it’s the near future, the great war for civilization is just a re-hash of WW2, with the Mimics as Nazis conquering Europe and the allied attack being a failed D-Day. Meawhile, we’re no longer using drones or missiles or even tanks, which leaves us stuck with grunts in exo-suits hitting the beach.
*. The Mimics, in turn, just look like CGI scribbles or frantic balls of yarn. I wasn’t impressed, but they move so fast you can’t get a good look at them anyway. Or at least they were moving too fast for me to get a good look at. But I’m old.
*. It’s fast, noisy, and very expensive. At the end of the day though, wouldn’t you rather play a movie like this than watch it?

Groundhog Day (1993)

*. On his DVD commentary for Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis tells a story about how the movie was immediately adopted by various spiritualities and philosophies. I don’t see much connection to Zen Buddhism or the other schools and denominations he mentions, but Groundhog Day does strike me as a movie that taps into two abiding imaginative archetypes that I think go a long way to explaining its abiding charm.
*. In the first place, it’s the fantasy of the do-over. Weatherman Phil Connors has obviously made a mess of his life. He doesn’t seem to have any friends, much less a steady girlfriend, and his dreams of leaving a local TV station for the big leagues are surely going to remain only dreams. But now, thanks to a bit of movie magic, he gets to try again to get it right. He can correct his mistakes. Who doesn’t dream of that?
*. What I especially like about the way this theme is handled here is that Phil not only gets to go back and correct his mistakes, he gets to try and recapture his best moments as well. For me, the saddest scene in the movie is where he tries to recapture the magic moment with Rita after the snowball fight. But that’s not the way happiness works, is it? You have to be surprised by joy. The eternal return can be used to get out of a jam, but you can’t re-create the good times.
*. The other fantasy is that of the makeover. In movies this is often a dark male fantasy. Think My Fair Lady, or Vertigo, or Nikita. Basically a man tries to transform a woman he meets into his dream girl, usually with disastrous results. It is, however, a female fantasy of longstanding too: how the love of a good woman will turn the bad boy into an ideal mate. In real life I don’t know which of these fantasies has resulted in more misery, but since it’s a romantic comedy Groundhog Day lets the female version come true. After a lifetime of effort Phil is finally able to turn himself into someone who is eligible for love. “The things we do,” etc.
*. I said “after a lifetime of effort.” Apparently there is a whole cottage industry devoted to trying to figure out just how long Phil is stuck in the loop. Ramis has said different things. I think the original idea was that he’d been doing it for 10,000 years, but this strikes me as impossible. After only 100 years I think anyone would have simply gone insane. Leaving that aside, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to come up with a precise calculation, even if such a determination were to mean anything.
*. The original screenplay, by Danny Rubin, started in the middle of things, with Phil punching Ned. Rubin thought starting at the beginning was too predictable. That seems odd to me, given that this wasn’t that familiar a story at the time. Audiences have since become more familiar with it, but even in recent adaptations like Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day the movie still starts off before the loop begins. Audiences want that intro, and I think it makes sense dramatically.
*. I don’t find it to be a very funny movie, but I don’t think that’s what it’s going for. It has that lingering sense of sadness hanging over it. There’s a great line where Phil is talking to the local men at the bar and he asks “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and everything that you did was the same, and nothing mattered?” The honest response he gets is that “That about sums it up for me.” That’s one of the funnier lines in the movie, but it’s funny in the tragic sense that it’s true. Or at least that the guy at the bar feels it’s true. And who hasn’t felt the same way at times?
*. I think this was Ramis and Murray’s sixth collaboration and you can feel how comfortable they are with each other. I think that fits with the low-key tone of the proceedings too. They’ve been here before.
*. This is the sort of film that makes a lot of people’s favourites list. Despite how hard-hearted we’ve become, sentiment has never gone entirely out of style. I find it a movie that I appreciate more than one I have a strong personal attachment to. The attention to detail that comes out on repeated viewings is really impressive and it’s a polished product in nearly every department. It’s a great little movie I’m happy not to read too much more into.