Silent Running, and six more movies

Silent Running

Earth has been polluted to ruin, but trees, plants, and smaller animals survive in a series of giant greenhouses in outer space. Most of the crewmen tending these living museums think of themselves as astronauts on an easy assignment, but one of them (Bruce Dern) is passionate about the work, and the woods and fruits and vegetables he's growing.

Inevitably come the budget cuts, and the crew's new order, "to abandon and nuclear destruct all the forests, and return our ships to commercial service.

Silent Running was co-written by Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) and Steve Bochco (Hill Street Blues), names that don't immediately bring to mind outer space or hugging a tree, but not a word of the script rings false.

The film is exquisite, visually, dramatically, thematically. It also has cute robots, spectacular spaceship sets and machinery, songs by Joan Baez, and that rarity from Hollywood, a point.

Douglas Trumbull was usually a special effects man, and this was his first time in the director's chair, but he shows no rookie jitters. 

When I saw this with my pal Bruno fifty years ago, he thought Dern's performance was too wild-eyed and over the edge. Well, I'll tell you now what I told Bruno then — if someone doesn't get wild-eyed and over the edge, we're done here. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Doctor Who (1996)

Doctor Who is a sci-fi show that ran on BBC in Britain from 1963-89, beloved by geeks and nerds. In America, it sometimes played on PBS.

It's about a mysterious man from another world, known only as "The Doctor," who travels through time and space, and he's always getting into scrapes and saving the universe.

I've barely seen any of the old Doctor Who shows — I've tried, but they're too cheap and cheesy — but I'm a big fan of the rebooted series, which came back in 2005 and is still running.

Between the old show and the current Doctor Who, there was a failed attempt to bring the show back, as a hybrid effort of the BBC with America's Fox Network. This is the movie-length pilot for that show, and while it didn't sell, it isn't bad.

"I can't make your dream come true forever, but I can make it come true today."

The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) crash lands in San Francisco in 1999, and has the bad luck to open the door of his ship and walk into gunfire from a street gang. This lands him in an American hospital, where the doctors accidentally kill him because, while he looks human, he's actually a spaceman and his innards are completely different — he has two hearts, you know. When they cut into him, nothing was where they expected.

In the mythos of the show, when The Doctor dies, he regenerates (as a new actor), but it's a cosmic wallop that always leaves the character confused for a while. Paul McGann is the new actor playing The new and confused Doctor, and his arch-nemesis is Eric Roberts as The Master. There's also a bit of Will Sasso.

It takes too long for the story to get started, and the movie has so much Doctor Who doublespeak (some of which it gets wrong) it might be incomprehensible to Doctor Who newbies.

When the story gets going, though, if you've seen either incarnation of the show, you'll enjoy it. It's a weird and slightly subpar episode, but it's Doctor Who — some smiles, some thrills, some ideas, with a British accent.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Jigoku (1960)
a/k/a Hell

Here's your chance to go to Hell, with startling visuals — was this really made in 1960? — dazzling colors, and excellent camerawork. There's a stirring lecture about the nature of Hell, which is, we're told, a shared concept of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and other religions. That's the film's first five minutes, and it's riveting.

After that, there's a long stretch that follows different characters living lousy lives here on Earth, all doing the kind of things that'll get them condemned to Hell. It's fine, well-written and well-acted, but I wanted to get back to Hell.

Well, soon enough we're back in Hell, and this movie's Hell is far more frightening than anything from present-day 'masters of horror' like Eli Roth or Rob Zombie. It's gorgeously ghoulish, with scary music and remarkable special effects — people boiling in oil, a doctor sawed in half, a baby floating down a river of blood.

There's plenty of gore if that's your delight, but first Jigoku is going to require you to think about things, feel some real emotions, and maybe ponder what kind of bastard you've been in life, and whether you're destined for the grand escalator down.

I've done my pondering, and decided I've been a bastard. I have little remorse, though, and I'm not going to Hell because there's no such place. I'm just going to rot in a box under the dirt, because my family will ignore my explicit and frequent requests to be cremated.

Like life on Earth, the parts of this movie set on Earth are earthly, but the rest of the film soars.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Maniac (1934) 

This is an early schlock film, and even has a few brief glimpses of nudity. It's presented like a sleazy textbook, with each 'chapter' about a different diagnosis of mental illness that the moviemakers want you to be frightened about (paranoia, manic-depressive psychoses, etc). It's never more than mildly scary, though.

Chalk it up to the importance of music in drama. Maniac should be much scarier — it has actors saying scary stuff and sometimes scary visuals, like black cats and mad scientists and monsters with horns and such. Problem is, there's only music when each chapter begins, illustrating another mental illness to worry about. With no music during the vignettes that follow, it feels more silly than scary. And there's no excuse, really; by the mid-1930s moviemakers knew the importance of music.

Phyllis Diller has a small role, but it's not the funny Phyllis Diller, just someone else with the same name.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Papillon (1975)

Jeez, this is a big movie. Big in scope, big in story, big in impact, and big in beautiful and terrifying location photography. It's two and a half hours long but never feels like a long movie.

Henri Charrière (Steve McQueen) is a French prisoner who has a tattoo of a butterfly, and butterfly in French is papillon, so that's what everyone calls him. He's in a penal colony in French Guyana that's breathtakingly brutal, where he's kept in solitary confinement for so long he can barely walk. Understandably, he'd like to escape.

So it's a prison movie, and an escape movie, but it rises well above either genre to become a story of freedom, and what freedom means to one man who needs it.

This might be McQueen's best performance, and Dustin Hoffman's good too, as his sometimes sidekick. Screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor) and Dalton Trumbo (Johnny Got His Gun, Roman Holiday, Spartacus). 

There's only one misstep here, and it's when the movie's over. Between the last scene and the beginning of the credits, an announcer comes on and dully reads two sentences that seem wrong to me. It's intrusive, pierces the mood, and comes close to doublecrossing the story that went before. I frickin' hate whoever decided to tack that on that dumb narration, but everything until then is terrific.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Skidoo (1968)

Ex-mobster Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) is called out of retirement to kill co-mobster 'Blue Chips' Packard (Mickey Rooney), but Banks is hesitant to do the deed, because Blue Chips used to be his best friend. You can't say no to the mob, though, especially when the kingpin goes by the name of God (Groucho Marx).

Otto Preminger made some fine films — Advise & Consent, Anatomy of a Murder, Bunny Lake Is Missing, Laura, Stalag 17 — but this was his first attempt at comedy, and ouch.

First, let's talk about what the movie gets right.

There's a line that I liked: "Violence is the sign language of the inarticulate."

Harry Nilsson is now largely forgotten, but he was a terrific songwriter and singer of the 1960s and '70s. He wrote the movie's music, sings the opening theme, plays a prison guard, and then comes back to sing the cast and crew's names in the closing credits.

And that's about it, for what the movie gets right.

It's loaded with 1960s elements including hippies, an acid trip, Groucho smoking dope, and high-tech television gadgetry, but somehow all of this is almost never even slightly funny. 

The film was written by the same man who wrote the marvelous Brewster McCloud, which seems like a good idea but isn't.

Both Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney have always seemed the opposite of funny to me, and watching them try to be funny with utterly unfunny material reaches new depths of unfunny.

Carol Channing plays Gleason's wife, and she's equally unfunny as a woman who's slept with every man in America, to her husband's constant consternation.

Even Groucho isn't funny here. Frankie Avalon, Frank Gorshin, Richard Kiel, John Phillip Law, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, Slim Pickens, George Raft, Cesar Romero, and Arnold Stang are also not funny.

Somehow, though, the movie is kind of a trip. It might be worth seeing, for the amazing hugeness of the mistake that it is.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Wrecking Crew (1968)

To compete with or perhaps mock James Bond movies, Hollywood delivered a series of Matt Helm adventures in the 1960s and '70s, starring Dean Martin as a superspy who was usually smoking a cigarette and surrounded by beautiful women.

This one opens with a billion dollars in gold bars being transported by train, so you know it's going to be jacked, but when it happens both the crime and the cinematography are clever. The story is a mess, same as most Bond stories, but with less panache and more of a smirk.

It features Elke Sommer, Sharon Tate, Nancy Kwan, and Tina Louise, the latter wearing green and doing a horizontal dance with a tambourine.

Music by Hugo Montenegro, which involves a lot of baa-baa singing.

The movie's theme song is by Frank DeVol, who did the same for The Brady Bunch, Family Affair, My Three Sons, etc. Like those, the song is now ingrained in my head against my will.

This is the only Matt Helm movie I've seen, and it's kinda kitschy fun. I wasn't tempted to turn it off, but I'm also not a big hurry to see the other Helm movies.

Dean Martin's fight skills are about the equivalent of mine, so I sure hope Bruce Lee got a fat paycheck for his credited work as "karate advisor."

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming attractions:

• Alice's Restaurant (1969)
• Planet of the Vampires (1965)
• The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
• The Shootist (1976)
• Stroszek (1977)
• The Sugarland Express (1974)
• Yes, God, Yes (2020)


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.   


1 comment:

  1. I'm gifted with a terrible memory for films. In most cases, if I've seen a film a year or two previous, I can watch it again like it's brand new with only a few spots of deja vu. So, while I've seen Papillon, and I know I enjoyed it (Steve McQueen works for me), I can't remember a thing about it. I have a friend who poo-poos any movie that he thinks is "too long." No matter how many times I tell him that I've watched many interminable 84-min films and enjoyed a good number of nearly 3 hour opuses -- because a good movie is a good movie -- he stubbornly decides that if it's over 2 hours, it's too long. If a director knows what s/he is doing, the length is the time it takes to tell the story, properly, not a conspiracy to monopolize your time. Some people never learn.

    While Harry Nilsson is obviously not on many people's minds in the 21st century, there is a dedicated following that continues to champion his work. It isn't all older folks who remember him the first time around. There are younger musicians/songwriters who also believe in Harry's talents. -- Arden


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