Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I, THE AUDIENCE: August 2007 

I split up "I, The Audience." I watch so many 1930s films that I decided to review them separately and maybe focus on why I like the 1930s so much. But I am not going to stop watching non-1930s films entirely. Heck, no! Why just a few weeks ago, I went and saw "The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." And it's great!



I really like this movie. So there! Sue me.

I have really low expectations for movies based on comic books. Far too often, the filmmaker seems to have nothing but contempt for the source material, dismissing it as childish trash. (Maybe it just seems like the filmmaker is contemptuous. But I remember an interview with Joel Schumacher, director of the terrible, terrible, terrible Val Kilmer and George Clooney Bat-Man movies, where he sounded like an idiot, and I thought: Bat-Man is one of the most popular fictional characters of all time. Would it have been that hard to find a director who likes the character?)

So after dismissing the source material as stupid, the filmmakers change everything and come up with a script with a bunch of stuff that is stupider than anything that has ever been in a comic book. (Exhibit A: Joel Schumacher Bat-Man movies. Exhibit B: "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." Pee-yew!)

My low expectations for comic book movies served me very well for the first Fantastic Four movie. I found much to enjoy. They came very close to capturing the spirit of the early days of the comic book series, stuff like, the tragedy of the Thing, Johnny being an asshole, Reed being a sort of oblivious, brainy butt-head, stuff like that. Most of the characters were well-cast. Even Jessica Alba, while not very much like Sue Storm, was splendid. (And really beautiful, of course.)

So, there were a few scenes that I liked so much that it very much made up for all the dumb stuff. And, make no mistake, there was a lot of dumb stuff.

The second one still captures the spirit of the Fantastic Four at a slightly later date, mixing elements of FF issues #48 to #50 and #57 to #60. And, yeah, there's some dumb stuff. The most noticeable "dumb stuff" is the "characterization" of Galactus, an oversight that will disappoint a lot of longtime fans. But remember what I said about going in with low expectations? You don't have to set them particularly low for this movie. Just recognize that you will not be seeing "The Galactus Trilogy." Instead of The Watcher, you get a stupid army guy. Instead of the Ultimate Nullifier, you get a … well, I'm not exactly sure … a tachyon disrupter? Instead of Crystal, you get a cute blonde army chick. Instead of Galactus, you get a … space cloud?

Despite the misstep with Galactus, the second Fantastic Four movie is a helluva lot better than the first one, with very little cringe-inducing dumbness and a lot more excitement and wonderment, for adults and kids alike. The Silver Surfer is pretty nifty, Dr. Doom is back, Johnny is still a dick, Reed is brilliant and awkward (you should see him at his bachelor party), Ben is all orange and gross and gravel-voiced and so Ben, and Jessica Alba kicks ass as Sue.

(If Sue Storm fought Elizabeth Swan, who would win? My money's on Elizabeth.)

If you love big, stupid, blowin'-shit-up, summer movies, you could do a lot worse than the second Fantastic Four movie. What are you waiting for? "Daddy Day Camp"? "Underdog"? I got a bad feeling about the summer movies after "The Simpsons." August will not be pretty. Go see "Fantastic Four II" while you still can.



Perhaps this is as good a time as any to discuss the problem of British Cinema.

Which is this: Britain has a cinema. They don't really seem to know what to do with it for the most part; they don't really know a whole lot about how to put a movie together; cinema seems to be more of an afterthought to the British, as if they thought, "Look at the Yanks and the Frogs. They make movies, I dare say we could make movies better than that."

So they make movies.

Ho hum.

British Cinema is sort of the opposite of Russian Cinema. Russia makes really awesome good movies and, at the other end of the spectrum, they produce some of the most startlingly self-indulgent, madness-inducing cinema in the world. They make the best good movies and the worst bad movies. Russian magic at work.

(Don't ever change, comrades.)

British Cinema, in contrast, makes more average movies than any country in the world. They're just sort of there. Oh, sure, there are a few anomalies, such as "If …" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and the James Bond movies, but, in general, I doubt that I'm the only film fan who tends to stay away from British films for fear that I will be bored. Bored stupid. Bored batty. Bored. Bored. Bored. Bored.

Which brings me to "Counterblast," a 1948 British film that has all the ingredients for an exciting film except excitement.

The movie starts with a completely black screen and yelling and sirens and so on. You have no idea what's going on. Fortunately, the movie kindly shows us a newspaper headline that tells us that several Nazi officers have escaped from a POW camp. The worst of the bunch is Dr. Bruckner.

Dr. Bruckner is a Nazi bacteriologist who looks like Nathan Lane. He makes contact with Britain's extensive network of undercover Nazis (including a young Dick Cheney) which gives him some money and new clothes and an appointment to Oxford as a bacteriologist. (He takes the place of a man named Dr. Forrester who has returned to England after many years in Australia. Bruckner makes the real Dr. Forrester listen to loud music, subjects him to meaningless small talk and, when that doesn't work, hits him with a vase and injects him with poison.)

So the new Dr. Forrester goes to Oxford and sets up a laboratory in the basement and starts working on a vaccine for a horrible plague. When he has perfected the vaccine, all the Nazis who are on the loose will be vaccinated and then the plague will be unleashed on all those mean English, Americans, French, Russians, Poles and so forth who were so mean to the poor Nazis when all they wanted was a living room. These Nazis are waiting for "Der Tag," German for "The Day," when a new Hitler will arise and a Fourth Reich will be established in which the Aryans will truly be supreme because everyone else will be dead. (Which, it seems to me, is cheating.)

(This reminds me very much of all the Bush voters so eagerly waiting around for "The Rapture.")

I've heard of "Der Tag" before and I'm wondering if there was any reality to it. Were there really undercover Nazi hordes planning for a new Hitler, a plague, a nuclear bomb, etc., or was it just a lot of Allied postwar paranoia? I've seen this in Captain America comic books, some movies, and the second James Bond novel has an element of Nazi rebirth in the villain Drax and his plan to blow up London. So now I'm curious. Did all those Nazis-in-hiding influence the neoconservatives and the current conservative movement? They seem to have the Nazi playbook memorized, so I was just wondering if there's a connection.

So a bunch of stuff happens, and there's a female assistant who doesn't know Dr. Forrester is a Nazi, and her boyfriend is suspicious and Dr. Forrester tests the vaccine on the female assistant and it works, but he gets found out at the last minute and he tries to escape and he hides on a ship in the hold and they lock him in the hold and the ship is evacuated because it is being fumigated for rats, and the Nazi doctor, who killed a bunch of rats in his experiments, is poisoned and dies like a rat.

The irony, the irony.

Not really bad, but not very good, either. It's about 20 minutes too long. And it’s so British.


THE HEAD – 1959

And now for a few words about German Cinema. The only time the Germans make decent movies is when the movie has a title like "The Head."

Take, for instance, "The Head."

It's about a head. The head is a good mad scientist who kept a dog's head alive, disconnected from the body. He is doing important work that will help transplants of organs and limbs. He has a couple of assistants who don’t seem to be mad scientists at all. Then he hires an evil mad scientist named Dr. Ood. Dr. Ood is totally creepy and you're going, What the Hell! Don't hire him! He's really creepy! And his name is Dr. Ood! What a giveaway!

But then you realize that they are all Germans (despite the weird dubbing) and so Dr. Ood isn't really particularly creepy for a German.

So the good mad scientist has a bad heart and he dies but Dr. Ood saves him by cutting off his head and connecting it to a bunch of tubes. And Dr. Ood kills one of the other scientists and starts stalking and harassing a stripper named Lilly.

There's a girl with a hunchback and Dr. Ood takes a liking to her so he kills Lilly and attaches the hunchback girl's head to the stripper's body. Complications ensue.

Pretty good for a German movie. Actually, German horror from this period is pretty nifty.



I saw this on cable. I turned it on about 15 minutes into it, so I can't speak for the beginning, but what I saw was pretty good. Marie Windsor, the totally awesome Marie Windsor, was in her kitchen talking to a delivery boy. She gave him a beer and then hustled him out the back door when her boyfriend showed up. Well, the delivery boy didn't take it too well, hurling the beer across the San Francisco skyline and wadding up the dress she gave him to take to the cleaners.

Delivery Boy is the star of the picture. It's not a very nice picture. After he finishes his workday, he pulls his rifle out of the locked drawer in his dresser, and then he stalks Marie Windsor. She walks down San Francisco streets. (One of the great things about this movie is the use of the city. San Francisco is one of the stars of the movie.) Delivery Boy follows her to the dive bar where she plays the piano. He sneaks into a nearby building and sets up a rifleman’s nest on the roof. When she gets off work, he shoots her.

That's it for Marie Windsor. She dead. Which is shame because she is so awesome.

He's a bit of a loon so the chicks tend to stay away in droves. Which pisses him off, so he starts picking them off, one by one, all the chicks in San Francisco. The police are trying to get him (including Adolphe Menjou) but his modus operandi is so random that it's hard to get any clues.

Great movie. Highly recommended for people who like gritty, step-by-step 1950s crime dramas about serial killers.



This is a family movie about a rat who makes his way to Paris and becomes a great French chef. It's very good. Maybe not in the same class as "Finding Nemo," but not too far off. Several parts prompted me to obnoxious, vulgar laughter.



This is pretty good. Barry Fitzgerald (of "Going My Way" fame) is a New York homicide detective trying to solve the murder of a girl found dead in a bathtub. It's one of the first movies to delve into the specifics of police work, following the steps of the detectives as they follow every clue. Shot on location all over New York. Fitzgerald is pretty awesome. Good movie. I got no jokes for movies like this.



This movie has Alan Ladd. And it's about the whaling industry and how the Norwegians had women captains on whaling vessels in the 1950s. And about how Americans with no whaling experience can be as good as Norwegian whaling ship captains in a matter of days. (If the American is played by Alan Ladd.) And it also has a very exciting conclusion on Antarctica, where the whalers take a few days off to go and club singing penguins to death, crying, "You sound like Al Gore! Stupid hippie penguins!"

Well, I made up the last part, but it might have saved this movie from the mind-numbing mediocrity into which it descends. Let's see, it all starts with the death of a whaling captain. He's the owner of a whaling fleet. His daughter suspects foul play, partly because of how suspicious everyone is acting when she says she wants to go down to the fleet (in the waters around Antarctica) and investigate. "Don't worry your purty little head about it, sweetheart," says her father's business partner. So she flies to Capetown (a city in South Africa famous for providing capes for Superman, Bat-Man and other super-people) mostly to find out what happened to her father, but also to piss off the condescending chauvinist assholes who are still champing at the bit over the women's suffrage movement.

She meets Alan Ladd on the plane and he thinks she looks enough like Sherilynn Fenn to follow her down to Antarctica, with a side trip to beat up a guy in a hotel room. (I'm not going to explain the strange chain of events that enable him to end up as the captain of a whaling ship by movie's end. I suspect they edited out the parts with the magic cat that fulfills his every wish.)

Anyway, it turns out the daughter was right about the foul play. The business partner's son used to be her fiancée and now he's a whaling captain and an ex-Nazi (who helped the Germans round up the underground resistance in Norway) and, worst of all, he sneers a lot. The only way they could have made it more obvious that he was the culprit would be if they said he was a Bush appointee.

So they kill some whales and do some investimagatin' and get into fights and Alan Ladd ends up fighting the ex-Nazi in an epic battle on the Antarctic continent.

Not particularly good, not particularly bad.



Wow! "Sansho the Bailiff" is a really awesome Japanese movie about feudal Japan, the samurai era, but it is not a samurai movie. It's about a noble family where the dad gets in trouble for arguing with the generals over the treatment of the peasants. He gets sent into exile, and his wife and two children are accosted by bandits and sold into slavery. The two kids are sold to a mean, old guy called Sansho the bailiff, who has the worst facial hair this side of "Gettysburg." They grow into adulthood thinking of only one thing: being reunited with their parents.

Beautiful, crisp, black and white cinematography, sublime acting, gorgeous scenery, brilliant direction and a compelling storyline are just a few of the delightful elements of this awesome cinematic fable. Except for Sansho's facial hair, I can't make fun of this.


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