Rear Window (1954), Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Rear Window (1954)
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 112 min., DVD

rear window movie posterWatching Hitchcock’s films might be considered by some a master class in pacing and suspense, but for my money it’s a dead ringer for the difference in how writers and directors delivered a story now and fifty years ago. There are not many films of comparable pacing that I have watched from the last ten years of cinema that hold so much for the end, except perhaps the works of Christopher Nolan.

The film, by all contemporary standards, proceeds at a glacial pace, and if I take that metaphor to an annoying level, the glacier of pacing is slowly melted away by the heat of action (boo, boo, terrible!!!). Garbage metaphors aside, the heat does figure prominently as noted on a recent episode of Filmspotting, playing a pivotal role in the main action of the film (the peeping of the protagonist into open windows).

Jeffires (James Stewart), an injured photographer who is confined to a wheelchair during his convalescence, is visited accordingly in day and night by his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and romantic interest Lisa (the stunning Grace Kelly). The film works equally well as a thriller and a class study, with Jeffries peering into illicit behavior and peoples’ personal class afflictions in equal measure. Jeffries avoids marriage to Lisa (in what Adam Kempenaar calls the most unbelievable bit of acting ever) on account of her “Fifth Avenue” lifestyle being incongruous with his various rugged, masculine photography assignments. Jeffries early on notices unusual behavior from one of his neighbors which prompts him to bring in his police detective friend Doyle (Wendell Corey), an antagonist for the speculative trio of Jeffries, Stella, and Lisa.

Through twists and turns, the murder is both proven and disproven through vivid imaginary crime reconstructions by the trio (reminiscent of the climax of a Sherlock Holmes novel) and the deflating detective work of Doyle. Perhaps the most arresting theory behind the film is that of surveillance, and what it does or doesn’t tell us about people. Seeing actions disconnected from context and without explanation offers a glimpse of private life that goes beyond suspicion or blind speculation, yet is no more factual or truthful than either. On a meta-level, it comments on the film viewer’s voyeuristic tendencies, the watching of someone who is incapable of watching you. The exquisite tension that lingers with me is the peril of unobserved observation, that the object may turn his gaze on you, shattering the barrier that makes surveillance a passive activity–much like an actor breaking the fourth wall. A brilliant and elemental foundation for a plot.

The slow, slow pacing is alleviated by the masterful set in which the entire action of the film takes place. Apart from a single room in Jeffries’ aparment, the entire setting of the film is the view through the vibrant courtyard and alleyways that provide access for the protagonist and viewer to the unsanctioned glimpses into open windows. It functions as a self-contained universe of intrigue and interaction: a microcosm of a metropolis housing a multitude of sin, intrigue, and suspicious imagination.


Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Dirs. Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, 84 min., on the Disney channel (of all places)

I have a certain fascination with films for children, in that they must both entertain the child as well as not be abhorrent to the adult paying for and accompanying said child to the movie theater. In addition, they must be entertaining to children ranging from 3 to 12 years old, a range marked by radically different interests and cognitive levels. If a film rises to the pick of the litter (in 101 Dalmations parlance), it is rewatchable by the adult for nostalgia and enjoyment purposes for many years after the initial viewing, and may be imparted on a subsequent generation.

I was watching the film Tangled with my niece the other day and I noticed that computer animation is a totally different experience from the hand drawn animation of my childhood: the lines are crisp and clean, voices are perfectly matched, scenes are crisp and bright and almost bursting with color. But there was definitely something unsatisfying about the film.

I’m the very last person to say everything old is good, everything new, bad. But there are some substantial changes which are worth noting.

Beauty and the Beast was the forerunner of future animated films with the first in-company use of a computer animation sequence in a feature film (the scene where Belle dances with the Beast in the ballroom). In a film where there are tens of thousands of expertly hand drawn cells animated into a feature by what was, at the time, one of the most expert production crews in the animation business, the computer animation looks shoehorned and does not fit the aesthetic of the film. By today’s computer animation standards, the product is quaint and is reminiscent of a scene from the early computer game Rift.

Nevertheless, this embodies the spirit of the zenith of Disney hand-drawn animation that included The Little Mermaid (1989), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). These films also represent the run up to a fully computer animated film, with each film incorporating more sophisticated computer-aided animation techniques.

The film also represents a golden era of sorts that contains conventions that current films abandon. For the most part, the actors in this film are Broadway voice actors, the most notable exceptions being Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach (whose French accent makes his grumbly Dirty Dancing and Law and Order personas unrecognizable by comparison). The songs are practically written for a Broadway musical, and one might call this an animated musical rather than an animated feature since the songs take such precedence. According to IMDB trivia, Lansbury suggested that the title track be sung by a professional singer, but she recorded one take to appease the production staff, and that take was ultimately used in the film. By comparison with computer animation, there’s something charming about the slapdashedness of such a gargantuan project as drawing and animating tens of thousands of still frames combined with rock and roll snap takes.

Pixar films are clinical in their mechanized precision, and do not have run-over coloration in the stills, mismatched voice and character movement, or reused animation: flaws that endear an audience. Outtakes are manufactured, but are the simulacra of imperfection. The voices are supplied by Hollywood stars who most likely record several hundred, heavily-edited takes: as Jon DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama) pointed out in his interview with AV Club, they are brought on cast to sell tickets with their names, not give quality performances. Beauty and the Beast is a nostalgic trip back to before the tipping point where animation became a fully computerized and (comically) further commercialized art form.


The China Syndrome (1979) / The Day After (1983)

Working on my qualifying exam paper left me way behind in my blog this past week, so I am just catching up with a couple of nuclear disaster films that I watched a couple of weeks ago.

I also decided that I’m changing my rating system to grades instead of numbers since I feel like stars and numbers are a reductive and not very informative way of evaluating the overall quality of a film, not that grades are much better. Maybe I’m just missing handing out letter grades since it’s summer :)

The China Syndrome (1979)
Dir. James Bridges, 122 min.

During a routine press story, Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), a reporter and her camera man, Richard Adams (Michael Douglass), witness an accident in a nuclear plant that nearly results in a meltdown. After the crisis is resolved, a nuclear plant control room worker, Jack Godell (Jack Lemon), notices a problem with a piece of machinery in the plant that has been systematically covered up in order to avoid an overhaul of the plant, which would cost the power company millions of dollars. Adams secretly films the crisis from an observation booth, landing Wells in hot water with her bosses who recognize that it’s not only illegal, but pulling Wells away from her career as a Veronica Corningstone-esque soft-news reporter. Godell eventually decides to go public with the information, but this angers the power plant officials (as you might expect).

This film addresses a lot of late 70’s/early 80’s sexist, capitalist, and ethics themes. It’s hilarious to see Douglass, who played an ardent capitalist in some of his most memorable roles (the Wall Street films and The Game) as a bearded anti-nuclear advocate. Fonda is objectified by almost everyone around her, including Douglass who slaps her on the backside at one point (perhaps suggesting an on screen romantic relationship, but not one that is ever referenced elsewhere in the film). Her bosses and even her coworkers lay the sexism on pretty thick, which is one concern I had with this film. There’s not a lot of subtlety or complexity to the characters: the nuclear plant board members hold meetings in a high rise boardroom complete with crystal chandeliers, cigars, and brown liquor in crystal glasses; Godell looks like he’s right out of NASA’s flight control room, complete with Gene Kranz’s sweater vest; Wilford Brimley’s control room character actually says “I’m a company man.”

However, I think the lack of character complexity plays to this film’s charms. Everyone in it is driven by their profession and everyone’s code of ethics and responsibilities converge in the final scenes of the film, which are tense and emotional. Plus, there’s Wilfold Brimley.


The Nagasaki Nuclear BombingThe Day After
Dir. Nicholas Meyer, 127 min.

In 1983 when this film was released, tensions in Eastern Europe were high and nuclear weapons proliferation was unchecked. Ronald Reagan was discussing putting nuclear deterrent measures in orbit (Star Wars), and the Soviets were developing an anti-ballistic missile shield around Moscow.

I just read an article about how Hollywood directors are all secretly pushing a liberal agenda, and this film and director were referenced by name (in my opinion, kind of junk reporting). Political bias in media is a hard nut to crack. Many people argue that we live in a liberally biased media environment, and conservatives must be audacious to be heard and understood. I argue that metrics are not yet in place to measure such a bias (I recently finished a pilot study on spoken word media bias in May that I hope to develop into a conference paper). The article that I read on Yahoo news references some high profile Hollywood directors and producers, but is a totally inappropriate sample size given the several decades of liberal entertainment bias that the documentary film in the article is striving to document. It’s no secret that many in Hollywood wear their liberal views on their sleeve, but I doubt that Hollywood producers whose primary goal is movie ticket sales are interested in secretly promoting a liberal agenda in a country where just under 50% of the voting populace votes for a Republican presidential candidate.

All political bias aside, The Day After rarely prosthelitizes 1980’s liberal viewpoints. Except for the role of Jason Robards as a late-middle age heart surgeon who calls nuclear escalation “crazy,” there are no grandstanding speeches or subtle political subtexts that I could detect (except perhaps that nuclear weapons kill people and destroy civilization, which seems more logical than partisan). Perhaps this film favors anti-proliferation over nuclear deterrence, but what would the counter-film be: a picture of the status quo forever? Isn’t that what deterrence provides? It’s hard to image a pro-deterrence film, except a film telling the horror story of a U.S. that relinquishes all nuclear weapons.

There is some disillusionment with the government after the nuclear crisis in the film, but I missed how that is a critique of period Republican leadership and not a critique of the lack of leadership and infrastructure to deal with a crisis in general.

In my opinion, after viewing this film, you could make a strong critique of liberal views as well (especially the idea that the University and centers of higher education will hold all the answers in the event of a crisis, which they clearly don’t in this film). If there is any takeaway from this film it’s that nuclear war is a devastating specter (dare I errh, say, swaard of Dahmocleese) whose shadow remains up to the present day. Thankfully, two decades ago President Reagan took the first steps toward non-proliferation. Whether or not the interpretation of his diary is correct and the private screening of this film for him served as a catalyst for his role in nuclear arms reduction talks, we should not discredit the film’s content based on the opinions of the filmmaker. Anyone who does so is missing the true point of art: the reader makes the meaning and carries the spirit of the art into the world, and the author’s intention is not nearly as important as the impact on the reader.


Other flotsam I bumped into this week
Deep Impact (1998): With a cast this star studded (Morgan Freeman and Robert Duvall got second billing on the TiVo guide), it’s hard to image such a cacophonous, bloated clunker of a film. It tries to be four films in one (teen coming of age story, gritty political reporter drama, Armageddon, and lastly a PSA on how to handle the complete destruction of the planet).

Films I’m expecting to review

  • Judy Moody (2011): My wife has to watch this as part of a conference paper she’s working on, so I begrudgingly agreed to go with
  • Collateral Damage (2002): This is the last of the Schwarzenegger films that I haven’t seen. Not sure if this predates his love child.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Dir. Robert Aldrich, 134 min., black and white, on Netflix Instant Watch

I suppose when I think of the 1940’s, 50’s, and early 60’s in cinema, I am usually weary of being bored to death. I know that is really stupid, but that’s just the way I feel. Allow me to bore you by elaborating.

As a child, we did not really have television as you might know it today. We had a TV in our family room (a massive cathode ray tube Zenith that had channel buttons reminscient of the buttons you would find on an early touch-tone phone) and a TV in our finished basement (a VHF/UHF television with separate dials for the channels 1-13 and 14-74, or however high the UHF band went). Since we lived in between Chicago and Milwaukee we were able to pick up both city’s broadcast channels, but most of the channels that came in clearly were from Chicago. Also, we had a large antenna mounted to our roof that rotated 360 degrees by manipulating a control dial in our living room (it actually looked something like this). We called it an “aerial.”

To watch one station or another, the aerial had to be pointed in a very specific direction, which seemed to change based on channel, time of day, and phase of the moon. What all of this meant is that watching a different channel on each TV was relatively pointless since the aerial had to be adjusted for the channel to come in, and my parents were the masters of the aerial control box.

To wit, I mostly watched what my parents watched. Our local public television affiliate, WTTW, used to show a myriad of films from the golden era of Hollywood, but for whatever reason the films that they showed were mostly not what you would call “classics” (maybe they were really short on funds back in the day??).

When we got cable when I was 14 years old, my television life was revolutionized. I used (or perhaps squandered) my new found freedom to watch MTV and endless amounts of hockey games on ESPN2. There was a channel, however, which plagued my existence on family vacations where only one television was available. A channel whose mission must be to inhabit the cultural space that exists as an antithesis to everything hip and cool in the world of a teenager. That channel is Turner Classic Movies.

As a young lad, TCM was the embodiment of everything boring in cinema. When you consider the channel’s mission, however, it doesn’t and shouldn’t bode well for capturing a young audience. They show only gilded era films, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Given the amount of garbage that exists in almost every era of film making (even those prepended with the word “gilded”), you are almost never likely to watch a film that you had the remotest interest in seeing.  Also, there is a 99% chance you will start watching in the middle of the film: remember, there were no DVR’s in 1994.

However, as I progressed out of my 14 year old “I think everything old is stupid” phase, I started to really appreciate some films from that era. I could name check a few black and white classics that opened my eyes to early era cinema, but I’ll save it for later.

If you are weary of entering the black and white era, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? could be a possible gateway (term admittedly stolen from AV Club’s gateways to geekery). The story begins with two children: Baby Jane, a child star (Bettie Davis) and Blanche (Joan Crawford), a successful adult actress. While Blanche has a stellar career as an adult actress, her sister Baby Jane is unable to parley her darling child act into a successful career. After many years of bitterness and jealousy, Baby Jane is responsible for an accident that costs Blanche the use of her legs. As adults, Blanche is a prisoner in her own house and subject to the bitterness and abuse of the emotionally regressive and alcoholic Jane. The film follows their relationship as the tensions between them escalate to violent and dangerous levels.

What really stood out to me in this film was the casting. According to my go to sources (IMDB and Wikipedia) Crawford and Davis didn’t much care for each other, and both were actresses whose heyday was well behind them at the time of filming. In an real-life parallel that seems too close to be accidental, Baby Jane takes an ad out in the paper looking for a piano player to revive her act; Davis took an apparently famous work wanted ad out one year prior to the release of this film. The animosity between the two is palpable in nearly every sequence, and Davis’ mocking impression of Crawford’s line delivery is either scarily good, or, if a voice over was used, an impressive technical trick that elevates what would be an ordinary moment in the film into truly disturbing sequence. The emotionally disturbing appearance of Davis resonates and reminds me of a similar performance by Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream (2000). Especially disturbing is the soundtrack, which plays off variations of a hauntingly sweet song entitled “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” written for the film. The mix of delusion, frenzy, and hopelessness that Davis brings to her performance of that song as a broken down and embittered late-life failure provides a moment in the film that leaves the view with a singular sense of pity.

The film has quite a few Hitchcockian moments (Rear Window comes immediately to mind as the wheelchair bound Blanche desperately tries to attract the attention of a neighbor). There is also some heavy commentary on the nature of the film industry itself. This film might not pack the same amount of suspense into two hours as some of it’s better contemporaries, but it is still relevant and gripping today. If you share my apprehensions about classic film this would be a good place to start working your way into the black and white era.


To Hell with the critics: I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

Dir. Jim Gillespie, 100 min., on Netflix Instant Watch

Right off the bat, I already F-ed up by not watching Scream. Strike one. I planned on watching it on New Year’s Eve, but I fell asleep after about thirty minutes since we started it at 1 a.m. or so. But it got me thinking about two things in particular:

1. I watched a lot of movies in the 90’s that I only barely remember;
2. I tend to re-watch so called “bad” films, and I usually find them not nearly as bad as I remember.

In any case, I’m starting a feature called To Hell with the critics, where I’ll do my best to convince you that the films that critics (and possibly you) hated are much better than you remember. To qualify, a film must score lower than 50 on either RT or Metacritic (or both).

I picked a dandy to start with, 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddy Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Ryan Phillippe. Watching this film, it’s hard to believe how much it blatantly rips off of Scream (1996) and how much Urban Legend (1998) rips off from I Know What You Did Last Summer. They are all spinning off the same skein, drinking from the same well, etc.

The plot itself, if you’ve never seen the film, involves the accidental killing of a man by the four principle actors, and the events leading up to the anniversary of that killing. I remembered the plot being extremely simplistic, but there were actually quite a few nuances that I had missed when I saw the film in theaters 13 years ago.

For all of the exposition we get in most films nowadays, this film is surprisingly light on explanatory material. In fact, if the film has a real flaw (apart from the dreadful line delivery by the principles), it’s that the exposition is so poorly handled that when the big reveal comes at the end, it’s almost impossible to figure out what is going on unless you were paying very careful attention to the few bits of material that develop the backstory.

In terms of action/suspense sequences, it’s no Hitchcock, but the film delivers repeatedly. Take this sequence, which I would rank at least in the top 20 of horror film chase sequences. Underscored by Hoverphonic’s eerie “2 Wicky” muted in the background, this scene was one of the few that I remembered from my original viewing.

The sense of foreboding that accompanies the eventual reckoning for the characters is enhanced by the ominous score and lingering, contemplative shots. That being said, the score is somewhat obtuse, punctuated with heart-clenching jump points; likewise, the camera doesn’t linger nearly long enough. A film that takes a similar fatalistic approach is Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) which represents a much better vision for horror films that plays to the both the campiness and eerieness that horror film watchers expect without making it so obvious. In a particularly forced move, the hook-handeded lunatic urban legend is shoehorned in at a couple points.

Although a lot of the conventions seem dated and trite, the film was decidedly made for the masses and it was a wild success (at a budget of $17m, it grossed over $70m). A large part of that has to be attributed to the films four principle actors, who inhabit almost their own world. Part of that must have been due to the expense of casting: JLH was a successful TV star from Party of Five (remember when that was big?) and SMG was Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the two male leads were relative unknowns at the time (this film made them 90’s icons), though RF did have several bit parts going in.

The consensus amongst critics seemed to focus on the numerous slasher cliches, and coming off of the heals of Scream just one year prior, it would be easy to see why critics would trash this film (a lousy 39% on RT, a slightly better 52 on Metacritic). I would argue that the film does not take itself nearly so seriously as to deserve the vitriolic rants that it garnered at the time of it’s release. The killer is a crazy fisherman with an ice hook dressed in a rain slicker. C’mon, are you seriously going to sit at your desk and blast the film for failing to cross a few T’s?

This film gives the female (and to a lesser extent, male) leads a space to dress scantily and brood. The fact that there are numerous creepy details added in and a fabulous cameo by Anne Heche as a slightly imbalanced rustic are what make the film re-watchable; the performances from the fab four of the 90’s are relatively forgettable.

Clearly the director had an eye for details, regardless of the hack horror setups.
In part, films with an ominous deadline just seem to play better in that regard, in that the pacing is (or should be) relatively straightforward, leaving more time to work in details (e.g. the handwritten notes, the tired looking floats and parade from the beginning of the film, etc.). This film gives you a sense that things are building to a climax, while retaining the sense of danger that the characters (are supposed to) feel.

What happened to the actors (and director for that matter)? Not much. Much like the brat pack, they have seen little in the way of post-twenties success. From the action Gillespie has seen in the subsequent years, you would think that this film was a commercial disaster; he’s hardly directed anything of note. In terms of cultural ephemera, the film mostly misses the mark (other than the soundtrack which is somewhat dated), which is both disappointing and strangely affirming of my defense. I would argue that the film has aged well, in fact, divorced from the hype of it’s release. You’ll have to grit your teeth to get through some of the dialogue, but if you can let that go, the film is well worth the short running time.


Salt (2010)

This is probably the last entry I will be able to write for a while since I really don’t have any more time to review films before the summer ends. I had fun writing some reviews up and I hope whoever was reading enjoyed them as well. I’m thinking about starting a review blog this fall/winter that will review not just films and entertainment, but also food, music, and other stuff as well. If you’re interested in writing about these things (for free) email me at andrew dot roback at gmail dot com and we can talk details. Hope you had a great summer! Oh and, officially, this will be my 35th review or something like that. Even though I failed miserably to generate the amount of content I wanted to, well, there’s no excuse, I just failed. Happy rest of the summer :).

Columbia Pictures, 100 min., Dir. Phillip Noyce

(Sort of) heralded as a (pretty decent) action/spy film that will (kind of) take you on a (semi-)non-stop thrill ride, I had expectations for Salt that were (a little) inflated by hype.

However, despite such glowing reviews as “it’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” I was hopeful that I would at least not dislike the film. From the man who directed Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), I was expecting a smart spy film where there were lots of crazy plot developments and a really interesting cold war plot resurrection. Wrong. In other words, this film played more like Mission Impossible III than Mission Impossible.

A lot of reviews I read/heard praised the action element, but there was nothing outstanding. Action movies of this sort eventually devolve into how many different ways can the protagonist dispose of the baddies. Apart from one interesting scene involving a fire-extinguisher propelled homemade explosive, the action was mostly just Angelina Jolie hitting and shooting random guards.

The plot twists are not that interesting, and often don’t reconcile with the supposed plot in some cases. There’s not a whole lot of emotional investment in the characters, and the whole cold-war nuclear tension could not be more underplayed. I was expecting it to improve drastically as the film went on, but it just never did. The ending, which I won’t spoil for those who wish to see it, belongs in a James Bond film where it may be taken with a level of seriousness appropriate to its mustache twisting obviousness.

The fight scenes are completely vanilla (Angelina Jolie is aging and probably shouldn’t have played this role for obvious reasons), and the plot drops out to the most asinine developments possible with ancillary deux ex machina characters tossed in to finish the third act. Much like I was pissed at Iron Man II for overplaying cold war fears, I will reiterate for the rest of us who were born near the tail end: the Cold War is a piece of curious history and not a vivid memory.

The most interesting part of the movie was the idea of a Soviet spymaster creating a group of sleeper agents. Nerd that I am, I would have loved to see more of the training techniques, basically an unpacking of that whole montage. It would have replaced, perhaps, four to six scenes of Ms. Jolie breaking arms and kicking necks, but could have provided some much needed bolstering of the back story that would have made two-dimensional spy cliches into characters.

I don’t see much of a future for this series, even though there is a clear setup for a sequel. The film was trying very hard to be The Bourne Identity, but an aging actress in the lead coupled with poor acting and a bad storyline sabotaged this film right from the start.

5/10: Watch Breach (2007) for a much more entertaining spy film

Inception (2010)

Warner Bros., 148 min., Dir. Christopher Nolan

There’s not too much you can say that hasn’t been said and said and said and said, so I’m not sure there’s a ton to say that hasn’t been said. That’s my verbal attempt at translating a Penrose staircase. Incidentally, the first time I saw a Mobius strip at the absolutely fascinating Museum of Science Mathmateca exhibit designed by Charles and Ray Eames, I ended up designing one with Nicole and Sarah and Christine and just marveling at the fact that it was possible. This film has a similar, if more subdued effect.

Inception is a psychological thriller that recalls Christopher Nolan’s earlier film Memento (2000), but this is a far better film. It channels some of the energy of Nolan’s last two Batman films and plays like Ocean’s Eleven, but with fewer characters and more emotional payoff. There’s not much need to discuss the plot as you can read Adam’s article and recap the plot in detail for yourself.

What kind of film is this? A heist film, plain and simple. This film has been compared to The Matrix (1999), and that is essentially a heist film as well (thought the stakes are a bit different). A team is assembled in which each member has a particular skill to contribute. One member, (Cobb in this film) has a hangup, or some kind of personal problem that he/she must overcome before the job can be done satisfactorily. The heist involves multiple layers of concurrent threads of action and at least one twist which causes the audience to question the outcome or reassess the rules of the game.

A comparison to The Matrix is valid in my opinion, in that both films offer a fantasy world parallel to the ‘real’ in which different rules cause spectacular confrontations and contortions of the laws that govern our physical and mental existence. In terms of the outcome of the film, you have to see it to question, then, as Adam’s suggest, determine for yourself whether you care what the final scene represents.

In a word, I will echo most critics by saying that it was refreshing to see a movie that was not a sequel, middle-story film, or reboot of an 80’s television show. Nolan taps into yet another set of fundamental imagery to project a singular vision that captivates the viewer and truly establishes a world to inhabit for the duration of the film.

9/10: As with most Nolan films, a repeat viewing is in order.

The Swarm (1978)

Warner Bros., 155 min. (extended version)/116 min. (theatrical), Dir. Irwin Allen

The first thing you’ll notice in the byline above is that there is an extended version and theatrical release. I did not know this when I queued it up on Netflix, so I watched the bloated 155 min. extended version which included a subplot involving a romantic contest between two middle aged men for a retirement age elementary school principle. Yikes, nothing makes like good watchin’ more than two middle aged dudes wooing a southern belle, if you’re into Evening Shade that is. I, however, wanted angry mutant bees, some great one-liners, and super-ridiculous pseudoscience.

The film opens with a special forces team landing on a nuclear missile base in Texas. Quizzically, the special forces team is operating on the assumption that a commie biological weapon strike killed the staff, yet you can see exposed skin between the sleeves of their “bio-hazard suits” (painter’s jumpsuits) and black leather driving gloves. Also interesting, before they even know that the threat is bees, they have flame throwers. It will all come together by the end of the review, my friends.

It turns out that a swarm of killer bees stung most everyone in the base to death, and Michael Caine, an entomologist and the foremost bee expert in the world, happens to be out by that desert wasteland when this goes down. The President places him in charge of the military forces with one mission: kill the bees. Oh, and the base is right next to a town who’s main industry is growing flowers. And it’s blooming season.

Now I’m not saying I could write or direct a motion picture, but it must be hard to make both Michael Caine and Peter Fonda look like the two worst actors in the world. Caine essentially has three gears in the film:

  • Crazy bee guy: “The war we’ve been fearing is finally here,” referring to a war between Africanized bees and humans, something still that keeps me up at night
  • Angry at the U.S. Army guy: “LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING GENERAL!!!” If you watch for nothing else, watch for the countless screaming arguments between Caine and Illinois’ own, Richard Wildmark
  • The guy who doles out conciliatory lines like “there was nothing we could do,” something he’ll get ample opportunity to say

Much like a lot of these bloated seventies action films, the plan is to get the smart, middle-aged white men into a control room to hash this thing out over black coffee and cigarettes. This film is even worse, as the women are pretty much window dressing. The one female lead who does something is billed as Helena (Katherine Ross) in the credits, despite the fact that she is an Air Force lieutenant and a doctor. She also saves a bunch of men from bees by dragging them into a bunker and escapes by crawling through an air conditioning vent, which is not shown as the film begins in medias rez. She doesn’t even get a “way to go” for that one. I’m pretty sure a man would have gotten a medal, or maybe just a pat on the back, or something. But she’s just a woman, a woman who gets replaced as chief doctor when a crisis hits and basically becomes Peter Fonda’s lab assistant / ward nurse. She does provide someone to protect from danger and flirt with later on in the film, though.

This movie is based off a novel by the late Sci-Fi writer Arthur Herzog. I couldn’t help but think about The Andromeda Strain when I watched this film as they share the same basic premise: both films present a foreign threat that has no foreseeable solution; both films involve gathering the best scientists in the world and sequestering them in a secret military installation to develop a solution. Whereas Andromeda takes the nerdy intellectual route, The Swarm eventually turns into another film about communists invading America, but with bees instead of a Soviet-Cuban alliance. The bees are constantly treated like an invading army and personified, allegedly possessing strategies and tactics designed to beat the military. As they make their way toward Huston (and there is no reason at all given as to why they’re are going there) the Army officers keep referring to them as “The Africans.” Don’t even ask me why that is. I guess you can’t refer to them as the bees, seeing as you might confuse them with the Eurasian or Australian bee armies.

Let’s see, so far we’ve had mutant bees and some great one-liners delivered in full screaming fury by Michael Caine, now all we need is some really bad science. How’s this: the bees sting some people in a nuclear power plant and, as a result, the plant explodes. Check – and – mate.

**Spoiler Alert**All the 40+ minutes of character development for the townspeople is pretty much wasted as they die in a train accident halfway through the film while trying to evacuate. There are survivors, but I guess at 155 lean minutes, the director felt it would be better not to include a 15 second scene telling us if any of them were the supporting characters from earlier.

The bees eventually begin “the occupation of Huston” and the Army does the only logical thing: start burning the city down with, you guessed it, flame throwers!! I take you now to their base of operations downtown, 11 p.m., a high rise building with floor to ceiling windows:

“Hey Private Smith, you really shouldn’t be playing catch with that brick inside our glass fortress becaus–oh shit!! Anyone have insecticide…oh yeah, we tried that 72 minutes earlier in the film and it didn’t work. Welp, I had a good run, lots of fun tim–and now I’m getting stung to death…”

Stupidly enough, the bees get in through the elevator, sting some dude, and as he’s dying he breaks the window. Thanks, man. Way to die in the most selfish way possible.

In a brilliant piece of writing, Caine and Ross go from fleeing the bees that are loose in the building, bees so deadly that they can drop a full grown man with one sting mind you, and in the very next shot they are in a jeep, driving in an airfield, in the daytime. I’ve only seen one other movie that so blatantly disregards a viewers intelligence1 and just spreads some frosting over the gaping hole in the cake.

The brilliant plan to kill the bees: spill a bunch of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, lure the bees there with their mating sound, then light it on fire.

4/10: If bees invade, at least we’ve got one part of the solution taken care of already

1That film was The Core (2003). For some BS reason a team of scientists needs to make it to the core of our planet, and most of the crew dies along the way from numerous, extremely boring geological dangers. After the mission is accomplished (no spoiler alert because you won’t want to see this film at all), the two remaining terranauts (I love that word) go from the core of our planet to the ocean floor with a caption that reads “three days later.” Great ending. I just wish the whole film would have been the title screen, then a screen that says “a month and a half later,” and then the credits.

Note: I was reading some Shakespeare related stuff, but I plan on watching some movies this weekend and even reviewing some new releases next week

Moon (2009)

Liberty Films, U.K., 97 min. Dir. Duncan Jones

I tried to see what the deal was with Moon by doing a Google news search, but between Despicable Me and Twilight: 3/4 Harvest Moon, or whatever the new one is, I gave up immediately. I wanted to know where this film came from and how it ended up on my TV since I don’t remember any trailers or reviews, but it was in my Redbox list since like last year and is still available there (and on Netflix Instant Que).

The SciFi elements of this film exist to both provide a backdrop and premise for the action, but also to showcase the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent at the film’s core. It’s hard to summarize without giving away the many revelations at the heart of the film, so I’ll merely set the stage for you. Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, Choke) plays Sam Bell, a solitary worker on the moon who collects moon rocks from giant skimmers that reminded me a lot of the harvesters in Command and Conquer (I know, supernerd). The moon rocks power “70% of Earth’s energy needs” and his job, while incredibly important, is extremely monotonous and drives him to distraction and disinterest. As with most endurance films, things start to break down right around the end of his time there, worrying his only companion: a robot that is ingeniously done up as the type you would see assembling cars, but with artificial intelligence that makes him capable of affection for Sam, even if it is programmed. Anyway, things are looking pretty good for Sam’s departure before an accident occurs, which will reveal a lot more about what’s going on up on the moon.

There’s a lot to like about this film. If you dug 2001: A Space Oddssey (1968) which is really a first rate science fiction film, then you will dig this. Moon has the benefit of CGI, but its use is not to generate poorly-rendered Rastafarian aliens: it serves as a tasteful and complementary backdrop to the set pieces which really make you think of Kubrick. Kevin Spacey does his best HAL as the voice of the robot, which cashed in on 2001 without completely ripping it off, but I don’t think his vocal performance could get any closer to the original monotone voiced by Douglas Rain.

The tension between laxity and the perfection needed to exist in a zero atmosphere environment where the slightest miscalculation or mistake can instantly kill you in the most painful way possible is really demonstrated here. There is one particular scene where Sam tries to pass off a minor mistake caused by psychological stress as a simple accident, only to have the robot grill him with questions. Every ancillary detail of the film (carving miniatures with a pen knife, botany, ping pong) is presented in a way which heightens the fact that we often expend an extraordinary amount of attention on what we like to do, and tend to treat the monotonous work of everyday which is critical to other people and our own survival as a cakewalk (perhaps to exercise control over that which we are masters of in order to defray the tension of the uncontrollable or that which challenges us the most…).

7/10: Speaking of diffusing some tension, a lighter side of the moon

The Dead Zone (1983)

I’ll pretty much watch anything with Christopher Walken in it, and I guess this is no exception. The Dead Zone follows the life of a high school English teacher who gets into a car accident just prior to marrying his fiancee (Brooke Adams), wakes up after a five year coma to discover she’s married, and, oh yeah, can predict the future by shaking someones hand.

The film hangs on to that classic style of cinema that I might not have described in my House of the Devil review, but typifies what I know of 70’s/early 80’s cinema. The opening sequence usually sets the stage for a film, but doesn’t concern itself with introducing all of the characters that will be relevant/alive for the whole film. There are two or three tense events, with each one feeling as though it could be the climax of the film since the stakes are genuinely important. Films shot in the last two decades seem to have leveled out the plot line so that everything is just a waste until you get to the big finish, which usually disappoints.

I won’t give any spoilers here for those of you who want to see TDZ (it is available on Hulu and Netflix), but the segmentation of the movie involves roughly three episodes that lead Walken’s character to a moral dilemma that is murky at best. Walken plays the role as only he could, and if you are a fan of his particular style of line delivery, there’s no shortage of it in this film. Martin Sheen also makes an appearance as a sleezeball political candidate, which was kind of a shocker after seeing him play the president character in The West Wing. He must have “politician” stamped on his forehead.

I’ll digress and talk about a sweet 70’s movie that this reminded me of. When a Stranger Calls (1979) has the same type of ebb and flow plotline that I think is missing from films in the 90’s/00’s era. The film does a flip midway through that is completely unexpected. Likewise for Dirty Harry which I just watched recently and never get tired of. There’s something about the idea that you can have two or three critical moments in a movie that I just don’t think writers/directors buy into anymore. The only film I can think of that I saw recently where the plot action dies with a character or is resurrected with a new storyline is…well, I’m actually drawing a blank, so clue me in if you can think of one.

7/10: three words: weapon of choice

Update: I was thinking about it, and Iron Man (2008) kind of has that feel to it when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is in the cave in Afghanistan. When I first saw it, I thought the movie would play out entirely in that setting, but the action shifts midway through and another plot develops.

The House of the Devil (2009)

The House of the Devil was promoted big time last year as the horror film to see. I heard comparisons to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) which I saw in theaters as a junior in college, and is possibly one of my favorite films of all time. I have to say, this film cashes in on the current (or, perhaps, ongoing for the last six to eight years) zeitgeist of 1980’s nostalgia. I buy into that fad a lot, despite being, as my wife continually reminds me, too young to really remember most of the 80’s. I was born in 1982, but I had two older brothers who were teenagers when I was a child, so I was probably exposed to more Def Leppard and die cast Ferrari models/A-Team episodes than the average 1980’s child.

THotD takes place on a wintry college campus which looks eerily deserted, and for land grant university alums the opening scene where the protagonist babysitter, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) drops a paper in an office mailbox will immediately evoke memories of turning in your last paper just before Christmas break. Samantha lives with a roommate that is much more concerned with some gym sock on the doorknob action with random dudes than washing any of her clothes or taking down messages, so she is hoping to find $300 quickly for her deposit on a new study pad free of roommate aggravation. Against the wishes of her best friend, she signs up for an odd type of babysitting gig for a creepy old man in the middle of nowhere. Sound hackneyed? It is. But the director, Ti West, is aware of this from the beginning and the tongue-in-cheek factor is off the charts. It’s not a reductive, play with the horror movie conventions in a meta way film like Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) for instance, but more like a carefully crafted tribute to the great B movies you rented from Dollar Video on Friday nights. I was hooked from the title scene of the movie, a freeze-frame, up-angle shot of Samantha with a smile on her face and ominous yellow title text in a typeface that looks like it was salvaged from a Vincent Price adaptation of a Poe story. Perfect.

Every detail of the film was carefully crafted to place you in the time period, while at once making you conscious that you are indulging in some period nostalgia along the way. The film is singular in execution, and definitely rates among the best that I have seen all summer. I’ll say no more about the plot and twists, but the film is far more entertaining than you would imagine from the first twenty or thirty minutes.

9/10: Fire up your jiffy pop and grab a 7Up Gold out of the fridge

Update: I read a great piece on this film in Scott Tobias’ “New Cult Cannon” which talks (with much more filmy expertise) on some of the conventions that Ti West is playing with in the film and the idea of nostalgia versus careful technique in crafting suspense in horror films.