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.


In Praise of the Long Take

The long continuous take has been with cinema since the very beginning. In fact one could argue that cinema started with the long take since editing movie into separate takes was a development that came along after the invention of the medium. However it is the existence of the edited narrative film that gives the long continuous take it’s meaning and it power.

Alfred Hitchcock composed an entire film, Rope, in nothing but long unbroken takes. Moving the massive refrigerator sized color camera around the set in a detail dance allowing him to craft long shot, medium shots, and close-ups without cutting at all. Rope is not remembered as part of the director best films but I like it and it was an example of an artist experimenting with his craft.

In 1958 Orson Well used the technique to establish the setting and tension for his noir Touch of Evil. Following a bomb from the moment it is planted in a car through several minuets as the car moves about the town this continuous take is one of the films’ most famous.

With the advent of the steady-com the long take took on a new life as now filmmakers were freed from bulky dollies and massive cranes and able to follow their subjects though a living set. Two examples that leap to my mind; first the ferry sequence in Spielberg’s Jaws where the city council comes to prevent Brody from closing the beaches, and follow Henry Hill and his date into the club in Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

A close relative to the long continuous take is the sequence where two of more shots are editing together to create the impression of a single take. Joss Whedon uses this technique in 2005s Serenity to take the audience through the entire ship during the films opening scenes, reminiscent of Touch of Evil‘s use in scene setting. Daredevil season one presented the ‘hallway’ fight in a single take, allowing the audience a chance to experience the combat’s fatigue.

A film currently playing uses the effect masterfully and that is David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde. Without going into spoiler territory I want to discuss the long take in this movie. Like Daredevil Atomic Blonde uses the long take during a particularly grueling and brutal fight sequence. Starting in a stairwell the fight ranges through a number of rooms, several floors, and even incorporates a car chase in the single shot. (Though of course this is an example of several shots seamlessly blended to the appearance of a single take.) Again, this help the audience experience the bodily toll the combat takes on all the characters but I believe that the long take severed another purpose beyond that physical empathy,

A cut in film can act as a release, an escape. We understand from a life time of movie watching that a cut means we are leaving the current moment, the current point of view for another and if that previous moment was unpleasant then cut allows us to distance ourselves from that unpleasantness. (Paragraphs and scenes breaks can do the same thing in prose.) I said that the ‘stairwell fight’ was grueling and brutal, those aspects are heightened by the lack of cuts. We are never allowed to escape the life and death fight, like the characters we are following, we are never given a chance to escape. The length of the take takes us from observers to unwilling participants. When the sequence finally ends the audience utterly empathizes with the surviving characters. It is masterful filmmaking and that bit alone is worth the price of ticket.


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.


Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

I had a middling interesting in seeing Atomic Blonde, this cast looked good but the subject matter is one of those that is so very often handled poorly producing product that leaves one flat and unengaged. Last week while my sweetie-wife and I were catching on a backlog of the Daily Show we caught the star Charlize Theron promoting the show and my sweetie-wife indicated she was now interested in catching the movie in the theater. I am very glad that we did.

Atomic Blonde is a period piece set in the chaotic days just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Theron plays Lorraine an MI6 agent sent into communist East Berlin to retrieve an highly valuable mcguffin. (A listing of soviet agents, their covers, and mission.) Other agents have already been murdered for this list and things only get worse once Theron’s character arrive on station.

As with all the best cold war spy movies this one is drenched in cynicism, betrayal, and ambiguity. Atomic Blonde, like Dunkirk, is a plot driven movie, albeit with stronger characterization that Nolan’s WWI survival film. The closest parallel is the James Bond franchise. However unlike the unstoppable god-agent Bond, Lorraine flees from fights she is losing, suffers disastrous reversals, and isn’t armed with an array of impossible super-gadgets. (In fact all the spy-craft tech appears period and credible.) The fight sequences are fight, credible, and brutal. If you have heard reviews you may have already hear people singing the praised of the ‘Stairwell’ fight. It is very impressive, topping the ‘Corridor’ fight from season on of Netflix’s Daredevil. The director, David Leitch, also resisted the temptation of over processed, digital stunts, lending the stunts and fights a visceral realistic feel. If you came of age in the 80’s the soundtrack is going hit you like a pissed of Lorraine. It is an impressive collection of thematically on-point period songs besting the collections used in other recent movies such as Guardians of the Galaxy I & II, or The Martian. (In fact I am listening to the soundtrack as I write this review.)

Stylish, properly cynical, brutal, and sexy, Atomic Blonde a James Bond franchise for the 21st century.


Details Matter

Last weekends I went with a friend to see the movie Dunkirk. It was his first time seeing the film and my second. (it worked on a second viewing all well as the first.) After the screening as we walked out the theater he pointed to the lobby display and spoke about the rifles carried by the UK and French forces. If I recall what he said correctly the British carried rifles that were made for WWI but that they really weren’t that common in the army by the time of the evacuation and that in the film the French carried newer rifles but in reality they had been equipped with an older model. I theorized that perhaps the director selected these long guns for their distinctive shapes and while they were period correct he went ahead and let them appear in period incorrect numbers.

This has gotten me thinking about accuracy in historical films.

The issue of accuracy in historically set stories is far larger than a single blog post. Hell if you want to dive into the weeds watch the YouTube channel History Buffs which is dedicated to reviewing historical films from an accuracy perspective. What I did think about is how often the details that matter to us are the ones that touch on the subjects and aspects that engage us.

Someone with an interest in fashion will noticed that the character reaching in a pocket shouldn’t be able to because pockets hadn’t been developed yet.

That the battle of Sterling Bridge really should have a bridge will annoy some but not others.

That the destroyers seen at Pearl harbor are ships that will not be built until decades after the war.

That the yellow noses of the German fighters didn’t start until years after the evacuation of Dunkirk.

That the vast sea of white faces on the beach of Dunkirk really should have had more color.

What’s fascinating is that sure if you have an interest in one subject sure you’ll notice the errors there, after all it is your thing but so often the other errors a person will wave aside. That shouldn’t be.

Really, even if you enjoyed Braveheart, and its a thrilling film, or if you are moved by the madness of Amadeus, one should be aware of how they lie about history. If they lie about an area that isn’t your special interest, you should still care.

Accuracy matters, details matters. It is better to get it right and the best case is where art and history are in sync but know when they are not.


Classic Movie Review: The Creature Walks Among Us

Sunday night I was in the mood from something from the classic period of SF monster movies but also for a movie that I have not seen a dozen times. Years back I purchased the Legacy Collections of the Universal Horror movies including The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Creature did not spawn as many sequels as either Frankenstein or Dracula with just two follow-up films, Revenge of the Creature and Sunday’s movie The Creature Walks Among Us.

This franchise demonstrates the usual cycle of a hit film and it’s usually poorly thought-out sequels. Creature is a well-made film with a fairly sharp script, interesting characters, and wholly contained story of a small expedition trapped and in a battle for their lives against a strange and unknown creature. With excellent 3-D effects and the truly new monster from universal in some time the original was a smash hit. Of course a sequel had to be made. For the second movie they pretty much repeated the first except instead of having a cast that was trapped with the monster is a lost lagoon now the creature, transported to an ocean themed park in Florida is ravaging in humanity’s world. However the core elements are repeats from the original film; a scientifically oriented female lead that the creature is drawn to, pseudo-science in ‘studying’ the creature, and a climax of rescuing the girl from the amorous monster. Having repeated themselves in the second film the third simply ignore the core elements and tried to tell a wholly new story and graft onto it the gill-man from the first two movies.

The Creature Walks Among Us divides into three sub-stories hunting and capturing the creature in the swamps of Florida. In his capture the creature is badly burned and the scientists use surgery to change the gill-man into a land creature. The middle of the movie is taken up with melodrama about the expedition leader, his crumbling marriage, and dreary debates about Nature versus Nurture, this is meant as the thematic heart of the film and that are interesting ideas here but they are not answers to questions raised by the earlier movies. the final sub-story takes place at the ranch where they are going to study the creature. The melodrama’s sexual tensions boil over, a man is murdered, and the murders big plan is to frame the creature for the killing. Apparently the creature didn’t like the idea of taking the fall and goes on a rampage against the real murdered and then escapes. The movie ends with the creature returning to the sea, unaware that he will now drown.

Deviating wildly from the original themes and premises killed the franchise but the Creature movies captures the challenges and dangers of a series of stories. Keep too close to the first rendition and all you produce is a less original copy, (for example Terminator 2: Judgment Day) ignore those elements and you end up with a film that satisfies no one as it is unlike what fans of the franchise want and is unable to attract a new audience. Universal would be wise to pay heed to its own history as it attempts to re-booth this series.


Decidedly Mixed Feelings

When my sweetie-wife and I went to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets one of the previews shown before the film was for Logan Lucky a new heist movie from director Steven Soderbergh. Set in North Carolina against a fictional NASCAR race it is the story of two brothers and their attempt to rob the racetrack on the big day of the race. The trailer had all the requisite elements to spark interest; the troubles the characters are facing, the excitement of the heist, and what looks to be plenty of comedy. The movie boasts an impressive cast, Channing Tatum, a man with fine comedic skills, Adam Driver, Hillary Swank, and Daniel Craig about as far from Bond as I think he can get.

So with all that going for it, why do I have mixed feelings?

Because it looks like that is going to be another film where the elite take a crap on southerners.

Do not take me wrong. I am no confederate battle flag waving, myth spouting, son of the south, but I am from the south. Slavery was an abject evil and that war was about slavery pure and simply. Racism however is endemic throughout our country and because of the South’s sin of slavery that region has become out national sin eater. All that is wrong can be projected upon the south and very little protest is voiced. How many admirable southern white men are depicted in mass media? Just as with the rest of the national people from the south come in all of humanity’s dazzling varieties, good, evil, brilliant, stupid, kind, cruel, all of it.

I hope that Soderbergh’s film has a more nuanced approach to its characters because it looks like a fun film and I want it to be an honest one as well.


Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

From Luc Besson, Director of such varied films as Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element comes a movie that was reportedly one of his personal passion projects Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets. Adapted from a long-running French comic Valerian is an expansive space opera set in a universe with a vast number of alien species fantastic technology and a complete lack of any sort of engaging characters. The title character Valerian is an officer for the Federation of Human Worlds. Along with his partner, Sgt. Laureline he is effective a galactic cop, chasing down bad guys and enforcing the law. His character is supposed to be a ‘bad boy’ the sort of rogue that women can’t resist and who infuriates his superiors. We know this because he tells us so in one of the movies many ‘as you know, Bob’ moments of infodumping.

I am avoiding describing the plot not because of spoilers, though that is always a consideration in my reviews, but because at its heart the plot is a mess of clichés and overly-predictable plot twists; Valerian is a plot driven story with a terribly plot doing the driving. Where a plot driven movie like Dunkirk establishes in the very first scene what the plot is, (surrounded by the enemy and needing to escape), Valerian tries to make their a mystery and only end up making a mess. The characters bounce chaotically from one situation to another bumbling their way through with the very nature of their personalities changing in a futile attempt to create drama. Obstacles in this story are overcome by either a James Bond-like reliance on gadgets that unlike a Bond film are not established before the save the day, convenient friendly aliens with supplying exactly the skill sets needed at the time they are needed, or by daring and do that takes place in front a green screen. (Digital stunts are the most boring of all ‘action.’)

In addition to and numerous writing failures present in the film the lead actors, who are barely adequate for their jobs (And I may be overly generous there), share no chemistry on screen, either as partners or lovers.

I was utterly bored watching this film, checking my watch often to compare the ‘progress’ of then plot against the running time, and when the exposition heavy ending finally arrived I was relieved.

This is a movie I cannot recommend.


What is it About the Genre Movies of the 1950s?

If you are a fan of genre films, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror there a better than even bet that no matter your age the movies produced during the decade of the 50s holds a special place in your heart.

While Universal Horror started in the 1930s with Frankenstein and Dracula by the 1940s they were already being seen as kids movies with their stories becoming more simple and more focused on spectacle. Remember the first ‘shared universe’ of movie is the Universal Horror franchise as the monsters frequently were thrown into the same movie for bigger and bigger fights and thrills.

However once we get to the 50s there is change in the movies. There still were not ‘prestige’ pictures. These productions did not boast A list stars, they struggled with budgets that were too small, and were rarely taken seriously by the critics. And yet these films are ones we still watched more than half a century later. These are the films, beloved and respected, that soulless corporate executives, produced from business universities and without creative artistic drive, that are rebooted, reimagined, and recreated into tent-pole films without the heart, soul, or intelligence of the originals. But why do we love those originals so much? What makes them so different from the bigger budget, more star-driven, and more elaborate movies of later decades? After all how many 70s SF movies, a prolific decade even before the KT Impact of Star Wars, are still being rediscovered today?

I think the answer lies in cynicism, or rather the lack of that bitter philosophy. When we left the 50s behind America entered a period of profound cynicism. The 60’s brought the Vietnam War, civil strife, televised police brutality, and a collapse of established social conventions. The 70’s grew darker with awareness of global pollution, economic shocks, military defeat, and of course Watergate. Distrust of government and nearly all institutions infected nearly ever aspect of our culture including cinema. All our films, including genre ones, took a dark turn surrendering to nihilism and cynicism that masqueraded as wisdom. The 80’s brought us the summer blockbuster, technically born in the 70’s The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars, but it took the studios several years to begin chasing them in earnest. Light summer fare that ignored both the cynicism of the 60s and 70s but avoided serious thoughtful stories instead providing adventure as escape.

It’s now surprise that the movies of the 1950s appeal to an idealism that has been absent for far too long. Now we have to be honest and recognize that the 50s were not the idyllic American Summer. It was a period of repression, conformity, and suppressed individuality, but the lure of simplicity is powerful. Against that social conformity genre films of the 50s expressed not only an optimism stripped away in the follow years, but through movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them!, and many others they critiqued the culture and ourselves. How could such films not last the ages and not continue to find new and wider audiences?


Movie Review Dunkirk

It is no secret that I am a fan of filmmaker Christopher Nolan. That is not to say that every film of his works for me. His first film, Following, relies too much on perfect planning by its principal antagonist and trains credibility while Interstellar is too cynical for the subject matter. Neither are bad movie but simply do not work as well for me as the rest of his catalogue.

Dunkirk is the story of the evacuation of the English and French armies from the continent after the German victories over them at the start of World War II. (At least for the Europeans, the war had been underway for sometime in Asia.) When the film opens 400,000 men are trapped against the sea with the German army closing for the kill. There aren’t enough ships and the lack of infrastructure is hindering rescuing the men. The Allies are facing a military disaster that could end the war. The 26 miles of the English Channel, Britain’s historic moat, now is working against the United Kingdom.

Nolan, who produced, wrote, and directed Dunkirk, structures his movie along three main story lines; The Land (Called ‘The Mole’ after the term for a long jetty reaching into open water), The Sea, and The Air. Each story-line takes up a different about of time for the characters involved, on Land one week passes, on Sea the story takes up one day, and in the air the story concerns itself with one hour. In typical Nolan fashion these three disparate time scales are told simultaneously with the films edits carrying the audience forward and backwards in time, often seeing the same events from different perspectives, until all the plot lines synchronize during the films climatic final act.

I can think of no better example than this film of a story that is plot versus character driven. The events of the story are not set into motion by the choices or natures of the characters, but rather this is a survival tale with characters struggling against implacable, impersonal forces bent on their destruction. (I think it is not by accident that we see no enemy face and hear no enemy voice throughout the film. It very nearly turns this into a man versus nature plot with the German Forces acting as a force of nature.) Dunkirk is also filled with up-close, personal, ugly death. It is a film that some have considered brutal but for me this is one of its strengths. Not only does that heighten the drama for the character we are invested in but it gives an unflinching stare into the horror that war and deglamorizes that inhumane endeavor.

I enjoyed the film and I think it is powerful, emotional, and inspiring, but I also can see that this is not a movie for everyone. The lack of a character driven story will make it difficult for some people to become invested in the film, the brutal nature of war will be repellent to some, and the non-linear structure will be difficult, but for me this movie is worth working as an audience member. It embraces the tragedy and triumph of one the war’s most important moments and one that has rarely been depicted on the screen. It is worth the ticket.