Category Archives: Movies

A Danish prince, a princess of power and learning to drive: media views

HAMLET (1996) is the Kenneth Branagh version that adapts the entire play, so it includes scenes I’ve never seen before, such as Polonius’ instruction to Reynaldo (Gerard Depardieu) about snooping around to find out what Laertes is really doing in Paris. This boasts an impressive cast, including Julie Christie as Gertrude, Derek Jacobi as a half-tormented Claudius (he feels guilty, but not so much he won’t kill Hamlet to keep the throne), Robin Williams as the doomed Osric (I don’t think using him adds much though), Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger, Timothy Small as Rosencrantz, Charlton Heston as the Player King (Judi Densch and John Gielgud play Hecuba and Priam) and Kate Winslett as Ophelia (this is the first film that makes it explicit she and Hamlet have been getting horizontal). Branagh himself plays what’s almost a stereotype of Hamlet, brooding and angsty and philosophical (I prefer both Kevin Kline and Mel Gibson). I don’t know if it was Branagh’s performance or Christie’s but I really got fed up with him whining — yes, it’s hair-curling that mom remarried so fast, but it’s not all about you, dude. Overall, though, this was not only interesting but enjoyable, though not the best adaptation I’ve seen.  “Would I have met my dearest foe in Heaven before I see that day.”

I never cared for the 1980s He-Man or She-Ra but knowing Noelle Stephenson of Nimona was working on Netflix’s SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER got me interested. And the interest paid off.

As the story starts, Adora and her BFF Katra are warriors in the Horde, dedicated to freeing the world  of Etheria from the magic of the evil princesses who rule it. When Adora acquires a magic sword, she transforms into She-Ra, a princess in her own right, and soon discovers the Good and Evil in this battle are not where she thought they were. Can she and her new friends Bow and Glimmer unite the various princesses and fight off the Horde?

The characters are the show’s strength although not the only strength. Adora has a lot of trouble adjusting to a life away from the tightly regimented horde and keeps hoping Katra will join her on the light side. Katra is initially furious that Adora abandoned her, but before long all her resentment at being second best boils to the surface; Adora’s defection is Katra’s chance to claw her way to the top of the Horde and she won’t pass it up. And if her duties require killing her former friend well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, right? I look forward to S2 (starting later this month). “I’m surprised — isn’t punching the one thing you’re supposed to be good at?”

Our last show in Playmaker’s 2018-19 season (there’s one more but we have a schedule conflict) is HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE, in which a woman recovering some property from a storage warehouse starts flashing back to how  her uncle taught her to drive … and felt her up … and got her drunk and made out with her … and offered to photograph her for Playboy … Given this came out in 1997 and the subject matter is much more familiar now, I’m impressed how much of a punch it packed. “Ever since then, I have not lived in my body below my neck.”

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Captain Marvel, Orson Wells and more! Movies viewed

I finally found time to see CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Brie Larsen plays Vers, an amnesiac Kree warrior whose efforts to stop the Skrull’s terrorist attacks on the Kree Empire lead her to 1990s Earth. The Skrulls have infiltrated us using their shapeshifting (it would fit perfectly into Screen Enemies of the American Way) and are searching for an ultimate weapon. Vers allies with Fury (Samuel Jackson with hair!) only to discover that being on Earth jogs strange memories that are quite impossible for a Kree warrior … This was a really good adventure film, and Larsen is immensely likeable as the lead (and I don’t mean likable as a euphemism for “hot” — Carol Danvers seems like someone who’d be fun to hang out with). The cast includes Annette Benning as Mar-Vell and the face of the Supreme Intellience while Jude Law plans Yon-Rogg (I can see why they didn’t name him until late in the movie, as that gives the game away to comics fans). “I’d say you’re delusional except we were just shot down by a spaceship and you’re bleeding blue blood.”

When Orson Welles died, he left behind his unfinished comeback film, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (2018), which he’d been shooting for years. Now thanks to Netflix putting some money into it, we can see the finished version of Welles’ story, which combines surly director Hannaford’s (John Huston) 70th birthday party with scenes from his new art film, The Other Side of the Wind. The party scenes were watchable but didn’t work for me, a random assortment of snarking quips, gossping and hostile interactions; the film-within-the-film is a fun parody (however other reviewers have had the opposite reaction). The cast includes Peter Bogdanovich as Hannaford’s latest protege, Lili Palmer as an ex-wife, Susan Strassberg as a hostile interviewer and other famous faces such as Claude Chabrol. I’d suggest double-billing this with Robert Altman’s Hollywood-set comeback film, The Player, though that’s definitely the better film. “The camera doesn’t like an actor — it just stares at him.”

LIFE, ABOVE ALL (2010) has a twelve-year-old black girl in South Africa struggling to hold her blended family together after her baby sister’s death fractures them, a situation complicated by their stepfather’s death and Mom’s mysterious disappearance. A good drama. “Even in death, your mother brings shame upon this family.”

ASSASSINATION NATION (2018) that wants to say something about the dark side of social media and about privacy in the Internet age but as one critic put it, the film is buzz words offered up as deep thoughts. The protagonist is a restless, rebellious teen who in between exchanging insights with her friends, texting a mysterious lover, getting naked and smoking dope, watches as repeated hacks of her town’s secrets set citizens against each other. That has some promise (an updated version of poison pen letters, as in the movie Le Corbeau) but the movie’s just pretentious crap. “What kind of person sees a picture of a naked girl on the Internet and thinks ‘hey, I’ve got to kill that bitch.’

BATMAN: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016) is an animated film that has Adam West, Burt Ward and Julie Newmar recreating their roles from the Batman TV series (there’s one scene where a dazed Batman hallucinates Newmar also becoming Meriweather and Kitt) for a story in which Riddler, Catwoman, Penguin and Joker join forces to steal a duplicating ray — which an increasingly erratic Batman then uses to take over Gotham City by cloning himself to infinity. More fun than I expected, with a lot of in-jokes, including most of the series’ Rogue’s Gallery showing up for one climactic fight. “I thought I dressed as a bat to inspire fear in the hearts of criminals — but in reality, I just like attention.”

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From Japan to France to New York: movies and a play

THE MIKADO was the second time Durham Savoyards have done Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous show since I moved up here (there’s a limited number of shows so this is inevitable) and the lesser of the two (TYG agreed). The cast were in fine form, particularly the Southern-accented actor playing the arrogant, venal Pooh-Bah as a Boss Hogg type, and the play is great. However to get away from doing the story (involving an executioner, the heir to the Japanese throne and the old battle-axe he’s supposed to marry) as yellow-face they tried an unconventional approach: Koko is staging a fashion show, the models rebel and dress in the clothes of their choice, then decide to put on a show of their own, which happens to be The Mikado. That might have worked if they’d explained it in the program; as they didn’t (I believe it was in the publicity, but as I know I’m going I never read that stuff) I couldn’t figure out a lot of what was going on like the actors frequently (and obviously faking) struggling for lines. Still worth going to, but I’m more excited about Patience (one of my favorites) coming next year. “It’s a great insult to offer a Pooh-Bah money — but I swallow the insult.”

MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S (1969) has a lonely French bachelor reluctantly spend the evening with a friend and the man’s girlfriend Maud (Francoise Fabian, above). Maud is sexually liberated and obviously interested in luring the protagonist into bed; he’s a devout Catholic so instead they wind up having Deep Thoughts about love, sex and religion until daylight. Eric Rohmer’s direction makes this talk-fest surprisingly easy to watch: the actors body language, the sets and the camera work make it more visually interesting than, say, My Dinner With Andre. The intellectual discussion, however, wasn’t interesting at all (it reminds me of the journal Cahiers du Cinema‘s complaint that French films are all pretentious talk and no action) and I gave up midway through. As I was equally unimpressed the last time I tried Rohmer, I suspect he’s not my cup of tea.“Pursuing women no more estranges a man from god than pursuing mathematics.”

NERO WOLFE (1979) stars Thayer David as Rex Stout’s legendary detective (like a lot of older mystery characters, I’m not sure if he’s a legend to younger generations or just forgotten), who’d rather eat gourmet food or grow his prize orchids than actually put his brain to work on a case. In this TV movie (based on Stout’s The Doorbell Rang), a wealthy realtor (Anne Baxter) tells Wolfe and leg man Archie (Tom Mason) that the FBI have been harassing her since she gave away hundreds of copies of a book criticizing the agency (which lord knows, did lots that deserved criticism). Wolfe is reluctant to take on an adversary that powerful, but he could use the fat fee he’s offered … It’s a good yarn (and nice to see TV actually skeptical of the feds, instead of the tongue-bathing of recent shows such as Quantico) and David (best known for Dark Shadows) is really good as the cantankerous Wolfe. Unfortunately he died so this 1977 pilot sat on the shelf for two years, then we got a competent but not as satisfying William Conrad as Wolfe in the eventual series. Brooke Adams plays a woman in the case. “To watch Nero Wolfe pour a beer is a demonstration of precision; to see him drink it is an exercise in patience.”

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An avenger, a hunter and a comedian: Movies and TV

I stumbled onto the movie ALLEY CAT (1984) while hunting unsuccessfully for Black Cat, a Chinese version of La Femme Nikita. Karin Mani plays a black belt who slaps around a couple of giggling psychos she catches swiping her tires. Their PO’d boss sends them to teach her a lesson, resulting in her grandma dead and her grandfather in hospital; when the legal system proves useless (when Mani stops the psychos raping a woman, a cop busts her as the aggressor), Mani takes justice into her own hands. This is low budget but works pretty well, except the film throws in a women’s prison subplot midway through for extra exploitation value (women showering naked! Lesbian sexual assault!) and it’s a waste of film. A minor point is that Amazon for some reason lists this as a 1969 film — it’s getting way harder than it used to be to figure out film dates, because there are so many sources and they often disagree. “It can’t be blackmail as I have asked for neither money nor a favor.”

Richard Connell’s classic short story The Most Dangerous Game is a classic in which a shipwrecked big-game hunter finds his Russian host, Count Zaroff, has taken to hunting humans to compensate for the ease with which he kills everything else. Zaroff’s the best of the best, but this time he has an adversary who might be his equal.

It’s not easy to successfully expand a short story to feature-film length, but 1932’s THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME pulls it off handily. Produced by Merian C. Cooper at the same time he was making King Kong, this has Joel McCrae as the hunter, Leslie Banks as Zaroff, and Fay Wray as an earlier castaway Zaroff has different plans for (“First the kill — then love!”)! Sharing some of King Kong‘s sets and adding some of its own (Zaroff’s isolated castle is fabulous), this is a good-looking, well-made production, well worth seeing. “If you choose to act as a leopard, I shall hunt you as a leopard.”

The second season of THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL continues in the vein of S1: Midge and Susie continue trying to build Midge’s career, despite having earned the hostility of an influential comic and Midge’s family freaking out when they learn what she’s been doing with her evenings. The season doesn’t entirely work; Abe’s (Tony Shalhoub) career woes get tedious and the family’s trip to Paris, while funny, feels like one an old TV special (season openers would often take the show to Paris or Rome or somewhere to grab extra eyeballs). A prolonged visit to the Catskills’ “borscht belt” (Jewish-friendly resorts in the days when many hotels were No Jews — it’s the same setting as Dirty Dancing, on the other hand, worked quite well. There are also subplots involving Midge’s new boyfriend and Joel trying to figure out his post-divorce life. However I do hope the final scenes of the season ender do not lead in the direction I think they might (but I’m not spoiling them).  “I feel like Sisyphus, but without the loincloth and the flowing hair.”


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Superheroes and a rain of food: TV and movies

Like Manifest, the second season of BLACK LIGHTNING only ran sixteen episodes, but they were better episodes. In the aftermath of S1, Jeff gets demoted to a teacher at Freeland High while a possibly bigoted white takes over the principal’s office; Tobias Whale launches a scheme involving the Green Light metas introduced last season; and Jennifer and Anissa begin grappling with their roles as superheroes.

The family and racial dynamics are the strongest part of the series (besides the acting, which is consistently solid). Rather than treat meta-hating as a thing itself, it’s interwoven with race issues: the Green Light kids are black, so as one preacher puts it, their powers are just another excuse to gun down blacks. Jeff and Lynn’s efforts to deal with Jennifer’s powers run headlong into her teenage rebellion. While Tobias remains the running foe throughout the season, they break things up with shorter arcs, such as Jennifer and Painkiller going on the run, or Jeff and Anissa battling the white supremacist meta Looker (named for a former teammate of Jeff’s in The Outsiders — they use a lot of Outsider elements this season, probably because there’s a lot more to work with than the short run of Black Lightning).

The ending, while satisfying felt a little rushed. We wrap up way too many things too fast (the supposedly terrifying Masters of Disasters go down too quickly), clearing the board for what’s coming next season. Jeff’s clash with the new principal isn’t resolved well and Anissa’s pursuit of her girlfriend Grace seems to build to something but doesn’t. Of course there’s S3, but still. Overall, though, an excellent season. “I’ll say one thing for those child-snatching bastards, they got great taste in watches.”

As I’m giving a presentation on the 1960s Batman TV show (I’ll talk about that next week), I rewatched the film sibling BATMAN (1966), in which Adam West’s Caped Crusader takes on the United Underworld of Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman (Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith and Lee Meriwether, stepping because series Catwoman Julie Newmar couldn’t fit it into her schedule). The film had been planned as a lead in to the series but as The Batman Filmography says, that changed when ABC decided to launch the series as a mid-season January ’66 replacement rather than wait until fall (I think they may have rewritten the film because of that — the opening clearly assumes we’ll know who Batman is). While the camp approach hasn’t worked for me since I was sixteen, the villain casting is excellent (Meriwether makes a tougher Catwoman than I remembered) and despite the camp the show does capture some of the Silver Age comic-book feel. And as the Filmography noted, the Bruce/Selina relationship gets a lot closer to horizontal here than it could in the show. At times, though, the writing falls short: the Dynamic Duo deduce which villains they’re facing, then make the same deduction in a later scene, and they defeat two villainous attacks with the same trick (it felt canned the second time). And even by camp standards, the ending’s always struck me as dumb. Still, this rewatched better than I expected. “I’ve rarely met a girl with such a potent argument in favor of — international relations.”

Like Into the Spider-Verse, the Lonely Nerd opening of CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (2009) felt cliched to me. Happily the film picked up as it went along, as the nerd grows into a well-meaning mad scientist whose new invention turning rain into food may save his dying little fishery town … until overuse threatens to drown the world in a food-pocalypse of giant edibles. Visually cool and some good voice casting including Anna Faris as a closeted nerd, Mr. T as a cop and Bruce Campbell as the town’s weaselly mayor. “There’s a Venus de Milo that has your face, next to a Michelangelo’s David that also has your face!”

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Doctor Who’s Horror Era: Fourth Doctor, Second Season

One of the reasons so many Doctor Who fans remember the Fourth Doctor’s era fondly is seasons like this one. S13 was quite unlike anything I’d seen before, borrowing plot elements from classic SF and even more from horror, a trend that runs through Image of the Fendahl a couple of seasons later. It’s surprisingly grim at times: A character in Seeds of Doom dies in a giant composting machine (not as funny as it sounds). In Pyramids of Mars the Doctor shows Sarah what the present will look like if they give up fighting the alien Sutekh and just go home: a dead, lifeless Earth of ash and dust (one of the series’ best scenes).

The series kicks off with Terror of the Zygons, a well-exected Invasion of the Bodysnatchers thriller. The alien Zygons are scheming in the vicinity of Loch Ness; said scheme involves replacing humans with Zygon infiltrators. That’s a stock set-up (it could as easily have been The Faceless Ones from the Hartnell era) but it’s effectively executed, and the Zygons are bizarre-looking enough to be memorable.

Planet of Evil surprised me because I’d confused it with Leela’s debut (coming up next season), Face of Evil. The Doctor and Sarah (and having them off on their own away from UNIT and Harry shows what a good team they were) arrive on Zeta Minor, the planet at the far edge of the universe (the jungle sets are surprisingly effective). Unfortunately it’s actually on the border of this universe and an anti-matter one; a mining expedition tampering with anti-matter rocks is unleashing very unpleasant consequences and a lot of deaths. Where Zygons was an alien invasion story, this one is pure SF horror, much of it taking place in small spaces.

Pyramids of Mars is a classic. Returning from Zeta Minor, the TARDIS lands at UNIT HQ back when it was a mansion. Scarman, the Egyptologist who owns it is now under the spell of Sutekh, the alien Osirian who provided the Egyptians with the model for Set. Scarman is working to free his master (an army of robot mummies helps), at which point Sutekh will destroy Earth and as much of the rest of the universe as he can find ( “Where I tread, I leave nothing but dust and darkness — I find that good.”). As noted above, we get to see what happens if the Doctor doesn’t win, and it looks very much as if he won’t.

The Android Invasion is another alien infiltrator story, though that doesn’t become obvious immediately. The Doctor and Sarah return to Earth but the village they arrive seems a little off, and a little sinister. It turns out to be a mock-up rehearsing alien androids to pass as human, with the real invasion to follow.  This one works better than it could have, but it has some big flaws (why does the deadly virus intended to wipe out humanity only kill one person?).

Back to horror with The Brain of Morbius; the Doctor and Sarah land on a creepy planet, seek shelter from a storm in an isolated mansion and discover Solon (Philip Madoc), a mad scientist cast out from the scientific community for his transplant experiments. What they’ve also found, though they don’t know it yet, is the Time Lord Morbius, now reduced to a brain in a life-support tank as the Frankensteinian Solon prepares him a body from the planet’s occasional visitors. It’s effective and spooky but suffers badly from disability cliches, and peters out at the end (it’s a classic horror finish, but it didn’t quite work for me).

We wrap up with Seeds of Doom, in which scientists discover the eponymous pods of the alien Krynoid, a sentient plant that devours animal life. And wouldn’t you know it, the pods fall into the hands of Chase, a millionaire botanist who’s way more interested in studying the ET plant than worrying about whether it will end all animal life on Earth. Tony Beckley as Chase is a delight, managing to make even his rants about bonsai (the sadistic practice of mutilating innocent plants for human pleasure!) sound natural; when he sides with the Krynoid against humanity, it’s not at all surprising. The rest of the guest cast works just as well. The only drawback is that again, the ending is flat, with UNIT defeating the Krynoid through brute force rather than any sort of cleverness (a Doctor Who story needs a better end than blowing shit up real good).

It was a real pleasure to watch this season again. #SFWApro, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Satan, the British Empire, a strange plane flight and Galileo: movies, TV and a play

The original BEDAZZLED (1967) stars Dudley Moore as a short-order cook desperately in love with waitress Eleanor Bron to the point he sells his soul to Satan (Peter Cook, Moore’s colleague in Beyond the Fringe) in return for seven wishes he can use to make her his. Moore’s Stanley makes a much better schlub than Brendan Fraser in the remake, and Peter Cook’s Satan is just awesome — no Miltonian grandeur here, as he himself admits his role in God’s design forces him to engage in petty, spiteful stunts, and he’s blithely willing to stab Stanley in the back. I also like that Bron is quite average-looking, which it makes it feel more like love than just looks. Then again, Stanley’s comfortable with having his dream girl mindwiped and personality changed with the multiple wishes, which is creepier than I found it first run; there’s also an amazingly gratuitous rape joke mid movie. I still like the film a lot, but YMMV. “What rotten sins I’ve got working for me — I suppose it’s the wages.”

Reading David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism prompted me to watch ISLAND IN THE SUN (1957) in which the island colony’s British administrators and white planter ruling class struggle to adapt to a black majority that wants a seat at the table (it’s interesting that even with the Empire in decline, the issue is representation in the island parliament rather than independence). The politics, however, takes a back seat to the colorful Caribbean settings and the soap opera plots, most of which involve race mingling: Can salesclerk Dorothy Dandridge and a white author forge a lasting love? Will black activist Harry Belafonte succumb to wealthy Joan Fontaine? Can planter’s kids Joan Collins and James Mason deal with learning they’re Tragic Mulattoes? I have an odd fondness for this kind of 1950s soaper, but I wouldn’t say it was any good — and I could have done without Mason’s casual spousal rape (which is promptly forgotten about as it’s no big deal). Michael Rennie plays a womanizing veteran. “Have you ever heard of a book called Crime and Punishment?”

I didn’t realize MANIFEST wrapped up its season with sixteen episodes or I’d have reviewed it sooner. The premise is that Flight 828 disappeared five years ago, then miraculously showed up, with no awareness of the time gap. What happened? What are the mysterious “callings” guiding them to help others? Can they pick up their lives when everyone they knew has moved on? And what is the government’s interest in 828?

This works best dealing with the personal drama (the cast is good) and the mystery, less well on the government conspiracy and not at all on the crazy “Xers” who want to kill them all as muties or witches or something. While the payoff may not be worth it, I do hope the show returns. “Right, why wouldn’t I look for them using a crayon drawing?”

Playmakers Theatre did a spectacular job staging Bertold Brecht’s LIFE OF GALILEO and the cast was certainly solid. Unfortunately the play has nothing to say about freedom of thought or Religion vs. Reason that I haven’t heard a hundred times before, and I know how Galileo’s struggle with the church turns out so this really did nothing for us. “To hell with the pearl — I want a healthy oyster!”

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Standout SF from the 1950s: movies and TV

FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) is a frustrating film. It is definitely one of the SF classics, but that makes the flaws more frustrating. Some are due to execution (bad comic relief, and the acting is mostly average), some due to MGM. According to Keep Watching the Skies, MGM was so nervous about releasing an SF film as something other than a B-movie that it arranged a sneak preview. Fans were so blown away, MGM didn’t see any reason to wait for the edits to finish.

The story is set several centuries ahead, a Star Trek-like future in which Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) leads a spaceship crew heading out to find what happened to the colony on Altair IV since it stopped communicating with Earth. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) tells them he and his daughter Alta (Anne Francis) are the sole survivors of a mysterious force that wiped out the other colonists just as they were about to return home (over his objections). Morbius wants to be left alone but Alta is intrigued by the first strangers she’s seen since childhood (““The lieutenant and I were just trying to get a little healthy stimulation from hugging and kissing.”), particularly Adams. “Robbie” the Robot is a little something Morbius has put together, despite not being a robotics expert. As she and Adams get closer, the invisible force awakens, and it’s angry …

The film was something radical for its day, a movie that took SF as seriously as the best print stories did (despite the gratuitous presence of comic-relief Earl Holliman as the ship’s cook). As it didn’t make much money, it didn’t have much influence on subsequent films, but the film can’t be blamed for that. We have the casual use of tech as just a part of the characters’ world and the mind-blowing machinery of the Krell, the planet’s former inhabitants. Robbie was the most memorable robot of the era’s films, possibly the most memorable until Star Wars.

But the acting is pretty routine, though Anne Francis is charming in her role; Pidgeon, as Morbius, seems to be coasting on his sonorous voice rather than putting anything into the role (the amount of exposition he has to give doesn’t help). And I wish they’d kept some of the deleted scenes, such as one where the ship’s scientist explains how Alta is able to pacify the wildlife. It’s also slow in the first hour, which wouldn’t have bothered me as much when it came out, I suspect; they’re showing off the technology and the science and back then it would have been like nothing filmgoers had seen before.

Despite the flaws, it’s well worth watching. The DVD I got includes deleted scenes, Pidgeon promoting the show on ABC’s MGM Parade show, and Robbie appearing in an episode of TV’s The Thin Man (an uninspired spinoff of the classic films).

Another great bit of 1950s SF is the TV series QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (the source of the same-name film). As in the film, Quatermass is struggling against the government militarizing his rocket research when a downed spaceship turns up buried below a London street. Quatermass discovers it’s a Martian ship and that humanity itself has been genengineered by the aliens. And they’re not done with us yet … Despite adding more than an hour to the film’s running time, this isn’t at all draggy or slow, and Andre Morrell makes a great Professor Quatermass, as steely as Andrew Keir in the movie but hiding it more in an affable velvet glove. This explains some things that the movie had to just touch on, such as the Martians’ agenda on Earth and what causes the final outburst of violence; I still love the movie, but I like this version a lot too. “A funny word, Martian — we wore it out before anyone turned up to claim it.”
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“You forgot you were dealing with Rambo” First Blood, Part II

1985’s RAMBO: Firt Blood Part II is not a good movie. But like the original Red Dawn and Invasion USA, the politics make it worth watching.

Rambo’s former CO, Trautman, frees him from prison (his fate at the end of First Blood) for a covert mission: go back into ‘nam, take photos of a prison camp that might still hold American POWs. As I mentioned last month, it’s assumed that anyone MIA in the Vietnam War is a possible POW unless proven otherwise, an idea Nixon popularized. Rambo’s cynical question: “Do we get to win this time?”

Actually, no. The government knows that Vietnam is holding prisoners to trade for war reparations, which nobody in Congress wants to advocate for. Murdock (Charles Napier), the organizer, plans to send Rambo to an empty prison camp, thereby looking like the government’s doing something without actually doing something.

Ooops. Turns out some POWs have been stashed there recently and Rambo gets photos. When the Vietnamese close in on him, Murdock calls off the rescue. Rambo’s Red Shirt female companion, Co (Julia Nickson), gets shot down. The Vietnamese torture Rambo, then their Russian masters take ove. Finally Rambo breaks free, kills a lot of enemy soldiers, and takes a helicopter full of prisoners back to safety.

As an action movie this is clunky and dull. The Russian and Vietnamese troops go down so easy, it might as well be a video game. Stallone plays Rambo is a monosyllabic killing machine, and it doesn’t make him compelling (I’m sure a few watchers enjoyed his gleaming physique). But politically?

First, as I noted in the previous post, we have the implied assumption that we were the good guys in Vietnam. The war was a lie, Trautman says at one point, but the victims were Our Boys, not the injured dead or injured Vietnamese. They acknowledge the U.S. never paid the war reparations it agreed to, but nobody suggests that we were wrong for doing so, or that we should just pay them and get the POWs back. Rambo barks at Murdock at the end to get the POWs back, but he doesn’t suggest how.

Heck, the Vietnamese are clearly bad guys here. Not only are they abusing prisoners and treating them like shit, they torture Rambo and they’re working for the Russians. After the U.S./USSR detente of the 1970s, President Reagan actively pushed to make the USSR the “evil empire” again, and Rambo, like Red Dawn and Octopussy, reflects his rhetoric.

Then there’s Rambo’s methods. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese use of low-tech methods, such as ambushes, pits and booby traps, gave them an advantage in jungle warfare (much as Iraqi insurgents would fight US forces decades later). In Rambo, that dynamic gets reverse. Rambo starts his mission equipped with cutting edge American tech, but has to dump it almost immediately. After Murdock’s betrayal and Co’s death, he equips himself with a bow and arrow, though with exploding arrowheads. Using stealth, ambushes and arrows, Rambo takes down forces equipped with the best modern weapons. Everything the North Vietnamese did, he can do better! Take that, evil empire puppets!

I’m not sure how it would play for anyone too young to remember ‘nam or the Reagan era, though the “save the POWs” element makes it more watchable than Red Dawn.

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They’re a rebel, and they’ll never ever be, any good! Movies viewed

To mark the passing of Albert Finney, I rewatched SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (1960) one of the seminal Angry Young Man films about restless working class men pushing against the system. Finney plays a factory worker whose day job simply supports him while he drinks and parties (“What I want is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.”) with married Rachel Roberts and single but harder-to-get Shirley Anne Fields. I’m not a fan of this genre, but this one works for me, with dynamic performances and interesting characters (I’d really like to know how Finney and Fields turned out a decade later). It’s also interesting because it was executive produced by Cubby Broccoli who went on to make the Bond films; as the book License to Thrill says, it’s easy to see the similarity between 007 and Finney’s character here (both want sex and fun, but Bond’s better situated to get it). “I’m me — and whoever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.”

For a roguish but more heroic protagonist, we have Paul Rudd in ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018), breaking house arrest (for violating the Sokovia Accords in Avengers: Civil War) to help Hank Pym and Hope (Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lily) bring back Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the quantum universe. Trouble is, an unsolid assassin called the Ghost wants the tech, and she’s willing to kill to get it.  A good film that does a remarkalbe job fitting itself between Civil War and Infinity War, though heavy on product placement (a giant Hello Kitty Pez dispenser was the most egregious) and like the first film, very good on the size changing action scenes. Laurence Fishburne plays Bill Foster (“I worked with Hank on the Goliath project.”). “Your daddy went to Germany and drew on the walls with Captain America.”

I also caught three shorts by Darkstone Entertainment while at Mysticon:

CRYING IN THE RAIN is an engagingly goofy story in which a man reports a murder involving Ghost Vampire Witches to the cops, but his flexibility with details (“Wait, they weren’t having sex, they were trying to kill each other!”) makes them wonder if he’s on the level. “Oh, just so you know, I have mind powers.”

BEYOND THE STRETCH was a less successful post-apocalypse thriller in which a woman slowly realizes the reason a trio of cops have woken her up. It didn’t help that the woman (who turns out to be a bad guy) is way more appealing than the protagonist. “I don’t want a little tot!”

GIVE UP THE GHOST is the second best of the trio, as a group of college students discover staying in a haunted hotel was (spoiler) a major SAPS Rule violation.

#SFWApro. Bottom cover by Jack Kirby; rights to all images remain with current holder.

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