Even among the legions of characters in long underwear, the Fantastic Four have always stood apart, both for their squabbling family dynamics and an endearingly retro squareness. The latest attempt to move the team to the big screen captures, well, exactly neither of those aspects, with results that are too bloody and dour for kids (heads start popping off toward the end, GWAR-style), too laissez faire for continuity geeks, and too uninspired for everybody else.
Vincent Price starred in all of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations but one. Ray Milland took the lead in The Premature Burial (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), playing Guy Carrell, an aristocrat with crippling fear that he will be buried alive due to a family history of catalepsy. Corman brings the fear home in the opening scene: an exhumation of an ancestor who shows every sign of having awoken in his casket. The obsession overtakes his life until the rather elderly newlywed moves into the family crypt, which he outfits as a Batcave of escape hatches, much to the horror of his neglected bride (Hazel Court), who observes that he has already “buried himself alive” and makes him chose the crypt or life with her.
Like most of Corman’s Poe films, the script (this one by Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell) borrows little more than the central idea and the title from Poe. This one owes a debt to Gaslight and Diabolique, and of course leans on the art direction of Daniel Haller (who created a sense of grandeur on a budget) and the widescreen color cinematography of the great Floyd Crosby, who photographed Tabu (1931) and High Noon (1952) and here gives Corman his atmosphere. While Hammer was reviving the classic movies monsters as gothic horrors with lurid edges and color, Corman was creating his own Gothic horror revival with ideas influenced by Freud and Jung. Corman creates his world completely in the studio, including the grounds outside the manor, a veritable haunted forest of dead trees, ever-present mist hugging the boggy ground, and a pair of creepy gravediggers (John Dierkes and Dick Miller) constantly lurking and whistling the folk song “Molly Malone” as a dirge-like threat.
The characters in current superhero movies must’ve grown up reading comic books. In Marvel’s run of blockbusters, Iron Man and Thor and the gang (well, maybe not Captain America) are steeped in cultural references; they know all the clichés of pulp fiction, even as they embody them. Aware of the absurdity of wearing tights and wielding magical hammers, they make jovial banter about it when they’re not busy saving the world. This self-conscious tendency reached its peak in Guardians of the Galaxy, a stealth-bomber sendup of the superhero movie.
Avengers: Age of Ultron can’t top Guardians in that department. But writer/director Joss Whedon balances comedy and derring-do with dexterity, and this sequel to 2012’s top grosser doesn’t stall the franchise.
Interstellar (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD) – Christopher Nolan used his clout as the director of the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy and cerebral caper film Inception to get this big-budget science fiction epic made on a scale that otherwise would be out of reach. It’s set in a near future where overpopulation and global climate change has been catastrophic for the food supply and the culture has become hostile to science, as if it’s the cause of the problems rather than the only hope to solve them.
Matthew McConaughey is a widower father and former astronaut turned Midwest farmer who is essentially drafted into a covert project to send a ship across the galaxy to find a planet suitable for human habitation. That means abandoning his children, one of whom grows up into a physics genius (played by Jessica Chastain) who holds onto her grudge for decades. This is a film where complex concepts of quantum physics and powerful human emotions are inextricably intertwined and the ghost that haunts the farmhouse has both a scientific explanation and a sense of supernatural power.
[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]
Memory and mortality are, almost by structural definition, the two cloutiest themes movies can tackle. Memory is implicit in any film with the least vestige of form and design: we recognize correspondences between shots, scenes, movements, colors, lines of dialogue, inflections, intonations, anything, and something goes ding!, consciously or not; and in a good movie something in the world implicitly goes ding! as well, since a piece of the world has just been held up for us in a context new and yet fraught with recognizability. Mortality we have always with us: all the fancy curtain-openings and -closes, all the shadow-boxes and halo-lights, all the mushy focus (in the camera or in the projection booth) that may actively or inadvertently try to slur the boundaries of life and movie can’t cancel the basic fact of light and not-light, film and no-film, experience and nothingness. So when a movie that plays with these twin or at least sibling themes goes belly-up in a welter of blah, the filmmakers’ failure is even more pronounced than that of your average suburban-theater-circuit mediocrity.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), the number one box office hit of 2014, follows the lead of the Harry Potter and Twilight series by splitting the final book into two film installments, making this the third of four films. For anyone who has read the books that might seem like quite a stretch, drawing out the first half of an already short novel to feature film length while including enough drama to entice viewers to return for the finale. Maybe my expectations were duly lowered but director Francis Lawrence, who took over the series from filmmaker Gary Ross and raised the bar, and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong turn out a surprisingly engaging film about rebellion, propaganda, media, and the emotional and psychological scars of war, all seen from the point of view of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who becomes a symbol of resistance simply by surviving with courage, dignity, and compassion.
By this time in the saga, Katniss (Lawrence) has been rescued from the Games and the totalitarian “President” Snow (Donald Sutherland) by the rebellion, which is building its forces in underground bunkers beneath District 13, which everyone thought was bombed to cinders decades ago. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), however, did not escape and Snow and his propaganda team is using him in a propaganda campaign designed to attack the image of Katniss as the symbol of resistance. Julianne Moore joins the series as President Alma Coin, leader of the revolution and a savvy military mind who doesn’t quite understand the power of Katniss for the hearts and minds of Panem. She’s committed but also cagey and cold as a commander, wary about her own authority as Katniss becomes the face of the revolution in a series of pointed propaganda pieces that, curiously enough, work due to the earnest, guileless authenticity of Katniss in the face of the Capitol’s cruelty. Philip Seymour Hoffman (who died before production was completed on the film) and Jeffrey Wright provide the brain trust behind Snow’s leadership and their scenes help give the film added gravity.
Britain’s audacious answer to The Twilight Zone for our plugged-in world of social media and screen culture, Black Mirror seemed to come out of nowhere. The anthology show debuted on Netflix in December with “The National Anthem,” which caused a viral sensation. That first episode addressed hacking, cybercrime, political protest, and extortion with a savagely satirical story about the kidnapping of a royal family member. To save her, the Prime Minister was instructed—in the form of a video ransom demand streamed for the world to watch—to fuck a pig on live television, and he did. “The National Anthem” was the most transgressive thing I’ve ever seen on TV, and I see a lot of TV.
Written by English journalist-turned-satirist Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator, that episode was wickedly, nastily funny. Unlike most premium American television, however, its shock value has a real point. The YouTube terrorism of “The National Anthem” is but an nth-degree exaggeration of our own cyber-bullying, celebrity phone hacking, and North Korean cyber-attacks.
Guardians of the Galaxy (Disney, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) is based on one of the more obscure Marvel Comics to get the big screen treatment, but everything about the film suggests a filmmaker trying to recapture the sense of energy and color and sheer fun of Star Wars and the pop space opera. That’s a pretty good marriage and director James Gunn, whose talent for balancing genre tropes with tongue-in-cheek humor and colorful characters came through nicely in Slither, makes it a winning union.
It’s not that the story is particularly fresh—there’s a super-evil megalomaniac (Lee Pace) bent on exterminating an entire race of beings and he needs a fabled super-weapon to execute his plan, which intergalactic soldier of fortune Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who calls himself Star Lord, happens to have—and frankly the whole everything-hinges-on-a-series-of-showdowns third act is getting a little tired by now. That’s par for the course for both comic book action spectacles and space opera adventures and this doesn’t shake it off.
But Gunn does make the journey a lot of fun, with an oddball cast of renegades who, tossed together in a deep space prison, team up to escape and wind up staying together because it suits their purposes, but really because it sucks to be alone. These guys are all outlaws, but they are not villains, and in the right place at the right time, that makes them heroes. The script is tossed through with entertaining banter, the action sequences are spirited and filled with inventive imagery, and the spirit of the whole enterprise is bright and energized, right down to the bouncy jukebox of seventies tunes that Peter carries around as his personal soundtrack.
Everybody in Interstellar keeps talking about Gargantua, a massive black hole that must be delicately negotiated during space travel. Christopher Nolan’s movie is similarly scaled: This 168-minute epic contains vast sights and wild images, and exerts a heavy gravitational pull. At its center are some basic, reliable sci-fi ideas. They’re just intriguing enough to justify the film’s poky sequences, but in Nolan’s universe this one falls shy of the ingenious spectacle of The Dark Knight and Inception.
The very slow opening reels introduce us to Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut now involved in Earth’s last-ditch effort to grow crops. The future is starving to death, but Coop has a shot at saving the day when he’s called back into astro-service for a do-or-die mission.
Snowpiercer (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD), an international production from Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho based on a French graphic novel, is a high-speed metaphor speeding down the science fiction tracks of genre cinema. That’s the way I like this brand of filmmaking: with the metaphors big, muscular, detailed, and punchy. You either give yourself over to the allegory, in this case a giant train as a self-contained eco-system traveling through a world plunged into an ice age with passengers segregated into castes and the oppressed poor rising up in revolution, or give up. There’s not much in between.
Think “The Odyssey” as reworked by Karl Marx and set on the Siberian Express. Chris Evans (Captain America himself) is the angry young leader in the dungeon of steerage class battling his way through the train, car by car, to the engine, seeing his fellow revolutionaries cut down by the stormtrooper soldiers as the poor, huddled masses progress through the levels of privilege and decadence. And Tilda Swinton all but steals the film from him as the devoted functionary dedicated to class division and population control through repression and purges, embracing the essence of her character as both live action political cartoon and deluded acolyte of an Oz-like ruler with Darwinian tools. It is the class system of the industrial revolution in microcosm played out as high-concept action movie, and with Bong (The Host) at the helm, it’s a violent, graphically dynamic journey.
Blu-ray and DVD with hosted by Geek Nation film critic Scott Weinberg and featuring William Goss (Austin Chronicle), Drew Mcweeny (Hitfix.com), Jennifer Yamato (Deadline), Peter S. Hall (Movies.com), and my old colleague James Rocchi (who is identified as MSN Movies, despite the fact the site effectively shut down a year ago). A second disc features additional supplements: a nearly hour-long French language documentary “Transperceneige: From the Black Page to the Black Screen,” the shorter “The Birth of Snowpiercer,” a piece on ‘The Characters” with actor interviews,” an animated prologue, and addition interviews and concept art galleries.
The original Godzilla (1954), especially the original Japanese release, is more than a mutant monster movie of the atomic-scare fifties. It is a stark disaster thriller that evokes the terrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the lingering poison of the nuclear radiation. The two destructive forces come together in a screaming atomic lizard, a dinosaur roused from dormancy by the lingering radiation and set loose for a new nuclear holocaust, and the black and white photography lends an atmosphere of dark and doom.
The sequels are a different story. The films went color. The special effects of cities stomped to rubble by a radioactive dinosaur became a kind of giddy entertainment instead of a nightmarish metaphor. And as far as the movies were concerned, Godzilla was no longer a post-nuclear plague unleashed upon Japan let alone a villain. He was a character in its own right and the stories that followed his 1954 debut mutated (so to speak) into monster smackdowns that allowed audiences to root for his victory against a new menace to civilization without any sense of irony. While not exactly a friend of mankind, he turned into a protector of Earth when it is threatened by other monsters and, later, alien invaders. This was Godzilla’s turf and no one was muscling in.
Destroy All Monsters (1968), the ninth Godzilla film and the twentieth kaiju (giant monster) movie from Toho, returned Godzilla godfather Ishiro Honda to the helm.
Goldfinger was the third Bond feature but the first Bond blockbuster, an instant smash hit that turned the series into a phenomenon. Fifty years after its Sept. 17, 1964 London premiere, which was overrun by fans fighting to get into the theater, it remains the definitive big-screen incarnation of the world’s most famous secret agent.
“Of all the Bonds, Goldfinger is the best, and can stand as a surrogate for the others,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1999. “If it is not a great film, it is a great entertainment, and contains all the elements of the Bond formula that would work again and again.”
The first two Bond films — Dr. No and From Russia With Love — were both unabashedly sexy and brutishly sexist, cartoons of glib machismo with martini wit and international flair. Sean Connery brought his Bondness to life with a mix of charm, arrogance, elegance and rough-and-tumble toughness.
Today you can see them as time capsules of Mad Men fantasies of masculinity with comic-book action. Goldfinger not only ups the ante on every level, it adds a few new elements that made the series.
When it comes reviving the past, timing and presentation is everything.
Sony’s first wave of “The Toho Godzilla Collection” of second- and third- generation Japanese Godzilla films on Blu-ray came out in May, timed to the theatrical release of the American remake (the discs are reviewed on Cinephiled here). This second wave arrives the week before the American 2014 Godzilla arrives on disc and digital formats.
After Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla flopped, Toho took back their home grown movie monster turned cinema hero for the second reboot of the franchise and the third generation of movies. In Japan it was called the Millennium series and like the previous reboot, The Return of Godzilla (titled Godzilla 1985 in the U.S.), Godzilla 2000 (1999) swept away a generation of sequels and pretended that most (if not all) of the films since the original Godzilla never actually existed. Though clearly a landmark in the Japanese franchise, I can only guess that Godzilla 2000 (Sony, Blu-ray) wasn’t included in the first wave of Blu-ray upgrades because it, quite frankly, is not one of the better films of the series.
Godzilla is on the move again just as an ancient UFO is dredged up from the ocean. In a fitting bit of turnabout, the script appropriates Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, though on a significantly smaller scale and with a Japanese giant monster sensibility: this lone silver spaceship parks on a Shinjuku skyscraper, drains the city of all computer information, and transforms into a mutant monster the resembles something between a skyscraper sized Predator and Jabba the Hut’s dungeon ogre from Return of the Jedi. Meanwhile an all-volunteer force of science nerds called the Godzilla Prediction Network, run by peacenik professor Yuji (Takehiro Murata) and his precocious adolescent daughter, clashes with their arch rivals, the Crisis Control Institute, a government strike force armed to destroy Godzilla run by Yuji’s bloodthirsty nemesis Katagiri (Hiroshi Abe, whose eyes bug out in glee every time he launches a missile).
[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]
One plunges straight into unknown territory and action in A Boy and His Dog: Tatterdemalion figures dodging about in a wasteland, shooting at one another without apparent rhyme or reason. Some kind of reconnoitering dialogue—but no lips are seen to move and, visually, spatially, we find ourselves allied with … a boy and his dog? L.Q. Jones, writer and director of the film, gets down to business at once; before we know where we are, we have moved past the weird skirmish on desolate mudflats into the weirder realization that the conversation we have been puzzling over is a telepathic interchange between Vic—that’s the young man—and Blood, a shaggy mutt who has mutated light years beyond the Disneyesque canine to whom he bears some physical resemblance. Our suspension of disbelief about a dog who “talks” fast and dirty to his more-protégé-than-master is as immediate as our delight with Blood’s kinkily risqué sense of humor, his “doubletakes” and moués of disgust and exasperation with his sex-starved friend. Conversations between the two are shot with casual expertise and possess more bite and verve than most exchanges between humans in the film (witness the inane passages between Vic and the siren from “down under” he subsequently encounters), and Tim McIntire’s (Blood’s) delivery of irreverent repartee completes the visual identification of Blood as an authentically salty personality.
“Thank you for your childhood,” says the Chief Elder to each graduating 16-year-old. In this society, that’s not as weird as it sounds; all children who reach 16 are given life assignments and launched into adulthood at a public ceremony.
Childhood’s end, indeed. The Giver tells the tale of one such teen, Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites), chosen for a very special role on assignment day. He will be the new Receiver of Memories, a singular and mysterious job that sets him apart from everybody else in this isolated, placid world.
For reasons we don’t know, this slice of humanity has embraced “sameness” as its motto. The voluntarily tranquilized population is white, polite, and always truthful. If everyone is just the same, with limited emotional range and no ambitions, they will all get along together. That explains why we view this world in black-and-white. Odd thing is, Jonah keeps seeing flashes of color.