Wednesday, March 13, 2013

LIE #78: There’s Something About “Aliens”—and the February 2012 Film Index!!!

Since most of the films screened at LERNER INTERNATIONAL HQ during February were of a political, if not “grown-up” nature [reviews below break], let’s start with something silly (that’ll also give us the opportunity to do some serious desk clearing regarding jpegs cluttering our files)—
Let’s take a brief look at
James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), specifically the people-to-xenomorph ratio—what was up with that?

It takes one human (or animal, as Alien3 showed us) to create a “xenomorph warrior” (the type of nasty critter that popped out of the unfortunate Kane’s chest), so with the 158 colonists captured and “infected,” that makes 158 alien warriors.

Okay, let’s say there were some farm animals and pets along (although we’re never given any indication of that), so we will be generous: add another 100 living beings to the list (although some of those will be smaller animals like chickens or cats; maybe a cow or a couple of pigs, but not many; it’s a “shake & bake” colony, remember?).

Therefore, there should only be about 250 aliens on the planet.
And we see the space-leathernecks kill a lot of them.
No, I’m not going through the movie and do a body count, but in reality, by the end, it really is one-on-one between Ripley and the Alien Queen.

Not that we’re ever given any indication of that: For drama and suspense, Cameron makes us believe there are thousands of the nasty critters on that inhospitable ball of rock, with plenty more creeping about the shadows.

And because Cameron is a master of action and suspense, it isn’t until seventeen damn years later that I get around to thinking about. Kudos, sir, well played!

Onto the reviews!

The Cinema of February 2013 (in order screened)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938; Michael Curtiz and William Keighley) An amazing flick, deservedly considered a classic, that wouldn’t get made today—this flick suggests revolution: Huzzah! Fabulous old-school Hollywood moviemaking that’s fun for kids of all ages.

Nothing to do with Alien or these reviews, just a fabulous bathing suit. 
The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948; John Huston) Another classic, but one which I hadn’t seen in a long time—and that did not disappoint in any way. In fact, I appreciate this flick even more now that I’m an “adult” who’s had his own share of wins and losses.

That said,
Wow, Fred C. Dobbs sure is loathsome, isn’t he? He reminds me of plenty of guys I’ve spent long hours drinking with; lots and lots of “big plans” that are nothing more than hot air and bravado.
Beware the beautiful loser!

But old Howard? Ahhhh, he is the Zen Wizard we should all aspire to be. Gandalf is an impossibility, and so it Obi-Wan Kenobi.
But Howard is the path to enlightenment; he knows he’s addicted to hunting gold, but he’s also experienced more life than you could imagine—and he’s learned from it. (Lemme tell ya, Walter Huston is perfect, just perfect—I haven’t ever seen a bad perf by the man.)

Howard’s purity of vision and self-honesty get him the reward of Valhalla/Nirvana on Earth! You see, the minute he walks away to the help the Mexican villagers who’ve shown up he knows he will never see that gold again.

And that’s tough news for any man to bear. But he does so stoically, bravely. And is rewarded.
It’s how saying “Yes,” to every situation will always get you wonderful benefits—if you’re honest to yourself.

The Nightcomers (1971; Michael Winner) A prequel to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw that features a top-notch weirdo perf by star Marlon Brando.
He’s chewing the scenery like nobody’s business, but also exploring themes that he’d touch upon with greater depth and seriousness in Last Tango in Paris (and with even more lunacy in The Missouri Breaks).
Meanwhile director Winner’s inability to be artful actually gives the flick a boost: the set-ups are flat, so the characters leap out more. If Winner was less of a heavy-handed director, this flick could’ve been really sick. BTW, the way the creepy children act in this film, it could not be made today.
Snobs will hate The Nightcomers, but genuine fans of Brando or Winner need to check it out. [Pic of Marlon B. from this film at bottom]

80 Blocks to Tiffany’s (1979; Gary Weis) Documentary about Bronx gangs when the borough resembled bombed-out Dresden. Great footage when outside the gangs’ clubhouses, but these dopey kids are boring and repetitious when sitting around bragging about their crimes. The film is about 90 minutes, but would be much more powerful if only 60 minutes.
Seen via the awesome Spectacle Theater of Brooklyn.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974; Sidney Lumet) A fabulous bit of old-school entertainment that still holds up, surpassing the multitude of Agatha Christie films that have come in its wake.
Praise needs to be given to star Albert Finney, who delivers a deliberate, thoughtful and measured performance that was very atypical for him at the time, supported by an all-star cast of top thesps.
This was a “producer’s film,” and Sidney Lumet was a hired hand, but bringing on this “NYC Grit/Method Acting” director was a genius move: He would be respectful to the form of Christie’s quaint detective tale while bringing a new perspective (like how Lumet uses different camera techniques for various flashbacks), while getting “real acting” out of his cast: No one is allowed to coast here, no one is just picking up a paycheck.
Also, rather than approach this movie as “just a job,” Lumet digs into and recreates the long-gone world of 1920s train travel: the preparations for the journey, the operations of the train, and even how Finney’s character prepares for bed (his moustache and pomaded hair need special treatments).
A fascinating film, and quite enthralling—with a “revenge” sequence that is actually very moving.

Outlaw Killers: Three Mad Dog Brothers (1972; Kinji Fukasaku) Insane—and beautifully photographed—Yakuza flick about a stupid and loathsome psycho.
A perfect example of Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” in action. Honestly.

Killer Joe (2011; William Friedkin) Lots of gore, nudity (but hardly erotic—I dare you to masturbate to this film!) and madness in this sick and twisted white trash family drama, completely deserving its NC-17 rating; the type of flick I always wished Richard Kern would’ve made.
Twitchy, discomforting Southern fried gothic. Yes, see it.
(And when you watch the flick, remember that Gina Gershon is rumored to be Bill Clinton’s mistress).

2012 (2009; Roland Emmerich) Much in the same way all David Fincher’s work post-Fight Club is only a shadow of that magnum opus; Emmerich can never surpass this, the ne plus ultra of disaster movies.
The world is clobbered, and massively changed; but not necessarily destroyed as magic pixie dust—excuse me, neutrinos from solar flares (as if there’s a difference) cause the Earth’s core to overheat and melt its mantle and crust.
The flick takes its time, creating a, um, slow burn until the cork is popped with a mindblowing and exciting sequence were Los Angeles is destroyed, and then SoCal slides into the ocean.

Based on vile strategist Karl Rove, Oliver Platt’s ostensible bad guy is actually the only character to make sense, and who maintains total honesty about the situation: if you want civilization to survive, no, you cannot tell everyone that the world will end.

The flicks is has a stealth message hidden amongst the mega-cheese, however, in 2012, only the ultra-mega-super-rich (the 1% of the 1% of the 1%) and their slaves and lackeys (and a couple of stowaways) will survive. As the president’s sexy daughter points out, “If you’re a nobody, you don’t stand a chance.”

More to the point, the Russian oligarch’s brats shriek at audience/nerd-fanboy stand-in John Cusack: “We will live and you will die!”
A perfect metaphor for life today.

Unclear Holocaust (2011; The Anti-Banality Union) WOW!
Another discovery via Brooklyn’s fabulous Spectacle Theater—
This is a fun montage/mash-up of NYC-centric mega-mayhem from mostly recent disaster films, like The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Godzilla 1998 and others. An almost Lynchian (Ballardian? Somebodyian?) monograph in its exploration of Target City NYC, there are wonderful juxtapositions, creating ecstatic visions and nightmares of total destruction.
Really, that too much interpretation would ruin this for new viewers.
Available at Vimeo, check it out. NOW (because there isn’t much time…).

Personally, while I enjoyed the handful of clips “sampled” from older H’wood disaster flicks like When Worlds Collide or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, there’s still too much Roland Emmerich, and not enough Toho or other B-movie footage:
For instance, what about Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1965), which had some enthralling optical effects work with cosmic flames over the skies of Manhattan, which much of that footage centering around the UN—which then gets destroyed in Destroy All Monsters (1968) by Godzilla’s blast (with Big G. rising from the East River); and later, vaporized via ray-gun by the villainous Dreyfus in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)?
So much cinematic destruction, so little time…

Trailer Park Boys: The Movie (2006; Mike Clattenburg) A huge disappointment—stick with the TV series.

The United States of Hoodoo (2012; Oliver Hardt; written by Darius James and Oliver Hardt)
Very personal docu-memoir that really should’ve been titled “Darius James’ United States of Hoodoo.” The film’s actual title made me think that it would be a scholarly, quasi-academic look at voodoo’s influence on American culture—instead the film is how voodoo has impacted James’ own life, sometimes in very mysterious ways. That said, once I got over that disconnect, I grooved on the flick: James is a thoughtful and intelligent host, with many, many captivating friends and connections. Hopefully, The United States of Hoodoo will get a wider release.

Performance (1970; Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg) Genuine oddity—and like The Holy Mountain or Eraserhead, almost beyond criticism. Absorb the movie, and then ponder it. Or hate it.

Gabriel Over the White House (1933; Gregory La Cava) What an oddity! A political fantasy that seems to say that only divine intervention would save the United States from the calamities brought on by the Depression and Prohibition.
Grounded by another great performance by Walter Huston, the flick takes political and ethical themes that no contemporary American (and usually toothless) “political” film would dream of going near.
Crazily, the film is quite lefty, but supports gnarly fascism: the film is idealistic in that when these men are given these supreme powers, it says they will act honestly and for the betterment of all. (Hahahahaha!) Called “totalitarian propaganda” by some, here’s how The Library of Congress describes the film:
“The good news: [Walter Huston] reduces unemployment, lifts the country out of the Depression, battles gangsters and Congress, and brings about world peace. The bad news: he's Mussolini.”

However, Gabriel Over the White House ends quite abruptly, leaving quite a mess—but supplying plenty to chew on. Shot in a somewhat generic fashion, this film does show off a very innovative use of sound. Weirdness that needs to be seen to be believed.

House of Cards: Season One (2013; developed by Beau Willimon, based on the BBC miniseries written by Andrew Davies, based on the books by Michael Dobbs) Ultimately disappointing, since there’s no conclusion, and too much over-convoluted, soap opera padding that stretches out our time with a bunch of thinly-developed characters who are charmless creeps, bastards and shrews (excluding star/executive producer Kevin Spacey, who’s actually quite good, but not on screen enough for my taste).
The first few episodes, directed by David Fincher, are great, but by the time you get to episodes directed by Joel Schumacher (WTF?!?), the series has flat-lined. I won’t bother with Season Two.

Futurama: Volume Seven (2012-2013; 26 episodes; created by Matt Groening & David X. Cohen) A long-time fave and friend; and thus beyond criticism.

Soldier in the Rain (1963; Ralph Nelson) Very uneven flick, that is nonetheless beautiful (aided by lovely, wide-screen B&W photography), sad and so goddamn cool.
The Great One, Jackie Gleason, is fascinating as a fat and fussy master-supply sergeant on a peacetime Army base: “Being a fat narcissist isn’t easy,” he says at one point.

Gleason’s sidekick is dopey yokel Steve McQueen (devouring the scenery until we’re sick of him), with Tuesday Weld showing up as, well, Tuesday Weld (a kooky, dangerous temperamental sex kitten), deciding that she’s going to make “jellybelly” (that’s what she calls Gleason) her boyfriend.

Film’s high point is a wordless, uncompromisingly brutal bar fight where all the participants get the shit kicked out of them. It’s equal to the incredible bar fight in Treasure of Sierra Madre, where you feel everybody getting hurt.

Weird, quasi-existential picture that suffers because it abandons the ending of William Goldman’s novel, where McQueen’s character looks up to the heavens, and says, “Fuck you” to God (really!), replacing it with pure sap and a sickly treacle ending.

To put it bluntly, I think the flick’s subtext is that Gleason is queer, but because of the time it was made (and the ham-handedness of producer/co-screenwriter Blake Edwards; a dullard for the most part, in my opinion), nothing much can be made of it.
But if you watch the flick imaging that Gleason’s in the closet—and scared to admit it—and that Tuesday’s character is a cute and spunky much-younger drag queen trying to pull him out? Then it all makes sense—especially why the obvious smart Gleason allows McQueen, a dummy but certainly sexy, to hang around him.

Far from perfect, Soldier in the Rain is still worth a look.

(BTW, Soldier in the Rain starts the trilogy of “Tuesday Weld High School Psycho-Kitty” flicks that continues with the equally weird—and also queer-themed—Lord Love a Duck (still working on my review for that one), and concludes with the more coherent and less weird, but much, much meaner Pretty Poison—another subtly queer-themed flicks, due to the participation of Antony Perkins.)

The Neverending Story (1984; Wolfgang Peterson) Review to be posted April 1, as part of the 2013 White Elephant Blogathon; more details forthcoming…

BEASTS: “Special Offer” (1976; Richard Bramall; written by Nigel Kneale) In my quest to seek out as much of writer Kneale’s work as possible, it was inevitable that I’d find something that wasn’t up to snuff. Too much of this telefilm feels like a rip-off of Stephen King’s Carrie, set in a supermarket. (No, this couldn’t have ripped off Brian De Palma’s film though; “Special Offer” aired before the movie Carrie was released.)  

55 Days at Peking (1963; Nicholas Ray, with Guy Green (uncredited) and second unit by Andrew Marton) Odd epic action flick—with incredible sets and explosions—where the Colonial Powers carve up China.
Surprising film in that it doesn’t cover up why the Yanks and Euros are there: profits! While saddled with the usual “epic movie” bullshit (romance, intrigue, family drama, snooze…), 55 Days at Peking is refreshing in that it doesn’t say Whitey is in China for anything except subjugation.
Chuck Heston is awesome as a hard-bitten USMC captain, supported by the usual mega-cast in this sort of thing. Of course, there are only about two genuine Asians in the movie, the rest being whites in bad makeup talking the racist “ching-chang-chong” talk.

No (2012; Pablo Larrain) Larrain’s conclusion to his unofficial “Chile Post-Allende” trilogy (begun with Tony Manero (2008) and continued with Post Mortem (2010)) is thankfully the most upbeat of the three.

Set at the beginning of the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship, the film covers the campaign to establish Chile’s first open elections since the coup d’état, and because the director is making a picture about “real” events, he does not play with structure or character motivation like he did before. Here, he plays with technique, shooting everything on crappy 1980s video camera so contemporary footage matches seamlessly with stock footage and video from the period.
This creates a delirious disconnect as we see politicians (playing themselves) in both the Now, and the Then. We are watching citizens recreating their own political freedom, like a shamanistic cargo cult, and it is just as magical (without being syrupy or overly sanctimonious or smug).
Highly recommended.

House of Cards (1990; BBC miniseries written and developed by Andrew Davies, based on the books by Michael Dobbs)
House of Cards: To Play the King (1993)
House of Cards: The Final Cut (1996)
After watching the tepid US remake, I thought I’d go to the source—and oh what a difference!
These three miniseries tally a total of 12 episodes, covering its antihero’s rise and fall; the US series meanwhile needed 13 episodes to get to where the BBC got in three!
Fantastically cynical and nasty political satire that moves, moves, moves, grounded by a superb performance by Ian Richardson.

Propaganda (2012?; no credits) Supposedly a North Korean anti-Western propaganda film, this feels more like Adam Curtis and Craig Baldwin telling us what they really think, using the angriest screeds from Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn as research.

Extremely cynical—but it should be—and packed with imagery, this is a unique and vocal criticism of “The Western Cult of Death” and the “consumer zombies” which support it: a system that commodifies everything, reducing all human interaction into transactions for money, status or power: An abusive, violence-obsessed, lowest-common-denominator system that can only have been established by sociopaths for whom money is the Alpha and Omega.
(Controversial, too, because only by claiming to be made by North Korea can this film criticize Israel and its policies.)

Now, is this really a North Korean film? I doubt it. If it is, it is only for the elite of the elite, those who are somewhat aware of what exists outside their communist “paradise.” Because life in NK is so miserable that even if they are presented as sources of evil, the Western opulence on display here would drive your average (starving, worked-to-exhaustion, poverty-stricken) North Korean to defect immediately.

That said, I think the film is the work of a group similar to Adbusters, but it’s the best kind of “joke,” never winking, never tipping its hand or trying to be funny or “clever.”
Propaganda is the stand-out MUST SEE out of this month’s films. Catch it HERE.

Police Mortality (2013; Anti-Banality League) The Brooklyn-based loonies behind Unclear Holocaust (see above) are back, this time tearing up the pigs.
By using an incredibly well-researched database of film clips, the Anti-Banality League shows us that John McClane is Robocop leading a police strike against the Bad Police.
Meanwhile, the self-pitying cowardly bully that all cops try to hide inside themselves busts out. Too bad more of them aren’t shown eating the gun.
Can’t wait for the next opus from the mad Situationalists of the Anti-Banality League.

The Wife (1995; Tom Noonan) Character actor Noonan’s two feature-length directorial efforts (this film, and 1994’s What happened was…) are wonderful entries into the feel-bad/discomfort genre.
Noonan’s learned from all the movie sets he’s been on, and really knows how to make an audience squirm, getting actors equal to his talents to contribute to the torture. His films work because they are so true and honest, essentially brutal.

Smoke by Donald E. Westlake (a “for fun” book; an interesting twist on the invisible man story; like a nice B-movie. Always writing for a semi-cosmopolitan audience, Westlake is one of my favorite writers, and one reason is that his lead characters have exceptional learning curves—maybe because criminals are not allowed the “societal safety nets” promoted by bourgeois living that slow down thinking: In other words, thieves always have to pay attention to their surrounds because not only are the cops out to get you, but so are other criminals, and even worse, goody-goody square-john citizens who like to interfere with a good crime.)

Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography by J.G. Ballard (been a fan of JGB since I was a teen; I had to read this—and was not disappointed)

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (great stuff about the reduction of freedom and the increase of the neocon surveillance state—where the public is the enemy The Man needs to crush)

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride (very moving memoir about a black man who discovers his mom is a white Jew—and I thought my family was mixed up…)

That’s it for the movies and books I consumed in February—
Still hunting for a job; fighting depression; trying to control infantile behavior; and worrying—sorry I haven’t been posting like I need to…
Meanwhile, our “friends” at Bloooger have chained their programming/posting features again, thus sending ripples of confusion and anger through the blogosphere. No wonder so many of my pals have abandoned their blogs and sites…
Wish me luck!

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