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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Two in One Day

Sunday witnessed the passing of two cinema icons; George A. Romero and Martin Landau.

George Romero is perhaps best known as the creator of the modern zombie with the legendary movie Night of the Living Dead. It is amusing that while credited as creating the zombie as we know it today Romero never used that word to describe the monstrous revenants of his film. Due to a last minute title change and clumsy editing of the film’s credit sequences, Romero lost the copyright to his movie and it passed instantly into the public domain. Romero went on to make a number of film most either horror or horror-adjacent but it was the zombies and those movies that brought him legions of undead fans. While Night was the first of the zombie movies, and made for what you might expect to spend on a single episode of a television series, in my opinion it was not the best of his zombie movies. That honor goes to 1979’s Dawn of the Dead. Benefiting from his growth as a filmmaker, writer, and with more resources and stronger themes, Dawn is a cinema classic that is as relevant and powerful today as when it was first released.

Martin Landau had a long and lauded career as an actor and as an acting coach. Depending on your age you may best know him for his roles in Mission: Impossible the original television series, Space:1999, or from his Oscar award winning performance as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s charming biopic Ed Wood. I have read that he was originally offered the role of Spock in Star Trek but turn it down, but I suspect that may be a bit of Hollywood urban legend. It was reported that he turned down the role because he was uninterested in playing a character without emotions but Spock in the original pilot had emotions, it the cold, logical character was the female second in command, Number One.

With or without the Star Trek connection there is no doubt that Landau left his mark on the industry and on the culture.

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Vintage Movie Review Out of the Past

Last weekend I watched the final DVD from my recently purchased 5 classic film noir collection; Out of the Past.

Robert Mitchum stars as a private eye, Jeff, who has abandoned his former life and name, taking up residence in small town where he runs a gas station. His life there is quiet, simple, and happy, this being a noir that does not last.

An associate from his past arrives and before long he is dragged back into his former life, associating with thugs and a crime boss played by Kirk Douglas.

Like most good noirs this story is murky, people are not what they seem, and dangerous secrets litter the landscape. Out of the Past is a movie that has been added to the National Film Register as a film that represents important or cultural aspects of our shared cinema history and it is the principal reason I purchased this collection. I had never seen the movie and it was unavailable via my streaming services.

I do not regret the purchase. This film alone would have been worth the money, but adding in Gun Crazy, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Set-up and this collection has hours a great, dark noir.

You may noticed that I listed only four movies from this five film set. The fifth movie in the collection is Murder, My Sweet. This movie stars Dick Powell as Phillip[ Marlow, who, along with the character Sam Spade, practically invented the hard-drinking, fast talking private eye cliché. Murder, My Sweet features extensive use of voice, a technique utilized in both superb film noir such as Double Indemnity and Out of the Past but also is associated with the bad written pot boiler version of the genre. Murder, My Sweet is not superb.

Dick Powell makes a terribly Marlow. When he cracks wise it comes off as smart ass that you don’t like, unlit the loveable rogue when he’s played by someone like Boggart. Also the ending of Murder, My Sweet is simply too pat and too happy for very noir-ish for my tastes.

Overall the collect is well worth the money, even with one miss among the titles.

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