J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for February, 2011

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Posted by J on February 16, 2011

A professor of ours once declared that there was only one good science fiction work.  Everything else in the genre, he claimed, was simplistic and soon would be outdated, if it wasn’t already.  For science fiction is about ideas and tech, not humans, which is what great literature has to be about.  In science fiction, all characters are one-dimensional. They act in the plot according to their two or three major character traits, and they tend not to exhibit complexity.

We preface this short essay about the first Star Trek movie with this caution about science fiction because Star Trek, as everyone knows, makes little effort to portray human complexities.  Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy are who they are, always. Yes, Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan, but he is merely a simplistic symbol of the clash between logic and emotion.  These characters have amazing adventures, encounter new places, and maintain their friendship.  Their beloved status is accorded to them by viewers and fans, who feel a sense of comfort in any story they inhabit.

But, like we were trying to say, they’re not rich, complex characters. Star Trek is about the adventure and the ideas behind the Enterprise’s encounters with new aliens and planets. The franchise, like this first movie, tends to rip off of Western “classics.”  Here, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a major influence. In the second Star Trek movie, Moby-Dick is employed.

The first Star Trek movie, this one, might be the best, which isn’t saying much. Its flaws are numerous. It is badly dated, for one.  The tech might’ve looked fascinating in 1979, but it shows limited imagination today.  Like those really small viewer screens, for example. Wouldn’t they be larger, crisper, and three-dimensional today? But again, in science fiction, the wonders of tech soon become outdated jokes.

The idea behind this first movie is that human technology can develop its own consciousness, which is not all that interesting an idea anymore.  The big secret here is that the NASA probe Voyager has become a living organism.  It emits a massive cloud that destroys everything, and the big problem is that this cloud is heading for Earth. The Enterprise is the only ship that has a chance of stopping it.  So Kirk, Spock, and friends, try to stop the cloud.

That’s about it for the plot. It should be said that Voyager did not develop consciousness on its own, but that some bizarre race of machines way beyond the galaxy, or somewhere, took in Voyager and gave it consciousness.  We are supposed to be overawed with what Voyager has become. It is massive and powerful, according to the crew. It tries to communicate with the crew via a human-like probe, after taking one of the ship’s crew and using her body as the probe.  This idea, that we can communicate fairly easily with the unknown, is silly. The hope of easy communication fuels SETI’s futile search for the alien life, but the novels of Stanislaw Lem offer cautionary wisdom about the impossibility of communicating with something so completely different than us.  (Lem, of course, uses science fiction to discuss complex human issues.)

Despite Voyager’s superior intelligence and technology, it is a moron. It couldn’t, for example, figure out who the “Creator” is.  The Creator is NASA, but Voyager thinks that “carbon-based units” are too simplistic to create anything. Voyager has traveled through the galaxy, it has unimaginable quantities of data, it has incredible reasoning capability, and yet it can’t figure out that humans are capable of building machines?

But the worst howler is that Voyager thinks its name is “V-ger.”  That because it didn’t blow the dust off the letters “O – Y – A.”  When Kirk and company finally see “V-ger,” they realize that its name is actually Voyager, only that those three crucial letters can’t be seen.

It has to be said that Star Trek is always filled with unintentional comedy like this, so it makes for decent, light, nonsensical entertainment for those like us who have a soft spot for science fiction. There’s a sense in which this movie is one of the most boring of all Star Trek stories, but we kind of like its attempt at grandiosity and the involvement of the Voyager probe. Other Trek fare features human-like aliens, and thus dives into sociology and politics. But Trek is at its limited best when its about grand ideas about tech, so, in a sense, this is possibly the best movie of the series.

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Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | 2 Comments »

The Devil’s Brigade

Posted by J on February 15, 2011

We thought there was a rule that no WWII mission movie could be unwatchable.  No such movie can go wrong, theoretically.  The premise promises adventure — a team of soldiers or commandos goes on an impossible mission in exotic territory.  The setting is wartime, and the good guys and bad guys are obvious and without ambiguity.

Yet The Devil’s Brigade is one of the lesser of WWII mission movies, unwatchable in parts, and trite in every way.  Here the mission is for a band of misfits to get in shape, then storm a mountain where unreachable Nazis fire artillery guns at will.  But the movie sucks the life out of this mission, meandering whenever it needs to move forward.

There is a standard formula for movies like this.  It goes according to this plan:

1) Commanding officer gets a special assignment, then assembles group of outcasts and criminals to prepare to perform special assignment.  Each outcast has his own wacky, distinctive personality.

2) The group of outcasts doesn’t gel at first.  There will be a fistfight or two, but then an incident occurs that unites them as a group.  Usually this incident involves fistfights, too.

3) The group of outcasts get a special assignment, but something goes wrong, except team spirit and willpower overcome whatever went wrong.  In the end, the commanding officer will survive, as will a few of the outcasts, but many of them will die and each will get his own special moment where he dies gloriously in battle.

While The Devil’s Brigade follows this generic formula, it goes wrong in a number of ways.  The first is that none of the individual members of the brigade are all that interesting.  None is a colorful character.  Even near the end of the movie, it’s hard to distinguish one guy from another, even though the movie has tried very hard to establish its characters as likeable and unique.

The second way it goes wrong is that it gives the brigade two special assignments, thereby limiting the screen time spent on each assignment.  As a result, the brigade’s first mission is incredibly dull — sneaking into a base and catching a few German officers showering.  The movie does promise that the brigade will go to Norway, which would’ve been the best route for the plot to take, except the brigade gets shipped off to Italy instead.  While this may be historically accurate, the movie does little justice to the real Devil’s Brigade anyway, so why not have a cool snow battle in Norway involving skiing and crossbows?

The movie was released in 1968, in the opening years of the Vietnam war, which means it’s really about Vietnam and not WWII.  It argues for an military alliance with Canada, a signifier for any potential foreign ally that we might not like (the Americans harbor antipathy for the Canadians in the movie) but that would be useful anyway.  It’s hard to watch this now and not think that the outcasts, criminals, and rapscallions who comprise the brigade are representative of wayward youths in the late ’60s, the kinds of guys needed in 1968 for the U.S. Army.  The movie shows us that we can trust these wayward youths, who can be turned into a valiant fighting force for good, if only we give some courageous leader like William Holden a chance.  Fortunately, the ending to The Devil’s Brigade isn’t all that happy, but any WWII mission movie like this inherently praises modern war as the pinnacle for the exhibition of several male virtues, such as courage, endurance, and toughness.  Unfortunately, to get through this movie without falling asleep, you too will need these virtues.

Posted in Action, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

The Wages of Fear

Posted by J on February 12, 2011

Apparently, there’s an audience for watching tough guys do dangerous jobs.  There’s no other explanation for the popularity of the cable TV shows about deep sea fishermen, ice road truckers, demolition experts, barbarian beef eaters, and skydiving snake handlers.  At least a few people like to dream that a tiny part of the world isn’t touched by feminine influence.  Would you be surprised to know that a 1953 French movie would fit right in on the TV schedule after Iceroad TruckersThe Wages of Fear works as a modern guy movie.

What’s fascinating is the way it’s presented nowadays.  Look at the cover from the Criterion Collection’s DVD.  It depicts a couple of tired and defeated men, looking like they’ve been watching a bunch of boring Criterion films in a row.  Reader, do not pay heed to this cover.  Look at the original movie poster above.  That’s the movie you will see.  These tired-looking men have a fantastic reason to look tired.  They’re driving a truck filled with nitroglycerin for 300 miles down a terrible road.  They could blow up at any second!  At the point in the movie where they look tired, they’ve just hauled the truck out of a pool of oil, and the guy on the left got his leg smashed.

The movie starts in South America — Brazil, Venezuela, Suriname, we don’t know — in a forsaken place where there are a few ex-pats.  Some Americans, Germans, Brits, Italians, and French hang around a tiny bar in a tiny town that exists to serve the oil industry.  The American company, SOC, operates oil wells near the town.  But the ex-pats can’t get a job, so they just bum around at the bar all day.

Jo, an old French guy, arrives in town and meets Mario, a young French guy.  Mario takes to Jo, who shows his toughness in a near-bar fight.  Mario would like to hang around Jo and leave his French girlfriend, who seems to be the local prostitute.  But how can he ditch that girlfriend?  And where will he get a job?

Well, an oil well explodes.  SOC needs to put out the fire, and it needs explosives to do it. Bill O’Brien, head of SOC’s operations, wants the job done now, without regard to safety.  He orders that regular old trucks haul containers of nitroglycerin to the oil wells.  These trucks don’t have shock absorbers, so one bad bump and BOOM!  Who will drive these trucks?  O’Brien reasons that the local ex-pats will do it.  They don’t have a union and they’ll each jump at the chance to earn $2000 for a day’s work. (This explains the Criterion’s cover, which has an implicit political message about colonialism, exploitation, capitalist greed, and whatever else is supposedly wrong with the world.)

Four drivers are selected, all of whom we’ve learned a little about in the movie’s first hour, including Jo and Mario.  Two trucks will go, two men per truck. Why two trucks? In case one of them blows up.

So the trucks begin a long journey down a perilous road.  We know this is a total guy movie because, as Mario’s truck leaves town, his girlfriend jumps onto it.  Mario pushes her off, she falls onto the road, and she watches the men leave.  The scene closes on her as if to say “no women are allowed passed this point!”  Hauling nitroglycerin, it turns out, is only a job for the toughest of guys. (The ending, which has baffled all kinds of people, absolutely reinforces this point about “no women allowed.”)

The mission seems suicidal.  What happens if the trucks hit a washboard road?  How do they handle hairpin turns up steep hills?  How do they get around boulders that have fallen into the road?  The movie’s tense moments hold up well against any modern action movie you can name.    In fact, reader, the last hour-and-a-half of The Wages of Fear is one of the best stretches in cinema’s short history.  It makes the iceroad truckers look like they are making cupcakes.

Posted in Action, Great | Leave a Comment »

The Straight Story

Posted by J on February 10, 2011

There are a lot of road movies, many of which are about individual catharsis. Few, if any, are better than The Straight Story, a celebration of the upper Midwest.  If you’ve experienced them, you’ve probably enjoyed leisurely drives on two-lane highways through the endless cornfields of the Midwest.  This movie offers you such a drive, only you’ll be going at a much slower pace.  Think three miles an hour, on a lawnmower.

Why a lawnmower?  Well, Alvin Straight doesn’t have many options.  He’s diabetic, so he can’t see well, and his hips don’t work so he has to use two canes.  Somewhat stubborn, he insists on going by himself.  And there’s no bus to his brother’s house.  You can’t expect any kind of transportation from Laurens, Iowa to western Wisconsin, unless you provide it yourself.

Straight hasn’t talked to his brother in ten years, when he learns that his brother has suffered a stroke.  73 years old, given a bill of poor health by his doctor, it is now or never for Alvin.  He desires reconciliation with his estranged brother.  With no wife and and one adult child at his home, Alvin could leave, if there were any way to do so.  How can he get to his brother?  That clunky old Rehms lawnmower might be the way to go.

So Alvin stocks up on hotdogs, builds a trailer to tow behind his lawnmower, and heads out.  He’s got 400 miles to traverse.  As it will turn out, this journey is not simply about reconciling with his brother, but dealing with loneliness and old age.

Based on a true story, The Straight Story is not straightforward in its description of Straight’s history.  During his six-week journey, he meets several strangers — a pregnant runaway, a group of bicyclers, a Catholic priest.  At each stop, in each conversation, we learn something new about Straight.  He had 14 children, but only seven lived past childbirth.  He has been a widow for 15 years.  And he is a WWII vet who lives with the pain of a terrible accident.  The more we learn about Straight, the better the movie gets.

Does Straight reach his brother?  He is threatened by the fast pace of vehicles that pass him by.  He also doesn’t have brakes on his trailer, a major problem because his lawnmower is certainly not designed to pull that trailer.   It’s hard to imagine the transmission on his ’66 John Deere lasting for 400 miles — his old Rehms broke down a few miles into the journey.  What would happen if the John Deere breaks down? Not only do we find out, but the movie makes you feel as if you are traveling at Straight’s pace, watching everything else move too quickly. Straight’s pace, it seems, is the right pace for such a journey.

At one point, Straight tells us that he and his brother had, at their last meeting, the harshest of exchanges, fueled by alcohol.  But they used to camp out every summer night on their Minnesota farm, as children, talking to each other.  A brother knows you best, Straight reasons, because he knows your whole life.  Straight’s journey and his attempt to reconcile with family is deeply affecting.  It is a puzzle why more movies like this — G-rated, but not saccharine — don’t exist. The Straight Story is the opposite of Facing the Giants and it makes the hyper-emotional nonsense of such Christian fare look foolish. We should not forget it.

Posted in Great, Modern Drama | Leave a Comment »

The Prisoner (1955)

Posted by J on February 3, 2011

The cardinal is arrested.  He is told that he is a man of the church, someone outside of the state.  For suspected treason, he is interrogated and tortured for weeks, and he is ordered to confess his crimes against the state.  So goes the setup of The Prisoner (1955), a movie relevant today for its portrayal of a lawless democratic regime that has no regard for habeus corpus or human dignity.

This movie was somewhat scandalous when it was first released.  Banned at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, the movie might have been considered, by any viewer, an attack against post-World War II, Western governments that were occupied by Germany during WWII.  In the opening scene, the cardinal, pictured on the DVD cover, is arrested just after mass.  What he is arrested for is unclear.  He soon faces an interrogator, a seemingly friendly man whose job it is to get the cardinal to confess something.  This begins a battle of wits between the two men.  But the interrogator has resources on his side; he can edit the cardinal’s tape-recorded words, and he can torture him psychologically.

What crime did the cardinal commit?  We are never even told. The Prisoner is quite vague on details, and so it can apply to many historical scenarios.  The characters do not have names; they are simply the cardinal and the interrogator.  We do not know the country in which the cardinal is arrested, although there are hints that it takes place in France.

We do, however, know that both he and the interrogator were part of the Resistance movement against their former Nazi occupiers.  After the war, each man finds himself loyal to different authorities.  The cardinal’s chief crime, it seems, is to harbor some loyalty to an authority outside the state, in this case, the Catholic church.  As he tells the interrogator, the modern Western state that has arrested him has acted no differently than the Nazis.  The Prisoner is adamant that democracies can be totalitarian tyrannies.

Essentially a simple morality tale about the modern state run amuck, the movie is a setpiece for its two main actors, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins.  Guinness plays the cardinal, a man subjected to thorough psychological examination, whose crimes — a suicide attempt in his past; little affection for his mother — really amount to nothing except “human weakness”.  The interrogator, played by Hawkins, tries to know the cardinal better than the cardinal knows himself.  His attempted friendship, however, will only be used to get the cardinal to confess uncommitted crimes against the state in court.

The highlights of the movie are its themes about democratic tyrannies — as relevant today as ever — and the interplay between Guinness and Hawkins.  The script is its chief problem; many lines and scenes are predictable.  We wished that Graham Greene would’ve written this script instead, but Greene would never have written anything this aesthetically simply.  The movie displays many of Greene’s major themes, one of which is the Western trudge towards a totalitarianism accepted by the general populace.  The key character in the The Prisoner is the interrogator, a nice man, whose unquestioned allegiance to the state ruins the application of his intelligent mind and warps his human compassion.  There are a lot of these people today.

Posted in Modern Drama, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »