The Fog of War, and a few more films

The Fly (1958)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

It starts with bloody murder — Mrs Delambre has killed her husband, squished him in a hydraulic press to make sure that he's dead. It's not quite a murder mystery, since she admits she done it, but she won't say why she done it.

Of course, The Fly is a very famous movie, and even if you haven't seen it you know what it's about. It's right there in the title, so let's put aside the ordinary rule against spoilers:

#272  [archive]
APR. 6, 2024

Before his unfortunate flattening, Dr Delambre had been obsessed with teleportation, and invented a device for electronically sending stuff from one side of the room to the other. The system involves two boxes, one for sending and one for receiving, and in principle, as he explains to his wife in a flashback, it's the same as television.

But when he sends himself from one box to the other, he doesn't notice that there's a fly in the box with him. The circuitry and software doesn't know how to reconstruct two living things at once, so it merges them together.

"He was searching for the truth. He almost found a great truth, but for one instant, he was careless."

Vincent Price stars, and he's great and so's the film. I've seen it half a dozen times, but even knowing what's going to happen it always feels fresh.

Directed by Kurt Neumann, who did a lot of sci-fi but mostly schlock, and this is better than schlock. Terrific score by Paul Sawtell (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea).

Screenplay by James Clavell, author of Shogun and King Rat, based on a short story by George Langelaan, a Frenchman who didn't do much in English — but he did this, and it's plenty.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Fly (1986)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

First thing to notice about David Cronenberg's remake is that it gets only gets the standard 20th Century Fox fanfare, not the extended fanfare that the original got. Fox uses the extended fanfare for its 'prestige' films, but if the '58 Fly deserves it (and it does), the '86 Fly deserves it, too. There's no justice.

The original film's flashback structure has been jettisoned, making this a more straightforward nightmare, souped up with Cronenberg's grandiose gross-out effects.

So — there's this mad scientist, see. He doesn't know he's mad, but I suppose mad scientists are always the last to know. He chats up a pretty reporter at a party, brings her to his lab to show her what he's been working on, and it's teleportation. 

He's built two boxes to electronically send stuff from one side of the room to the other, and you'd think, after the success of the original film and its two sequels, even a mad scientist would have anti-fly technology built into his device. But he doesn't, so again there's a human-fly hybrid. And again, wow.

"I'm an insect who dreamed he was a man, and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake."

Jeff Goldblum stars, and he's great, so's Cronenberg, so's Geena Davis, so are the gross-out effects, and so's the movie. It's neither better nor worse than the original, but it's different, less intellectual and more emotional, so watching the two Flys back-to-back doesn't feel repetitive. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Flying Ace (1926)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

The railroad's payroll delivery has been stolen, and the payroll agent is missing. Did he abscond with the funds, or was he a victim? That's the mystery, to be solved by a returning hero of the World War, along with 'Peg', his one-legged sidekick. 

What's noteworthy is that the cast is black — the station agent, the good guys, the bad guys, the cops, the barnstorming pilot, the damsel in distress, etc. Blacks weren't welcome in Hollywood, so they made their own movies elsewhere, and this was made at (white-owned) Norman Studios in Florida. It played only in black-owned or managed theaters, as a six-part serial, but I watched all six parts in a row, 98 years later.

The performers are fine, the accompanying music is snappy, and the story moves at a leisurely but not sluggish pace. It gets melodramatic at the end, but it's a good story and held my interest.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Flying Down to Rio (1933)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

This is a romantic comedy, with Gene Raymond chasing a South American lady, Dolores Del Río. It's the kind of 'comedy' that has him turn her over his knee for a spanking, like that's the joke. Most of it's better than that, but not much.

It's based on a story by Lou Brock, but this was six years before the St Louis Cardinals' left-fielder was born, so it wasn't him.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers have supporting roles, stealing the movie whenever they're on screen, and especially when they're on-screen together.

They don't sing and dance much, but legend has it the letters to RKO said basically, "That movie was OK, but who's that couple bantering in the background?" So the studio decided to make a movie starring Astaire and Rogers, and it was The Gay Divorcee, which made the entire world sing and dance.

This one won't get you out of your chair.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Fog (1979)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

I saw The Fog when it first rolled out, and remembered nothing except that Adrienne Barbeau kept her shirt on. That disappointed me, but hey, I was young.

Over the years, I've noticed that The Fog is often mentioned on lists of classic horror movies, and it's from John Carpenter, who's done some fine work, so I gave it a fresh looksee.

Ms Barbeau plays Stevie Wayne, owner and only employee at a radio station that's photogenically located in the lighthouse in a small coastal town. Like American Graffiti, this movie is an ensemble story, and everyone for miles around is listening to the same radio station, so Stevie does the movie's play-by-play. And here's the weather report: Fog is rolling in from the east, but it's not ordinary fog, it's angry fog. 

The fog supernaturally makes stones fall out of walls, radios and TVs turn themselves on, shelves at the grocery store jiggle, gas pumps pump themselves, bells ring, car alarms go off, chairs move, a gold coin transmorphs into a piece of wood, generators blow, a grandfather clock cracks, windows break, lights go off, corpses topple out of the shadows, wood gets wet without rain, wires fry themselves, car engines stall...

Usually in a scary movie, something impossible is happening. Singular — one impossible thing. In The Fog, everything is impossible, and there's nothing the fog can't do. It's basically God in a bad mood.

The individual scenes work nicely, but that's all it is — a collection of brief, possibly scary scenes, connected by an overworked fog-generating machine.

I'm not saying the movie's abyssal, but it's quickly forgettable and certainly no classic.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Fog of War (2003)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

There's never been an explanation of the Vietnam War that makes sense, yet 50,000+ Americans were killed, and exponentially more Vietnamese, and it seems most Americans would be delighted to do it all again in Afghanistan and Iraq and wherever bombs can drop from the sky.

If anyone could explain the Vietnam War, it would be Robert Strange McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and a key architect of the war. In this documentary, filmmaker Errol Morris points a camera at McNamara, and lets him explain. 

"Never answer the question that has been asked of you," McNamara says at one point. "Answer the question you wish had been asked of you." So there's adroit sidestepping, but it's a wild ride across the McNamara mindset. Fittingly, when he's on screen, Morris usually has the camera show McNamara at a tilted angle, as if to say, "Say what?"

I have always assumed that McNamara was insane, and that's his track record. What's unnerving about watching him, though, is that he's personable. He doesn't have a lunatic's eyes.

McNamara tears up a bit now and again, but there's no particular 'gotcha' moment, and he offers no apology for the literally millions of people he helped to kill for no reasonable reason.

For a madman, he's shockingly reasonable. But mostly he's glib, having a good time talking about himself and what he's done. He comes across as cocky, feisty, and at ease with his legacy — which only a psychopath could be.

When McNamara lectures us about the mistakes of the Vietnam War, even when he's right (and sometimes he is) it's mindboggling that he still seems to believe that he only did what needed to be done. You get the impression he could talk a pacifist into enlisting, and then convince him to commit war crimes.

McNamara was 85 when this was filmed, still sharp as a pinprick, yet curiously he can't recall who made the decision to use Agent Orange. Everything he can recall tends to cast himself as brilliant. 

And he was brilliant, of course, but there's no doubt (except in McNamara's mind) that he used his brilliance to make the world a worse place.

Morris is brilliant, too, and this troubling, challenging, infuriating film might be his best. He also made The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and so many other amazing documentaries that saying this is his best is saying a lot.

Verdict: BIG YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

A Fool There Was (1915)
Foolish Wives
For All Mankind
Forbidden Area
Forbidden City, U.S.A.
Forbidden Games
Forbidden Zone

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

— — —
'Movie reviews' that that recount the plot, paragraph after paragraph, suck. My pledge to you: I'll only give the basics of a movie's premise, with no spoilers after that.  
— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. > McNamara tears up a bit now and again, but there's no particular 'gotcha' moment, and he offers no apology for the literally millions of people he helped to kill for no reasonable reason. <

    The Truman Doctrine.


    1. Which I might not even complain about, might even root for, if he'd meant it, if it was really about democracy instead of money.

    2. Just to be clear, I wasn't trying to justify intervention in Vietnam. You asked for his reason and I answered. In the 50s, American politicians and, in general, the American people took the Truman Doctrine pretty seriously. Broadly, it said that any country that was threatened or invaded by a Communist country would receive military and logistic support from the United States. It was used in Greece and slightly more quietly in a couple other countries. When North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam (and began financing the Viet Cong), McNamara invoked the Truman Doctrine when sending non-combat trainers and logistics support into South Vietnam. Things went downhill from there. Unfortunately, Vietnam was one of the few things the Soviets and the Communist Chinese agreed on. The United States military was ill-prepared to fight a jungle war. Any combat in which Pol Pot is just a footnote is bad news for all involved. Things spun wildly out of control.


    3. Things always spin wildly out of control, when we take advice from men like McNamara, and men like McNamara are the only people whose advice America takes. Then came Rumsfeld and Kissinger, Powell and whatever fuckwads Biden is listening to this morning...

    4. . . . and Biden is the sane one. It could be worse.


    5. No doubt about that. The comparison that always comes to my mind is, the Democrats whistle a happy tune and wear blindfolds as the Titanic sails along, while Republicans pilot the shit head-on into the icebergs. I'll take a Democrat, sure, but everyone knows we're going down.


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