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The Alamo and Coherence, and five more movies

The Neverending
Film Festival

#97
Today at the movies, a rare western where John Wayne dies, an indy oddity shot on location at Disney World, two sci-fi mysteries, a documentary on fake towns built for police training, and me trying to tell the difference between two Steven Spielberg's efforts from the 1980s.

• The Alamo (1960)
• Coherence (2013)
• Crimes of the Future (1970)
• Escape from Tomorrow (2013)
• The Goonies (1985)
• Gremlins (1984)
• Riotsville, USA (2022)

The greatest of these is The Alamo.  

The one you've never heard of but ought to see is Coherence.

The big disappointment is Riotsville, USA.

— — —  

The Alamo (1960)

Sometimes, you need John Wayne.

Also present: Richard Widmark, Lawrence Harvey, Frankie Avalon, Chill Wills, Ken Curtis, Denver Pyle, Richard Boone. Directed by John Wayne.

Wayne plays Davy Crockett, and Widmark is far too old to play Jim Bowie, but they're mostly playing John Wayne and Richard Widmark anyway, and you'd be baffled if they'd played anyone else. 

The Alamo was Wayne's passion project — he stars, directs, and oversaw the research that went into the script. It's got drama, it's got thrills, music by Dimitri Tiomkin, and "Green Leaves of Summer."

If you don't remember the Alamo, that's where a small band of Texans held out for longer than seemed likely against Mexican forces that outnumbered them drastically. If you do know the history, you know that there's no happy ending here.

Pacifists are not allowed. Everyone's packing, and the battle gets loud. Wayne gives both his daughter and son mid-level supporting roles, but I'll forgive him.

It's 2½ hours of clichés and corny patriotism with almost literally a sermon at the end, but it's gorgeous, dang it, and occasionally moving. Don't make me repeat myself, pilgrim: Sometimes you need John Wayne.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Coherence (2013)

A comet is approaching Earth, as several 30-somethings gather for a dinner party. Their cell phones begin spontaneously cracking, the power goes out, and there's no internet access.

That's your set-up for this well-made, talky but thoughtful low-budget sci-fi movie. It gets stranger and more complicated as it goes, becoming sort of a milti-dimensional mystery involving quantum physics. Mystery is the key word — it's science fiction, but it feels like Agatha Christie.

The movie is smarter than the dumbass writing this review, so it left me confused, but it seemed to know what it was doing. I waited a week and watched it a second time, and it made more sense. On my third viewing a few weeks later, it mostly fit together like 880 pieces of a 1,000 piece jigsaw. 

"Do you not understand what I'm saying? This all started tonight, and if there are a million different realities, I have slept with your wife in every one of them."

Jolly good fun. Coherence belongs on a double feature with the even more mind-boggling Primer.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Crimes of the Future (1970)

This is from David Cronenberg, so of course it's repulsive, but I've enjoyed being repulsed by some of his films.

Crimes of the Future is set at The House of Skin, a residential clinic for wealthy patients with severe skin conditions caused by modern-day cosmetics. 

"I have achieved a sort of equilibrium in my anonymity here at Metaphysical Import/Export. It has been simple to remain aloof from the internal workings of this corporation."

It's either Cronenberg's last underground picture or first 'real' feature film, depending on how you define such distinctions, but it's so low budget that they didn't have microphones, so there's no dialogue. Instead the story is emotionlessly-narrated by the creepy main character. Its dystopian future is mostly just 1970s office buildings, which is plenty dystopian. 

The narrator calls himself Adrian Tripod, and he's searching for his teacher/mentor, the mad dermatologist Antoine Rouge, who developed a makeup — rouge, perhaps — that killed maybe millions of women who used it. Yeah, Cronenberg's always been a little creepy with women, sorry. He's creepy with men, too, but saves his worst for women (see: Dead Ringers).

It sorta works as a movie, but not if you expect a linear story with such luxuries as character and plot development. Mostly it's for Cronenberg's fans, if they want to see what his movies looked like without funding, with the weirdness and creepiness mostly implied instead of shown.

I will say, it definitely works better on home video than at a theater. It lost me in the cinema, and at home I was lost too, but with the ability to rewind and rewatch until it sorta makes sense.

Cronenberg re-used the title, but apparently not the plot, in his latest feature, but here I'm talking about the original Crimes of the Future. Haven't seen the new one (yet).

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Escape from Tomorrow (2013)

Jim is on his last day of vacation at Disney World with his wife and kids, when his boss calls to tell him he's been laid off. Jim doesn't tell his wife, so the four of them ride the monorail into the park as if nothing's wrong. Keeping secrets from the Mrs is never a good idea, and soon strange things start happening to Jim.

This film made minor headlines when it came out, because it was filmed without permission at Disney World and Epcot Center. Disney wisely didn't make any legal stink, because the publicity would've simply sold more tickets to the movie.

As for the movie, it starts cute and funny. Jim, touring the park with his kids, sees a pair of pretty young women, and takes his son on all the same rides they go on, just to ogle them from a distance. It's not quite disgusting, though I suppose some women would disagree, but what man hasn't done some ogling? 

That's not enough plotting to sustain a movie, though, so it gets darker and weirder as the story goes along. Jim gets hypnotized and fucked by a strange woman at the park. He goes back to following the young women, and fantasizes them naked, which is more sketchy than sexy, since he's about 40 and they could easily pass for high school kids.

As the story's bizarre climax approaches, Jim is held captive by a mad scientist inside the Epcot Center's "giant testicle," and discovers that the woman he fucked earlier is a former Disney cast member who abducts children as a hobby. But that's OK, she says, because she always brings them back. "Some people don't even notice." 

I give Escape from Tomorrow points for bravura filmmaking, and creative camera angles for Jim's shit and vomit scene. It's technically accomplished. I'd stand up and cheer if I could make sense of the story, but I don't know where it took me or why, and it derails itself over the last half of the ride.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Gremlins (1984)
and The Goonies (1985)

Gremlins and The Goonies were both produced by Steven Spielberg, written by Chris Columbus, and released in consecutive summers. I saw them both when they first came out, and remembered liking one of them quite a lot. Over the years they've become blurred in my mind, though, so I wasn't sure which one was which, and which one was good. Tonight I watched them again as a double feature, just to clarify things.

• In Gremlins, Hoyt Axton buys a strange big-eared furry animal as a gift for his son, and it comes with three rules: Keep it out of bright light, don't let it get wet, and never feed it after midnight. As these simple guidelines are ignored, problems develop.

When fake snow falls, Phoebe Cates says that she doesn't celebrate Christmas, so I was pretty sure that by the end of the movie she'd be celebrating Christmas. Fooled me, though — instead, for a few minutes of grisly excellence, Cates' character explains what went wrong on Christmas when she was nine years old. It's a story that so sledgehammers the holiday spirit, even Hollywood can't make her say "Merry Christmas."

Other than Cates' perfect delivery of that brilliant anti-Christmas monologue and a few other inspired moments, Gremlins never grabbed me. It's supposed to be a scream or a laugh, but a lot of it's a yawn. 

The whole movie is built around its titular furballs of terror, so it's crucial that the gremlins be cute when they're supposed to be cute and scary when they're supposed to be scary, but they're really only weird. They're adequate, considering 1980s movie tech, but their nonstop squealing gave me a headache.

And there's far too much Zach Galligan, and not enough of Ms Cates. Her scenes only add up to about 20 minutes, maybe less, but why? She's gorgeous and she can act; he's not and he can't, and he's the star?

Gremlins takes place in a small town full of zany characters, but they're mostly movie-tropes — the kooky inventor, the cranky rich lady, the ass-kissing junior executive, etc. There's a Burger King on the town square with an extra bright sign, and the camera keeps finding reasons to slowly pan the street and show the Burger King sign again. If I wanted ads I'd be watching TV.

• When The Goonies started, it didn't take long to remember that it's the one I liked, when I was younger. It has a bunch of kids climbing down under the dirt into some cool caves, trying to escape bad guys and somehow save the neighborhood from being sold. 

So yeah, The Goonies was great when I was only a few years older than the kids in the cast, but now I'm old enough to be their grandfather and I could barely sit through it. It's a boys' movie — Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman, Ke Huy Quan — and they never stop shouting, screaming, arguing, and saying "Hey guys!"

There are a few girls too, and one of them's the delightful Martha Plimpton, but the boys make all the decisions and propel the plot, while the girls are there to scream and maybe get kissed.

It has the ever-cranky Anne Ramsey (Throw Momma from the Train), a score by Dave Grusin, and a touch of Cyndi Lauper. There's also One-Eyed Willie, the goofy-looking monster with a heart of gold, and I loved him way back when and I still do.

Willie is what seals the deal. Young me liked The Goonies, and it's a movie for the young, so I guess I gotta give it a thumbs up. I never want to see it again, though.

Verdict: MAYBE for Gremlins, YES for The Goonies.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Riotsville, USA (2022)

During the so-called unrest — I prefer the term uprisings — of the 1960s, the US Army constructed two fake towns, both called Riotsville, where military and police trained in their inhuman methods of quelling protests. This involved lots of tear gas, riot gear, and guns.

Using only archival footage from that time, this documentary shows crew-cut soldiers pretending to be protesters, getting rounded up by other crew-cut soldiers, while military officers and police management watch and applaud from grandstands. That's what happened in Riotsville, daily.

Pretty soon, the movie expands its scope to cover police misconduct in general, mostly at the 1968 Republican and Democratic Conventions. There are extended clips of ignorant white people and exasperated black people talking on 1960s TV talk shows, about the way everything in America is set up to keep black people down. In one of these clips, a high-ranking cop actually denies that policy brutality ever happens.

The narration, written by The New Yorker art critic Tobi Haslett, assumes that you already know there's policy brutality, and offers his opinions, which sound like an overwritten New Yorker essay. The imagery is almost as pleased with itself as Mr Haslett's prose.

I share almost all of the moviemakers' opinions, but prefer documentaries the way I like journalism — just the facts, please, with only enough interpretation needed to understand the facts.

Without any lead-up, we're shown slow-motion footage of what looks like a catastrophic fire at a rocket launch. I wondered why for almost a minute — that's how slowed down the footage is — before seeing the rocket very slowly lift off. So… we're watching a successful Apollo launch, in super slow motion, while the narrator reads:

"When Frantz Fanon traveled to Algeria in the midst of their revolution, he went as a psychiatrist. He found that the colonized dreamed of strength. 'I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, climbing. I dream that I burst out laughing, that I span a river in one stride, or that I am followed by a flood of motorcars which never catch up with me'."

Well, you can see that the quote is sorta pertinent to discrimination, but why are we watching a slowed-down rocket launch and listening to poetry from someone I've never heard of?

That's what I mean, when I say that this documentary is overwritten and too pleased with itself.

There are lots of "huh?" moments like that. Footage of fake snipers firing from second floor windows in Riotsville is set to "Soldier Boy" by The Shirelles. Archival news clips are followed with several seconds of static. There's a great deal of footage from NBC's 1968 convention coverage, much of it irrelevant, including about two minutes of vintage ads for Gulf Oil. The music by Jace Clayton includes so many electronic boops and blips, it sounds like Kraftwerk outtakes. 

Some of the news footage is certainly remarkable, showing cops and the National Guard's inexcusable and probably illegal use of tear gas, not only on protesters, but on entire neighborhoods. We're shown cops driving a modified insect repellent truck, spraying tear gas over a deserted residential street. 

It's not news, though, that cops were brutal toward blacks back then and still are, and what does it have to do with Riotsville?

Well, that's the big reveal, explained at the end of the film: police leadership in Miami, where the '68 Republican convention was held, had trained at Riotsville.

Apparently, the filmmakers believe that because cops trained at Riotsville, they used tear gas and brutality on protesters and innocent bystanders.

Detroit's cops of 1968 were more brutal than Miami's, but there's no claim that they trained at Riotsville. I'd say cops use tear gas and brutality simply because they're bastards because they're cops. A free weekend at Riotsville was only a perk of their job.

So after watching this wordy, meandering documentary, I find myself shaking my head "no" to its central point, and wishing someone would make a documentary about Riotsville.

Verdict: NO.

10/26/2022   

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   

 

5 comments:

  1. It's been a while, but I strongly recommend Gremlins 2. It's significantly better than the first.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, one of the more interesting and subversive sequels to a Hollywood "kiddie" film. Has none of the coziness or gentility of the first. Visually a lot like the similar-era Tim Burton, but much smarter (though every film is generally smarter than Burton's stuff).

      ***

      "a rare western where John Wayne dies"

      Don Siegel's The Shootist is recommended. The entire film is about John Wayne dying.

      ***

      Love Cronenberg, but the new Crimes of the Future sucks a mule's ass.

      Delete
    2. Really? Gremlins 2? Never would've expected that, but if you're both seriously saying it, guess I'll give it a watch.

      The Shootist! I saw it in theaters when I wore a younger man's clothes, and remember it fondly. Definitely goes on the rewatch list.

      And with a review like that, guess I gotta see the new Crimes of the Future too.

      Delete
  2. Yes, Gremlins 2. It's been a while, but it was a fun time.

    ReplyDelete
  3. On the list, captain.

    ReplyDelete

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