James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, Season 1 (2018)

<strong class="MovieTitle">James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction</strong>, Season 1 (2018)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) When AMC started bombarding viewers with the promise of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction event series, I programmed my DVR to record the series but kept my expectations low: While there is some interest in watching Cameron chat about Science Fiction with fellow directors such as Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas and Ridley Scott, what level of in-depth discussion could we reasonably expect? Worse yet was the idea of hearing actors talk about it—for all the good that I think about Will Smith, Zoe Saldaña, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger, what could they possibly say about SF that wouldn’t be scripted platitudes? Oh well; at six forty-minutes long episodes, it would at least be entertaining. Such series (and there was a similar BBC effort a few years ago) are meant as introductions to a general audience, not advanced lectures for jaded reviewers such as myself. On that level, at least the series does not disappoint: A blend of talking heads and illustrative footage revolving around one theme by episode (Aliens, Space, Monsters, Dark Futures, Intelligent Machines and Time Travel), this is a series that zips by. No amounts of lens flare have been spared in presenting older archive footage, and the overall feeling is one of slick presentation. The chats between Cameron and other genre directors/actors are presented so quickly that there’s little time for boredom—they’ve been distilled to their purest essence and a handshake right before the end credits. Surprisingly, though, there is more substance than I expected from the series: The interviews and talking heads go beyond directors and actors to genre critics (including Locus’s rock-solid Gary K. Wolfe) to actual written SF writers (who, as a group, look far less white males as the other groups interviewed—I mean: Nalo Hopkinson, Ken Liu, Nnedi Okorafor, Ted Chiang, and N.K. Jemisin!)  The actors may be saying scripted platitudes, but they sound good—even really good in the case of the ever-likable Will Smith. The budget of the series allows for some truly odd and inspired guests, such as musicians, special effects artists and screenwriters. Of course, it all races by: While the series hits its best moments when it slows down to focus on a specific movie or series (helped along by interviewing the people who wrote, directed, performed or otherwise contributed to the result seen on-screen), much of the time it’s a reference-every-five-second kind of documentary. The substance is there—not particularly deep, but much of what is showcased is reasonably accurate and even insightful. Most episodes of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction do rise up to the level of a good SF convention discussion panel, and that’s pretty much the level I demanded from such a series. There may or may not be a second season (these things are expensive, and AMC’s similar 2017 comics series doesn’t have a follow-up so far) but I’ll be there if ever there is. Frankly, it is rather cool to hear, even in blips and ten-second clips, Cameron and his colleagues talk shop, laughs knowingly about their craft and look like they’re enjoying their conversations.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

<strong class="MovieTitle">From Here to Eternity</strong> (1953)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) For all of the continued acclaim of From Here to Eternity as a classic piece of Hollywood Cinema, the film itself is often a disappointment. From its descriptions, you could maybe expect a sweeping drama set in pre-Pearl Harbor Hawaii, with high romance being interrupted by the beginning of the war. Alas, that’s just you going from the iconic beach scene and hazy memories of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor—the reality of From Here to Eternity has more to do with it being an adaptation of a gritty dramatic novel in which nobody gets a happy ending. On the menu: a sordid affair (one of many) between a traumatized housewife and an indecisive soldier; physical abuse in the military; a character falling for a high-end prostitute (oh, OK, “hostess”); and the Japanese on their way to ruin the melodrama right before the end. Also on the menu; terrifying dumb decisions from the characters to ensure that they will not get what they want (often dying in the process). As a period piece, From Here to Eternity is not that successful—until the Japanese attack, the film feels far too intimate to reflect the reality of living on a military base and the way it spends nearly all of its time in small sets does undercuts its bigger ambitions. The image of the beach romance suggested by the film’s reputation is far worse in context: Not only is the beach frolicking limited to a few seconds, it’s in support of an adulterous relationship that’s not particularly admirable, and it leads straight to a soliloquy of intense personal grief. Frame the picture of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr smooching if you want, but don’t expect the film to heighten the fantasy. This being said, much of this reaction is a reaction to the film’s sterling reputation—taken on its own, From Here to Eternity does remain a good dramatic piece, anchored by able performances by Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and (especially) Frank Sinatra, with Kerr and Donna Reed on the distaff side. Still, reading about the film (and the changes from the original novel) is often more interesting than the film itself. Overinflated expectations or under-delivering period piece—I can’t decide for now (and I suspect that watching three WW2 movies in a row due to Memorial weekend doesn’t help), although I am glad to have seen it to complete that bit of Hollywood History.

Memphis Belle (1990)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Memphis Belle</strong> (1990)

(On TV, May 2018) I saw bits and pieces of Memphis Belle back in high school, but sitting through from beginning to end doesn’t really change my opinion of the film: This is as basic a movie as it’s possible to make about WW2 bomber crews. It’s willfully schematic, reusing plenty of familiar wartime movie tropes in order to comfort its audience. It’s the story of a single bombing mission, supercharged with dramatic intensity (if they come back from their fiftieth mission, they can go home!) and every single incident of interest that may have happened at any point in WW2. It does work in that while Memphis Belle is familiar, it’s not really boring: there’s enough going on to keep watching the film without effort, and the familiarity ensures that the film will still make perfect sense once you come back from a kitchen snack visit. Don’t try to go read up on the film’s historical accuracy—it’s safe to say that most of what’s on the screen happened, but certainly not all at once. There is some additional interest in the cast, given that many of the young men in the Memphis Belle crew have gone on to other things: Most notably Billy Zane, Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, Sean Astin and Harry Connick Jr., with special mention of David Strathairn and John Lithgow in ground support roles. Much of the film was shot practically, making the rather jarring special effects stand out more—nowadays, much of the film would be a pure CGI spectacle, although whether this would be an improvement would depend on the director—see Red Tails for an example of going too far. The nice thing about Memphis Belle is that you get almost exactly what it says on the plot summary. Nothing transcendent, but nothing terrible either.

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Kelly’s Heroes</strong> (1970)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) In-between MASH, Kelly’s Heroes and Catch-22, 1970 was a banner year for using other conflicts to talk about the Vietnam War. MASH transposed late-sixties war cynicism on the Korean front, while Catch-22 talked disaffection among WW2 bomber crews and Kelly’s Heroes has greedy American infantry soldiers teaming up with a hippie-led crew of tankers to go steal a few million dollars’ worth of Nazi gold. This certainly isn’t your fifties war movie—in between the self-interested soldiers, corrupt officers, friendly fire incidents and a long-haired tank leader memorably played by Donald Sutherland (who was also in MASH), it’s obvious that Kelly’s Heroes had far more on its mind than just a WW2 adventure. It’s clunky (legend has it that the filmmakers didn’t quite get what they were going for, largely because of studio interference) but it still works on a pure entertainment level largely because of the terrific cast. Sutherland aside, there’s Clint Eastwood in the heroic role, supported by Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Harry Dean Stanton in a small role. The adventure gets going quickly and gets weirder and wilder the deeper in enemy territory it goes. The final resolution has the so-called good guys bribing Nazis to get what they want (with cues echoing Sergio Leone), which is interesting on its own. Kelly’s Heroes is more palatable now that it must have been at the time—we’ve grown used to anti-heroic portrayals of the military, and Vietnam-era attitudes toward war and war movies are now far more familiar. Still, the result is entertaining enough, and while many prefer more straight-ahead drama along the line of Where Eagles Dare, there’s no dismissing that Kelly’s Heroes can still be watched eagerly today.

Logan Lucky (2017)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Logan Lucky</strong> (2017)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) Only maverick filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh could tackle Logan Lucky, going over such extremely familiar material (a heist movie à la Ocean’s Eleven) that another director might have been accused of copycatting. But, of course, Soderbergh never does things like others, and so Logan Lucky takes the large-scale heist down the social classes to NASCAR-obsessed West Virginia/North Carolina, with blue-collar protagonists motivated by larger economic forces. The exceptional casting (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, etc.) is fantastic, but the real draw here is the way the script is handled with blockbuster entertainment savvy by Soderbergh. The intricate heist plot multiplies one gambit after another, creating a dense tapestry of tricks, plans and improvised manoeuvers in which even dupes unaware of any heist have a role to play—and, hilariously enough, are rewarded for it. Taking ideas for an Ocean’s Fourteen film and recasting in redneck country makes for a refreshing change of pace and unusual heroes, as characters that would be treated as hillbillies in other films here get a chance to prove that they’re criminal masterminds. Then, of course, there’s the idea that the film is handled in pure escapism mode, reaching for comedy as often as it can. (The ridiculous prison riot, complete with Game of Thrones references, is particularly funny.)  Logan Lucky is very successful, and counts as one of the year’s most delightful surprises.

Mar Adentro [The Sea Inside] (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mar Adentro</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">The Sea Inside</strong>] (2004)

(In French, On TV, May 2018) I was bracing for the worst in watching The Sea Inside, having seen what seems to be far too many disability-themed films to last me a long time. But the movie itself is far better than expected, anchored by a superb performance from Javier Bardem and a script that confronts issues head-on. Alejandro Amenábar’s direction is also far better than the norm, with a strong supporting cast. The film’s flights of fancy are also noteworthy in keeping audiences on their toes, and the film’s intellectual depth goes significantly beyond the movie-of-the-week nature of the film’s premise. While I’m nowhere near calling Mar Adentro my favourite movie of any year, it’s far more interesting to watch as I anticipated, and there’s much to say about exceeded expectations.

The Cocoanuts (1929)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Cocoanuts</strong> (1929)

(On DVD, May 2018) Even as I get deeper and deeper in film history, I’m still amazed at older movies’ ability to get big laughs nearly a century later. So it is with the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts, their first surviving film and yet amazing self-assured in the way it features the Brothers at their best. At this stage of their career, of course, the Marxes weren’t amateurs: they had a solid vaudeville career already, and the movies were merely a way to capture many of their stage routines. Where movies went a bit further were in featuring musical numbers, part of the late-1920s definition of what a musical film could be. The plot merely helps arrange the comic routines and the musical numbers—although it does offer a satirical glimpse at the 1920s Florida real estate boom. Despite the uneven picture quality and the not-so-good sound, some sequences are still very funny: the auction scene in particular is still remarkably amusing. While The Cocoanuts is far from the brothers’ best work, it’s still very much aligned with their most successful films and can be seen in continuity without trouble.

Suspicion (1941)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Suspicion</strong> (1941)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) Great casting can make or break a movie, but I’m still not too sure what it does to Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. Casting Cary Grant as a suave, sophisticated, easily charming man who ends up hiding an inglorious past to his wife seems like a slam-dunk: By that point in his career, Grant had developed a screen persona ideally suited to this kind of role. But the sword cuts both ways, given how audiences weren’t (and still aren’t) so willing to accept Grant as a purely evil character. Hence the ending that explains a few things and allows viewers to walk away satisfied and reassured in Grant’s persona. It’s a relief of an ending, but is it the most appropriate one? I still don’t know. The novel on which the film is based took a far more ambiguous approach to the same material, keeping up the eponymous suspicion through which the heroine (Joan Fontaine; rather good) comes to regard her new husband. Still, Suspicion remains a joy to watch. Hitchcock had achieved an unusual mastery of balance between comedy and suspense at that stage of his career, and the film’s domestic-paranoia theme would dovetail with a number of similar thrillers throughout the 1940s. The lack of a dark ending may stop the film from reaching its ultimate potential, but I’m not sure I’d change it. After all, I do like my Cary Grant suave, debonair and (ultimately) on the side of the angels even if he’s been a little devil along the way.

The Awful Truth (1937)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Awful Truth</strong> (1937)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) Considering that The Awful Truth is the movie that created Cary Grant’s comic persona, we should be grateful for its existence and for director Leo McCarey’s instincts in guiding Grant toward his vision of the role. This is a late-thirties screwball comedy that practically exemplifies the sophisticated and urbane “Comedy of remarriage” so characteristic to the years following the introduction of the Hays Code: Here we’ve got Grand and co-star Irene Dunne as an unhappily married couple that decides to divorce, then sabotage each other’s new affairs before realizing that they are each other’s best partners. (Try not to think too much about the liberties allowed to only the very rich people in the 1930s.) It’s decently funny—maybe not as much as other later efforts from Grant, but still amusing, and Dunne has good timing as well. (Plus Skippy the dog!) Divorce has rarely been so much fun. The comedy isn’t just about the lines, but the physical performances of the actors and their interactions—read up on the improvisational making-of imposed by McCarey to learn more about how the picture was shaped by on-set ideas and follow-up. If I didn’t already know how much I love screwball comedy, The Awful Truth would have taught me.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Lady from Shanghai</strong> (1947)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) Orson Welles does film noir in The Lady from Shanghai, a fairly standard thriller that becomes a great movie through great direction. Welles stars as an everyday man who meets your usual femme fatale, not quite grasping that he’s being framed for murder. Things go from New York City to San Francisco in a flash, and before long our protagonist is unjustly accused, dragged in court and forced to escape to prove his innocence (does that stuff ever works out in real life?)  The plot is familiar, but it’s Welles’ eye for the camera and caustic sense of humour that sets the film apart. There’s a climax of court during the trial sequence, during which the camera can’t seem to stop focusing on tiny inconsequential details rather than the (very familiar) argument being presented to the course, exactly as if the chatter was a foregone conclusion and not worth our attention anyway. The famous ending shootout takes places in a half-of-mirror, something that has been appropriated by at least two other movies already. It all amounts to a very stylish, very competent film noir in the purest tradition of the genre. Legend has it that Welles accepted to do the film because he needed money, and the final result was butchered by studio executives. Still, the film shows a clever craftsman at work: San Francisco looks great, Welles has one of his final “thin Welles” roles, and Rita Hayworth makes for a near-perfect femme fatale. The result, however, is definitely weird and has occasional shifts in tone that can catch viewers unaware—whether deliberately through Welles’ intentions or accidentally through studio interference, The Lady from Shanghai sometimes works best as vignettes rather than a sustained narrative. But it’s still worth seeing.

Haxan (1922)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Haxan</strong> (1922)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) The 1920s were very much an experimental time for movies—they progressed to a point where the technology was reliable enough to make movies, but there wasn’t yet an accepted grammar nor storytelling best practices for telling those stories in the most effective way. This explains why the movies of the time can often appear so odd to us: They were still figuring out how to make movies in a very literal sense. In this contest, Haxan makes a bit more sense, because on its own it’s a bizarre, almost baffling film. It begins in documentary mode, as the filmmaker informs us about witchcraft lore through presentation of historical documents unearthed through his research. But then, as the film progresses, more frequent “recreations” illustrate his narrative, portraying the acts of witches and the demonic presence that they cause. Before long, we’re seeing nudity, violence, sexual perversion and all of the hallmarks of a horror film—supposedly for our edification in learning more about these practices, but who’s to say where the line is between information and titillation? (This wouldn’t be the last time salacious material clothed itself under documentary aims—see the history of the erotic film before pornography became mainstream in the early 1970s.)  I have a curious admiration for writer/director Benjamin Christensen for getting away with as much as he did here under such pretences—while Haxan is decidedly tame by today’s standard, it considerably exceeds what would be the Hollywood standard from the thirties to the sixties under the Hays Code. There’s also some clever irony in the film’s conclusion, which brings everything full circle to the 1920s present and asks pointed questions about the then-current treatment of “hysterical” women in psychiatric institutes. What was witchcraft could also be a psychological problem, and that’s the kind of somewhat nuanced take on the topic that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a film of its era. The overall effect is one of fascination—what if filmmaking had progressed in that direction rather than what we know today? Haxan remains quite fascinating, and holds up as one of the few films of the 1920s to be worth a look today, as much for what it is than what it represents in time.

Repulsion (1965)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Repulsion</strong> (1965)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) I’m still not too sure what to make of writer/director Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. I was bored for most of it, not because it’s a dull movie (it does feature a protagonist going murderously crazy) but because it seems like fifteen minutes of plot stuffed in an hour and a half movie. Once the protagonist’s slide into madness begins and the film reflects her inner reality, there aren’t that many places to go, and much of the rest of the film films both repetitive and preordained. To be fair, the film is effective, and perhaps for no better reason than star Catherine Deneuve herself: She looks like a porcelain doll at the beginning of the film, but there are incredible issues boiling behind her perfect façade—as superficial as it sounds, the film would have been a far lesser one with a less beautiful actress or one with a more aggressive kind of beauty. I’m tempted to think that movies have also moved on since 1965—the kind of subjective-perspective show of a schizophrenic breakdown has been remade so often since then that it has lost much of its shock. No matter the reason, I’m cool (but not cold) about Repulsion—it still works fine as a psychological thriller, but it probably could have been better by cleaning up the script and removing thirty minutes from it.

Destination Moon (1950)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Destination Moon</strong> (1950)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) Among Science Fiction readers of a certain age, Destination Moon is famous as “The Heinlein movie”—that is, the movie that famed SF author Robert A. Heinlein went to Hollywood to write. Chapters of his biography are dedicated to his Hollywood adventure, and the episode is greatly enhanced by the recognition that for the time and nearly two decades until 2001: A Space Odyssey, Destination Moon remained the purest hard-SF story ever brought to the big screen. (Well, aside from some truly dumb decisions at the end of the first act that seem motivated by ideology rather than any kind of logic.)  Focused on showing how humans could go to the moon and come back, this is a film that eschews aliens, monsters and fantastic situations in order to focus on the nitty-gritty procedural details of space travel. Completed more than a decade before humans went into space and nineteen years before Americans actually landed on the moon, Destination Moon certainly looks dated now, but it remains relatively competent in pure technical details, and its sober treatment of the subject makes it an oddity in the otherwise lurid 1950s SF filmography. A number of legends are found in the credits: Heinlein aside, the film was produced by George Pal and visually informed by noted artist Chesley Bonestell. Much of the film’s heavy exposition is handled through a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, echoing the similar Mr. DNA sequence in Jurassic Park. I’m not particularly charmed by Destination Moon (aside from the film having very little narrative energy, I’m really not happy about the antigovernment pro-business screed at the beginning of the film), but I’m reasonably happy at having seen it at least once. 

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Ox-Bow Incident</strong> (1943)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) For a genre as critically dismissed as the Western, there are a great number of them that questioned the clichés of westerns … and those tend to have endured far more than the basic westerns. The Ox-Bow Incident is one of those, a western that squarely took aim at the crude justice that other westerns seem too quick to condone. Things are set in motion when a rancher disappears while strangers are seen around. Soon enough, a posse is formed to catch those strangers and enact justice. Despite doubts from various characters, the strangers are found and … but that would be spoiling the film. Suffice to say that The Ox-Bow Incident is meant to leave viewers unsettled and more thankful than ever for due process. Visually, the film isn’t special: it’s in your usual early-forties black-and-white, not particularly distinguished. Harry Morgan and Henry Fonda both star, but the real strength of the film is in its daring screenplay. Adapted from a novel, the film was a box-office failure and a modest critical success (it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) but it has endured and is still, today, regularly played on cable TV. It certainly belongs alongside films such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, The Shootist, Unforgiven and other westerns that weren’t satisfied with the simplistic cowboys-and-Indian stories that westerns often showcased.

Police Academy (1984)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Police Academy</strong> (1984)

(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2018) I will forever embarrass myself by recalling this, but here goes: As a young pre-teenager, I was a moron when it comes to movies. I distinctly recall having a conversation with friends about why (wait for it…) it wasn’t movies like Police Academy that won Oscars. Why not?! From the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy, Police Academy was far better than Terms of Endearment: it has laughs, a simple plot, great characters, plenty of nudity and none of that troublesome meditation on the meaning of life and the relationships we have with others. As I’ve grown older but not necessarily wiser, I approached Police Academy with some reluctance—I knew the movie wouldn’t hold up to teenage memories, but would it at least hold up as a comedy? Fortunately … it mostly does. Not a great comedy, not a classic one (although that theme song is instantly recognizable) but one more or less on the level of similar late seventies/early-eighties offerings. Think Caddyshack, Meatballs, Stripes, Revenge of the Nerds, and Animal House, as comedies in which misfits take on institutions of power and eventually win over the system. Those films are often more politically militant, in a vulgar way, than one would expect: To cheer for the heroes often means cheering for women, gays, blacks, disabled and just plain eccentric people for a more inclusive society. As a result, Police Academy has aged better than I would have thought—what’s more, this first entry in the series benefits from a relatively solid structure and characters that haven’t yet fallen into a self-aware parody. Toronto doubles for an unnamed American city, and Pat Proft (of latter spoof-comedy fame) appears in the writing credits. It is crude (albeit in that relatively sweet early-eighties way that doesn’t seem so crass compared to more recent offering), dumb, and aimed at teenagers. Some of the scenes are markedly worse than others—one of them involves a horse. But Police Academy isn’t quite as bad as I feared, and it doesn’t make me feel all that bad that as an early teen, I liked something clearly aimed at early teens.