Seven more movies

A Life at Stake (1954)

This movie has overpowering music, and a gaping plot hole about halfway through, but other than those problems, it’s OK.

A shirtless architect enters into a big-money real estate deal with Angela Lansbury in a swimsuit, who’s 40 years younger than you might remember her.

♦ ♦ ♦

Blow-Up (1966)

A fashion photographer on a photo-shoot in a park discovers — later, when he’s developing the pictures — that he’s accidentally snapped a murder as it happened. This is a gorgeously made movie, by Michelangelo Antonioni, set in 1960s mod London. Everyone says it's a classic, and everyone's right, but it certainly wasn't what I expected.

David Hemmings plays the photographer, as an insufferably arrogant prick. He has no sense of humor, believes he’s an important artist, and seems to hate the models he’s taking pictures of. I don’t think there are any women in the movie that he doesn’t treat shabby at best. The misogyny is frustrating, but that said, it’s probably an accurate portrayal of a big-time fashion photographer in the mid-1960s, and it's not the movie’s driving force.

Actually, the movie has no driving force. 

It wanders casually and repeatedly off-topic — there are mimes, fer chrissakes, and ridiculously long photo-shoot sessions that have nothing to do with the story. There's an irrelevant stop in an antique store, a propeller delivery, and several literal walks in the park. The movie runs almost two hours, and I’d guess the actual plot takes about 25 minutes of that time.

So it's a mess, and even when it's over, it refuses to make sense. Gotta say, though, despite all the above Blow-Up is never boring, and somehow it adds up to something superlative. I do not regret the two hours.

Music by Herbert Hancock, and I wish there was more of it; the movie has long stretches with no music at all.

♦ ♦ ♦

Blow Out (1981)

This is Brian de Palma's homage to Blow-Up, and I’ve heard great things about it, but it’s by de Palma, who usually annoys me. That's why I put off watching it for 40 years, but now I’ve seen it, and wish I hadn’t.

A movie sound-recording guy (John Travolta) who's taping sounds on a bridge discovers — later, when he’s listening to the audio — that he’s accidentally recorded an auto wreck as it happened.  

The movie is simplistic and unsubtle, occasionally garish, and filled with impossible plot points. I wasn't even taking notes; this is just compiled from shaking my head 'no' for an hour and a half:

• No cop is as clueless as the cop questioning Travolta at the hospital. 

• A hospital won’t sedate a patient and then discharge her while she’s still groggy, and discharge her to the custody of a man not related, so he can take her to a hotel while she’s still sedated.

• A big-time political operative might tell Travolta to keep quiet about what he's seen, but it wouldn't be said so very nicely. 

• A car that a prominent politician drowned in, once dredged from the river, would not be parked in a back alley outside the police crime lab. 

• A glossy magazine can’t be printed and distributed overnight. 

• A one-car wreck on a deserted street late at night is audio-recorded by Travolta, OK ... and it's also filmed by some random videographer? 

• And we’re supposed to believe John frickin’ Travolta was “the kind of kid who won all the science fairs”?

• Inside the movie's world, there's a low-budget horror movie being made, and the director and sound guy spend lots of time auditioning and recording and re-recording the sound of assorted women screaming, to get exactly the right scream. I'm seriously skeptical.

• And lastly, Nancy Allen is the movie's co-star, and I’ve usually liked her work, so I'll blame the script more than her, but the character she's playing is so stupid she belongs on the list of the movie's wildly implausible ingredients.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Martian (2015)

Andy Weir's novel The Martian is a kickass page-turner about an astronaut stranded alone on Mars. This movie adaptation, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, is a Hollywood flick with a huge budget behind it, so there would be no excuse if it was anything less than an excellent thriller.

No worries, it’s an excellent thriller.

It's all about science, and solving ginormous problems through a relentlessly rational approach. The science seems to make sense, though I'm sure things have been fudged here and there, and the presentation is exactly what it’s intended to be and what you’d hope for — one man, persevering against impossible odds, and keeping his sense of humor all along the way. 

Everything about it works, and works well. There are no surprises, because you're expecting to be surprised, and it would be surprising if you weren't surprised. NASA is NASA, Mars is Mars, surviving in space is difficult, and they've simply nailed all of it. It’s a big wet kiss for NASA and for space exploration, which is fine with me, and reminds me how much I miss the space program.

Going to outer space and the moon was always a big frickin’ boondoggle, of course, an international testosterone competition against the USSR. Unlike most boondoggles, though — all the military and drug wars, and the Republicans’ wars against truth justice and the American way, etc — the space program was a boondoggle that didn’t kill innocent bystanders.

And also, the Apollo missions were cool. It was all, “Let’s see what our smartest people can do with our best technology, just exploring and learnin’ stuff.” I remember watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, live on a black-and-white TV, and whatever that show cost, it was worth it. I’d like to see the US do something like that again. 

Guess I've been ranting, sorry. Anyway, The Martian is what Hollywood does on a good day: A huge movie that takes you on a hell of a ride. Make some popcorn and buckle up.

♦ ♦ ♦

Reds (1981)

This is a big-budget Hollywood look at communism, and it’s three hours and fifteen minutes long, not counting the intermission. If you're interested in communism or history, make my ‘maybe’ a 'yes'. Make it a hard 'no' if you're not.

The subtitle here could be "Lovable leftists in love!" It’s the true story of early-20th century writers and revolutionaries John Reed and Louise Bryant. I’d never heard of either of them, but Google tells me they were real people.

An all-star cast of actors play famous people I have heard of, including Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill, Dolph Sweet as Big Bill Haywood, and Maureen Stapleton as famed anarchist Emma Goldman. Other movie stars play other people who might have been famous, too, but I watched this movie only as a movie, and did not follow-up with hours of research, so they’re just movie stars to me — Gene Hackman, Paul Sorvino, M Emmet Walsh, maybe more.

It’s bizarre to see something akin to my politics, or what once was my politics, in a Hollywood movie. There’s anti-war sentiment, anti-capitalism, and even IWW calls for “one big union.” Not really what you expect in a movie, well, unless the movie is called Reds.

Under the political veneer, it’s a realistically rocky romance between two strong-willed and complicated people — Warren Beatty as Reed, Diane Keaton as Bryant — who struggle to live up to their important ideals, as do we all.

Beatty is good, but I doubt he’s really playing Reed; the character seems more like Warren Beatty. Keaton is good, too, but her character is basically Annie Hall, and Nicholson’s troubled writer is just a rerun of his Jack Torrance from The Shining.

Until the intermission, it’s a pretty good flick — huge, bloated, but entertaining. After intermission, the movie becomes something of a slog through political squabbles between American leftists, and into the ugly realities of what happened after the Russian revolution. Reed is a red, so eventually he’s drawn to the revolution as more than merely a journalist, and soon he’s on a stage rousing the Russian rabble.

Overall, it’s disappointing, but it's hard to say whether I’m reviewing the movie or the history it’s telling. Maybe both are disappointing. It's obvious that Beatty, who also wrote and directed and produced Reds, gave it everything he had, and it's a major-league epic. But now I have the Commie anthem “Internationale” stuck in my brain, and while I’m no damned capitalist, we’re certainly lucky that nothing like the Russian Revolution — and what came after it — came to America.

The high point of the movie, for me, is a brilliant extended writing montage, with Reed and Bryant at their typewriters and at each other, editing, criticizing, and each making suggestions about what’s weak in the other’s work. Maybe that's personal for me, though — I'd love a collaboration like that.

When the movie first came out, a friend told me he’d walked out of the theater, not because of the politics but because he got tired of all the old people on-screen talking about old memories, and occasionally breaking into folk or political songs. Indeed, the movie's sweeping yesteryear adventure is repeatedly interrupted by old folks being interviewed about their memories of Reed and Bryant. I liked the old talkers, though. Liked ‘em when I saw this movie in the ‘80s, and still liked the old timers when I watched Reds again last night.

I wasn’t going the mention the obvious, that a movie this epic and opulent must’ve had Big Money behind it, until I noticed in the end credits that the whole shebang is © MCMLXXXI by Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance Limited. A bank, not a movie studio, literally owns this movie.

Also, in a strange product placement, Reds has at least two mentions of Chase & Sanborn brand coffee, which everyone in the movie agrees was great coffee in a can in the 1910s. Let’s explore the capitalism of that:

Since the time of Reed & Bryant, Wikipedia says Chase & Sanborn has gone from being an independent company to being a subsidiary of Standard Brands, then Nabisco, then General Coffee, then Hills Brothers, then Nestle, then Sara Lee, and it’s currently made by a conglomerate called Massimo Zanetti. With a pedigree like that, I’ll wager the coffee tastes like hot piss.

♦ ♦ ♦

Stargate (1994)

This stars James Spader, and Kurt Russell with a ridiculous crew-cut, in a mystery about who really built the pyramids.

Some ancient artifacts that must mean something blah blah blah, and Spader is the only person who can make sense of it all. The story eventually takes us to another planet, where we meet Ra the sun god.

It sounds silly, and it was written and directed by Roland Emmerich, which is not a promising sign. His resumé consists of many things I’ve never heard of, but the titles I’m familiar with are a mixed bag — Independence Day (good), Godzilla 1998 (bad), and The Day After Tomorrow (fair to middlin').

To my surprise, though, Stargate is pretty good, and it has a genuine science fiction sense-of-wonder, at least until about halfway through. After that, it becomes more clichéd and predictable, but it still earns a thumb's up.

Early on, there’s a scene where Spader enthusiastically but innocently draws a picture of a penis and balls, presumably intended to give the audience a laugh, though nobody on-screen acknowledges it. Richard Kind is excellent in a supporting role as Perpetually Perplexed Scientist. There’s an enjoyable moment of interplanetary apology, after one of the Earthers does something stupid. And it gets bonus points for having female scientists — more than one! — who don’t look like they came straight from a supermodel photo-shoot. 

The movie is almost all Spader’s, and he's great, but I was surprised how little Russell was asked to do. He mostly just stands around pretending to be tough. The music, by David Arnold, is reminiscent of John Williams’ score for Raiders of the Lost Ark, so much so that I found myself whistling the Raiders theme during this movie’s boring bits toward the end.

There are, I think, two messages to the movie, one of which I shan’t give away as it’s directly connected to the plot, but — it’s valid and righteous and true. The second takeaway is that when we make contact with life on another world, for Earth’s sake, please don’t have the military anywhere near any of it — which is also valid and righteous and true.

Stargate has so far spawned three TV series, none of which I’ve ever really watched. Just clicking channels during commercials for years and years, though, catching the briefest moments often enough that they add up to hours, please note, it's only the movie I'm recommending, not anything that came after.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Woman on the Run (1950)
YES —  

A man witnesses a murder, then disappears, so the cops talk to his almost-estranged wife — and she's the focus of the movie, not her husband.

With that, this little-known film noir is underway, and it's excellent, with great noiry dialogue, some laughs, and an effective and compelling mystery.

It's one of those movies you've probably never heard of, but afterwards you'll say, Damn, that was great! Why haven't I ever heard of this movie?

The main cop makes some sexist wisecracks, which seems appropriate, since he's a complete prick in other ways too. A cop who's a prick can only make any movie seem more realistic. 

Woman on the Run was filmed on location in Frisco, which adds to the charm, at least for me. Memorable moments include the skylight escape, a kiss on the sidewalk, the philosophical conversation in the cab, and “Shut the door as you go out.”


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  1. > With a pedigree like that, I’ll wager the coffee tastes like hot piss.

    LOL and almost certainly true but I am not going to be the ginni pig who tests this.

    I am going to watch A Woman on the Run, just because how often is a movie made that's about a woman?

    1. My wife complained about that, just once, but ever since, I've never been able to not notice it. Nine out of ten movies are about men or boys.

    2. Dashiell Hammett wrote a dozen screenplays for some terrific movies. He's better known as an author, but he was a screenwriter almost as long as he was an author, and the two occupations only intersected by a year or so. But he couldn't write for female characters. In his literature they were objects. In his movies they were props. In his life they were dames. He only had one sustaining romantic relationship in his life, and he kept trying to run away from that one.

      Is there a point here? Oh yeah, most screenwriters are men, and men mostly have no idea how to write for women characters. Enter the script doctor, e.g., Carrie Fisher. A little dignity for women. Just an observation.

      Also, in spite of Hammett's ignorance about women, he remains the best American short story writer ever. I read his entire body of work about every ten years, and it's almost time.


    3. I don't know much about women or people, so when I write women characters I just imagine them as people. Then again, I sure ain't no Dashiell Hammett.

      I've read some Hammett, though. Usually I don't get to say that when someone mentions an author, because I've read an embarrassingly small number of books, especially since the internet came along. Hammett, though, yup sir. I went on a pulp fiction kick once and read books and shorts by most of the greats in that genre.

  2. Glad you liked Stargate.

    Did we see Godzilla 1998 together? I swear I fell asleep, but that may have been Cloverfield.

    We are going to have a big, hard disagree on The Day After Tomorrow. I LOVE LOVE LOVE environmental disaster movies, and this is truly one of the best. I'm glad you don't HATE it, but "fair-to-middlin'" is wrong, IMO. It's a Great Movie, in its genre. A great action disaster drama.

    1. We saw Godzilla 1998 together, yessir, toward the back on the left at one of the Metreon's larger auditoriums. I think I fell asleep during that one, so I can't say whether you did.

      Cloverfield: I saw it on some streaming service at home. Disappointing.

      The Day After Tomorrow was great? Hmmm. Maybe I was in the wrong mood or sumfin. I'll add it to the list for a rewatch, but if I'm bored I'll bail.

    2. >The Day After Tomorrow was great? Hmmm. Maybe I was in the wrong mood or sumfin. I'll add it to the list for a rewatch, but if I'm bored I'll bail.

      Fair enough.

      I'm 100% sure I fell asleep in Godzilla, sober, and in Cloverfield, at the theater, after a joint or something.

    3. 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel per se, but it's set in the same universe. Except, it's good.


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