Sunday Night Movie: Seconds

The third in director’s John Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy, the previous two films being The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, Seconds turns the attention from external threats to questions of identity and conformity.

The main character of the story is Arthur Hamilton an upper middle-aged man, white, Protestant, wealthy, and entirely dissatisfied with his life. Mysterious communication from a ‘deceased’ friend leads him to a company that services men as himself, creating for them new identities, new lives, in younger, stronger bodies. Arthur undergoes the processes and is reborn as Tony Wilson, now played by leading man actor Rock Hudson. Arthur, living as Tony, is relocated to California and given a life that is designed to fulfill those emotional voids from his previous ones, but they do not. Despite a reignited sexual drive and capacity, a young exciting woman professing her love, and absolute freedom, Arthur/tony remains deeply unhappy. Questioning his choices and seeking solutions puts Arthur/Tony on a disastrous course that he may never recovery from.

There is no doubt that Seconds is a science-fiction story without the intense and complex procedure to take an old man and transform him into a young one the story simply falls apart. The movie is tough, brutal, and disturbing. By brutal I do not a bloody festival of violence, but rather that the handling of the characters and their issues are not softened by sentimentality. Arthur Hamilton is not a particularly likeable man and his transformation does not change this aspect but his journey is intellectually challenging and emotionally wringing which I found compelling and fascinating. The philosophical questions raised, by the film and left unanswered I might add, concerning the conflict between the individual and what society expects of an individual, are deep and powerful. This is an SF movies with a point, it is not a pretty film, it is not a feel good film, and it is not an adventure film, but it is an adult film with adult problems and an adult resolution, Filmed with techniques that were terribly difficult before the advent of SteadyCam, and with distorting lenses, Seconds can be difficult to watch and perhaps even physically uncomfortable for those susceptible to motion sickness.

This was the first time I watched Seconds and with the benefit of historical knowledge Rock Hudson’s performance takes on greater depth, meaning, and nuance, In 1966 Rock Hudson was at the top of his game as a leading man in Hollywood. Young, tall, and handsome he played vigorous, virtuous, and virile men that reflected back to America and the world the illusion of the man that men should strive to be and he did this while living a deeply closeted life. Normally I do not consider an actor personal life or orientation when watching their performance but in this case I think it transforms the acting into a sublime achievement. Taking on the role of ‘Tony Wilson’ Hudson plays a man who is hiding his core identity, who is living a lie, Hudson gives a performance that is layered with its own hidden truth. Frankenheimer wisely doesn’t spoil the subtlety of the Hudson’s acting with cheap close-up of things like a single tear, but lets many of the scenes play out in uncomfortable long takes

Produced when science-fiction cinema was truly becoming an adult art form Seconds is about as far from escapism as a move can get. It is a story unconcerned with heroic gestures, preening villains, or simplistic clashes of good and evil but rather it attempt to plumb the depth of the human soul and what it finds is deeply unsettling. It is a classic film from a master filmmaker, but by far it is not for everyone.

Share

Sunday Night Movie: Cleopatra Jones

Last night’s feature, Cleopatra Jones, was the third, following Black Caesar and Blacula, in my experiencing the genre of Blaxploitation cinema. It was interesting watching this movie on the same day that I went out with my sweetie-wife and watched Atomic Blonde. Though separated by four decades the two films have very similar elements. Both films are centered on strong females characters who are agents for their government, dress in fantastic fashion, who are sexually liberated, deadly in combat, and who operate in a venue where ally and enemy are deadly categories to confuse.

Cleo (Tamara Dobson) is a United States Special agent whose jurisdiction extends from Ankara to Watts Towers as she tried to shut down the drug trade poising the youth of Los Angeles during the early 1970s. After destroying a poppy field worth 30 million dollars, Cleo angers the L.A. Crime lord, Mama (Shelly Winters) and Mama declares an all out war on Cleo. Manipulating her contacts with the police department Mama fixes it so that a facility dedicated to getting kids off the hard drugs is raided and incriminating evidence (planted) is found, provoking Cleo’s return to L.A. The film follows Cleo’s attempts to clear the anti-drug house, keep the residents from exploding into violence against the racist, oppressive police, and ending Mama’s criminal empire.

Cleopatra Jones was a fun film that wasted very little in terms of time or momentum. There are a number of film makers that need to learn these filmmakers lesson in economy of storytelling. With stronger elements of wish fulfillment that either of the other two film I have watched, Jones, fulfills one of the purposes of fiction, displaying for people a world that can be better, a world that can be made into reality, even while dealing with the subject matter in a never-lose James Bond method.

Share

Sunday Night Movie The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The next movie up from my 5-disc DVD collection of film noir is The Asphalt Jungle. Directed by John Houston this is the story of small time hoods, one famous and brilliant criminal tactician, a crooked lawyer who is not as bright as he thinks he his, and the big jewel heist that they attempt to complete.

Starring Sterling Hayden as Dix a gambler and muscle man, Sam Jaffe, who often played geniuses, as ‘The Doc,’ a legendary criminal, and James Whitmore as the wheel man, The Asphalt Jungle is a film about the lower levels of criminality and the vices that crippled the men who dream beyond their abilities. This movie certain hits what I think are the central themes of classic film noir, an unmistakable cynicism about particularly concerning greed and characters who are consumed by their appetites or vices. With a story lacking in heroes, The Asphalt Jungle is about flawed people making bad decisions and the inevitable ruin of their lives. I think even without the Production Code requirements the only applicable end for this story was one of tragedy and failure. These are characters defined by their failures, even Doc, the mastermind, has only just been released from prison. The man hailed as a great crook, is still one captured, tried and imprison by the fumbling police forces.

Lacking snappy dialogue and a plot filled with unexpected reveals The Asphalt Jungle‘s power lays in their gritty portrayal of the street criminal life. There are no lovely costumes, no grand high-flying life, even the most successful characters are shown to be living a lie and that their material wealth of all illusion. The feel of the film is more like something you would expect from Warner Brothers, a studio that made its image one based on a ‘realistic’ portrayal of life rather than MGM which tended to focus more on glitz, glamor, and beautiful productions. The tone and look of the film comes from its director John Houston, an old- Warner Brothers man it should be noted. Produced post-war but before the material boom of the later 1950s, I like the film’s atmosphere of depression and limited resources.

A gritty, realistic, and entertaining film The Asphalt Jungle is a film noir worth seeing.

Share

Sunday Night Movie Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Last night I was in the mood for something from yesteryear. Now some time ago Universal put out boxed set for their classic monsters until the branding of ‘Legacy Collections.’ I have many of the set including the one for Frankenstein. The Legacy Collections include the original film for each series, some decent bonus material about the classic horror film, and several of the sequels or associated films.

Ghost of Frankenstein is the fourth film is the series and it continues the story from the previous entry, Son of Frankenstein. Ghost is used metaphorically as the Frankenstein of this film is the second son of the original mad scientist but titling a movie Second Son of Frankenstein seems underwhelming.

The population of the village of Frankenstein, convinced that the area is under a curse dues the action of Henry and his son Wolf Frankenstein dynamite the standing castle where in the previous story the monster had fallen into bubbling sulfur pits. The explosions free the monster and aided my Ygor, who has somehow survived the hail of bullets from the last movie, escapes fleeing the town. Ygor takes the monster to Ludwig Frankenstein, Henry’s second son, in hopes that the creation might be healed and returned to full ability, allowing Ygor to manipulate it to continue his own evil schemes.

The creature kills of the Ludwig’s associates and this after much turmoil with the local populace, prompts Ludwig to plan to transfer the brain of his dead associated to the monster’s body as a way of undoing the crime and transforming the monster into a non-dangerous creation. Ygor, working on the ego of Ludwig’s disgraced mentor gets his brain placed into the monster without Ludwig’s knowledge. These villagers arrive, torches are barred, great manor houses are burned, and Ygor in the monster’s body goes blind because the great mentor hadn’t considered blood type mismatch.

Over all this is pretty standard fare for a Universal monster sequel. It pays fair attention to continuity but hand-waves is way past anything that would actually kill the story, such as Ygor’s ability to survive the gunshot wounds without medical care. Dr. Frankenstein once again pays the price for meddling in things that ‘man was not to know.’ (Hmm we should really have a Lord of the Rings moment in some film like this where the female mad scientist proclaims she is no man.) In terms of the Universal classic monster cycle, which was the first cinematic universe, this is purely a middle-grade entry. The movie did not descend in unintentional farce as with Son of Dracula casting Lon Chaney jr as the Count,, but neither did the film come close to matching the atmospheric heights of Frankenstein.

As this film was from 1942 I did ponder a sequel in which Nazi’s took the castle and ended up dealing with mad scientists and the classic monster. Ah movies that were never even considered.

Share

Sunday Night Movie The Babadook

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, this past weekend presented me with more writing work than I normally engage in during this blissful days away from the day-job. When I finished editing a potential piece for submission to Viable Paradise I rewarded myself with a movie, The Babadook.

Hailing from down-under this 2014 horror film is about a widowed mother and her young son, still scarred by the traumatic death of their husband and father, being tormented by a malicious spirit.

Horror often works via isolation. In lesser quality stories and films that isolation is achieved by the creators via hard barriers to prevent the characters from escaping the threat. The car has broken down in the middle of nowhere, the bridge has washed out, the ghost can fill the doors and windows with red bricks at will, there are no bars on your cell phone, so on and so on. With better-crafted material the isolation is psychological, for example in the novel and film The Exorcist in addition to the fact that the demon is within the child, the fact that no one outside of that home could possibly accept the reality of its events isolates the characters. The Babadook successfully employs the psychological isolation.

In terms of visual style the film reminded me of both David Lynch and the American version of The Ring. The images are not straightforward literal monsters, but more subjective and impressionistic interpretations. Much of the dread, unease, and horror is created by the stylistic and unusual visuals.

The movie did not work 100 percent for me however. I had a difficult time get engaged with the material at the start because the emotionally troubled young son was very difficult to bear. This is by design as we are meant to emotionally connect with the mother who is struggling to manage with a son who has serious emotional issues while having not yet processed her own grief. Once I managed to get past the establishing acts of the story I did find myself more engaged and invested in the outcome.

It is interesting that one valid interpretation of the film is that, like with The Haunting, there is no spirit and that the mother is suffering from a mental breakdown. While Shirley Jackson has made it clear that Hill House is haunted and evil, I have no knowledge about the intent for The Babadook so it is up to you if the evil spirit has a reality or if it’s a tale of madness. While this film had a difficult opening for me, holding me at a distance, in the end I am glad I watched it. Creepy, atmospheric, and ultimately about the power of grief The Babadook is a worthy film in the horror genre.

Share

Sunday Night Movie: Big Trouble in Little China

After spending the afternoon watching The Godfather on the big screen yesterday afternoon I decided that for my Sunday Night Movie feature I wanted something lighter, something more fun.

Big Trouble in Little China is an 80’s martial arts/comedy directed by John Carpenter, written by the director W.D. Richter, and starring Kurt Russell. It concerns Jack Burton (Russell) as he gets involved in supernatural affairs hiding in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. What starts out as kidnapping by a street gang transforms into a battle of good and evil against a two thousand year old wizard.

This movie did poorly when it was released, panned by critic and ignored by fans, but over the years and through the sorcery of home video it has gained a devoted following of fan.

Despite Russell leading credit and having a majority of the lines, his character of jack Burton I think can best be understood as the sidekick to Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi and that this film is really a story told from the point of view of a sidekick who thinks he is the hero.

Big Trouble in Little China has many elements that are never explained and several that are used for convenient comedic effect but it is a fun romp with sharp funny characters.

 

Share

Sunday Night Movie: The Towering Inferno

Yeah, this has been an entry in the Sunday Night Movie feature before but it is one of my favorite disaster movies.

It is not a secret that I am a fan of the disaster movie genre that blossomed in the 1970s and in many ways The Towering Inferno is the pinnacle of that style of movie. It has a massive budget, being the first film that required two studios, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers, for its production The movie boasts an impressive slate of stars, another hallmark of the disaster movies, and this one included two of the biggest at the time Paul Newman and Steve McQueen along with a host of fine stars and actors in support. Special effects and spectacle are also presented in abundance throughout the feature. It is important to remember that was before the era of digital images and motion control photography, three years before the ground-shattering event that is Star Wars. Every flame in the frame is real, every full-body burn is a live stunt performer, and the tower itself is an impressive bit of model photography.

The plot of The Towering Inferno is quite simple and straightforward. It is the dedication night of the newest world’s tallest building. Situated in San Francisco the building dominates the skyline as it reaches for the stars. Due to cut corners one of the buildings contractors has substituted inferior wiring in place of those specified by the architect, leading to a short, numerous system failures, and of course a fire that quickly gets out of control. There is a massive party being held at the towers top and now more than 300 people are in danger of burning alive in the world tallest building.

What surprises me each time I re-watch this movie is how devoid of cynicism it is, particularly for a mid 70s film. There are two political characters, the mayor of San Francisco and a Senator. Both of these characters act in noble and heroic fashions, presenting none of self-centered cowardice we would expect in a current screenplay. They are not the exception, firemen and chiefs, security guards and corporate executives, architects and con-men all act as heroes, putting themselves in danger for the sake of their fellow human beings. The only exception to this is the contract who cut corners, Played by Richard Chamberlin this character displays absolutely no redeeming qualities. It is an utter mystery how his wife, daughter of the builder, ever fell in love with such a low character. He is nothing more than a walking cliché, one that would today pass as wisdom.

This film is long, two hours and forty-four minutes, and mind you this is before the end credits bloated. For The Towering Inferno end credits run just over 4 minutes. It took me two nights to watch the entire film and I don’t regret a single moment.

Share

Sunday Night Movie: The Remains of the Day

While the vast majority of the movies I watch on Sunday nights are genre films of one variety or another not everything I watch falls into those fields of Sf, Fantasy, or Horror. The Remains of the Day is one of my favorite films and it is a movie of nothing but quiet dialog. Based on the award winning novel of the same name by Kauzo Ishiguro the story centers on James Stevens the butler of Darlington Hall and it concerns Stevens relationships with his employer Lord Darlington, Steven’s father, and the Hall Housekeep Sara Kenton. This is a story about service, devotion, and repressed emotions.

Stevens is played to perfection by Anthony Hopkins, it is hard to imagine another actor who would be able to convey such volumes of information while his character says nothing about how he truly feels. Steven is a man so driven by his concept of duty he never questions to the actions of his employer, even as Lord Darlington toys dangerously with Fascism during the run up to World War II. Nor is Stevens able to able reveal his deep feeling and affections to Miss Kenton, played by Hopkin’s equal Emma Thompson. This is a love story without first names. There is no rom-com misunderstandings, but instead this is about people trapped by their nature and their culture.

In addition to the already fine actors mentioned the boasts an impressive casting list; Christopher Reeve as an American politician, James Fox as idealistically naive Lord Darlington, Hugh Grant as his godson who has a bit better vision just what is going on, and two future cast members of HBO’s smash hit Game of Thrones, including a much younger Lena Heady is a small part.

From the moment I watched this in the theater this has been a moving film for me, one where I have tremendous empathy for Mr. Stevens and is doomed inability to express himself.

You only live your life once, make sure it is your own.

 

Share

Sunday Night Movie Sadako vs. Kayako

While this is billed as my Sunday Night Movie, I started it Sunday evening but finished it Monday. After the energy expended at Condor 2017 I simply pooped out and couldn’t watch it all in one go, particularly since it is subtitled and required a greater mental focus.

I first learn of this film last year when a friend and I drove up to Los Angeles for an after evening at Universal Studios, taking in their Halloween Horror Night, and then scooting over to Hollywood for a late screening of 1979s Dawn of the Dead in 3D. (Verily that was cool.) While my companion took care of his pre-show bathroom break and concessions the trailer for this film played.

If you do not recognize the names these are the ghosts or spirits from The Ring franchise (Sadako) and The Grudge (Ju-On) (Kayako). So as you can see it is not just American that is interested in bad guys fights such as Freddy vs Jason.

Overall this was better than the aforementioned Freddy vs Jason. The cast is comprised of fairly likeable and relatable characters competently acted. The film’s action is contemporarily set and so they had to dance around a few issues since Sadako does her bad magic via a VHS tape. Also for the sake of compression, I assume, they reduced her kill curse from seven days to two.

(If you don’t recall The Ring or Ringu the Japanese original version, if you watch the tape then your phone rings and a voice tells you ‘seven days’ and when that time has passed you die. Ju-On was centered on a house where a spirit of vengeance visited violence and death on all who lived there, for this film that has been compressed to simply entering the haunted home.)

The production values are decent and there are plenty of both in your face jump scares and atmospheric scenes that rely on tension for their effect. I was particularly fascinated by an exorcism scene. It was quite interesting watching one that was non-western and not driven my a monotheistic religion.

Of course the main event for a film of this type is the throw down between the two powerful spirits. (Though at one point both are referred to as ‘ghouls’ and I wonder what the original language translated as.) On that score the big confrontation is rather spare and short but better that than overly drawn out and tiresome.

In terms of tone it borrows more from Ringu than Ju-On. It has a conventional western narrative structure rather than the sequence of incidents that Ju-On utilized. In the final resolution it leaned more in the direct of Ju-On.

I enjoyed my viewing but not enough to see a need to purchase a copy.

Sadako vs Kayako is currently streaming on Shudder.

Share

Sunday Night Movie: The Caine Mutiny

Last night’s movie served a dual purpose, it functioned both as entertainment and as research. Entertainment because The Caine Mutiny has always been one of my favorite films. I dare say that I watch my Blu-ray of it more often than I do ether Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. Research because my current work in progress is on one level about a dysfunctional wardroom and how that undermines the ship’s commanding officer. Now the specifics are very different in my WIP than in the classic movie. My WIP is not about a duplicitous officer and hopefully my captain is more relatable and heroic than the poor broken Queeg.

The Caine Mutiny is one of those rare film that I find difficult to watch only a portion. Many movie I can start and stop, or back in the days of channel surfing, watch a brief bit in the middle before moving on, but that has never been the case with this movie. When I had a lasrdisc player it was one of my first purchases, and when I moved to DVDs I acquired a copy in that format as well. For several years I’ve had my Blu-ray version and the film has never looked better. (Though I have yet to see a properly projected version in an actual theater.)

Based on the fantastic novel, The Caine Mutiny is the story of the officers if the DMS Caine. (Destroyer Mine Sweeper) It is World War II and Willis Seward Keith an immature offspring of a rich family has become a newly commissioned ensign in the U.S. Navy. Assigned to the Caine, a duty station he views as a bitter disappointment, Willie discovers that the junkyard navy falls far below his expectations. Too young and too inexperienced to understand the nature of the Caine, Willie rejoices when the captain is replaced with hard-nosed, by-the-book, Captain Phillip Francis Queeg.

A change of command turns out to be the spark that lights a fire culminating in the ship nearly sinking and Willie along with another officer finding himself standing before a court-martial on charges of mutiny.

Truly one of the best films to come out of classic Hollywood, The Caine Mutiny not only is faithful for the original work, but where is seriously diverges from the text of the book serves the different medium without undercutting the themes and point of the source material.

If you have not seen this film, waste no time in finding a copy, it will be well worth your effort.

Share