Monthly Archives: January, 2015

Things to Come (1936), directed by William Cameron Menzies

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Somebody ought to remake Things to Come as the horror movie it is. Written by none other than H.G. Wells, based on his book The Shape of Things to Come, it’s a movie chock full of stilted dialogue and cardboard characters. But that isn’t what I’m referring to. No, this is a message movie, and the message is so abhorrent that it could redefine the term “scary movie.”

Gary Westfahl, identified by Wikipedia as a science fiction historian, wrote, “Things to Come qualifies as the first true masterpiece of science fiction cinema, and those who complain about its awkward pace and uninvolving characters are not understanding Wells’s message, which is that the lives and actions of individuals are unimportant when compared to the progress and destiny of the entire human race.”

Come again? It seems to me that Westfahl is a whole lot more interested in science fiction than cinema and probably ought not to hail badly constructed and poorly written clunkers as “masterpieces” just because he happens to approve of their message.

Anyway, I suspect a personal motive behind these statements. The “first true masterpiece of science fiction cinema” can be none other than Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which predated this monstrosity by almost a decade. But what did Wells think of Metropolis? He hated it. With a passion. And what was its message? Basically the opposite of Wells’. It all makes me wonder if maybe Westfahl doesn’t have a little fanboy in him.

But he’s right about the message, as distasteful as it is. World war begins in 1940 and is still raging 20 years later. Then a new government appears. Calling itself Wings Over the World, it is run by scientists and engineers who want to bring peace to the entire world. Not, mind you, to stop all the killing, not to provide a better life for the common man, but simply so that the elite can pursue their pet projects without any nasty emotional interruptions. Succeeding in this endeavor, they build a new world, and by 2036 they are ready to shoot a couple of people around the moon. Literally. Using a “space gun.” And the interesting thing is, in this brand new world of rationality and peace, the populace still revolts. They do so, of course, because their leaders have made no provision for the happiness of their citizens (really makes one appreciate that whole “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” business). Indeed, they care so little of individuals that even their astronauts have only a 50-50 shot at survival. These bastards won’t even wait long enough to push their knowledge and abilities past a simple coin toss.

It’s fine to sit back all smug and proud of the fact that humankind has gone from the caves to the moon in only a few hundred thousand years. But, really, what monster is driven by this? “Is it this?” the chief scientist (criminal) asks. “Or that? All the universe? Or nothingness?” Or is it, I wonder, not a binary proposition, you idiot.

What I like about the movie is its unabashed setting of “Everytown,” some of the special effects and visual design, and a dark-haired woman (Sophie Stewart) who comes on the screen dressed half like a dominatrix and half like a harem girl. “I don’t suppose any man has ever understood any woman since the beginning of things,” she says. Well, hell, girl, you’re a walking contradiction; what do you expect?

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The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), directed by Ranald MacDougall

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Muddled message movie that takes place in a post-nuclear holocaust New York.  Harry Belafonte plays Ralph Burton, a black man with a racial chip on his shoulder, who believes he may be the last man on Earth until he meets Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens), a white woman who soon begins to fall in love with him.  Matters are complicated when Sarah sees a boat churning up the East River; on board is Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrar), a white man who views Ralph as a rival for Sarah.  Neither man cares in the slightest what Sarah thinks about the situation.  Race is a non-issue (for everyone except Ralph), sexism is accepted as a given (except by Sarah), and all that’s left is a bland commentary on civilization and war.  Would-be allegory wastes the setting:  no dead bodies, no wild animals, no radiation effects and, with handyman Ralph on the case, no lack of power, either.  Maintains an inexplicably high rating on both IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes.  Guess the post-apocalyptic crowd will take whatever they can get.  Written by MacDougall, from a story by Ferdinand Reyher, and “suggested by a story” by M.P. Shiell (The Purple Cloud).

Seduction of the Innocent (2013) by Max Allan Collins

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It was in the author’s afterword and acknowledgements that I learned that the heroes of Seduction of the Innocent, Max Allan Collins’ roman à clef about the comic book controversy started by Dr. Fredric Wertham with his 1954 book of the same name, had been featured in two previous novels. With this third book, Collins says, his originally envisioned trilogy was complete. Not that he wouldn’t mind writing more books about Jack and Maggie Starr, if readers asked for them. How many readers that would take is anyone’s guess. He admits, however, that the publisher of the first two decided against the third, so I’m guessing it wouldn’t be many.

Seduction comes to us thanks not to readers but to Hard Case Crime. Hard Case Crime seeks to bring back the pulp excitement of the paperback original, both by reprinting older works and by publishing newer ones. Without HCC I may never have discovered Michael Crichton’s John Lange books. I like HCC and I like their lurid covers. And I say good for them that they allowed Collins a venue for Seduction. Even if his original publisher probably wasn’t crazy.

Fortunately this trilogy is thematic rather than narrative; I don’t think I missed much not having read the previous two. All are centered on various controversies in the comics world: who really owned Superman, the Al Capp/Hal Fisher fued, and now Dr. Wertham’s crusade against comic books that ultimately resulted in the creation of the self-censoring Comics Code Authority.

Fredric Wertham is here named Werner Frederick, and fans of comic book history will have fun matching real people and titles to those in this book. Mad, for instance, is Craze, and Bill Gaines is Bob Price; Batman becomes Batwing; and so on. Collins tells us that his caricatures are ultimately fictional, but at least in Wertham’s case, the representation is clearly wish-fulfillment as well, as Collins takes one pot-shot after another at the good doctor.

“Good” doctor? Within the last couple of years, a study was made of Wertham’s research and scientific rigor as it related to comic books. Let’s just say that Wertham, it seems, took a few shortcuts on his way to his conclusion that comic books should be removed from the hands of children under 15. But let’s also “remember” that Wertham established the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, where he specialized in helping black teenagers. Collins reluctantly cops to this fact of Wertham’s good nature, but he can’t resist undermining it: at one point in the book, in a scene set in the clinic, he has Werner look about “dismissively.” In his afterword, he admits that Wertham “made important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.” These, however, he says, are “understandably” overshadowed by what he had to say…about comic books. But he’s right: the naked quest for money will always trump a social conscience. Especially when writers like Collins fixate on the one and “dismiss” the other.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t view Wertham as a villain even regarding the comics controversy. In fact, I think many (including Collins) who have read Wertham’s book have missed the point entirely. I think maybe Wertham did. The point isn’t that comics are (or were) so awful, but that society needs to take a hard look at itself and its values and how it promotes those values. This, to take an example ripped, as they say, from today’s headlines, is exactly what cartoonist Joe Sacco has done in this strip about the Charlie Hebdo killings. I applaud Sacco and I applaud Wertham, both of whom are telling us that real freedom comes with a price, that of responsibility. And that things are never quite so simple as the knee-jerk crowd would have us believe.

One of the funny things about Collins’ book — which is certainly sometimes intentionally funny, but this isn’t one of those times — is the way Collins takes Wertham to task for trying to manipulate people into seeing things a certain way while all the while doing exactly the same thing to his readers. The action is set in the 50s, but the heroes are plucked straight from our own 20-teens, being just as liberal and open-minded and tolerant (even of the Mob, though not, of course, of domestic abuse) as they can be. Jack Starr is Mike Hammer, but decidedly soft-boiled. And yet it’s all part of that funny brand of liberalism that tells us women are men’s equals, so long as they’re beautiful, stacked, and sex-crazed.

Anyway, the story is about what happens when one of the players in the comic imbroglio gets murdered. It’s lightly written, a fast read, and kind of fun if you’re into comic books. But it is a crime novel: don’t let it mug you.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), directed by Michael Bay

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Set an infinite number of monkeys pecking away at an infinite number of keyboards and eventually one will produce War and Peace. Put one monkey in a film studio and what you’ll get is Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Extinction, by the way, never sounded so good.

But, you know, I can’t really review this movie because — as it dragged endlessly through its 165 minutes of meaningless, mind-numbing mayhem — I kept drifting off to sleep.

Ok, so maybe I can review the film.

I just don’t want to.

Tommy (1975), directed by Ken Russell

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I find it difficult to reconcile this film with a kind and loving God. My mistake, really; I mean, I watched it sober and drug-free.

When I was in high school, I was part of a triumvirate in which each of us had a clear favorite in rock music. For me, it was the Beatles, for another Led Zeppelin, and for the third, The Who. I credit the third, Samantha, for “giving” me The Who, along with endless hours of enjoyment. This enjoyment included Tommy, their “rock opera,” though even then it was spotty entertainment. The songs I liked best — “1921,” “Sally Simpson,” “Pinball Wizard” — I liked very much and still do, but most of the rest depended a great deal on the operatic “concept,” which was much more persuasive in the abstract. Ken Russell has shown that adding visuals to the music does nothing to improve its eloquence.

Perhaps it isn’t a fair test. The Ken Russell visual is a surreal, flamboyant thing. In one scene late in the film, Ann-Margaret, who plays Tommy’s mother, rolls around on the floor while first a thick column of soap suds then a mighty stream of liquid chocolate flows out of a television set and washes over her. I suppose it’s all a metaphor for the selfishness and greed that have sullied her soul, but it goes on forever, and anyway, the last time she was truly clean was during the Overture. It is, in a word, excessive, a condition that afflicts the entire film.

Still, given the source material, you’d think that there’d be some good music. In fact, there’s surprisingly little. Russell made the decision to have his actors sing and that took care of that. Far and away the best few minutes of the film are during “Pinball Wizard,” when, in a casting masterstroke, Elton John sings the song wearing mile-high boots and over-size glasses. Mr. Russell, meet Mr. John. The two of you were made for each other.

For those who don’t know, Tommy relates the fall and rise of a young deaf, dumb, and blind boy who bedevils his parents until he brings them fame and fortune as a pinball champion. Shortly thereafter, he is miraculously cured, becoming a sort of guru to thousands; his teaching method involves eye-shades, ear-plugs, and “you know where to put the cork,” as well as endless Pinball machines. Tommy, however, wasn’t born lacking his senses. He loses them one night when he goes into shock after witnessing his step-father kill his biological father, a soldier everyone thought had died in the war. The story is absurd, of course, but it has a certain pathos because Tommy, unlike his family, is a genuinely decent fellow.

In addition to Elton John, the movie features Eric Clapton as a preacher whose cult worships Marilyn Monroe, Tina Turner as the “Acid Queen,” a prostitute who tries to free Tommy with an iron maiden that injects LSD, and Jack Nicholson, who plays the doctor who diagnoses Tommy’s affliction as psychosomatic but would rather be jumping his mom. Oh, and Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie, a slimy pedophile who molests Tommy.

Sound like your kind of movie? Go for it, if it does. In outline, the story actually works. It’s the phantasmagoria surrounding it that I didn’t care for.

Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013) by Keith McCloskey

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Mountain of the Dead scared me silly.  Each page added to the horror as my suspicion turned to certainty:  author Keith McCloskey did all his research for the book online. Oh, I have no reason to doubt the claim that he actually traveled to Russia, but to what end is a mystery. He was given no special access, for example, to any material not readily available otherwise. He might just as well have stayed home at his computer. Which is exactly what I would encourage his potential readers to do.

I might assign some value to his “research” if he merely saved me the time of tracking down a number of websites with interesting information. What he clearly discovered, however, is that most of the sites in question regurgitated the same facts as all the others. Those facts being in short supply, he had to find another way to fill out his book, and he picked the laziest possible solution: to turn the book into a survey of all the deranged theories surrounding the case.

The case is this. Nine skiers/hikers went into the Russian wilderness, camped on the side of Kholat Syakhl (“Mountain of the Dead” in one translation, the not quite so forbidding “Dead Mountain” in another), and died. The manner and circumstances of their deaths are what give this tale its otherworldly sheen. For reasons unknown, they appear to have exited their tent by knifing through it from the inside, calmly walked about a mile down the mountain — wearing no shoes and grossly inadequate clothing — split into two groups, and froze to death. The bodies belonging to one group were otherwise more or less uninjured while the others included significant internal damage and strange injuries such as missing eyes and a missing tongue.

The eyes and tongue tell you where McCloskey is going. One’s first thought regarding them must be predation, but that’s much too prosaic for this guy: he doesn’t even bother to address the issue. He lumps them together with broken ribs and fractured skulls to suggest the fantastic, quickly dismissing the fact that the condition of the bones just might have something to do with where the bodies were found; to wit, at the bottom of a ravine. He dismisses this due to a lack of external injuries to account for them. Which begs the question, how unusual is this really? I, for one, would like to know. McCloskey, however, doesn’t want to tell me.

So after the initial description of the events leading up to the tragedy and then its immediate aftermath, the bulk of which can be found on Wikipedia and other easily accessed websites, about all McCloskey has left are those crackpot theories. We get them all: UFOs, paranormal activity, and secret government slash military tests gone awry. He does provide a brief rational explanation: an avalanche followed by “paradoxical undressing,” a known condition that causes a freezing victim to actually remove their clothing. But he admits he isn’t buying that; he falls into the military testing camp.

Interestingly, in spite of his own preference, he gives the most space to a ludicrous story of a man who once encountered (he says) floating lights that reacted to the human glance. I suppose even McCloskey found this bit of fantasy too much to take so he lets the man tell it in his own words. It reads like a very bad movie treatment as this clown unabashedly embellishes his alleged and rather benign experience with deadly pressure beams and precise details of how the hikers met their various ends. He ends the tale with warnings and advice to us all in case we should ever encounter this dangerous phenomenon. To call this or any of the viewpoints expressed in this book “theories” is disingenuous to say the least.

That said, the case itself is certainly bizarre, the more so, of course, because there are so few facts. With what is known to date, I can’t even begin to figure it out. I can understand the hikers cutting their way out of their tent if it was covered by a small avalanche, but I cannot fathom them then abandoning it along with all their supplies. I suppose if they were fearful of more snow coming down the mountain, they may have instinctively turned tail, but then why the seemingly orderly march down the slope? It truly makes no sense.

So, yeah, the case is a real campfire story. The book, on the other hand, is merely fuel for the blaze.

She Done Him Wrong (1933), directed by Lowell Sherman

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Listen, when women go wrong, men go right after them.

This movie simply doesn’t age. When I first saw it, as a college student, it was already 50 years old. Now it’s another 30 on top of that, and it’s just as bawdy, just as delightful as ever.

The main attraction, of course, is Mae West, whose overt sexuality would be comical if she didn’t back it up. But back it up she does. As Lady Lou, a singer in a Gay Nineties saloon and dance hall, West is intelligent, witty, poised, and possessed of enough self-confidence to power ten self-esteem symposiums. She’s the ultimate bad girl, and it’s no wonder every man who meets her is desperate to have her.

A very young Cary Grant plays Captain Cummings, who runs the church mission next door. He wants to save Lou’s soul; she wants to corrupt his. Meanwhile, a girl tries to commit suicide, a counterfeiting ring kicks into operation, a criminal escapes, and a woman is stabbed to death. All in just 66 minutes.

It’s tempting to call the plot a throwaway, nothing more than a vehicle for West’s double entendres and one-liners. That, however, would be like dissing the straight man in a comedy routine. The movie works as well as it does because the two are so perfectly matched. You’d think, given all that happens, that the movie is fast-paced, but it isn’t really until the very end. On the other hand, it doesn’t need to be: West is racy enough on her own.

She Done Him Wrong is the shortest movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture. It was right up there with Little Women, the good one, starring Katharine Hepburn. But that’s the way of it, isn’t it? Sentimentality is fine, but sometimes you just need to laugh.

And Then There Were None (1945), directed by René Clair

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The first filmed adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel, though featuring a variation of the ending that Christie herself altered for a stage production two years earlier. Otherwise, the premise and the bulk of the story remain the same, as ten people trapped on an island are accused of various crimes and then picked off one by one by an unidentified member of their own party. If Christie neglected to include much humor in the novel, Clair rectifies that shortcoming and then some, playing out the mystery in almost farcical terms. It works, thanks less to the script than the cast, which includes Walter Huston as the alcoholic Dr. Armstrong and Richard Haydn as the unfairly mistrusted manservant Rogers. Nothing terribly remarkable, but a genial film nonetheless.

The Frozen Ground (2013), directed by Scott Walker

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In the Venn diagram of The Frozen Ground and Things That Interest Me, here’s the shaded overlap: Nicolas Cage, Serial Killer. That’s an awfully short list. Good script, exciting story, plausibility — none of these get anywhere near the middle.

That last one — plausibility — is particularly vexing as this film is based on the real-life manhunt for serial killer Robert Hansen, who kidnapped, tortured, raped, and then hunted women in the Alaskan wilderness, finally killing them. One of his victims, Cindy Paulson, escaped, and her eyewitness account became the first big break in the case. Her influence on this film is significantly less positive.

The truth of the matter is that the actual events weren’t exactly made for Hollywood. Investigators were only beginning to realize they were dealing with a serial killer when Paulson escaped. Hansen’s M.O. involved flying the women to his cabin; Paulson escaped, in fact, while he was loading the plane. Police were then able to take her to the airport, where she identified Hansen’s Piper Super Cub. After breaking Hansen’s alibi for the night of Cindy’s escape, police searched his home and eventually discovered the murder weapon, as well as a map on which Hansen had helpfully marked the locations of the graves of his victims. Hansen confessed. Truth, as it happens, isn’t always stranger than fiction.

Writer-director Scott Walker fixed that, though, by speculating what would have happened if 18-year-old prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) not only teamed up with lead detective Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), but remained a Hansen target to boot. I’m not speculating when I tell you that what happens is predictable nonsense.

All the faux excitement generated by Paulson’s peril is wrapped up in a script that wanders aimlessly between Halcombe, Hansen, Paulson, and a couple of ancillary characters — Paulson’s pimp and a hired thug — as if searching for its genre. Is it a police procedural, a thriller, or a redemptive tale of a brooding cop and a tragic hooker? You know it’s confusing when the man who murdered at least 17 women isn’t even the bad guy of the climax.

So back to my diagram. Let’s put a check next to Cage, who outperforms the script. But “serial killer” — we’re going to have to cross than one out. I think Walker must have been so determined not to glorify Hansen — he barely shows us anything the man actually did — that he ultimately made a movie about someone else.

And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie

And_Then_There_Were_None_US_First_Edition_Cover_1940♦♦♦

Disparate group of ten people are lured to an isolated island and killed off one by one by their mysterious host who, they realize, is one of them.  One of the best-selling books of all time, its genius lies in combining the premise with murders that follow the lyrics of a well-known children’s rhyme.  That, and Christie’s scrupulous integrity.  What it lacks is atmosphere or humor:  it’s clever, but it isn’t emotionally engaging.  Rated as a novel; add an extra star if you’re just interested in the puzzle.