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Documentary Review: Five Came Back

I did not get any fiction writing completed last night. While I have finally gotten over my flu, and this year’s number is quite a little beast, early in the evening the migraine gnomes arrived with his less than anticipated gifts. Instead, after taking the required medications, I settled into to complete a documentary series that I had started while still recovering from my flu; Five Came Back.

A Netflix original and based on the book of the same name this series, three episode each just over an hour in length, examines the lives of five legendary and award winning directors before during and after their service in World War II. Each man served as a filmmaker and as with everyone else who saw service in that global and terrible conflict each was changed by their experience. The Five were John Houston, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, and Frank Capra.

The films produced by these men range from instructional movies and cartoon, including the classic Private SNAFU which featured the earlier work of Ted Geisel better known as Dr. Seuss, through blatant propaganda, and touching revelations about the ravages of psychic wounds.

A movie I commented on here a few months ago, Know Your Enemy: Japan a racist piece of propaganda, I can happily report was never actually screen to our troops. It only made it to the front just three days after the surrender and MacArthur banned its presentation.

If you have an interest in film, history, and the Venn diagram where these two fascinating fields overlap I cannot this series enough.

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New Year’s Eve Movie

This posting is a few days late but I am still shaking off the effect of this year’s flu, which for many is particularly rough.

New Year’s Eve a local movie appreciation society Film Geeks San Diego hosted an invitation only screening of an undisclosed title. Getting an invitation was easy, all I needed to do was respond to the posting. I arrived at the Digital Gym, a fine micro-theater and school, gave the supplied password, and I was in. This sounds much more cloak and dagger than it was, but the air of what unknown film my friends Miguel and Beth had selected supplied a lot of fun. After three cartoons the title was announced to the twenty people invited to the private screening: Liquid Sky. I had heard of this film but had never seen it and that was perfectly fine by me. I love cinematic experimentation. We stopped the film just before midnight to ring in the New Year and then continued with the screening.

Liquid Sky is a movie about the lives of a small collection of aspiring models, actors, and fashion people living lives of hedonism, experimental music, and drugs an alien spacecraft lands in the milieu, manned by tiny unseen creatures that have come in search of opioids. A scientist from West Berlin follows the aliens into the neighborhood, studying the extraterrestrials and hoping to warn the residents of the dangers that are in. It would seem that the aliens have switched their habits from heroin to opioid like chemicals produced in the human brain. What unfolds is a story of sex, manipulation, assault, and eventually murder as the visitors harvest their ‘crop.’

Though it is a product of the early eighties Liquid Sky, in part due to is highly unusual and stylized make and androgynous characters possesses a strong Ziggy Stardust sensibility. Made on a small budget the film is devoid of the special effects so common to 1982 and for a story with as much sex and sexuality as it had is even restrained in it in on screen depictions. (Though be warned that there is an on screen rape scene presented, as it should be free of titillation.) Liquid Sky gained a cult following and lately there has been talk of a sequel.

Following the feature there were more material presented but I could feel my energies flagging and made the short drive home, all in all not a bad way to start off 2018. I know many people are hoping that 2018 will be a better year than 2017 to which I say, do not hope, make it a better year, the choices are up to us.

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Rebels and Mutineers

So this post will be about a bit in Star Wars: The Last Jedi that has upset some corners of fandom, that means there will be spoilers, light ones, and if you are not in the mood for spoilers, engaged your hyperdrives now.

 

Ok, you have been given fair warning.

 

Star Wars, all the films, are American stories, told by Americans and aimed, principally at Americans and Americans love rebels. Our national was born in rebellion and even when a segment of the country took up arms against the rightful government we tell the story as one of honor and duty, not slighting those who rebel against us. It is baked into our national psyche to root for the underdog, the person throwing themselves against impossible odds. This carries over in our science-fiction.

Think how often commodores and admirals of Starfleet are either idiots, morally compromised, or simply insane, and our heroes are forced to ignore orders, throw mutinies in order to do what needs to be done. Over and over again we are treated in our fiction to mayors, governors, presidents, and police captains that must be disobeyed and ignored. This is one of the most used and well-known tropes of fiction. (Hell, I use it myself in the military SF novel currently being shopped around.)

So, even setting aside the gender issues and those are no insignificant, in The Last Jedi when Poe Dameron defies Vice Admiral Holdo we are conditions by generations of story telling to side with Poe. He’s our known hero, we’ve adventured with him before in The Force Awakens, this Holdo is an unknown, a stranger, and a superior who disregards our Hero’s sound advice. Of course we are going to think that its Poe who is in the right, we’re going to pull for his mutinous actions and secret keeping, and we’re going to expect that Holdo will get her comeuppance.

Only, that isn’t what happens.

Holdo knows what she is doing and it is Poe who is off the reservation. Poe’s action threatens everyone and in the end his mutiny is just that, a mutiny while under fire from the enemy.

Now some have tried to push the blame back on Holdo because she did not share her plans with Poe, but that is wrong. Poe, a hotheaded pilot disciplined for ignoring orders, has no need to know her thoughts or plans. No superior military officer is obligated to explain themselves to their junior officers. (Only in the face of illegal orders does a junior officer have not only the right but also a duty to disobey.) Poe was not command staff nor was he part of the logistics to implement the plan. Given his record and his position Holdo is perfectly justified in telling Poe only what he needs to know. In the end Poe learns how wrong he is and that is part of the theme of the film. We learn from our mistakes and Poe’s mistake costs them dearly but know it was his mistake.

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Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Spoiler Free

 

As is our custom my sweetie-wife and I waited until Sunday morning to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, crowds are more behaved and the ticket prices are cheaper. I enjoyed the last film in this saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but I can certainly see the critique that some of leveled at TFA as nothing more than a rehash of the original Star Wars. Now, I believe that going back to the original story beats was a feature and not a bug. I think the powers that be knew that they had to regain the fans trust after the terrible disappointments of the prequel trilogy. That leaves the question ‘Will the next film be a rehash of The Empire Strikes Back?’ IF the sequel to the new trilogy were a rehash then the franchise would be nothing but call back and a money grab.

The Last Jedi is not The Empire Strikes Backs.

It is the middle film of a trilogy and this is the section of the story where things get darker, where the antagonists gain an upper hand, and our hero suffer defeats and loses. All that happens in The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi, but the story beats and more importantly the themes are very different.

The Last Jedi is a very different beast of a Star Wars movie. The theme takes a new path, the reveals are more nuanced, and the backstory that is uncovered strikes right at the heart of Campbell’s Heroes Journey. There is one reveal that I have already seen people flat out refusing to believe is accurate. Just as so many fans refused to accept that Vader was in deed Luke’s father; this bit of information is also rejected. And just as with the ‘I am your Father’ reveal this one fits too perfectly with the story’s theme to be a red herring.

Picking up where the last film concluded, The Last Jedi carry on the struggles of Rey as she tries to discover who and what she is, Poe Dameron and the resistance fighting for their survival, and Finn finding that his loyalty still facing deep tests. The movie is two and a half hours long but it rarely drags. The plot moves at lightspeed, and with the well-established disregard for space’s vast distances. (Really, how does the Falcon get from Hoth to Bespin without a working hyperdrive?) But with Star Wars you disable those critiques. This is fantasy not science-fiction and it must be approached in that manner.

The film makes several very unexpected moves. Going into this knowing it is the middle of a story creates expectations, ones that the writer/director seems to delight is subverting. This too is a feature and not a bug. I had a great time and can’t wait to see how this all concludes.

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Movie Night: Xanadu (1980)

There is no denying that the musical/fantasy Xanadu is a bad film. The main character has no real arc, scenes just sort of happen with advancing even its threadbare plot, and for the ending is incomprehensible.

With all that said it is an emotional favorite of mine. The movie is pure Romanticism, a celebration of love, and the heights that love can take us to personally and artistically. In addition to this the central theme of the film, and many films fail to even have a theme, is stated in the line ‘Dreams don’t die, no, not by themselves. We kill them.” is a principal I continue to live by.

So when a local organization, Filmout San Diego, hosted a presentation at a Landmark theater, well I just had to be there.

Filmout San Diego is an organization that uses film and films screenings to raise money and awareness for local LGBTQ issues and groups. The fact that money spent on the ticket would help these groups was an added benefits in my book.

The screening sold out but I got my ticket before that happened. It was quite interesting to see this movie again in a theater with an enthusiastic audience. While I own the movie on blu-ray, the shared experience of seeing a movie is quite different than the home viewing experience. There were fun trailers for equally campy films before the main event including Roller Boogie and The Apple. During the film people clapped in time with the songs performed by Olivia Newton John and the Electric Light Orchestra, bursting into applause at the end of each number.

While I noticed new flaws in the script, as I said it is not a good film and suffered from continual rewrite throughout the filming, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and basked in an evening of happy nostalgia.

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Movie Review: Jigsaw (2017)

Saturday night I went out and caught this film before it left theaters. Jigsaw is the eight film in the long-lived horror franchise but it is the fist that I have seen. It earned a decent review from a critic I like and mostly agree with and it was directed by a pair of brothers, the Spierigs, whom have turned out some fairly enjoyable pictures. These two factors were enough to prompt a ticket sale.

Jigsaw takes place ten years after the death of the serial killer known as Jigsaw, AKA John Kramer, whose M.O. was to capture people he considered to be sinful and place them elaborate death traps which offered a chance for survival but usually with pain and sacrifice involved. As bodies start appearing around the city bearing marks and wounds

that suggest Jigsaw is back on the hunt, then police and a forensic team attempt to unravel the mystery and discover if Kramer survived his reported death.

In a story told through parallel editing we also follow the latest victim players in the cruel, deadly games. Unlike a lot of ‘torture porn’ out there the Saw franchise is built upon the conceit of a twisted form of justice and the victims are not innocent people simply being maimed and killed but rather individuals who have not taken the requisite responsibility for their actions. Let me be clear that in no way justifies Kramer’s actions as judge and executioner, he’s just out right skipping the jury role, but it changes to morality of experiencing the film, and that is important. The death traps in Jigsaw are elaborate and mostly within the bounds of reasonable disbelief and provide moments of genuine suspense and empathy.

When the final mystery is unraveled the answer to Kramer’s fate revealed it is a satisfying resolution that leaves open questions for further films. To get the answer before the film launches into its ‘how I did it’ explanations audience need to pay attention character given when discussing Kramer’s first game and that game’s first victims.

Overall I enjoyed the film and do not regret going to see it at a late showing. It may not be to everyone’s tastes but the Spierig brothers, who brought us Undead, Daybreakers, and the unmatched Heinlein adaptation Predestination continue to be filmmakers to watch.

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A Bonanza of Movies

I must say that looking forward over the next few weeks my troubles appear to be finding enough time to see all the movies I want to see.

Next weekend The Shape of Water opens and I am both a fan of the Universal Gill-Man movies and Del Torro, so this movie if aimed right at me. The week after that of course if the opening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and I thoroughly enjoyed The Force Awakens so this one is also on my radar. (I also have no doubts that JJ Abrams is a much better fit with Star Wars than he is with Star Trek.)

On Dec 13th I will be joining a bunch of fans for a sold out screening of 1980’s musical fantasy Xanadu. (Now this film is really a bad movie. The script is terrible and apparently was subject to daily rewrites but there is an emotional core that resonates with me making it a personal favorite. See you can love art that is not well executed. All that matters is that it speaks to you.)

Coco has opened and that is a Pixar movie that has really grabbed my interest. In addition to that I admit a more than passing interest in the latest entry in the Saw franchise, Jigsaw, even though I have never seen any movie of that series. (It’s the directors, they are talented and the three previous films the brothers have all worked for me.)

Sadly this is also the time of year when I am working 10 hours a day helping people get the insurance that they want and that leaves limited hours for going out.

Still, no complaints. Life is good and on the 15th my latest short story hits publication on the web so while I am tired I am happy.

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Movie Review: Murder On the Orient Express

Based upon a novel first published in 1934 this week saw the release of another film version Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. Assembling an all-star cast, just had been done in 1974’s version, Kenneth Branagh stars in directs in this murder mystery.

Branagh plays world famous detective Hercule Poirot. In this adaptation Poirot is portrayed as a man who suffers from OCD before that condition had been recognized much less named, Recalled to London on an emergency he manages to get passage on a the Orient Express though all the cabins had been reserved. During the trip from Asia Minor, while traveling through the mountains of Eastern Europe the train becomes stranded and a passenger is murdered. Passionate for justice and suspecting that the local authorities would likely convict and execute the wrong person, Poirot endeavors to solve the locked room mystery before the train is freed from the snow.

Though the plot is more than 80 years old I will not spoil the mystery on the off chance someone reading this is unaware of the rather unusual nature. I will say that it stays, generally, faithful to the source material, as I understand it, including Christie’s horrible habit of withholding clues, yielding a mystery unsolvable by readers and audiences. As an additional demerit the mystery’s resolution is silliness and utterly impractical.

That said, this is a movie worth seeing, and worth seeing in a proper theater. The film is lush, vibrant, and lovely. While not all the CGI train shots work perfectly more than enough do so to transport the viewer to another time and another place. However what really makes this watchable are the performances. This movie is really a series of scenes in a confined space, so it is not abut action, stunts, or thrilling sequences, but about characters interacting and the cast is superb.

If you have the slightest interest in the film and in watching some great actors go at each other, see this.

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Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is the third stand alone film based the character of Thor, who is in turned based on the mythological Norse god of Thunder. Many people feel that Marvel studios have been floundering a bit with what exactly to di with this character. His first outing in Thor many said was a story and scope that seemed to small, too constrained for such a gran operatic character, while the second movie Thor: The Dark World many accused of trying too hard for gravitas. Personally, I enjoyed both movies and Blu-rays of each sit in my library, but they are also not my favorite films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This time out Thro is dealing with Ragnarok, the Norse myth’s end of days prophecy, and event being hastened along by Hela the Norse goddess of the death. Taking a tonal cue from the successful Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, Thor: Ragnarok is a film that has serious potiential outcomes for its character and the MCU’s grander continuity while also playing many of it’s beats and scene for laughs. This is a very difficult balance to effect and while I think there were one or two miscues overall Thor Rangarok lands well and it a very entertaining movie. Chris Hemsworth, following on his performance in the remake of Ghostbuster, proves that comedic muscles he displayed in that re-envisioning were no fluke. Mastering the emotional turns of dram to comedy with flair and competence. Tom Hiddleston continue to show why he is the most popular actor in the MCU, and sadly Idris Elba continues to be criminally underused for an actor of his tremendous talents. Of course it wouldn’t be an MCU film without newcomers to welcome to the grand canvas. Tessa Thompson show good range and depth with her character, a scavenger with a mysterious toe to Asgard. However it is Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster that simply steals scene after scene, proving that while Hiddleston and Hemsworth has charisma and talent they are no match for old age and treachery. Goldblum has always guided his performances with a off-center balance that makes them difficult to predict, and in this role his abandons all pretense of balance craft a villain that is at turns comedic, threatening, and full of guile. Of course there has been plenty of chatter about Cate Blanchet as Hela. Cate is Cate and her performance is enjoyable. What a treat it would have been had Hela and Grandmaster share a scene or two.

Mark Ruffalo returns as Banner/Hulk and for the first time I truly enjoyed a Hulk sub-plot. Upping the characters’ verbal abilities and improved FX makes it possibel to have the Hulk as a character.

If you enjoyed and mix of drama, action, and comedy seen in the two Guardians of the Galaxy films then Thor: Ragnarok is likely to be a hit with you.

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Halloween Horror Movie #16 Night of the Living Dead 4K

No, that is not yet another remake, revision, or remix of the movie that created the modern zombie genre, but rather the 4K restoration of that original.

Before he passed away George Romero worked with the Museum of Modern Art, and with funding from the George Lucas Family Foundation, to restore from original elements that film that so many years ago made his career. Though not announced it is expected that there will be a 4K and Blu-ray release of this restoration from Criteria and that is something I am looking forward to.

The restoration screened last night at San Diego’s restored movie palace The Balboa Theater. When I first arrived in San Diego in 1981 it was part of a series of grindhouse theaters showing films 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Now, returned to it luster and glory it is an upscale venue for live performances and film.

Before the movie we were treated to a live organ concert with an impressive device that filled the theater with full rich sound without the aid of any amplifiers or any electronic circuit. Being Halloween there was brief costume contest. (My personal favorite was a pair of women doing a fantastic job the creepy twin girls from The Shinning.) Then, after a few technical glitches, we watched The Night of the Living Dead.

What can I say about this movie that has not already been said a thousands times before me? It is, though that word is never uttered in the film, the progenitor of the modern zombie genre. It is a film with a black lead made in 1968 that never once mentions race and yet the subtext of the race relations infuse every scene with that character. It is a film from the sixties with a very seventies sensibility, making this movie ahead of its time in more than one respect.

Watching it on the big screen, something I have never had the chance to do, and in a restored version, proved to be quite surprising. This is a movie with many technical faults, stilted acting by some of the cast, and clumsy dialog and yet sitting there I never once felt bored and ready to leave. It was very nearly as if I had never actually watched the movie before. (It was also clear a number of people in the audience were fresh to the film, supplying reactions and screams that would have thrilled Romero’s heart.)

It is a shame that it played only one night. Many of my friends planned to be busy on Halloween with ‘better’ activities and they missed treat.

So ends my horror film reviews for this Halloween. I do hope you enjoyed them.

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