Thursday, March 31, 2011

Big Trouble in Little China

Where do I even begin? Kurt Russell said it best on the DVD commentary: either you've seen it and love it, or you've never heard of it. Director John Carpenter somehow combines the tropes of Kung Fu, Westerns, screwball comedy, Chinese mysticism, and eighties action movies into one massively entertaining enterprise. This is Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

Brash, All-American trucker Jack Burton (Russell) arrives in San Francisco, and after winning a wager against his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), Jack accompanies his friend to the airport to pick up Wang's fiancee Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). Almost immediately, Miao Yin is kidnapped by the Lords of Death street gang, who take her Chinatown. Jack gets dragged along in a rescue and soon discovers a hidden world beneath Chinatown: a bizarre, subterranean empire filled with monsters and spirits lorded over by David Lo Pan (James Hong), an ancient Chinese sorcerer seeking to be reborn into flesh. Somehow Miao Yin fits into his plans. With crusading lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) in tow, Jack and Wang confront other worldly beings - demons, ghosts, monsters - trying to mount a rescue before it's too late.

Boy, that was a mouthful to summarize. That probably doesn't make much sense reading, but BTiLC moves at such a rapid-fire pace with events piling on one after another, the plot almost doesn't matter. What matters is Carpenter indulging in his love for Hong Kong cinema. By eighties standards, the fight and action scenes incorporate a number of state-of-the-art stunts and set pieces and spellbinding displays of martial arts. While The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon leave it in the dust today, the movie is still outrageous and exciting. There are a number of "Hey, cool!" moments: a back alley brawl between rival gangs, guys flying through the air swinging swords, and an awesome scene involving a thrown knife.

While I wouldn't watch BTiLC for a lesson on Chinese mythology, the supernatural stuff is pretty neat. As one characters says, it's like some radical Alice in Wonderland; the deeper you go, the more weird things pile up. It can be a little silly, but it's held together by the awesomeness of Lo Pan. He's certainly one of the better eighties villains. Alternating in form between shriveled old geezer in a wheelchair and a tall striking wizard pose, he's both intimidating and often very funny ("Shut up, Mr. Burton. You were not brought upon this world to get it."). Also of note is Egg Shen (Victor Wong), tour bus driver and good-guy sorcerer. A cryptic yet wily little old man, his straight-faced exposition of the other-worldly material is pretty funny.

The tongue-in-cheek humor helps the move hold up after all these years. Jack Burton looks and acts like the prototypical American hero: big muscles, square jaw, a take-charge personality, and a cowboy manner. Russell plays him like he's John Wayne, but the difference is Jack Burton is a total moron in over his head. He has his heroic moments, but most of the time he's running his mouth, getting knocked out of fights, stumbling into situations, and leaving most of the fighting to Wang Chi. The brilliance is how unaware and clueless he is. At the big fight at the end of the movie, Jack fires his gun into the air, causing plaster to fall down and hit him on the head. This is a man just trying to keep up.

Sure, Big Trouble in Little China isn't particularly deep or moving, but it's great fun, moves at a mile-a-minute, and is packed to the gills will cool scenes, fights, creatures, and characters. It's certainly rooted in the eighties and certainly not for everyone, but if you made it this far into the review, you've probably already seen it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


This is my slightly modified response to an Ohio Wesleyan University student asking me about an incident when I was student news editor there.

It was spring semester 2009, my first semester as The Transcript news editor. The week before the controversy, I wrote a front page story about a guest speaker whose lecture about the economy in Central America and the threat of fascism there was deemed boring by the media ethics class, according to some friends in it. So I was looking for a story that people might actually be interested in.

The editors were talking at our weekly meeting, and someone brought up the 50 Day Club (I believe it was our managing editor). The 50 Day Club is a tradition for graduating seniors; every day, for the last 50 days of the semester, they go to the local Backstretch Bar, buy drinks, play games, and see how many can make it the entire 50 days. The editors all agreed this was something students would like, and we agreed I'd cover it because I was 21 and a junior, so not in the club.

I went to the Backstretch Saturday afternoon, spoke to the bartender for about 20 minutes, interviewed a couple of students, and churned out the story by Monday. We even included a picture of a beer bottle on the front page next to it. I didn't think much of it. I always thought (and still think) of it as a throwaway story.

Everything after that was one big whirlwind. Word got out that someone in the admissions department took every copy of The Transcript in the Hamilton-William Campus Center, one of the main campus buildings, and dumped them in the garbage. The Transcript is a weekly paper, and that week, hundreds of prospective students and their parents were visiting.

I didn't really have time to process we had been censored or have a reaction. By the time I found out someone in the admissions office threw our paper in the garbage, they had already apologized, the editor-in-chief and I were meeting with the vice president of admissions and the university's communications director, and we were planning our lead story for next week about how we were censored and the school was sorry.

I can see the admissions office’s perspective. That story really wasn't front page material; it belonged in arts and entertainment. They were afraid it would reflect badly on the university, and it's not one of my proudest stories. I thought of it as a light, fun feature, and it felt strange it drew such attention. It wasn't an expose on corruption, a big crime story, or about drug and alcohol abuse on campus. I guess you can’t always pick your First Amendment battles.

But the individual responsible (or people because I’m not entirely convinced they didn’t pick an anonymous Scooter Libby to take the fall) made it worse by trying to censor it. To prospective students and their parents, not only does this university stifle the voice of students and interfere with the press, it might be hiding a serious student drinking problem. Whether it does or not was irrelevant at that moment; what mattered was the school appeared to. Plus, if the university tried to suppress this fluff article, which promoted the camaraderie of students, a class tradition and a positive relationship with a local business, what would they do to a story that is directly negative or critical?

The fact is if we didn’t stand up for our rights then, there was no telling what other retaliation we could have expected in the future. I think Ohio Wesleyan is one of the more open and tolerant of academic institutions in the country, but administrations change, new directors are hired , and there was no telling what precedent might have been set. I used to feel uncomfortable that we wrote an article about the censorship. I thought it was self-promoting and incestuous on our part, but now I see we needed to firmly declare such action by the university should not be tolerated.

Bottom line: students have a right to know what goes on at their school, and student media need to be independent. Any attempt by the school to restrict that right and responsibility should be opposed.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Favorite Movie?

Just about everyone I know has asked me that question: what's my favorite movie? I've brought it on myself. Between keeping a blog devoted to reviews, incessantly quoting the movies I've seen a hundred times, and dropping random trivia about actors and filmmakers, to the people I know, I'm the movie guy.

As strange as it might seem, I can't answer that question. Everyone always get this puzzled look and ask how someone like me could not know what my favorite movie. I always say it's because I can't narrow it down to just one. Even going by genre, I expand to lists of ten or more until whoever asks gets bored or frustrated.

How do you even define favorite movie? Is it a movie I've seen countless times and thoroughly enjoy each and every time? I suppose, but a lot of films fall under that category: Ace Ventura, The 'burbs, Austin Powers, The Naked Gun, and more. I can say which I enjoy more depends on my mood when I see them. Is it a movie I appreciate more each time I see them for their technique in filmmaking such as The Third Man or Rear Window? There are some cult movies I cherish probably because no one else enjoys them. What about the movies I acknowledge as superlative, but aren't the kind I'd want to watch on casual Friday? Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List are stellar films, but they're so harrowing and shocking I don't want to watch them on a regular basis.

There are the times I try to champion a little known film. Sometimes, I've said I have many favorites, and one of them is Aguirre, the Wrath of God. That usually results in a blank look and an uninteresting explanation that probably scares them off from ever seeing. I've made countless recommendations to friends because of something I think they'll enjoy I love only to have my spirit and enthusiasm for the title crushed when they tell me it was the biggest pile of you-know-what they've ever seen. It can hurt to discover something you love is hated. Instead of bringing them into an exclusive fold, you question your reasons for being a part of it.

Another hazard of naming a favorite film is someone might assume they will know everything you like based on that. I like the zombie films of George Romero but have gotten into arguments about why I think the Resident Evil movies are a pestilence that should be eradicated and not the "awesomest zombie movies ever!" My family says I'm a movie snob, and I admit I have a strong degree of movie arrogance. I pride myself for looking for more in a movie than mindless entertainment, but I'm something of an elitist about it.

Then, there are the changing winds of fate. In the past, I've named my favorite movies, only to realize months or years later I didn't much care for them anymore. Aliens was my movie for the longest time, but now I'm burned out on it, both because of how many times I've seen it and the number of the send-in-the-marines-to-blast-the-space-bugs imitators since then. I used to watch A Christmas Story in the summer, but now I barely catch a few scenes when it plays for 24 hours straight on Christmas.

The bottom line, by naming my favorite single movie, I feel like I tie myself down to it and let it define my tastes. As much as I want to be wowed by the work of Stanley Kubrick, I also like Wayne's World. Rather than limiting myself to one film or one type film, I'd rather say I'm a fan of movies. I may not like all movies, but I like all kinds of movies.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Touch of Evil

With 1958's Touch of Evil, Orson Welles made what many consider to be the last great film noir of the genre's classic period (which began in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon). With a dark, seedy atmosphere, virtuoso cinematography, and a twisted story about crime and corruption, Touch of Evil ranks highly among Welles' body of work.

In a seedy border town between the U.S. and Mexico, a local businessman and his mistress are killed in a car bombing the same night Mexican narcotics official Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is enjoying his honeymoon with his American wife Susan (Janet Leigh). Vargas is set to testify against the brother of "Uncle" Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), a local drug and gang leader. Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) arrives to investigate the bombing while Vargas remains as a representative for the Mexican government. When Vargas suspects Quinlan of railroading a Mexican youth, he delves in Quinlan's history and uncovers a history of suspicious convictions. Enraged, Quinlan uses Grandi's gang to terrorize Susan and frame Vargas.

Conventional wisdom says Orson Welles, after making arguably the greatest movie in history with Citizen Kane, never got a chance to match the effort, but he certainly came close a number of times despite a lack of money and studio support. Touch of Evil fell victim to off-screen troubles. Re-edited against Welles' wishes, certain scenes were altered or cut out entirely, and the movie barely received any sort of release, making it yet another flop for a director who had made a string of them. Years later, using a 58-page memo Welles wrote after seeing the released version, Touch of Evil was re-edited to fall closer in line with his vision. This edition, which is said to have more coherent plot line among other changes, is the only version of the film I've seen.

Film noir was losing its innocence by 1958. Many of the actors and filmmakers of the genre during its heyday in the 40s weren't consciously aware they launching a new genre and style. To them, their films were B-pictures, low-budget crime and suspense movies. By 1958, critics and scholars, particularly in France, were catching on and attached the label "film noir" to this collection of movies. Now, anyone who made a film noir had to be aware that's the type of movie they were making.

Welles takes the genre about as far it could go at the time. There's Expressionist, chiaroscuro lighting, characterized by deep, dark shadows. The distorted, slanted angles reflect the twisted nature of the characters. There's also a cynical undercurrent toward faith in authority and justice. One element Welles pulls off magnificently is the camerawork. The film opens with arguably the greatest opening ever, an unbroken tracking shot that follows the ticking bomb as its placed in a car, but then our attention switches to Vargas and Susan they come in and out of contact with the doomed vehicle.

That's not the only great example. An interrogation scene is similarly unbroken, trapping Vargas and Quinlan back and forth in the same frame as their animosity builds to a breaking point while they argue over the questioning of the Mexican youth suspected of the crime. In the climax, Vargas hides out of sight while trying to stay within recording distance of Quinlan and his partner Menzies (Joseph Calleia), climbing over wreckage, rubble, and ditches. The effort visually reflects the web of conspiracy and scheming in the plot.

Welles also throws in some self-aware humor. The night clerk at the motel is probably a more awkard and skittish Norman Bates (think about that). The gypsy madame Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) whom Quinlan shares a past with is at once mysterious and blunt; after seeing Quinlan for the first time in years, she says she couldn't recognize him and he should lay off the candy bars. The Grandi gang feel like a spoof of the 50s urban youth hoods in movies: slicked back hair and leather jackets, but they aren't as tough as they act. Grandi himself comes off as a buffoon, toupee falling off and shuffling around, a self-important, little fat man. Although parts seem unintended. Some of the dialogue, particularly with Susan, feels dated, and Charlton Heston has to be the least convincing Mexican ever.

Quinlan is not a comic figure. Massive, sweaty, and grumbling, he dominates any scene he's in and looms over the camera. He's not a one-dimensional psychopath. His background is appropriately tragic (his wife was murdered, and the killer got away), which gives him an appropriate motivation for having slid into corruption. A recovery alcoholic, he begins falling off the wagon. He's also a bigot and a cop who will plant evidence to get a conviction based on his intuition. His final fate is both justice being served and sad.

Touch of Evil is a stellar thriller. While certain aspects are a bit dated, it's proof Welles contributed more to cinema than Citizen Kane. It's one of the finest film noirs ever.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Richard III (1995)

Watching Richard Loncraine's version of Richard III (1995) with Ian McKellen (who co-wrote the adaptation with Loncraine) in the title role, I was amazed to realize just how pulpy the original William Shakespeare play is. Not only do we get murder, assassination, incest, political backstabbing, social climbers, corruption, greed, and shame, we get possibly the most single-minded, unrepentant, despicable villain ever. When you think about it, it's a soap opera of respectable literary orgins, and my god is it gloriously entertaining.

While the language and plot remain Shakespeare, the setting has been relocated to 1930s England with the royal York family emerging victorious in the War of the Roses over the Lancaster house. Richard of Gloucester (McKellen), brother of the newly-crowned King Edward, is a bitter, deformed, calculating duke with aspirations on the crown. With Machiavellian ruthlessness, he eliminates all obstacles, including his brothers and nephews, through an elaborate plan of murder, marriage, and manipulation. But his ambition spurs the hatred of everyone around him.

Keep your eyes peeled for many familiar faces. Not only is there McKellen in a truly diabolical yet charismatic turn as Richard, there's Jim Broadbent as his cohort Buckingham, Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth, Robert Downey Jr. as her brother Rivers, Nigel Hawthorne as Richard's brother Clarence, Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York, and Kristen Scott Thomas as Richard's wife Anne. As you can imagine, the cast is quite good, although McKellen is certainly the standout.

The genius of the play and movie is how it lets us in on Richard's scheme. We are privy to his thoughts and asides, and we know just how much he relishes being evil and murderous. Somehow, we almost end up rooting for him because he's got a goal, knows what he wants, will do what it takes to achieve, and by sharing his plans with us, essentially makes us complicit to his actions. On the surface, he's a charming, smooth-tongued if ugly younger brother of a respected king, but underneath, he's a loathsome, hateful creature. Because he's honest with us, we can't help but admire or at least respect him.

Two scenes illustrate my earlier point about the inherent tackiness of the material. The famous opening monologue - "Now is the winter of our discontent" - begins in an ornate dance hall with splendid costumes, joyful music, and a royal crowd: a really classy affair. Richard begins his speech addressing this audience, but then the scene cuts to him finishing his address at a bathroom urinal. Not only does it reinforce his contempt, it's funny.

But if you really want bad taste, watch how Richard proposes to Anne. In the War of the Roses, we see Richard kill the previous king and his son, Anne's husband. As she grieves over his corpse in the morgue, Richard appears to flatter her and tell her that her beauty drove him to kill her husband. With her husband's body right there on a slab, Richard gets Anne to agree to marry him. It's like, my God, how tacky, but I must say it might be the greatest pickup ever.

The World War II setting sounds like gimmick at first, but it reinforces the manner in which Richard climbs and later falls from power. The costuming and background certainly brings to mind the rise of fascism and Nazi Germany, and Richard is in many ways a power-mad tyrant in the mold of Hitler, shaping popular opinion through behind-the-scenes calculation and violence only to lead his country to ruin. The royal and period period piece settings - grand halls, mansions, dances, dining halls - contrast with the scummier locations - prisons, morgues, dilapidated factories. Just as Richard can mask a vile personality, so too can a country shield a dark underbelly.

Richard III is an unorthodox and daring adaptation of the Bard's play, and it revels in the grotesque excesses only hinted at in the original text and other productions. It's not a word-for-word translation from page to screen, but in its own warped way, it works.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

If I were to rate The Hills Have Eyes (1977) on the merits of a single scene, it would rate pretty high. About 50 minutes into the movie, there is a sequence of astonishing power, brutality, and intensity, and it really is a knockout. The problem is the movie around it is tedious and for the most part uninteresting.

The Carters, a Cleveland family on its way to California, get stranded in the middle of the desert while detouring to look for an inherited silver mine, but they are not alone. A family of mutant cannibals watches their every move, waiting to pounce at the right moment, and when they do, it's an all-out war between the city slickers and the desert folks.

The Hills Have Eyes suffers from something I like to call "Time Machine Syndrome." In H.G. Wells The Time Machine, humanity had evolved into the soft, weak Eloi and the subterranean, violent Morlocks who preyed on the Eloi and ate them. The Eloi are too stupid to care about, and the reader (or viewer of any film adaptation) ends up rooting for the Morlocks to gut them. While that's morbidly entertaining in a science fiction parable, it's a kiss of death in a horror film.

The Carters just aren't interesting. They're either stereotypes (disciplinarian father, Bible-thumping mother) or just bland (the rest of them). I know Craven is going for the theme of a civilized family descending into barbarism when they're stripped of the comforts and security of home, but these people are just clueless. For the first 50 minutes, they don't really do much, and Craven's efforts to build suspense aren't successful. Then the mutants strike.

The mutants are far more compelling, especially Michael Berryman as the iconic Pluto (the guy on the cover). They're mean, aggressive, and will do what it takes to survive. When Pluto and his brother Mars make their move on the trailer, it's an intense moment. You feel helpless watching them brutalize those unlucky enough to be caught inside, and at least one of the deaths at that time comes out of nowhere. When it ends, you feel stunned along with the Carters. It's a cheat we don't get more of the mutants.

But then again... SPOILER the villainous patriarch Papa Jupiter falls for a very lame MacGuyver-esque trap, and his final showdown with the Carters feels less like a desperate fight to death and more like Home Alone in the desert. And Pluto's death, that pisses me off: the family dog mauls him! A guy who has spent his entire life in the desert and probably has had his share of fights with wild animals gets killed by a pet. Granted it is a police dog, but I expect better from a horror movie villain (a dog didn't stop Michael Myers). A cheap death for a great character. I'll give Craven credit for killing one of the Carter's dogs, but the other dog reeked of contrivance and convenience. The dog ends up killing two members of the mutant family and bringing the good guys exactly what they need at a crucial moment. It defeats the purpose of having a civilized family go savage by having the dog do it for them. END SPOILER

Disappointment is the best word I can use to describe The Hills Have Eyes. I like Wes Craven, and I've heard great things about his sophomore effort, but it just feels cheap and tedious and is riddled with cliches. There are some good parts, but overall, I was not impressed.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Toolbox Murders (2004)

Tobe Hooper's Toolbox Murders (2004), a remake of the 70s grindhouse piece, is a tale of two movies. The first is a slasher film in which a masked killer dispatches hapless victims in gory fashion using items from said toolbox. The other concerns a young woman's investigation into the nature of the building in which said the murders take place. She uncovers a history of occult activity and mysterious disappearances in a back story as frustrating as it is fascinating. The movie is also Hooper's best work in at least 15 years and rightly hailed as his comeback.

Nell (Angela Bettis) and Steven Barrows (Brent Roam) have just moved into Lusman Arms, a historic Hollywood apartment building just as it's undergoing renovations. The place is falling apart, and the residents and employees are a motley selection of creeps and weirdos. Steven, a medical student in residency at a nearby hospital, isn't around when Nell, an unemployed teacher, begins to notice spooky things. Tenants begin disappearing, and she grows paranoid. She delves into the history and architecture of the place, not knowing that a masked man is lurking in the walls, only emerging to claim his next victim.

The film opens with a line of text: "Every year, thousands of people move to Hollywood to pursue their dreams. Some succeed. Some go home. Others just ... disappear."

Hooper has always had a fascination with the seedy, surreal underbelly of reality (John Kenneth Muir calls him the Lewis Carroll of the genre), and for the first time, he turns his gaze onto Hollywood itself and its legacy built on the hopes and blood of so many young actors. Beneath the promised land of stardom and wealth, Hollywood in Toolbox Murders is one of destitution if you're lucky and death if you're not. Jack Lusman, the man who built the Lusman Arms, hobnobbed with all stars and powerful of the Golden Era of Hollywood at the same time he dabbled into the occult. He built the apartment building to be both a shrine to the glamor and his black magic temple.

Of course, no one really pays to see a movie called Toolbox Murders for its back story; they want to see brutal kills, and we get them. Hammers, buzz saws, power drills, nail guns, and crowbars all make an appearance to horribly maim and kill people. Hooper, who famously left the deaths of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to the viewers' imaginations, lingers on the blood and gore here. These are some of the nastiest death scenes he's ever done.

What prevents the movie from reaching the realm of modern classic is the eventual irrelevance of its plot. The strange symbols on the walls that somehow give the killer immortality -hence why he resumes murdering when the renovations occur - are initially spooky, and it's involving to watch Nell go from creeped out to paranoid to investigative, but ultimately nothing is explained in a satisfying manner. There are several red herrings, but even after seeing the film several times, I'm not sure who or what the killer was supposed to be. He's revealed to have been a "Coffin Baby," born in a casket after his mother died, but that raises the question of what that has to do with the building. Eventually, the paranormal stuff gives way to slasher cliches, groups getting picked off one at a time, and the final girl, although this is handled fairly well.

Many people have given up on Tobe Hooper after a string of lackluster movies, but Toolbox Murders shows he still can give a good effort. I think he's got another classic in him. While this film isn't it, it shows he's back on track.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Day of the Dead (1985)

I never knew there had been any sequels to Night of the Living Dead until I did a middle school project on Mel Brooks. My mom bought me this thick, red book on Hollywood covering its history and periods to help me. Skimming through it, film critic Mark Kermode had a section on 80s horror films. He devoted a paragraph or two discussing Day of the Dead (1985), calling it a "supremely intelligent festival of gore" and praising director George Romero's allegorical, multi-layered script. I was stunned. Up until then, I had hated horror movies, and here was a respected scholar praising one for being deep. Before I saw it, Day of the Dead had changed my view of horror films.
Since the dead began to walk, society has been completely overrun. One scientist estimates 400,000 zombies for every human. The only people we see left are a small group of scientists and soldiers hiding in an underground bunker. The scientists, led by Dr. "Frankenstein" Logan (Richard Liberty), seek a solution. Logan believes training the zombies, teaching them to be docile, is the answer. He's making progress with Bub (Howard Sherman), a zombie who remembers aspects of his former life. The soldiers, led by Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), who has just assumed command following the death of the previous commanding officer, are growing agitated and violent. They want results. Sarah (Lori Cardille), another scientist, has the misfortune of being the only woman left and endures constant innuendo and harassment. The situation is a powder keg ready to go off.

1985 was really an incredible year for comedy horror. Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead is a hilarious spoof with a punk attitude that turned the zombie rules on their head, Re-Animator is Stuart Gordon's outrageously comic take on H.P Lovecraft, and Fright Night sees late-night horror host Roddy McDowell fighting a real vampire. But Day of the Dead is not comedic. It's much bleaker and less fun, especially compared to its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead (1978), a wild, comic-book style adventure and satire. Given the type of horror succeeding at the box office at the time, along with expectations of Romero's previous work (and reports of a comprised script due to budget concerns), it's no surprise Day was regarded as the black sheep of the series, but I'll say it's my favorite of Romero's work.

Romero has said in interviews each of his zombie movies represent a snapshot of the decades they were made in. Night came out in the late 60s during the Civil Rights Movement, race riots, and the Vietnam War. Dawn covers the disco decade and the rampant materialism and consumerism just starting to run amok. Day is aimed at the jingoistic and militaristic mindset of the Ronald Regan decade. The bunker, located in an abandoned nuclear missile silo and Seminole storage facility, contains the relics of the long-gone human civilization: financial records, boats, trailers, film negatives. As the helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander) says, the place is a "14-mile tombstone." In this case, it's a tombstone for a dead and buried society. Everything you need to know about humanity can be found in this enclave, including human behavior.

The scientists work endlessly, but even if they find anything, they won't be able to report it to anyone. Logan trains Bub, but does he honestly think he can train thousands of zombies? The military, brash and aggressive, with all its weaponry, is blunted. They can't hope to shoot every zombie, so they take it out on the scientists. The image of an empty silo symbolizes how ineffective the military's power and strength really was. Even in an unwinnable situation, the scientists and soldiers cling to outdated behavior and turn on each other. These people don't work together, and as in Romero's other work, that inability to unite for a common cause leads to their downfall. Rhodes is a tyrannical bully who only grows more paranoid and psychotic while Logan, well, he lives up to his nickname. Characters quarrel, bicker, fight, and kill each other. Man is the monster living in the shadowy graveyard while the undead amble down main street in broad daylight. This is emphasized further by Bub. As the remnants of humanity descend into barbarism, a zombie grows more civilized. In the final confrontation with Rhodes, Bub is clearly the hero.

The movie's not perfect. After an awe-inspiring opening sequence, including a nightmare and visit to a ruin city, the pace drags for about half the movie. Most of the characters are completely unlikeable, and it seems we spend too much time watching them bicker endlessly, re-establishing what we already know. The dialogue has its moments ("Choke on 'em!"), but it's not very good and loaded with unnecessary profanity. Rhodes, despite being the villain and carrying out a number of his threats, is so over-the-top, he's hard to take serious, although that might have been the intent (his men obey his rank, but they don't seem to respect him).

The gore and makeup effects by Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, etc.) are outstanding. Some really disgusting stuff happens to people. The bite wounds remain unmatched by anything in zombie movies since. The setting is overwhelmingly claustrophobic and dark, and the training scenes with Bub are some my favorites.

As much as I love the film, I wish there was more to it: more action, more of Logan's experiments, and more complexity to the characters. But what's there is great. It's dark, intense, and thought-provoking. Some people find it slow and repetitive, but it stands as one of my favorite zombie movies.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Washington's Secret War

I'm always annoyed by people who say they don't follow politics, as if the process is somehow beneath them. Honestly, everything is political whether it's the government, the workplace, Hollywood, schools, or children's recreation. A few days ago, I spoke to the head of an executive search firm. He said no matter what the position is and how good you think you are at it, there's always someone who thinks they're more deserving of it and will angle for it.

Looking back on American history, people tend to isolate George Washington from any form of politics. As the Father of the Country, Washington kept himself above that petty process, we've all agreed. However, in his book Washington's Secret War (2005), historian Thomas Fleming, who's written about a dozen books on the American Revolution, argues Washington not only displayed crucial leadership in the country's fight for independence, but he was a cunning political strategist who outmaneuvered his rivals and enemies, both in the Continental Army and Congress. Politician has become a dirty word in America, but Fleming describes how Washington's skill as a politician not only salvaged his reputation, it kept his army intact and helped ensure a young nation's survival.

December 19, 1777, Washington leads his Continentals into what will be their winter encampment, Valley Forge. The army is demoralized. The British under General William Howe have taken Philadelphia and defeated the Americans at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. While the Redcoats will live comfortably and be well supplied in the American capital, the Continentals must endure hardship because their broken supply system has left them with an inadequate supply of shoes, clothes, and food. The situation is grim, and a faction formed in Congress, which safely evacuated to York, feels Washington is no longer fit to command. These politicians -including John and Samuel Adams - begin working with certain army officers to displace Washington and install General Horatio Gates, the "victor" at Saratoga, as commander-in-chief. Washington faces three threats: the plot in Congress, the collapse of his army, and the British in Philadelphia.

Fleming covers a lot of ground in a relatively narrow period of the Revolution. The crux of the book is the machinations against Washington, his response and his ultimate victory against them, but we also read about British activities in Philadelphia, the efforts to feed and clothe the American soldiers, state politics in Pennsylvania, the status of the war and the alliance between the U.S. and France, the professionalization of the American army by Baron Freidrich von Steuben, the role of the Marquis de Lafayette, guerrilla warfare and smuggling outside the two armies, and the Battle of Monmouth. Fleming also paints vivid portraits of the figures involved: Washington, Gates, President of Congress Henry Laurens, his son John who served as an aide to Washington, Lafayette, Steuben, and other generals and politicians. It keeps the book from being a dry history lesson.

The Conway Cabal, as the conspiracy against Washington is popularly known (named for General Thomas Conway who participated) makes for fairly involving intrigue. We like to think that when our fledgling country was forming, the patriots joined in common cause for liberty, but that wasn't the case. Many revolutionaries were in it for their own gain, and these particular conspirators politicked to gain power. Through letters, innuendo, and attacks on Washington's subordinates such as Nathaniel Greene, they tried to paint Washington as an indecisive, ineffective leader who would lead the nation to ruin. Washington responded by building allies in Congress such as Laurens (who was swayed in part by his son's admiration for the general) and playing the political game. All the while, he never lost sight of the Revolution's goal. With all these competing interests and hostile parties, he managed a delicate balance.

The most heartbreaking material concerns the suffering of the soldiers. Contrary to popular belief, the winter itself as Valley Forge was not too bad. The men were reasonably warm, and food and supplies were readily available throughout the nation, but Congress' mismanagement of the supply system and its radical members' distrust of a standing army kept them from getting to the army. Additionally, corruption and fraud ran rampant in the supply department with many of the men appointed there by Congress often ignoring complaints from the army and diverting resources and money to their own private interests.Most men who died did so from starvation or disease, not the cold.

When I watch or read the news, I'm often depressed by the petty and self-serving nature of many politicians. After reading Washington's Secret War, I'm more optimistic. Politicians and bureaucrats have always been around, but in spite of them, many great and important tasks have been accomplished. Fleming examines an under reported story of the Revolutionary War and weaves a compelling tale that illustrates how great Americans can get things done.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Beverly Hills Ninja

When I was a little kid, every movie I saw was the greatest movie ever. Whether through my own naivety or skilled marketing on the part of advertisers, I accepted and loved anything on screen. I can't say it led to my development of a more critical eye, but when I first saw Beverly Hills Ninja (1997), I knew even then it sucked. A while ago back, I said my friends and I need to pick better movies to watch on Saturday night. Last week, we watched Ravenous, but I already reviewed that. We watched this lame Chris Farley vehicle a month ago, and I'm still annoyed.

After being washed ashore in Japan as a baby, Haru (Farley) has been raised as a ninja at a dojo where it's believed he will be the great white ninja of prophecy. Haru, however, is fat, stupid, and clumsy (surprise, surprise) and nowhere near the ninja of his brother Gobei (Robin Shou). When a mysterious woman (Nicollette Sheridan) arrives looking for help, Haru goes to Beverly Hills and becomes embroiled in a plot involving gangsters, counterfeiters, and murderers while adapting to this strange new culture.

This is bad. It is lazy comedy at its worst. Every scene consists of Farley trying to be heroic, bumping into something, and falling down. That's kind of amusing the first time and in short bits on Saturday Night Live, but it wears thin quickly. Lets go down the list. Does he rip his clothes? Check. Bump into someone? Check. Get hit in the face? Check. Babble incoherently? Check.

The plot makes no sense, like it mattered. You'd think a clan of elite ninjas would not raise such an inept student before tossing him out. Plus, why would they keep this baby? If this were a period film, that might be plausible, but they live in modern Japan. I guess there are no orphanages. There's that prophecy, but at what point were they going to wring their hands and say they messed up? I know plot is not relatively important in a slapstick movie, but there needs to be some sort of internal logic. Otherwise, there's no reason to care; it's a guy acting like an idiot.

The worst is the false sentimentality added to make me feel sympathetic toward Haru (he loves his brother, wants to make him proud, and he's doing his best). I can't feel sorry for anyone this stupid. It's also hypocritical of the filmmakers to build their entire movie around the oafishness and ineptitude of its main character and then demand sentiment for him.

Maybe the movie would have been funny if Haru was competent. To see a fat guy do ninja stuff probably would have worn thin too, but it would have had more mileage than the fat oaf who screws everything up. Farley had already played that role so many times, it was old before the first frame was filmed.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Big Heat

German director Fritz Lang made two of the most influential movies ever: the police procedural M (1931) and the sci-fi dystopia Metropolis (1927). The Big Heat (1953) emerged in the latter part of his career, and while not as groundbreaking or as effective, it's an effective film noir.

Homicide detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), married with a young child, investigates the suicide of a police sergeant. The man's widow (Carolyn Jones) tells a suspicious story, and Bannion is led to a barfly (Doroth Green), who winds up dead after telling him the dead sergeant had planned to divorce his wife. Bannion digs deeper, discouraged at every turn by his lieutenent (Willis Bouchey) and the police commissioner (Howard Wendell). All signs point to the local kingpin, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and his henchman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who's got a floozy girlfriend, Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame). Soon, the case hits Bannion close to home.

If you've seen any number of film noirs, you won't be surprised by anything in The Big Heat. The plot is stripped down to its most basic elements, and Lang doesn't linger on background details; he doesn't even try to hide the identities of the evil characters or offer red herrings. Bannion pieces together their involvement and works to prove their connections to the crime. There aren't really any twists or shocking revelations.

On one hand, this give the film momentum and a quick pace. The film is taut and lean. However, the movie is a little more straightforward and mainstream than you'd expect from a director of Lang's skill. The twisted psychology of M and the groundbreaking visuals of Metropolis have been replaced by a project that feels like a work-for-hire. It's done with aplomb and craft, but it doesn't do much to distinguish itself from other noirs. I took similar issue with Orson Welles' The Stranger, although this is not as disappointing.

Lang still works some of his trademark touches. The corrupt intermingling of police and criminal elements hearkens back to his critique of Nazi power. Lagana is the behind-the-scenes mogul who controls everything and is set up as something of a postwar fascist. Police stand guard outside his mansion, and he learns all investigation details straight from the top. Although we never learn exactly what his criminal syndicate does, he mentions an upcoming election, suggesting he already controls the city in everything but name and is astute at manipulating public opinion. But in honesty, he's not as threatening as similar characters in Lang's other films. More dangerous is Stone, the type of guy who'd throw scalding coffee on his girlfriend's face when he finds out she went somewhere with a detective. Then again, he is played by Lee Marvin. It's through Stone, who in turn uses a network of thugs, blackmailers, and killers, that Lagana suppresses threats to his rule.

Toward the end, the film did move in an unexpected manner. The plot builds up Bannion as a tough, take-no-crap-from-anyone loose cannon, and yet SPOILER, the resolution comes from the actions of Debby, who transitions from a ditz to someone more aware of what's she's involved in to a woman of action. It's an unexpected characterization given the era, and it probably could have carried the entire movie. Since it occurs in the last 20 minutes or so, it feels a little rushed.END SPOILER That turn of events gives the movie a pretty unique edge for its time.

The Big Heat is an effective film noir and still holds up reasonably well. It does its job and does it with skill and speed, but there's not much more to it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Don't Look Now

I became aware of Don't Look Now (1973) several years ago when the Bravo Channel first did its countdown of the 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and this movie appeared on the list. It looked interesting enough, and after hearing what it was about, it sounded like it was up my alley. The problem was twofold: the Bravo Channel gave away the ending (it'll give a warning about blood and gore but not for spoilers), and John Landis' comment on said ending took away any possibility of me taking the climax seriously. The challenge for me was to try to become involved in the film and be absorbed by the journey if not the destination. Sadly, the knowledge of the resolution distracted me too much. This was a disappointment.

Following the drowning death of their young daughter, architect John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) spend time in Venice where he's overseeing the renovation of a historical church. They meet a pair of sisters (Clelia Matania and Hilary Mason), one of whom is a blind psychic who says she can see their daughter. However, she also warns John is in danger while he's in Venice. Laura takes that as a sign to leave, but John is doubtful until weird things begin happening around him. He also begins seeing a small figure on the streets at night wearing a similar red raincoat to the one his daughter wore the day she died.

Let's get to the good first. The film has an unearthly, unsettling atmosphere. It feels creepy, and as you're watching it, you're not sure what's real. The authentic Venice setting really adds a lot of character to the proceedings, and the performances by Christie and Sutherland are solid; they feel like a real couple coping with a trauma. The fact she really wants to believe her daughter is still present and he refuses to believe gives the supernatural occurences a more poignant, deeper meaning than most ghost movies.

But it's all for naught. Everything is buildup, buildup, buildup, and the payoff is a letdown, whether you knew what it would be or not. The film moves so slowly, you keep expecting it the resolution to be something that makes it all worthwhile, but it doesn't. The climax doesn't make sense, or at least its resolution. Maybe I just don't get it, but I don't see what it had to do with the rest of the movie. It felt arbitrary and comes out of nowhere.

Don't Look Now is a letdown. The ingredients for a classic are there, but it just didn't come together. Maybe the spoiled ending made me biased, or maybe my expecations were too high.Perhaps I can re-visit it in a few years with a more open mind.