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Science Fiction

Review: Superman

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

People come up and they ask, “Is Superman any good?” The unspoken question seems to be: “Could they spend all that money and generate all that hype and fail to make anything but a dog?” The answer to both is Yes: the movie is a lot of fun, and the lot of talented people involved have managed to get a lot of their talent very enjoyably on view.

How satisfied you feel about Superman will depend in part on how readily you accommodate the idea of its partaking of three different, but provocatively counterpointed, styles. The first segment, a reel-or-so’s worth of film, deals with the last days of the Mighty Man’s native planet Krypton, an ice-mirror environment where the electric whiteness of Marlon Brando’s hair—he’s Jor-El, father of Kal-El, the as-yet-unrenamed baby Superman—and the solarized, lucent whiteness of the costumes suggest both the abstract superiority (though not necessarily superior abstractness) of the race and the imminence of their burning themselves out. From Brando’s opening peroration before the grim, grey, titanic floating physogs of the other ruling elders, while three unspeakably depraved Kryptonians stand trapped within a shaft of light and a sort of perpetually self-balancing Möbius strip, this episode is stunningly visualized in audacious sci-fi terms, and a note of high sentence is convincingly sustained in the face of inspired preposterousness. (It is only after leaving the theater that one realizes the three monstrous villains, exiled to the blackest reaches of the universe via a genuinely disturbing special effect, have never been referred to again. As with the earlier Salkind superproduction, The Three/Four Musketeers, there is another part to Superman mostly in the can already; tune in next Christmas for the terrible vengeance of Non, Ursa, and the satanic General Zod!…) As a solar storm predicted by the all-wise Jor-El shatters the crystalline splendor of Krypton civilization, the elder dispatches his only begotten son in his own personal starship, complete with memory bank of instructive aphorisms to prepare the infant for life on Earth—a backward planet, but a not-inhospitable destination for a healthy boy with such a dense molecular structure.

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Review: Capricorn One

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

“What if the greatest event in recent history never really happened?” ask the ads, above a shot of astronauts exiting a space module onto an alien surface, surrounded by the lights and cameras of a Hollywood TV soundstage. But Capricorn One is at pains early on to establish that John Glenn did orbit the earth, Neil Armstrong did walk on the moon; it’s this trip, to Mars, that’s going to be faked, and all because some nasty politicians threaten to discontinue the space program altogether unless the mission comes off without a hitch. The surprise is that, despite this initial shillyshallying with our expectations and its own intentions, Peter Hyams’s film comes off as a competent, interesting, often nail-biting thriller. The focus of the film is a trio of astronauts forced to compromise themselves by participating in a fake Mars landing—actually staged in an abandoned hangar not far from Houston and televised worldwide—calculated to save the space program (no waffling here: the film actually calls it NASA) by simulating success in a mission that actually could not have worked because of equipment discovered (too late) to be defective. The real twist comes when the unmanned rocket genuinely sent into space loses its heat shield and burns up on re-entry: With the world mourning their deaths, the three astronauts realize that, alive, they are worse than an embarrassment to NASA and the politicos who support it, and so flee their isolated prison in a stolen jet, only to crash-land a short time later in the west Texas desert. They struggle for survival in an environment as forbiddingly alien as any Martian landscape, and the film becomes a space adventure without going into space. There are monsters (a snake, a scorpion, and two helicopters that stalk the fleeing astronauts like birds of prey, their presence as menacingly animate as the snake-headed spacecraft of the Martians in Pal and Haskin’s The War of the Worlds) and even alien-looking villains in the form of two helmeted helicopter pilots who hunt the last astronaut in a tumbledown gas station.

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Japanese Outlaws of the Sixties: Nagisa Oshima and Gamera – DVDs of the Week

Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse Series 21) (Criterion)

Stylistically adventurous and brazenly confrontational in his filmmaking, Nagisa Oshima was Japan’s young turk of New Wave filmmaking: formally challenging, politically provocative, stylistically audacious and instinctively confrontational. That kind of approach was a bad fit for the studio system, as you can imagine, and he jumped out of the restrictions of conservative studio filmmaking for a five-year freelance sojourn before he and his wife, actress Akiko Koyama, formed an independent production company, Sozo-sha. Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse Series 21) (Criterion), the five-disc box set from Criterion’s no-frills budget-minded label Eclipse, collects the initial five narrative features from this company. To my gaijin eyes appear to be marvelously lurid genre pieces and exploitation films, less reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s politically laced genres blasts that Seijun Suzuki’s mad sixties cinema. But there is something dangerous under the big bold style, which Oshima throws across a succession of CinemaScope canvases, and there’s a familiar strain of self-destruction and obsession behind his outlaw figures.

Three Resurrected Drunkards

Critics more informed than I about both the director and the socio-political culture of sixties Japan make the case that these are in fact rife with political subtext, defined by Oshima’s disappointment with the political left and the student movements of the past and expressed through the violent actions of criminals and killers and repressed citizens who crack under the pressure and indulge in unrestrained excess. (The film notes by Michael Koresky on each disc, the only supplement of the stripped-down release, suggest the same, but the essays don’t make any specific connections between the films and the events and/or cultural conditions that the films confront.)

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Unstable Molecules

Iron Man 2

dir: Jon Favreau

Robert Downey Jr.: Livin' and lovin' la vida the Iron Man
Robert Downey Jr.: Livin' and lovin' la vida Iron Man

Is there an actor alive who digs himself more than Robert Downey Jr.? (Ok, possibly Richard Gere, but that’s in more of a creepy, reptilian vein.) At a time when more and more actors are going Methody opaque, Downey’s lightspeed thought processes are gloriously external, finding hidden ironies in the material while simultaneously delivering his own commentary track. Too much of a good thing can sometimes be way too much of a good thing—the actor’s best performances tend to come when he’s bouncing off of a tight-reined director, ala David Fincher in Zodiac—but when he’s cooking, it’s hard to look away.

If you like watching Downey half as much as he evidently likes himself, Iron Man 2 might make for a reasonably diverting couple of hours. That doesn’t mean it’s not a major mess, though. Flabby, disjointed, and eschewing conflict for extended scenes of improv clowning, it’s the Superheroic equivalent of a Rat Pack film.

Picking up more or less directly where the first installment left off, the story finds billonaire playboy Tony Stark dealing with his decision to go public with his secret identity, while fending off threats both internal (radiation from the device that powers him up) and external, in the form of Sam Rockwell’s competing arms dealer and Mickey Rourke’s Russian inventor with a grudge. Stuff goes boom, but in nowhere near the quantities you’d expect. This may be the only superhero movie in existence where more time is spent lounging around the hero’s swingin’ pad instead of vrooming through the sky.

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These Are the Damned and Blu-“Rings” Times Two – DVDs of the Week

The British film studio Hammer is legendary among horror fans for their lurid and lusty Technicolor revisions of the classic monster movies of the thirties, but they came the horror revival through a general focus on genre films, notably (but not limited to) thrillers, mysteries and science-fiction films. The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Sony) gathers six black-and-white thrillers made between 1958 and 1963, all distributed in the U.S. by (and some co-produced by) Columbia.

These Are the Damned

These Are the Damned (1963), Hammer’s answer to Village of the Damned, is the highest-profile film of the set, and the most anticipated. It’s a rare auteur piece (directed by American expatriate-turned-continental class act Joseph Losey), a long sought after science fiction item (Losey’s only true genre film outside of noir and crime cinema) and a Hammer rarity that was cut for American distribution and has been restored for its home video debut. And it’s a strange collision of exploitation elements, visual elegance and emotional coolness, a fascinating oddity with strange angles that don’t all fit but certainly add intriguing elements.

It begins as a different kind of genre film: in a cute little seaside vacation town in Britain, Teddy Boys on motorcycles led by the almost simian-looking King (Oliver Reed, with a dark glower and hulking menace) send out a gorgeous young bird (Shirley Anne Field) to attract the interest of an older American tourist (Macdonald Carey). Then they jump the gent for his cash, beating him brutally and dancing away while whistling their theme song (“Black Leather,” a weird quasi-rock chant that doesn’t sound like anything these chaps would adopt but does include almost nihilistic lyrics with nursery rhyme simplicity: “Black leather, black leather / Smash smash smash / Black leather, black leather / Crash crash crash”). “The age of senseless violence has caught up with us, too,” explains Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local authority figure who run a secret project nearby and has his own younger woman (Viveca Lindfors), an eccentric artist who sculpts eerie-looking statues in a small vacation home known as “The Birdhouse” perched, as it turns out, over the heart of the project. It’s all strangely complicated and almost arbitrary the way Carey’s ugly American Simon Wells sweeps Field’s frustrated sweater girl Joan out of King’s clutches, down the bluff from The Birdhouse and into a secret cave system where a small group of children of the atom are raised without human contact beyond video communications.

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Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Let’s get the suspense out of the way first. I’ve been taken over: I came to the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a purist’s proper disdain for anyone who presumes to redo a classic movie, but as I sat brooding in the darkness, Phil Kaufman’s 1978 version put out its tendrils and pretty soon everything seemed just fine and why should I go around getting upset over little things? Not that the new Invasion is going to displace the old for me. No way. I think the Don Siegel version is the better movie—more seamlessly, “artlessly” accomplished than the present model, and the more inspired work. But after a tacky special-effects opening (where Siegel needed nothing but a subjective descent through roiling clouds), Kaufman’s version persuasively asserts its right to life as an imaginative reflection of our time, just as Siegel’s insidious “sleeper” stands as a quintessential Fifties experience. The makers of the ’56 film were reeling under the twin impacts of Dwight Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy. Their movie played on both the cozy lure of middle-class conformity and the nagging suspicion that that bastard in the next yard or at the next desk or in the next writing cubicle at the studio—indeed, all those bastards—had in mind to do you dirt in a manner you hadn’t quite figured out yet. Jack Finney’s story about pod-grown organisms usurping the identities of everyone in a small California town and reducing them to all-alike, emotionless neuters yielded a powerful metaphor for a more mundane loss of humanity. Cold War buffs were perfectly free to read in a paranoid allegory of Communist takeover: they were said to be everywhere, and wouldn’t they look like any normal, healthy, right-thinking Amurkan, same as you or me, and I’m not so sure about you…?

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Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Scribbling a few notes in 1975 after seeing Phil Kaufman’s The White Dawn, I wrote: “Culture conflict is a key element in Kaufman’s work. The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid deals with the incursion of a group of relative primitives into the bustling world of a growing industrial civilization. The tension created between the seemingly incongruous occurrence of a baseball game in a Western and the primitive, disorganized conduct of the game itself echoes the tension of the film as a whole: The organized constructs of society are taking shape, but not yet rigid; the violent, free-for-all way of life of the Wild West is dying, but not easily. The manic fantasy world of the legendary James-Younger gang of outlaws is brought dangerously close to our own world when someone says of the baseball game, ‘It’s the new national pastime,’ and Cole Younger replies, ‘Our only national pastime is shooting—and it always will be.’ Primitive violence and low humor are juxtaposed with the steam engine and bicycle world of pre-contemporary Main Street, U.S.A. The White Dawn, a quieter, more controlled film, deals with the incursion of representatives of ‘civilized society’ into a world of primitives. The remarkable range of responses among the film’s characters reflects something of the depth and complexity of national, cultural, and racial conflicts. Where the outlaws of Northfield staged a raid on a new way of life, whose coming meant their own obsolescence, the three castaways of The White Dawn found themselves confronting a new physical world: out of place rather than out of time. In the debacle that finally befalls them, The White Dawn takes an essentially cynical viewpoint: Against the optimistic observation that most human beings are adaptable, and will in time adjust to cultural differences, opting for compromise or harmonious coexistence, is set the stark portrayal of the strength of the bigoted few who, out of fear or simple stubbornness, will ultimately prevail: people of whatever society are ultimately led by the worst among them.”

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Review: Moonraker

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The title song to Moonraker, sung by Shirley Bassey, sets the tone for the latest James Bond film: gentle, inoffensive, almost sweet. This is not the audience-affronting, brassy Bassey of Goldfinger or Diamonds Are Forever; and of John Barry’s score, even the recycled, tried-and-true music from previous Bond films fails to please. The brash, insistent guitar of Monty Norman’s original “James Bond Theme” has been traded down for gentle violin pizzicati, the tempo tripping rather than surging, more cute than clout. Like a turtle drawing in its head, the James Bond format has become systematically less and less daring with the passing years. Not only the actors but even their characters seem progressively aware of participating in a routine: Bond (Roger Moore) isn’t surprised when Drax (Michael Lonsdale), with no provocation, immediately sets about trying to kill him; and Drax himself makes no bones about wanting Bond dead. There’s no detective work, no effort to sidetrack or deceive the investigating agent. What immediately gives Drax away—to Bond and us—as the archvillain is his lavish wealth. It’s become an accepted premise of the Bond film that those who have enough money to buy anything they want will inevitably build private fortresses, equip private armies, and spend their lucre on a quest for world domination.

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Review: Quintet

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Quintet is one of those things that Robert Altman makes from time to time: an unoriginal, lumberingly obvious, altogether hokey script coupled with a visual and aural atmosphere so overpowering that one wishes to forgive the film its lack of narrative integrity out of respect for what it does to the perception and the nerves. Indeed, a lesser director than Altman would be so forgiven; but remembering the more complete and narratively justified worlds of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, Nashville and 3 Women, one is harsher, less willing to settle for a half-realized world this time out. The film’s premise is arresting: the ice-world of McCabe and Mrs. Miller has become a whole future society, and tramping heavily coated through the snow is offered as a metaphor for playing the game of life. Cinematographer Jean Boffety’s lenses give every scene a vignette of foggy soft-focus, making the chill tangible, and stressing the fact that this is another Altman dreamfilm. Unlike 3 Women, however, this dream has been consigned to too many writers for fleshing-out, and Quintet emerges as a visually fascinating film with no more real substance than a snowball, its screenplay a botched mixture of self-congratulatory weirdness, flaccid imitation, labored moralism, and just an occasional moment of really disturbing brilliance.

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Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Nicholas Meyer, the popular novelist who contrived the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in The Seven Per Cent Solution, and Holmes, Bernard Shaw, and a Jack the Ripper–style murderer in The West End Horror, has followed colleague Michael Crichton into the movie-directing racket; and I must say that I, no admirer of his thin and opportunistic literary conceits, am pleasantly surprised at the likability of his première effort. A lot of this has to do with the charm and wonderfully specific wit of Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Herbert George Wells, and Mary Steenburgen’s as Amy Robbins, one of those liberated modern women H.G. proselytized for—and the most sweetly daft creature to come our cinematic way since Annie Hall; David Warner has also been encouraged to make Jack the Ripper something more than the sort of sallow geek this actor can play in his sleep (and apparently has, every so often). Clearly what Meyer has needed all along was a way to mix actors in with his rather undistinguished language.

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Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The time-travel premise of Time after Time is coyly signified by the use of the old Warner Brothers logo music of the Forties over the opening of the film; but in this self-billed “ingenious entertainment,” most of the ingenuity lies in the conception, very little in the realization. Nicholas Meyer’s direction, predictably, lies along literary rather than cinematic lines; the production design and photography are surprisingly uninventive for a film of such fantastic possibilities; and the special effects are downright flaccid. The montage depicting H.G. Wells’s journey through time—in pursuit of Jack the Ripper, who has preceded him into the Seventies by borrowing Wells’s time machine)—is a warmed-over 2001 lightshow, with the time traveler hearing, selectively, important voices of the 20th century, but seeing nothing at all: a pale contrast to the almost unbearably exciting time trip in the George Pal The Time Machine. The technological doubletalk about the key to the machine and its drive element is unclear, as is the reason why the machine, after being used by Jack, returns to its location a few seconds later, not to the original time at which it was borrowed—but it is so obviously there just to set up the gimmick to be used in the climax that one can predict the ending barely five minutes into the film.

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Review: Star Trek – The Motion Picture

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Regarding the immense, murky, superintelligent cloud that threatens to destroy the planet Earth, one anonymous spaceperson remarks, “There must be something incredible inside generating it!” I wish the same could be said for the immense Star Trek—The Motion Picture, which disappoints by seeming to have no driving force at its center. The “something incredible” that the Enterprise goes up against during Old Home Week Among the Stars is a living machine wishing to collect all human knowledge and to link up with its Creator. It’s called … well, phonetically, Veejer—so that the cast sounds very silly when addressing this almost godlike entity. I wouldn’t dream of spelling out the explanation of that name, but it almost seems to have been suggested by the title gimmick of Zardoz (the name of an old book called The Wizard of Oz compressed into the futuristic word). It’s clever, anyway, and the whole Veejer episode is pretty engaging, just as the really good episodes of the old Star Trek TV series are.

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Review: Alien

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

As a horror movie, Alien is appropriately concerned with collective nightmares (being chased and caught; the monster is below us, now above us; someone we know is, in fact, not human), and lustfully derivative of the genre’s white-middle-class fears that give rise to the nightmares (loss of order, familiarity, and domination; community goes to hell). But the film has something more, at least in the first half: a developing narrative with an exclusive, integral logic of its own, built on ostensible collisions in logical flow. In other words, in its auspicious beginnings, Alien reminds one of more expressly surreal films. The difference is that Alien has an intentionally simple storyline derived from consistency in character types and motivations, including all nonhumans, machines, distant organizations, and the dead.

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Honda’s Sci-Fi, Cassavetes’ Husbands, Tati at Play – DVDs for the Week

Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection

Though his name is conspicuously absent from the cover, the Icon of Sci-Fi celebrated in Sony’s three-disc set is Ishiro Honda, the prolific director of the original Godzilla and a legendary run of giant monster movies. This collection from Sony highlights his science fiction output with the stateside DVD debuts of three films, a mere fraction of his genre filmography.

The H-Man (1957) is not a man at all but a gooey radioactive slime (the original Japanese titles translates to “Beauty and the Liquidman”) that slurps into Tokyo, starts oozing up legs of gangsters and digesting them in seconds flat. It’s a monster movie horror within a cop crime drama, with detectives investigating a drug ring where all the suspects keeps getting dissolved. Motivation for the hungry, hungry puddle is vaguely suggested by a scientist who reads a headline about a missing suspect and immediately suspects radioactive hanky panky, but it still doesn’t quite explain why it invades the nightclub where all the gangsters hang, unless it absorbs the instincts of its victims as well. At least it that would explain its obsession with nightclub singer Chikako Arai. There are some great ooze effects of the gelatin spill going up walls and some dummies that deflate in place of victims being boiled into mush. The optical effects with freeze frames and animated slime are far less effective and for some reason they periodically turn into big green ghosts.

Battle in Outer Space (1959) is a visually splendid and narratively pedestrian space opera, short on character and plot but full of great miniatures and dramatic effects in a film packed with spectacle. It’s not just ships zapping each other with lasers in the dark void of space; there’s a caterpillar surface transport crawling over the rocky volcanic moonscape, a shoot-out with a fleet of flying saucers, a mind-controlled assassin sabotaging a human rocketship and of course the alien assault on Earth landmarks in the final battle. They may look like toys in flight, but they are they best toys a sci-fi geek could behold on screen in 1959, which alone makes it a genre highlight.

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Oh, the Humanity! Post-Apocalyptic Drear in “Terminator Salvation”

If movies indeed tap into the zeitgeist, Terminator Salvation, director McG’s grim reboot of the 25-year-old man vs. machine franchise, speaks to a demographic in awfully low spirits. Will this relentless, episodic slog through post-apocalyptic drear, punched up by paroxysms of extreme violence, deliver at the box office and resurrect the Terminator series (sequels are already in the works)?

Christian Bale vs. machine
Christian Bale vs. machine

Set in 2018, after nuclear Judgment Day, Salvation‘s ruined world has been leached of all color and signs of life. The days are steeped in sickly beige-brown, the noirish nights drenched in rain. Hunted down by machines of assorted shapes and sizes, the few remaining humans, always starkly lighted, resemble gaunted concentration-camp survivors stripped of any expression but a reflexive hunger to stay alive. (“We’re in the cattle car now,” despairs a fellow picked by an über-machina transporter.)

Lock-jawed Christian Bale plays grizzled resistance messiah John Connor as if programmed to project nothing but single-minded rage laced with unstoppable courage. Happily, Connor’s unlikely brother-in-arms (Aussie newcomer Sam Worthington, soon to star in James Cameron’s Avatar), a convicted killer reformatted by Cyberdyne, occasionally permits himself a welcome break from the stoic mode. On screen more and longer than Bale, permitted to act human once in a while, Worthington, like homeboy Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, steals the film away from Bale. Call it minimalist charisma.

So here’s the rub: if you’re making a film about a cosmic struggle between men and machines for dominion of the earth, the question of what makes human beings valuable, special, worth saving, is crucial. In Salvation, there’s no punch–no flesh and blood–to that question. Clichés like “We bury our dead” are trotted out, but Salvation never jacks us into the psyches of the non-machines we should be rooting for. The film’s emotional oxygen is so thin that the protagonists don’t seem wholly there; they’re “types” cloned from the headier worlds of Cameron’s two Terminators, Mad Max, the Aliens franchise, Battlestar Galactica, and even TV’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

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