Category Archives: US

Apollo 11 (2019)

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

I couldn’t let Gibson’s gorefest be the only film I watched in 2019, and I thought it was high time I actually watched something new, given that I haven’t watched any new films since 2016, hence tonight’s viewing. Of course, tonight’s film was actually shot entirely in 1969, so… so much for “new”? Whatever.

Anyway, Todd Miller had apparently just finished making a film on Apollo 17 when someone suggested he tackle 11 as well, and while preparing it a bunch of never-used 65mm film footage was unearthed. Alongside the normal 16 and 35 film plus video, this gives an added sense of awe to an otherwise fairly straightforward film. Don’t know why but the launchpad footage in particular and the shots of the many and varied spectators watching (and recording—the only difference between these people and our generation, clearly, is that they used actual cameras, both film and still) the event put me in mind of Koyaanisqatsi for some reason.

I say straightforward because that’s what it is; Miller opted for the Senna approach of sticking only to the original video and audio and not adding new interviews or narration; all he adds is some diagram animation and captions (which I only wish he’d made a bit larger; they weren’t easily read on the TV screen). It doesn’t really need anything else, though, does it? There’s other documentaries about the space program that do that; I like Miller’s decision to just let the original footage tell the story and watch it unfold without comment. And at 93 minutes it’s finely proportioned and never dull.

And OH how good is that original footage? Scrubbed up beautifully (the video footage from the Apollo cabin and the closed-circuit TV cameras around the launch site looks genuinely remarkable for its age, quite apart from being impressive that it exists at all), the whole film looks amazing, glad I got it on blu-ray. The film might be fairly and straightforward with what it does, but there’s also something thrilling and moving about it as the flight moves through its various stages, from leaving the Earth to landing on the Moon to the lunar module rejoining the command module and the final splashdown.

And also terribly saddening in a way. Cos with hindsight we know now that, in many respects the whole Apollo program was a bit of a Cold War stunt by the Americans to finally actually beat the Soviets at something in space, though obviously that doesn’t take away from the American achievement (the joy at mission control was well-earned). And I grew up in the 80s when there was still some excitement about that… I mean, yeah, there was also the very real threat of nuclear annihilation before we got back into space, but there was also the feeling that we would actually do so nonetheless. We had probes going to the outer planets, and if we hadn’t returned to the Moon since 1972, not to worry. We’d be back there soon enough. There was a vision there.

Not any more. I mean, even at the time there was criticism (not unjustified) that the money spent on the Moon mission could’ve been better spent improving conditions on Earth, but there was still the sense that the knowledge we would gain from the mission was important however much it cost, that the science was worth it in and of itself and would, you know, actually make humanity better. Not any more. In just half a century we’ve slumped into an age where science doesn’t matter to people any more, blowing up the Middle East is more important than anything, and shit like the flat Earth has staged a comeback. However much it may have been driven by political ambition in real terms, there was still a vision to the space race and a sense that it would take us somewhere. I haven’t felt that for a long time, it’s not like people—at least not the ones in a positiont to do anything useful—even seem to care about making this world better instead. Enjoy this film if you watch it too. It’s good to remember that at least at some point this sort of thing mattered.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

So I haven’t watched a film in over a year. I haven’t really had the interest or the desire, and the handful of films I did watch between my last post here and this one I just wrote cursory notes about on Letterboxd. Not feeling like writing either.

This was on TV for Christmas night. Counter-intuitive programming from SBS, marking the alleged anniversary of Christ’s birth by showing a film about his death… And for some reason I felt like watching it, and writing about it like I’m now doing. I saw this on the day of its cinema release back in 2004, and I saw it with my Mum. Mum was a far better Christian than I was or am, insofar as she actually was one, so we made an interesting pair going to this movie… and, remarkably, we both came out of it with much the same negative opinion of it. It did as little for her as it did for me.

As I’ve said elsewhere on here, I felt the fears that it would promote antisemitism were overstated, but all the reports of how excessively violent it was? It lived up to those. After this rewatch nearly 16 years later, I’m not quite so sure about that first point. With the dubious benefit of hindsight, we know now what Mel Gibson evidently really thinks of our Hebraic cousins, and it’s hard to watch the film without that knowledge; and we do know he leaned quite heavily on the “work” of Anne Catherine Emmerich (and/or of Clemens Brentano, who may or may not have faked her “visions”) which is apparently quite anti-Semitic. Accordingly I felt a lot more antipathy going on towards Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin, to say nothing of what the hell’s going on at Herod’s palace. Equally, though, I doubt the film would serve to actually make anyone an anti-Semite if they weren’t already one, and the film is just as horrible with its Romans; I’d forgotten just how psychopathic they were.

Equally, though, I can’t imagine that the film would make anyone a Christian, either; if you haven’t already read the gospels or otherwise have some familiarity with the stuff that happens before the film’s story starts, some of it’s going to be kind of incomprehensible. It presupposes a lot of its viewers in that respect, so it hardly works as a tool for evangelising to prospective converts. Which raises the question: who and what the hell is this movie for? What’s it about, really?

Because The Passion of the Christ is certainly not about Jesus’ resurrection, which is passed over a few seconds before the end; I mean, I’m not a Christian but I do understand that the whole point of Jesus kind of is the resurrection, you know, he dies and comes back to life and that‘s the important thing about him if you do subscribe to his newsletter. The film cares so little about this detail it may as well have left it out entirely. Similarly, it has only marginally more interest in Jesus’ actual message and teachings, which are also kind of important if you’re into that, and that makes it theologically useless.

So Gibson doesn’t care about the resurrection or the teachings of Jesus, he’s fundamentally interested in spectacle much like Cecil B. DeMille was with The King of Kings 80 years earlier. But this is a far more vicious spectacle than DeMille’s, not just because the latter couldn’t have got away with depicting this much violence in 1927 (and the violence isn’t the only thing even DeMille would’ve found unnecessarily vulgar). There’s no religious feeling underlining this film like there is in King of Kings; this is purely Gibson getting off on extreme violence. Gibson could talk all he liked about how he played the hands that nail JC to the cross cos “[his] sins put him on the cross”, but I don’t buy that for a second. He’s enjoying these atrocities being perpetrated against his putative lord and saviour—remember, this isn’t a fictional character to Gibson—so much so that he just had to take direct part.

Who and what is this movie for? It’s for Mel Gibson, as a kind of pornography. The Passion of the Christ is frankly the work of a ghoul, and I hate it now in a way I didn’t upon that first viewing on Ash Wednesday 2004. Like I said, I thought at the time the film lived up to the reports of its violence, but on rewatching I found I’d actually forgotten just how wildly excessive it really is (e.g. even when Jesus is finally up on the cross, Gibson has to have one of the other men being crucified—the one who mocks Jesus—be attacked by a crow that picks his eye out). David Edelstein famously christened the film “The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre”, which sums up the splatter aspect of the affair nicely, a chainsaw being about the only thing not used on Jesus; the miracle that the film really depicts isn’t that Jesus returned from death at the literal last minute, but that he didn’t die before he could even be crucified. I used to say I was afraid for anyone who claimed, as many did, that their religious faith had been strengthened by this grotesque nonsense; now I’m afraid OF anyone who would say that. How any of it was ever supposed to serve someone’s religious faith is beyond me.

Anyway, we’ve been promised a somewhat belated sequel in recent years, which is apparently currently scheduled for April 2021, and which will supposedly cover the period between the death and the resurrection and may be set at least partly in Hell. Which means it’ll be even less biblical than Passion but we can probably at least expect spectacle again, and though I’ve no desire to see Passion ever again I could be tempted to see just how Mel handles the underworld…

 

Police Academy (1984)

Director: Hugh Wilson

On TV tonight, haven’t seen in I don’t know how many years. Possibly not this century. I wrote on here some years ago that I might actually still like this (though I was and am nonetheless kind of embarrassed to admit I’d seen the series up to the fifth film—remember, even Steve Guttenberg didn’t go that far—and had actually seen four and five at the cinema when they were new), and tonight I had the opportunity to find out… And I think it’s been long enough between drinks and enough water has gone under the bridge, and my use of metaphor has clearly become sufficiently debased, that I have a much better idea than I once did of just how bad it is, really… all the subtlety and sensitivity of a Tsar Bomba to the testicles and about as much intelligence, vulgar and crass but still weirdly afraid to be quite as vulgar and crass as it could be if it just tried a bit harder, and just… well… eighties. If the year 1984 could be summed up as one film, this could be the one. MICHAEL WINSLOW, for fuck’s sake. And having watched it again for the first time since I don’t know when, yeah, I actually did kind of like it. I mean, it’s not really that good, it’s fairly average, but it’s well enough done that it’s also kind of painless. I don’t regret watching it again, in a way I’m sure I would regret watching the sequels…

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

Oh hi, fancy seeing me here… Anyway, long time since I last watched this, and even longer since I watched this version… there being so many versions of this film, of course, that part of the fun of watching it on TV tonight was wondering exactly which one we’d get. Lo, it was the actual original cut from 1982 with Ford’s infamous voiceover, which I’ve not seen since probably the late 80s… Back in the 90s when I was doing film studies at UNSW we watched it in class once, i.e. the 1992 “director’s cut” that wasn’t really, and the lecturer asked if any of us had seen both versions. I was the only one who had, so she asked which of them I preferred, and I said neither, and the ensuing gasp of horror from my classmates was something to hear; I half expected someone to burn me as a heretic. Still, ask me a question, run the risk of getting an honest answer; I didn’t think either version could be called “better” than the other, cos frankly I didn’t really like either. It did nothing much for me in either form (I’ve not seen Scott’s proper director’s cut) and I never really understood why people thought so highly of it; I mean, it was perfectly adequate and technically accomplished but not that much more.

I last saw it about a decade ago thanks to my erstwhile radio colleague Evan when I saw the 1992 version at his place, and I think I liked it for the first time pretty much… but I didn’t love it, and on rewatching the original version tonight I still don’t. I’ll obviously concede its visual splendour (if nothing else, seeing it in a proper widescreen version only reminds me yet again how inadequate pan-and-scan VHS editions of films like this were back in the pre-digital dark ages), cos I’m not that stupid, and it’s an excellent illustration of Isaac Asimov’s theory that science fiction is less a genre unto itself than a flavour you apply to other genres; basically Blade Runner is really an old-style film noir tarted up with androids and other “futuristic” details. I’m actually less offended by Ford’s voiceover than most people are, cos that’s just another thing noir does. I still don’t love it, though. It’s perfectly good, eminently watchable and well-made (though with hindsight the unicorn business is just even more obscurely handled than in the director’s cut), all of that. And it still feels kind of cold and empty and it still doesn’t fully connect with me and I still don’t entirely understand why it’s supposed to be one of the greatest films of all time.

Artists and Models (1955)

Director: Frank Tashlin

For reason that I can’t work out, Jerry Lewis died today. I mean, we can probably guess the reasons for that, but it’s how he managed to live so long that has me perplexed… we’re talking about a man who had an assortment of health woes throughout his life and suffered his first heart attack in 1960 when he was just in his mid-30s. He did fairly well to make it into his 90s, all things considered. And, for reasons I also can’t work out, I’ve never actually seen an actual proper Jerry Lewis film until now; I’ve only known him as a sort of pop culture figure usually invoked in bafflement about French tastes in film comedy, but never actually seen him at work. I mean, I’ve seen The King of Comedy and Funny Bones, both of which he’s in but neither of which I’d exactly call a “Lewis film” as such… so I suppose the time is right? And there’s a few Lewis films in the 1001 Films list, so also an opportunity to make another dent in that…

Anyway, he was still with Dean Martin when he made this, though not for much longer (a line Dino’s character has early on about them needing a divorce is weirdly prescient); I’ll take the 1001 Films book’s word for it that this was Martin & Lewis’ finest hour cos I obviously have no other experience. It’s… curious, isn’t it? Frank Tashlin, of course, began life as a cartoonist and animator, and I’ve seen it said that even when he moved into live action in the 50s he never entirely left that cartoon background behind. That seems like a fair summary of this film, with such details as Lewis dressed as a giant mouse and terrifying a cat, Martin’s reflection in a mirror duetting with him, that sort of thing… but also the way the plot develops from the romantic foursome of the first two-thirds of the film into the frankly weird spy thriller of the last third, which revolves around Martin writing a comic book based on Lewis’ dreams, but the dreams somehow contain part of an actual secret government formula which attracts the interest of the Russians and OY. Never quite as wholeheartedly bizarre as it could and perhaps should’ve been, but reasonably funny on the whole, blessed more by Shirley MacLaine as one of the female love interests than it is by Lewis, whose appeal I found kind of baffling. Maybe I need to see Jerry solo instead? I don’t know. At some point I’ll be doing that for the purposes of this list anyway…

Batman (1966)

Director: Leslie H. Martinson

SBS recently announced that they’ve purchased the 1960s Batman TV series, which announcement comes… unfortunately timed to coincide with the death a few days earlier of series star Adam West. Not SBS’ fault, I’m sure, cos I’ve no doubt the negotiations to buy the series would’ve begun some time before West’s passing (I don’t think you just casually do that sort of thing even these days), but still. Anyway, to warm us up for the series ahead of it starting next month, they gave us the movie tonight, which I may not have seen since, well, the 1980s, which was probably also the last time I saw the series (I have the latter on DVD but haven’t watched it yet)… Basically the film was produced as a sort of introduction to the series (filmed after the first series had completed shooting), but then the series launch date got moved way ahead of its original schedule so the film had to be held back, rendering it a bit useless for its intended purpose. Still, on its own terms it’s a huge lot of fun… I know the series copped flak for years for being an exercise in camp rather than evincing the pulp grittiness of the original comics, but let’s face it: the comics by that time were hardly masterpieces of noir, even before the CCA neutered comics generally in the 50s, DC were taking their own initiatives to tone Batman down within months of his first appearance and wouldn’t toughen him up again until the 70s. So the film is really just of its time in that respect, and it knows the basic strangeness of the whole superhero/supervillian narrative and it runs joyously with its own ridiculousness; everyone involved hits the right comedic pitch (the bomb scene is an outstanding setpiece), and West’s ability to keep a straight face is genuinely admirable at times. Much fun, and though I’ve got the series on DVD like I said, I’ll probably watch it on TV anyway…

The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979)

Directors: Chuck Jones & Phil Monroe

Look, I know there isn’t much point in me watching this. I’ve got the big DVD box set with all the original cartoons on it (barring, notably, Hare-Way to the Stars, incomprehensibly excluded from the Golden Collection series) remastered and uncut (the editing performed here on Long-Haired Hare damages one of the best gags in it). It’s kind of outlived its usefulness in some respects, and there’s not a lot of point to watching it now, unless you really want to be faintly disgusted by the absence of Bob Clampett and Ben Hardaway among the list of Bugs’ “fathers” (the latter—who only gave the bunny his name, after all—seems to have been an honest mistake on Jones’ part, but the former was a deliberate act of spite by Jones, who had a notable grudge against him). And yet, when I was looking through the TV guide to see what was on today and I saw TBB/RRM listed there… how could I not watch it? Cos it’s great. The component parts are all great, some of them among the very best things to come from Warners’ animation department (and I’ve said for a long time now that the best of the Warner cartoons are among the best films made by anyone anywhere at any time), and it’s still a pretty amazing highlights package, markedly better than the other recycled compilations that followed it in the 80s, cos Jones and Monroe were careful to (mostly) leave the originals alone and limit the new material to essentially introductory links rather than trying to embed the old stuff as stock footage into a new story (cf. 1001 Rabbit Tales). I’ve loved this since I was little, and it still works for me now. It’s a joy to watch, basically, and I suppose that’s really all the reason you need to do so.

Gladiator (2000)

Director: Ridley Scott

So I previously mentioned the ongoing challenge at ICM forum for films of this decade, and now there’s one for films of the oughts, so I’m doing both in conjunction with that vague plan I have of finishing off the 1001 Movies list now I’ve got almost all the films on that… As such, I’ve finally got around to this, and OY do I have problems with it. I mean, it’s an OK film, albeit one that is vastly and unnecessarily overlong—nothing really justifies it being nearly three hours in length—and technically adequate, that sort of thing. It’s just… the history. And historical subjects almost always have some sort of problem with historical fact… you know, there’ll be anachronisms of some sort (which Gladiator is apparently full of), or else characters have been invented or maybe even created out of more than one actual person (which Shakespeare himself did), or events have been invented or otherwise distorted (cf. Matthew Hopkins getting killed in Witchfinder General as opposed to the actual Hopkins dying of TB at home). I’m not usually bothered by that sort of thing. A problem arises, though, when something like this film wants to sell itself as history but is basically predicated on something that never happened…

In this case, Russell Crowe and his variable accent play Roman general Maximus Meridius, fighting under the emperor Marcus Aurelius at Vienna in 180 AD; the venerable Marcus wants to appoint him his successor rather than his son Commodus, who he thinks is unworthy, and he wants Maximus to restore the old Rome. Commodus takes this… badly and kills the old boy, taking the purple before Maximus can; the latter escapes execution but gets captured into slavery, being trained as a gladiator and readying himself for revenge. In other words, it’s basically a modern knock-off of Fall of the Roman Empire and Spartacus, and that’s fair enough… except, like I said, it’s predicated on something that didn’t happen. Commodus was, well, a bit of a commode as emperor; I don’t know if he was the weaselly git with daddy (and sister) issues who just wanted people to love him that Joaquin Phoenix presents him as, but he wasn’t one of the great emperors. But he was already emperor before Marcus Aurelius’ death, co-emperor with his old man in fact, who he didn’t actually kill either. And that’s a bit of bad history that hangs over the entire film and made it difficult at best to fully get into it. Unfortunate, cos, apart from the sluggish first hour or so, it’s not too bad for the sort of thing it is; Crowe and Phoenix are outshone vastly as performers by some of the secondary cast (most notably Oliver Reed), but on the whole it’s OK, and by the end I think I liked it more than I’d initially expected. It’s just… the “history”.

Dark Intruder (1965)

Director: Harvey Hart

And so, to officially end this year’s month of horror, we turn to the small screen. Kind of. This was actually the pilot for a proposed TV series called The Black Cloak, which none of the American TV networks wanted to touch cos they considered it a bit… heavy or something. An occult detective chasing a sort of Jack the Ripper but with more demonic tendencies in fin-de-siècle San Francisco? That was too much for TV audiences to deal with. So Universal, somewhat grudgingly, put it out in cinemas as a supporting feature since they couldn’t do much else with it, and the networks were smug until, a few years later, The Night Stalker demonstrated TV audiences were actually perfectly fine watching that sort of thing… Anyway, I first heard about this years ago, read about it in a book about film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft; this isn’t actually one, but the passing reference to Azathoth (and, more obscurely, Nyogtha) demonstrates that author Barré Lyndon had at least a passing acquaintance with the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Sumerian business is kind of fascinating in light of the infamous “Simonomicon” over a decade later. (Wonder if this was an influence at all?) Basically, the plot is as I briefly described above, Leslie Nielsen plays Brett Kingsland, a bon vivant playboy in 1890 San Fran where a series of strange murders is taking place, which he finds have something to do with Sumerian demonology in some way; while the “film” is kind of evidently an episode of a TV show in its execution, the story’s actually pretty good and there are some decent things here. It’s hard to entirely disagree with this piece that calls Nielsen the weak link in the chain, though, even if only because of hindsight; this predates his “official” comedic coming-out in Flying High, but he rather notably plays Brett in a flippant, foppish style that kind of looks a bit weird. “Frank Drebin without the jokes” isn’t actually that far off. Still, this was just the pilot for the show, and I imagine certain things would’ve been fiddled with had a series been commissioned (remember how different Star Trek was in pilot form?). That one wasn’t is, I think, a great disappointment; Dark Intruder certainly looks like the potential was there.

The Howling (1981)

Director: Joe Dante

The other werewolf movie of 1981 (yes, there’s Wolfen, but apparently there’s some debate about whether or not that’s actually about werewolves as such), which I must confess to not liking anywhere near as much as American Werewolf in London. Indeed, Rick Baker, the latter film’s make-up/FX man, actually started working on this one before Landis said “hey, I’ve finally got money for my werewolf movie” and poached him for it, leaving Baker’s erstwhile assistant Rob Bottin to handle the lycanthropy on this one. And, to give the young man credit, he did a terrific job on a fraction of the budget of AWiL; the werewolf transformation about two-thirds of the way through is the highpoint of both films, and Bottin’s work holds its own quite capably in its own way. I also rather like the concept of the Colony in this film being a sort of resort where Patrick Macnee’s doctor is trying to kind of rehabilitate the resident werewolves and bring them into the modern world. And it looks remarkably nice, too, there’s a really good use of colour and light and judicious application of fog. So why didn’t I like it more? I don’t know… maybe there’s just something not terribly exciting about it, or maybe it’s the not awfully interesting characters. Maybe it’s the somewhat weak humour, which in this case extends mainly to naming characters after directors of vintage werewolf and other horror films. Maybe there’s something I’m not getting. Maybe it was just me and whatever mood I was in (you can never entirely rule out my useless brain and its vagaries). It’s good. I’m just not blown away by it.