Monday, May 26, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Wild One" (1953)

Yes, Brando again. There's quite a bit of bullshit associated with the now-iconic movie "The Wild One." Almost everything about it is fake or contrived. Yet it remains one of Brando's most remembered roles, and its style more or less defined the look of the 1950s youth movement.

First of all, the movie was a huge flop when it came out. Brando had already had his breakout role in "A Streetcar Named Desire," and had just appeared as Mark Antony in "Julius Caesar" prior to this film. Yet people often regard "The Wild One" as an influential commercial hit. Laslo Benedek directed from a script by John Paxton.

Second, it was based on an event that happened in real life in 1947 that was greatly exaggerated by Life Magazine. Some bikers came to Hollister, Calif., for a motorcycle rally. There was some rowdiness, a great deal of drinking, some arrests and a few injuries as serious as a broken bone. But it was nothing like the sordid tales of a mob of biker thugs "taking over" a small, peaceful town.

Journalists trumped up a good story, and Hollywood decided to trump that one.

It's also interesting that the hooligans in "The Wild One" are constantly referred to as very young punks. Brando's character, Johnny Stabler, is almost always described by the older townsfolks as a "boy," even though the actor was nearly 30 years old at the time. The joking, smirking members of Johnny's gang, the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, sneeringly refer to their elders as "Dad" or "Pops." Even if the actors portraying them were much older -- there's one guy glimpsed in the mix who must be middle-aged -- I think the BRMCers are supposed to be teenagers.

This sets up a question of who exactly the bikers are supposed to represent. The real Hollister "rioters" were grown men, indeed probably many of them veterans returning from the war who were looking for a chance to cut loose after their nightmarish experiences. Teenagers in 1953, though, would put the BRMC firmly amidst the "Silent Generation" born during the Great Depression to World War II. Even the threat of being drafted into the Korean War was winding down by the time the movie came out.

It's the difference between those who earned our freedom with a debt of blood and the kids who grew up benefiting from the bravery of their forebears.

There's also the notion that "The Wild One" is a celebration of youthful rebellion. When you really drill down into the story, though -- a straightforward, terse affair at a mere 79 minutes -- you find that the filmmakers are essentially shaking their heads at the wayward nihilism of Johnny and his loyal followers. It's closer to "Reefer Madness" than "Bonnie and Clyde." It's more cautionary tale than free-for-all.

Most everyone knows the most famous line of dialogue from the film: When Johnny is asked what he's rebelling against, he responds "Whaddya got?". But it's not delivered during a defiant staredown against an authority figure in the streets, but a shugged moment of casual flippancy while flirting with some town girls in a bar.

Personally, I think the most telling lines come at the beginning and end of the movie, delivered by older men dismissing Johnny and the BRMC with world-weary contempt. In one of the last scenes, after a small army of deputies have arrived to quell the uprising, the sheriff squints at Johnny and alleges -- accurately -- that he doesn't get his shtick, and what's more, he doesn't think Johnny really understands it himself.

Helpfully, another exchange supplies most of the answers. When the BRMC fails to break up the local motorcycle races -- their criminality only gets as far as stealing a second-place trophy -- a pair of men shake their heads after successfully driving off Johnny & Co.:

Mechanic: "I don't think they even know where they're going. Termites! Nutty! Ten guys like that gives people the idea everybody drives a motorcycle is crazy. What are they trying to prove anyway?"
Cop: "Beats me. Looking for somebody to push them around so they can get sore and show how tough they are. They usually find it someplace, sooner or later."

Note the language in that second line: the bikers aren't looking to push people around, but to annoy others until they themselves get pushed around, just so they can push back twice as hard. They instigate and then go crazy when provoked. That's why Johnny and the BRMC are best described as rebels without a cause, since they're reacting to the order around them with slouch-shouldered chaos.

Speaking of rebels and causes, it's undeniable that "The Wild One" influenced other film icons. Elvis Presley and James Dean copied their long sideburn haircuts from Brando, and Dean reputedly bought a Triumph motorcycle because of the one Johnny drives in the movie (which was actually Brando's own personal motorcycle, according to legend). The look of tight jeans, boots and black leather zippered jacket also became instantly ensconced in pop culture.

Brando is his usual charismatic self, chewing his dialogue and glaring balefully at authority figures. Johnny despises cops because, he says, he once trusted one and it came back to bite him. He takes a shine to local good girl Kathie (Mary Murphy), but dumps her cold upon learning her father is the ineffectual town sheriff (Robert Keith).

Lee Marvin makes one of his notable early career appearances as Chino, the boisterous leader of a rival motorcycle gang called the Beetles. They show up in the same town as the BRMC, and Chino and Johnny promptly have a throw-down over Johnny's stolen racing trophy. Moments later, Chino is laughing and ready to buy him a beer. We learn that two gangs used to be one until Johnny's group splintered.

That trophy is emblematic of the entire film. It means nothing to Johnny -- just a hunk of gold-plated tin one of his boys absconded with -- until someone else tries to lay a claim on it, and then he's ready to spill blood over the trinket. He offers it to Kathie moments after meeting her, and she refuses, thinking he won it legitimately.

The movie ends with Johnny, defeated and humiliated, giving the trophy to her right before riding out of town for good. Of course, he can't just hand it to her nicely, but sets it on the counter of the coffee shop where she works, and pokes it toward her with a finger. It's a result of his burning desire to be different, to disparage and denigrate the societal norms others place value upon.

"The Wild One" is the story of untamed youth with nowhere to go and nothing to fight for, except the fighting itself.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Video review: "About Last Night"

“About Last Night” is self-consciously different from the Rob Lowe/Demi Moore romantic comedy/drama from nearly 30 years (!) ago. The locale has moved from Chicago to L.A., and the white cast has been transposed with a black one. But fundamentally it’s still the same story.

It’s about lonely people who hook up for a brief fling and unexpectedly find it turning into a real relationship. By virtue of the fact that one of the stars is hyperactive funnyman Kevin Hart, this remake is infused with a lot more humor than the original.

There are enough laugh-out-loud moments to make it worth a rental. And if the somber moments don’t exactly carry much emotional heft, they at least don’t slow things down so much it saps energy from the funny stuff.

Hart plays Bernie, a motormouth charmer who has recently hooked up with a Joan (Regina Hall), an out-there personality with a quiet mouse of a roommate, Debbie (Joy Bryant). They fix her up with Bernie’s best friend Danny (Michael Ealy), and the two couples spend the next year falling in and out of love.

“About Last Night” may not offer any great insights into the modern dating game. But it’s the rare remake that doesn’t sully the name of the original.

Video extras are rather slim. The DVD comes with only a single featurette, “An Un-Romantic Comedy.” Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add three more featurettes: “About Last Night Advice,” “I Love You?” and “Word on the Street.”



Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review: "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

I am the guy who has been known to complain about superhero movies being too somber and serious. But I don't think it's a contradiction to celebrate that same quality in the new X-Men film.

In other comic books and movies, superheroes were usually regular folks who acquired powers through happenstance. Even if they might struggle with controlling them or the implications of their newfound responsibilities, these stories rode an underlying fantasy about becoming special.

The X-Men were always different. They were mutants, born the way they were, and their powers were not a source of joy but an instrument for prejudice and even hatred. And the stakes were always higher: X-Men comics were the only ones I read as a boy where people died on a pretty regular basis.

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is based on the concept of a 1981 storyline in which a future was envisioned where mutants had lost the war against their kind, with most of our favorite characters having been killed by monstrous Sentinel robots. It also attempts -- quite successfully in my estimation -- to combine the original X-Men trilogy from the last decade with the 2011 "First Class" movie that depicted the nascent days of the mutant movement in the 1960s.

Pop culture aficionados will recognize this as "retconning," in which storytellers retroactively alter the mythology of a franchise to fit their new schemes. (They recently did this with the "Star Trek" flicks.) But this is the mother of all retconning, in which both the present and future of the X-Men, as established in the previous films, are cleverly made to go kerbloowie.

In tackling this ambitious new project, they brought back original director Bryan Singer, who along with screenwriter Simon Kinberg manage to make a movie that is at once entertaining and sobering.
There's a darkness and a grandiosity to "X-Men: Days of Future Past" that has been missing from these movies.

Initially set in the near future, we witness a world where telepath Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his few surviving students fight against the Sentinels, which can adapt to and even copy the powers of mutants. Losing seems inevitable, so they hatch a plan to send the consciousness of animalistic warrior Logan (Hugh Jackman) 50 years into the past, inhabiting his younger self in 1973.

There, he must convince a distraught Xavier (now played by James McAvoy) to join with his friend-turned-arch-enemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to prevent the assassination of a power-mad scientist named Trask (a terrific Peter Dinklage) that sets off the war against mutants.

At the center of the mission is heading off Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), a shape-shifting assassin whose loyalties lie somewhere between the just-get-along sentiments of Xavier and the them-or-us creed of Magneto.

What makes this movie work is that even as we bounce through all these intrigues about robots and time travel and telepathy, the filmmakers never forget to focus on the characters. So the emnity between Xavier and Magneto feels personal, and Logan's battle between his berserker side and his better instincts has a tragic note.

Not that they forgot to include some terrific action scenes. Some of the best involve Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a super-fast teen who lives in a world that's almost another dimension, since he can do dozens of things in the blink of an eye. One scene where the team is breaking Magneto out of an impregnable prison is an utter delight.

Where do the X-Men go from here? Wait until after the credits for a (vague) glimpse. All I know is this movie blows up the franchise while also delivering the best film we've seen in the series.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Third Man on the Mountain" (1959)

Let's begin this discussion by stipulating that I consider mountain climbing to be quite possibly the dumbest enterprise ever conceived by man. Risking life and limb, not to mention gargantuan amounts of resources and manpower, just to scale a big rock? And with no recognizable reward for doing so, other than to be able to point and say, "I climbed it"?

Something can be foolhardy but still worthy -- traveling into space, say, or into the depths of the ocean. Perhaps there was a time in great antiquity when mountain climbers were true explorers, striving to go to places no one had ever been to find what was there. But even by the "golden age of alpinism" in the mid-19th century, most everyone involved in the endeavor did so for personal glory, not science.

"Third Man on the Mountain" is a Disney adventure movie that celebrates that time from a perspective a century hence, seen through the eyes of an 18-year-old boy who aspires to follow in his dead father's footsteps as one of the greatest climbers in Europe. Despite my reservations about its subject matter, I found it to be a bright, colorful, beautifully shot film with a reasonable amount of entertainment value.

The film, based on a book by James Ramsey Ullman and written for the screen by Eleanore Griffin, is about the conquering of a fictional peak called The Citadel, though the Matterhorn stood in its place. It actually inspired a new ride at Disneyland, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, that came out the same years as the movie. It's still running today after a refurbishment in 2012.

(No such hope for comparable longevity at Disney World in my hometown of Orlando, where it seems like every classic ride other than Space Mountain has been swapped out with newer stuff based on more recent Disney flicks. Oh, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, I pine for thee...)

The basic plot is pretty simple: young Rudi Matt (James MacArthur) was orphaned when his father, a legendary guide, died 16 years earlier trying to find a route up the Citadel. Now festooned in the town restaurant as a dishwasher, he pines to scale and climb. His uncle Franz (James Donald, forever the doctor from "A Bridge on the River Kwai") refuses to let him train as a guide. He's also scared to death of the Citadel, though he and the other guides hide it under a beer-soaked layer of bravado.

There's a girl in the story, because this sort of movie always has to have a girl, played here by Janet Munro as Lizbeth, daughter of the mayor and sorta/kinda beau of Rudi. There's a puckish contestant for her hand, she uses him to make Rudi jealous, and so forth -- very tiring stuff.

A couple of male figures act as role models and encouragement for Rudi. Captain John Winter (Michael Rennie, seemingly a foot taller than the rest of the cast) is a famous British alpinist who yearns to take on the Citadel, if only he can convince a local guide to accompany him. In an unlikely meeting, he falls into an icy crevasse and likely would've died if not for the happening by of Rudi.

The other man is Teo (Laurence Naismith), the old cook at Rudi's workplace who constantly frets at the absent-minded boy's breaking of dishes, but quietly encourages his dreams. Teo was once a guide himself before a terrible accident, and walks with a galloping hitch. But even at 65 he enjoys tackling smaller, less formidable peaks. Naismith has a terrific scene where he essentially takes on the entire gaggle of local guides, using the leverage of the crippled elderly man to shame them.

Also turning up is Herbert Lom as Emil Saxo, a surly guide from a competing village who gets recruited by Captain Winter when Franz and his cohorts balk. All three men and Rudi end up taking on the Citadel together, with various interpersonal conflicts and agendas competing.

The photography is just stunning, full of vivid colors and amazing vistas. The climbing footage is impressive even for its day, with the actors (or their stunt doubles) clambering across treacherous cliff faces with just their feet and hands plus a few humble tools -- rope, pickaxe, and that's about it. One nerve-rattling shot puts Franz virtually upside down, holding fast with one hand and his toe-holds, while he throws a loop of rope up above to pull himself up.

I'm deathly terrified of heights -- something that no doubt contributes to my disdain for mountain-climbing. But even if I weren't, I'd like to think I possessed the sense to eschew alpinism on its merits, or lack thereof. Watching movies where actors can do the derring-do themselves is far safer, and more entertaining.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

My postmortem on Jill Abramson's depature from the NYT

Not that anybody asked me, but I've been following the Jill Abramson story closely. I'm interested, both as a consumer of news and as a former New York Times company employee. (And who still has a fully vested pension waiting in the wings, I should mention.) Based on what's come to light, here's what it looks like to me:

·    More and more, this looks like a power struggle between Dean Baquet and Abramson than anything else. It seems clear Sulzberger had buyer's remorse over choosing her instead of Dean for the top job, and he was clearly seen as the future. Abramson tried to marginalize Dean by bringing in a co-No. 2, perhaps playing defense against a rival. Baquet was getting offers/interest from outside the company, and whined to the top brass about his boss going behind his back (which, I should point out, constitutes going being his boss' back).

·    In terms of the messy exit, that appears to be entirely on Abramson. Based on Howard Kurtz' reporting and other accounts, she was offered the classy good-bye to the newsroom and a B.S. segue job. She was pissed, and wanted to make sure everyone knew she was fired, and that she was mad about it. That's fine, but don't complain about being disrespected when you dictated the terms of your departure. Also, if there's more damage to the troops' morale this way, it's because Abramson chose her needs/wants over those of the institution. Not surprising given the circumstances, but again, she chose as acrimonious a parting as possible.

·    The money issue is complete bullpucky. I'll reiterate from a previous post: no one should expect to make what their predecessor was making right when they take over. If someone's older/more experienced/has more tenure with the company, they're going to be higher at the end of their term. The true comparison is her first and last year with her predecessor's first and last year, with some adjustment for inflation. She hadn't been around as long as Bill Keller, or as long with the Times, but was receiving comparable compensation after 2.5 years on the job at the same point when Keller had been editor for more than eight years. Room for complaint: Zippo.

·    All this said, I think the Times' reasons for deep-sixing Abramson amount to weak tea. It's clear she was not well liked in the newsroom, but her journalism credentials and instincts appeared to be solid. Getting rid of somebody because their successor might be better, and might jump ship if they don't get the job soon, is speculative and dangerous. If I was Sulzberger I would've said to Baquet, "Look, you're my guy. The job is yours whenever Jill leaves. But she deserves at least another year or two at the helm. The Times is doing well in terms of digital growth and content, and poor personal skills aren't enough reason to dump a chief executive, at least until they've been put on notice and given time to grow."

Video review: "The Monuments Men"

One of the more disappointing films of the last few months, “The Monuments Men” was an OK movie that could’ve been great.

You had an offbeat, interesting subject: the citizen/soldiers who labored during World War II to save art works and antiquities from destruction or theft by the German Reich. And a reliable director, George Clooney, who also co-write the script (with Grant Heslov, a frequent partner-in-crime). Plus, in addition to Clooney, an eclectic cast of (mostly) older white guys: Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin.

Alas, this is a gumbo with a whole list of great ingredients that just didn’t come together in a flavorful way. “Men” is alternately silly and somber, and the incongruity cancels out the effectiveness of each.

The film takes great liberties with the historical record – starting with the fact that the Monuments Men are depicted as a small motley group of art experts, when in fact hundreds of people were involved with the effort.

In trying to turn this into, effectively, a “Dirty Dozen” type of story, Clooney and his cast and crew try to do a whole bunch of things, and end up not doing anything particularly well.

Video extras are similarly so-so. The DVD comes with two making-of features: “George Clooney’s Mission” and “Marshaling the Cast.” Go for the Blu-ray version and you add some deleted scenes and two more featurettes: “The Real Monuments Men” and “A Woman Amongst the Monuments Men.”



Thursday, May 15, 2014

Review: "Godzilla"

"Godzilla" takes its sweet own time about getting to the Big G himself -- exactly halfway through the movie, to be exact. Though it's a bit of a slog reaching that point, from there to the end is exactly the big, loud summer thrill ride you've been expecting.

After starring in many low-grade Japanese films back in the day and a few half-hearted modern revival attempts, the radiation-feeding dinosaur is back after a lengthy hiatus. Instead of just being the heavy who smashes buildings and sends humans screaming, he also gets to fight against some other critters in his own considerable weight class.

Godzilla looks as nasty as ever, re-imagined with huge spikes on his back that resemble an outcropping of moving hills when he's swimming half-submerged in the ocean. He's got that big blunt head, the fire/energy breath, and that roar that sounds like a cross between an elephant and an air horn.

(He's also appearing a might chunky through the hips, though whether that's from age or artistic license is a matter for debate.)

Director Gareth Edwards helms just his second feature film; 2010's low-budget "Monsters" was essentially training ground for this flick. The story is told (screenplay by Max Borenstein) through the eyes of the humans, as they watch Godzilla and some vaguely bat-like foes battle it out through Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco.

This is a shame because, well, the people aren't nearly as interesting as the monsters.

It starts out OK, with Bryan Cranston playing a scientist who was at the helm when mysterious seismic activity destroyed the nuclear plant where he worked, claiming the life of his wife (Juliette Binoche) in the process. Flash forward 15 years, and now he's a lonely kook with some crazy theories about what caused the disaster.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson -- one of the few Brit actors who can do a convincing American accent -- plays his son Ford, now a Navy bomb expert with a wife and kid of his own. She (Elizabeth Olsen) plays a nurse because, have you noticed in big disaster movies the hero always makes desperate phone calls to check on his family, and the wife is always a nurse or doctor, thus requiring her to be at the center of the danger?

Ford bounces around from one action set piece to another, following the monsters and their wake of destruction. My favorite was a disturbingly quiet encounter across a long train bridge, with a bunch of soldiers trying to sneak across.

The plot is some ridiculous contraption about luring the monsters to the middle of the ocean with radioactive material, which for some reason involves transporting nuclear missiles from Nevada to the coast, instead of just unloading some from a submarine or what have you.

The second act is a chore to get through, with a bunch of scientists and soldiers (Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn among them) spouting gibberish about the origins and intentions of Godzilla. We learn that all those nuclear bombs the Americans and Russians set off in the oceans during the 1950s were not tests, but attempts to off him.

Once the title fight finally begins, though, it's off to the races.

This isn't a bad film, but it could have been a much better one. I don't know why all our new superhero and monster movies have to take themselves so darn seriously. This type of filmmaking is all about having fun, which "Godzilla" gets around to, eventually.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: "Belle"

"Belle" is based on a true story, which is to say there exists the barest thread of historical record about Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black woman raised up in elite 18th century British society. The filmmakers then supplied their own story as to what her life would have been like, and link it to a seminal court case on slavery decided by her uncle, who happened to be the chief justice of the English supreme court.

The result is a splendidly acted, overwrought and largely predictable drama that plays out like Jane Austen with a social justice angle. It's a lot of heaving bosoms and men in tights and white wigs, and talk about maintaining one's "position" in the aristocracy while searching for a suitable marital match.

The twist is that Dido (a scintillating Gugu Mbatha-Raw), as the illegitimate daughter of a naval officer who dallied with a black slave, maintains most of the comforts of nobility while being constantly reminded that she will never be fully embraced by its members.

I admired much about the film while rarely being surprised or emotionally engaged by it. This is one of those movies where you can watch the trailer and obtain a snack-size serving of the entire meal.

Young Dido is given over to her aunt and uncle by her father (Matthew Goode), a naval officer who eventually dies. William Murray (Tom Wilkinson) raised himself up to the topmost heights of the legal profession through grit and idealism, though in his later years he's become more attuned to the rigidity of society.

His wife (Emily Watson) is none too pleased about having a "mulatto" in their house. But they pass her off as the companion of their other, legitimate niece, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). A few odd accommodations are made for the sake of conformity -- Dido is not allowed to share formal meals with her family or guests, for instance -- but she is shown genuine love.

Flash forward to the girls' debutante years, and a great puzzle emerges. Dido is left quite wealthy by her inheritance, but most great families reject her as a marriage match because of her skin shade and illegitimacy. Elizabeth is well-bred and vivacious, but left penniless after own father remarried and moved on with a new family.

Their salvation would appear to arrive in the form of the wealthy and powerful Ashford clan. Matriarch (Miranda Richardson) can't believe "how black" Dido is, but younger son Oliver (James Norton) is smitten -- not to mention, he needs her dowry to help launch his career. Older son James (Tom Felton) pitches woo at Elizabeth, despite his disgust at her cousin -- until, that is, he learns she has no inheritance.

Dido's true passion is for John Davinier (Sam Reid), a commoner who hopes to rise up through the law as Dido's uncle did, and becomes his pupil. But his romantic ideas about changing society crash up against her family's preference for a well-ordered life. Especially as it relates to the case of the slave ship Zong, a spectacular case before the high court in which 142 slaves were drowned at sea to form the basis for an insurance claim.

The cast acquits themselves well, with Wilkinson and Mbatha-Raw the stars of the show. But director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay seem more interested in making a statement than really getting inside Dido's head.

"Belle" wears its sense of importance self-consciously, and turns a novel idea into a tiresome lecture.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Zardoz" (1974)

During the late 1960's and early '70s there was a spate of films that became known for being best experienced with pharmacological assistance -- "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and so forth.

"Zardoz" has all the aspects of a great stoner picture: loopy story, strange outfits, dream-like sequences with lots of special effects and colors. In terms of getting high while watching it, at first it best fits with a drunken state, but then moves on to doobies and cocaine, and eventually hard LSD.

It's a film that is at once supremely silly -- Sean Connery's ridiculous red-bikini-and-bandolier get-up is one for the ages, particularly when initially paired with thigh-high leather boots -- and yet is one of these rare movies that has Something to Say. We laugh at it, and laugh with it, but also recognize some uncomfortable insights about ourselves in between the goofy science-fiction antics.

This is the sort of movie a filmmaker does after they make it big with a huge critical and commercial success. John Boorman, one of my favorite directors, was just coming off the hit "Deliverance," and after abandoning a project to adapt "The Lord of the Rings" came upon the idea of this dystopic tale set in the year 2293.

The human population has become split between Eternals and Brutals, the masters and their unwitting slaves, respectively. The Eternals have achieved total consciousness, which includes shared telepathy ("the second level") and the ability to launch psychic attacks. They do not sleep or age, they want for nothing, and they're incredibly bored out of their highly evolved skulls. Everything is ordered by a pure democracy, in which the entire population votes instantly on any question put before the group.

Some of the Eternals rebel against their unchanging state, and as punishment are made to age several years at a time. After enough of these they become old folks dubbed Renegades, and are placed into the equivalent of a nursing home to while away eternity in a fog of senility. Others simply become so listless they cease to move or speak; they're fed and kept marginally alive by the active Eternals.

The Eternals live inside a series of green spaces called Vortexes, while everything else is given over to the Brutals. A giant flying head called Zardoz is the latter's god, appearing once a year to dispense firearms out of his mouth and collect the food they've grown. The Exterminators are an elite class of killers and rapists whose job seems to be to keep the population down and docile. Zardoz directs them thusly:

"The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the gun shoots death and purifies the Earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth and kill."

Connery, in only his second role after leaving the James Bond franchise (for awhile), plays Zed, the Exterminator protagonist who stows away aboard the Zardoz ship and kills its master, Arthur Frayn, an Eternal who has been charged with overseeing the Brutals and the outlands (mainly because nobody else wanted the job).

After he arrives at Vortex Four, Zed is captured and made the subject of an ongoing series of experiments by two of the Eternal leaders. May (Sara Kestelman) favors understanding and scientific inquiry, while Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) views Zed as a monstrous beast who should be disposed of.

The physical and emotional contrast between Zed and the Eternals is telling. With their loose, flimsy and brightly-colored clothing, long flowing hair and devotion to harmony, the Eternals are clear stand-ins for the hippie youth counter-culture of that era. They live in agriculture communes apart from the rest of the world, which they consider brutish and irredeemable. They prefer to employ their minds for heightened experiences (drugs) rather than concrete physical accomplishments.

Zed, on the other hand, represents a pure id, the throwback man who embraces his taste for violence and sex without illusion. The Eternal males are all effete unbearded man-boys with scrawny, hairless bodies and, we are told, the inability to achieve an erection. Everyone claims this is because they have evolved beyond the need for intercourse, but both the Eternal women and men are fascinated by the virile specimen Zed presents. Consuella is humiliated -- and intrigued -- when her experiment with sexual imagery fails to arouse Zed, but her own presence does.

Connery presents a strapping image as Zed, with his hairy chest, horseshoe mustache and long ponytail swung over one shoulder. Connery first gained notice due to his physique, honed by bodybuilding, though by 1974 things were starting to head south. Reportedly dismissed as Bond for looking too old, Connery's torso and limbs, if not quite properly called flabby, no longer held their youthful trim.

In effect, the Eternals are the young progressives while Zed and his cohorts are representatives of the sclerotic old world and everything wrong with it.

Things get increasingly trippy, and more and more out of whack, as time goes on. We eventually learn Zed is a "mutant" with the potential to become the proverbial Chosen One who alters the fate of the world -- at one point, May even describes Zed as mentally and physically superior to the Eternals.

Things really get loose as the movie moves into its funhouse phase, with Zed fleeing through a maze inside his mind as he attempts to tap into the Tabernacle, the crystal computer network that joins all the Eternals together. The Zardoz head/ship was a fake deity created to fool the Brutals, but the Tabernacle aspires to the real thing: "I am everywhere and nowhere; that has often served as a definition of God."

The story ends in an orgy of killing, as Zed turns the Eternals mortal again just as his band of Exterminators arrive. The Eternals rapturously embrace their own death, especially Frayn and another named Friend (John Alderton), who had acted as Zed's chief tormentor and confidant. "The slave who could free his masters," Frayne describes Zed, right before his own bullet arrives.

I first saw "Zardoz" when I was but a pup, and admit most of the film's deeper meanings went straight over my head. Many of the scenes still come across as so transcendentally silly that it's hard not to laugh out loud at moments when Boorman did not intend.

The part where the other Eternals turn on Friend is a prime example -- they point their upraised hands as they attack him with invisible mind-mojo, while he whines and resists: "Noooo.... I will not go to the second level with youuuuuuuuuuuu!" It's like a seance that went bad, with the evil spirits invading the participants, who were all  high to begin with.

Despite this loony bits, "Zardoz" remains an intriguing cult classic that can be enjoyed on different levels. I prefer to have my laugh at the hokum, but respond to Boorman's trenchant criticism of both a society ruled by the fist or the mind. Or you can just drop some acid and tune out. Nobody's stopping you, man.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Video review: "Her"

The quirkiest of the nine movies nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture last year is “Her,” which not coincidentally is probably the one that most of the people reading this haven’t seen, or possibly even heard of.

Correct this tragic oversight right now – your cinematic life will be the richer for it.

I know a lot of people were put off by the bizarre premise: a lonely man falls in love with his computer. This might sound like the set-up for a bad raunchy comedy, but in fact this tender drama from writer/director Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) offers trenchant observations about loneliness and romance.

Set in the not-at-all-distant future, “Her” shows how we use technology to bring us all closer together, but in fact our gadgets and apps actually serve to drive us apart. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, whose sorrow from a recent breakup seems to seep through his skin.

He installs a new operating system for his computer that is supposed to simulate a full human personality. Dubbing herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), she quickly becomes his social crutch and, surprisingly, his soul mate.

The movie wisely doesn’t get bogged down in the science fiction aspects of the story – whether Samantha is really sentient or not, or where exactly her consciousness resides. She’s represented as a voice inside Theodore’s head via ear buds, and she “sees” through the camera of a little compact computer he carries around. Jonze and his actors simply invest their belief that Samantha is real, so we accept her as such.

Funny, sad and insightful, “Her” is exactly the sort of ambitious small film waiting to be rediscovered on video.

The DVD comes with a making-of documentary, “Her: Love in the Modern Age.” Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack, and you add a couple of featurettes: “How Do You Share Your Life with Somebody” and “The Untitled Rick Howard Project.” (The latter refers to the original title for “Her.”) These include perspectives from Jonze, his cast and crew.



Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review: "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return"

Before you get your knickers into a twist about a new animated movie compromising the purity of the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz,” I’d like to point out that there was already an “official” sequel in 1985. (Which is not well remembered because, well, it was pretty awful.) And there have been a handful of films over the years that continued or adapted the story of Dorothy & Co. – “The Wiz” and last summer’s blah “Oz the Great and Powerful” starring James Franco.

Author L. Frank Baum actually wrote a number of Oz books, and his descendants published even more. Heck, there already was an animated version in 1971 called “Journey Back to Oz,” and the Muppets did their own Oz flick in 2005.

So if the very existence of “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” offends you, then my advice is to just get over yourself.

It’s actually a rather agreeable little film, aimed more at small kids than grown-ups looking to relive childhood memories. The computer animation is decent, the voice acting lively and engaging – including a first-rate turn by Martin Short as the bad guy – and it even features a number of catchy musical sequences.

Sure, this is a few steps down the ladder from “Frozen” in terms of quality and artistry. But it greatly exceeds low expectations.

For Dorothy (Lea Michele), only one day has passed since the twister that transported her to Oz. She wakes up to find her Kansas home leveled, and a shifty appraiser (Short) convincing people to sign over their property and depart.

Back in Oz, though, many years have passed. Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd) has come into his own as the resident brainiac running the wizard’s palace and contraptions, while Lion (Jim Belushi) and Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer) have become a brave warrior and emotional soul, respectively. But they’re under attack from the evil Jester (Short again) and zap Dorothy back to help out.

This requires a new journey down the yellow brick road, but with a new set of companions assembled along the way.

Wiser (Oliver Platt) is an immensely fat, clever owl who wears spectacles and has a tendency to finish other people’s sentences. Marshall Mallow (Hugh Dancy) is a brave, resolute soldier who just happens to be made of gooey marshmallow. The China Princess (Megan Hilty) is the brittle leader – both in terms of her body and fractious personality – of a tiny people made out of delicate china.

Rounding out the cast are Bernadette Peters as Glinda, trapped by the Jester, and Patrick Stewart as Tug, an aged tree who helps Dorothy along her way.

The Jester is quite a memorable villain. The sibling of the wicked witch killed by Dorothy, he’s both cursed by and hungry for magical power. He can work his sister’s crystal ball and broomstick, though not particularly well, and commands her army of flying monkeys. Short gives him a frenetic desperateness, and also displays some quite amazing singing pipes.

The music by Toby Chu will get toes a-tapping, though the songs tend to be short expositional transitions between scenes rather than show-stoppers.

Co-directors Will Finn and Dan St. Pierre keep things moving along at a brisk pace, and the action scenes are crisply-staged. We get to see a lot more of the fanciful world of Oz, including a bestiary of neat critters. (Though personally, I would have liked to see more than a token munchkin or two.)

This “Oz” film may seem like a cheap spinoff, but it’s fun and breezy. It certainly beats that smarmy Franco flick by a gold-bricked mile.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Streaming is the future of home video

Every now and then, I like to take stock of the home video landscape. The first time I wrote such a column, I was firmly on the side of buying DVDs and Blu-ray over streaming movies. The superior audio/video quality, coupled with the plethora of extra features, made discs the clear winner against the upstart, I wrote.

Much has changed since then -- plus, not much of note is coming out on video this week -- so now’s a good time to reassess.

In 2007, Netflix shipped its 1 billionth DVD. But not long after, the video rental giant fell on hard times. They’re riding back high now -- to the point they’ve recently announced their intention to boost subscription prices for new members. (Existing members will enjoy an undetermined grandfathering period.)

The vast majority of new Netflix subscribers are streaming-only. Indeed, it has been estimated that one-third of all data usage on the web consists of people streaming Netflix shows!

Like competitors such as Hulu, Vudu, Amazon and others, they offer a large library of films and television shows available 24/7. On a home network with high-speed Internet access, video quality can be on par with DVD. Though one of the prime benefits of streaming is the ability to watch anywhere on a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer.

Personally, I still subscribe to both the streaming and DVD arms of Netflix, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Large portions of their film library -- especially older and less popular titles favored by cine-nerds -- aren’t available for streaming.

Plus, Netflix has become a major player in producing their own content, with shows like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” racking up viewers and Emmy Award nominations (and wins).
But with a small child and a baby coming up, right now probably 90 percent of my Netflix viewing is streaming. (And if I have to sit through one more episode of “LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu,” I’m liable to barf.)

The point is, convenience and versatility have come to trump presentation quality and diversity of choices. You may not be able to watch as many different things via streaming, and it may not look/sound as good as sitting in your home theater with a big flatscreen and Dolby 7.1 sound blasting out at you.

But with our hectic, on-the-go lifestyles, that’s simply not how most people are watching movies these days. For better and for worse, streaming is the future of home video.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Eye of the Needle" (1981)

I first encountered Ken Follett's novel "Eye of the Needle" when I was fairly young, and found it a rousing good read. Not surprising considering it featured a lot of violence, Nazi spies, WWII intrigue and a fair amount of sex -- all catnip to a young reader.

The 1981 film version contains all of that stuff, but manages to be dull and lifeless. It's the story of a German spy with a secret that holds the fate of the entire war in the balance -- have you noticed that every war movie has this? -- who ends up seducing a lonely British housewife on an isolated island.

Donald Sutherland, one of the finest modern actors never to be nominated for an Oscar, is charming and icy as Henry Faber, a seemingly pleasant everyman working as a clerk at a shipyard. Of course, he's secretly transmitting all the troop movements to his German command in preparation for the Allied invasion of France. As we've heard before in a hundred other war pictures, great pains were taken to convince the Axis the invasion would happen further to the north instead of at Normandy.

Faber discovers the huge armada of American airplanes are actually fakes made out of wood and canvas, takes pictures of the lot, and prepares to bring this crucial information back to the Fatherland so he can personally deliver it to Hitler. He had been transmitting his intelligence via radio, but that was compromised early in the movie (requiring the murder of Faber's landlady).

This little plot point provides crucial late in the game, when Faber is trapped on remote Storm Island waiting to be picked up by a U-boat, and he has to find a way to radio the submarine to coordinate his pickup. Of course, he could always have spoken a few words into the transmitter and his mission would've been accomplished. But then, as they say, we wouldn't have a movie.

Kate Nelligan is sympathetic as Lucy, the woman who takes Faber into her bed seemingly four minutes after she's met him. She's more or less been abandoned by her husband, David (Christopher Cazenove), who lost his legs in a car accident on the day of their wedding. (Cazenove is an able-bodied actor, and the various half-hearted attempts to depict him otherwise leave it  unclear whether the character is supposed to wear prosthetics or not.) Now he lives out his days as a sheep farmer on the island, rejecting any physical affection from his wife and virtually ignoring their young tow-headed son, burying his sorrows in drink.

Lucy and Faber begin their affair almost immediately, the first day after Faber shipwrecks his stolen trawler on the shores during a storm. By the time of their last coupling, though, Lucy knows that her lover has killed her husband, resulting in a disturbing scene that implies the sex is coerced out of fear for her life and her child's.

The most interesting thing about Faber of course is his code name, The Needle, and why it's given: his penchant for dispatching his foes with a stiletto knife.

My recollection of the book is the stiletto is a narrow-bladed dagger with a hilt, which the Needle uses to thrust into his victims so they die without very much messy blood loss. I seem to recall he favored stabbing in the neck upward, so as to pierce the brain, resulting in instantaneous death.

In the movie, though, Faber uses a huge modified switchblade -- since that's what American audiences think of when they hear the word "stiletto." And he invariably stabs them in the gut, on the left side approximately where the stomach should be. Blood spurts out in a crimson river, and his victims invariably fall dead within seconds -- in contradiction of biology and basic common sense. The extension of the knife's blade is always accompanied by a harsh metallic "skree" sound, perhaps a forbear to the "snikt" of Wolverine's claws.

The biggest problem with "The Eye of the Needle" is that it's essentially two different movies smushed together. The first half is about Faber's flight from British authorities, led by a resolute but one-dimensional Ian Bannen. This includes a tense sequence aboard a train, where Faber is recognized by a soldier he used to be friendly with when he was a boy. Needless to say, he gets the needle.

Then the syrupy romance part takes over in the second half, leading up to a confrontation between Lucy and her would-be lover. Their combat is quite messy -- including cutting off some of his fingers with an axe -- yet Faber remains hesitant to use the full extent of his prowess. This begs the question of whether the spy truly feels something for the Englishwoman, or if she's simply a means to an end.

Given the confused logistics of the finale, "Eye of the Needle" is a movie that leaves us with more questions than answers, and even the questions aren't all that interesting.

Director Richard Marquand would go on to direct "Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi," an odd choice given his meager film credits, including this one. He later made "Jagged Edge" and "Hearts of Fire," Bob Dylan's brief foray into film acting, before dying young at age 49.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review: "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

Just a short review today, folks. Joe is handling the main article over at The Film Yap, and ably so, so please head over there to check it out.

I was very cynical about the reboot of the Spider-Man franchise. As I wrote at the time, undertaking a production just so the creative rights to the character won't revert to the previous owner is a terrifically awful reason to make a movie. But director Marc Webb, his cast and crew came up with a fresh take on familiar characters and themes. It was exhilirating.

As I also wrote, "The Amazing Spider-Man" also took its time building up the mythology of their new-ish universe, grounding the characters and rendering them relatable as people. In other words, it earned its emotional capital for the kabloowie stuff later on.

With the sequel, I often felt like the filmmakers were using shorthand and shortcuts. Dialogue scenes barely begin before they reach their emotional crescendo. Action scenes jump straight to the big explosions and CG effects. There's no foreplay, just "hello" and wham-bang.

Maybe I'm getting old, but I need a film to stoke my fires a little bit before getting to the main event.

There are some wonderful actors in this movie -- Andrew Garfield, Jamie Foxx, Emma Stone, Chris Cooper, Sally Field, Paul Giamatti (briefly). But as I sat there watching them spout increasingly ridiculous and/or nonsensical lines, I kept wondering how ill-used they are. This movie fails the old Gene Siskel test if you'd rather just watch that same cast sitting around lunch talking about whatever.

It's not a bad super-hero movie. I think there's actually a really good story here, buried underneath the unnecessary subplots and excess of secondary characters. Peter Parker, haunted by the death of Gwen Stacy's father in the last movie, dithers about keeping his promise to leave her alone, despite their desperate love for each other.

The main bad guy is Electro (Foxx), depicted here as a mush-mouthed, timid electric engineer who gets zapped by experimental eels at the headquarters of the evil Oscorp company. This turns him into a blue-skinned, semi-transparent being who can manipulate electrical energy -- eventually, even dis- and re-assembling his body through electricity.

His motivations aren't really clear -- something about feeling invisible and wanting the whole world to see him. Previously a Spider-Man junkie, he becomes disillusioned when the web-slinger helps capture him.

The filmmakers also throw in Harry Osborn, played by Dane DeHaan, who was born looking like a fallen angel, with a cupid's-bow mouth and dangerous eyes. His nasty dad Norman (Cooper), on his death bed, passes along his contempt as well as the "Osborn curse," a heredity disease he describes as "retro-viral hypoplasia." Basically, it turns you into a gnarled green goblin.

One of my standard metrics for comic book movies is you can rate them by how many villains they have. The truly terrific ones, like "Spider-Man 2" or "Blade," only need one really good bad guy to make things sing. With Spidey fighting Electro, the Green Goblin and even the Rhino (briefly), none of them get a chance to make a weighty impact.

Various subplots involving Peter's parentage, and his father's prominence as a scientist in the Oscorp machine, were better left on the writers' floor. Aside from muddying up the plot, it serves to diminish Peter as a character. The entire resonance of Spider-Man is that he's a nobody teenager who assumes great powers and, as we all well know, great responsibilities.

So: I liked the movie in pieces. There's a lot of good stuff here, and certainly the action sequences are fun and all you'd expect from a big summer blockbuster. This one just needed a half-dozen or so more rewrites to pare it down to its essence, instead of piling on the detritus.