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Red Tails (2012)
This film is NOT a tribute!
It's a pity that a weak, ignorant, make-believe bit of film got attached to a band of real-life warriors. It's a pity that the true stories of how the Tuskegee Airmen and the 332nd Fighter Group fought and died for this country were so often distorted or ignored, and replaced by 2 hours of slack-jawed Hollywood stupidity. As if the reality wasn't important enough, interesting enough, or dramatic enough for a movie.
"Red Tails" does not honor the men of the 332nd. The movie constantly has it's pilots flying and fighting stupidly, irrationally, and sometimes impossibly, then awards them victories when in reality they would have been either shot down or grounded. The REAL Tuskegee Airmen EARNED their victories by being both smart and good! If the filmmakers had really wanted to preserve the their good memory they would have invented a fictitious group of black pilots for their movie instead of playing with the reputations of the real men who accomplished so much.
The only reason why I rated this film as high as a 6 and not lower is that other than the historical slurs it otherwise fits my definition of "sub-standard Hollywood schlock". It's a film that you can spend two hours laughing at, or simply staring at in stunned amazement by its seemingly endless sequences of the stupidly impossible, the stupidly improbable, and the stupidly pointless. A great film to keep you constantly amused by playing 'Spot What's Wrong Here'. A film that should only be seen for free, and even then only when you've nothing else better to do.
My first Russian Holmes
Hard to find in the US, my DVD was a gift from my sister -- a Slavic Languages professor -- who knows how to find such things. Faithful to the original novel, this probably isn't the best introduction to the series, as Holmes is absent through much of it while Watson investigates alone. With so little Holmes/Watson interaction, some of the appeal must certainly be missing.
That said, I very much like how Watson seriously, diligently, and intelligently carries out his investigation, not unlike numerous other successful fictional detectives. Except when tipsy, he is rarely the stereotypically foolish Watson. If I had never heard of Sherlock Holmes I might even have expected Watson himself to solve the mystery. However, because he is so serious it makes his character a bit too dry through much of film; though that in turn makes his actual flashes of foolishness and his reunion with Holmes more effective illustrations of Watson's true character.
What was interesting about the supporting characters is that they definitely seem to have more than a little Russian in them, from the humorously extroverted Sir Henry Baskerville to the arch-slavic-tragedian portrayal of Beryl Stapleton. I found it a bit jarring at first, expecting more British reserve in the characters, but eventually just let them be themselves and let myself be entertained. Much of Dartmoor also looks far more Russian than English, but that's only to be expected and easily overlooked.
Overall, this is a well done 'Hound', true to the story and true to the characters of Holmes and Watson. I got some hint of Vasili Livanov and Vitali Solomin's vast appeal, but not enough for me to become a wildly enthusiastic myself. At least, not yet. Because that hint is more than enough for me to nag my sister into getting me the rest of the Livanov/Solomin Holmes series. And then we'll see....
Substantially better than I expected
Unlike most movies which try to illustrate drug and hallucinogenic experiences by using a bunch of jarringly bizarre and heavily symbolic images randomly strung together, Chappaqua struck me as having a strange emotional continuity throughout -- that is, every odd new scene and image that appears somehow feels perfectly appropriate when it occurs. It's as if Rooks not only put together visions and sounds that evoked his actual emotions and experiences, but also managed to assemble them in the order they happened, one flowing seamlessly into the next even though there is no obvious connection between them. In fact, the film strikes me as being not so much hallucinogenic as dreamlike, another state rarely captured well on film. So this is definitely not a film for those who insist that movies should explain, clearly and completely, exactly what they're all about. But if you want a chance to ride on the meandering currents of another person's mind, then you might give this film a try.
Vanishing Point (1997)
Utterly forgettable, utterly pointless, utterly insipid, utterly dull
What made the original Vanishing Point a classic was that everyone was free to read their own meaning into it... or read no meaning at all and just watch the Challenger roar through the desert. What motivates Kowalski? Decipher it from his actions and flashbacks, or just ignore the question entirely. The film is still magnificent either way.
But the studio thought this uncertainty made it too esoteric back in 1971, so it was cut and given a limited release in the expectation of a quick death. But far from vanishing, the original Vanishing Point became recognized as one the GREAT road movies of all time.
This remake shows that Hollywood hasn't changed much. They love remaking a classic (hopefully guaranteeing an audience), but they still think that everything needs to be made both very obvious and very very simple. So they get rid of all the classic elements and turn it into a generic chase movie. They give Kowalski a really REALLY simple, obvious reason for his drive, making his flashbacks and encounters purely superfluous. And being superfluous they are populated with trite two dimensional caricatures... boring fluff that could be disposed of without diminishing this movie at all, slight though it is. This is entirely unlike the original which had interesting, unusual people that added to the story and gave context to the nature and character of Kowalski.
And that clunky, mass market mysticism thrown into the remake? ANY film is better off without that!!!
They also decided to make a federal case out of Kowalski's run... literally. It's not enough that state cops will naturally chase people who run from them (as in the original, and assign a symbolic meaning - or not - to that if you wish). In the remake they pound you again and again with a clumsy blunt-object polemic about the government and militias, with the FBI, ATF etc ultimately all ganging up on Kowalski.
The people who spawned this remake obviously read their own meanings into the original... that's the quality it has that makes it great. But instead of opening up any meanings we might find in their new version for us to discover ourselves, they forced on us that single reading of theirs alone. Unfortunately, that one narrow focus vastly shrank the appeal of the remake to something less than a vanishing point. The end result wasn't worth the wasting of either the Charger or the Challenger, let alone the both of them.
A story adequate to illustrate some innovative ideas.
To dispose of it quickly, I'll simply say that the plot and acting in Westworld was good enough to hold my attention. If you've seen any Star Trek episode where a holodeck fantasy world suddenly becomes very real and very deadly, then Westworld will seem completely familiar to you, though the movie is better done. For, in typical Crichton fashion, Westworld is more solidly grounded on extrapolations of real science and real technology, with computers and robots instead of the vague and wholly imaginary "holo-technology".
Having just this moment seen my Norton anti-virus program nag me for an update, I'm reminded that it no longer seems silly and improbable that a computer "illness" might exist and that it could spread, infecting machine after machine. However, because Crichton's "illness" doesnt' appear to be deliberate and man-made, it seems he drew his inspiration from questions raised by a 1949 paper by Dr. John von Neumann, and that Westworld's computer software disease spontaneously evolved from the complexity of the system. He returned to this theme later with Jurassic Park, after Chaos and Complexity theories had arisen to give some rigor to earlier speculations on the nature of complex systems.
A bit of a first in real technology was Crichton's use of computers to digitize the viewpoint of the Gunslinger, using false-color imaging and pixelation of film images. Every previous use of computer images in feature films merely involved showing computer monitors displaying simple graphics. Pixelation and wrong colors might now be just defects in digital imaging, something that simply happens when things go wrong. But in 1973 it was entirely new in feature films and it took an incredible amount of processing time to deliberately create them.
All in all, Westworld is a good entertaining film, but more deserving of attention these days for appreciating Crichton's thoughtful forward-looking innovations than as a masterwork of cinematic storytelling.
Tank Girl (1995)
Even comics characters need at least two dimensions
The main problem I had with this otherwise appealing movie is that Lori Petty's Tank Girl has exactly the same attitude toward virtually every incident in the movie... good, bad, otherwise. And while it's a really sharp and cool attitude, the movie might have soared if instead of merely being an attitude it had been a personality. Then, arising from this Tank Girl personality, a whole range of interesting emotions could have been emerged, adding variety and a chance for excitement to build instead of plateauing in the first few minutes. Because even in a romp of a pic, you still need to care about the characters. And it's a whole bunch easier to care about a person than it is to care about an attitude.
Still, I had good fun watching this movie. The "Feeling a little inadequate?" scene is a minor classic. And by chance I happened to watch this movie the same day I saw "Mulholland Dr." and I still have a very difficult time recognizing that Naomi Watts is the same person in both films. She's excellent in both, but so very different. Ice-T, Jeff Kober, and Reg E. Cathey do a surprisingly effective job of creating characters from underneath their Ripper make-up... they're so good that one of the best parts of Tank Girl is just watching and listening to them.
This isn't a movie to go into with high expectations. Read all the negative comments, take them to heart, and then watch the movie anyway. It will make Tank Girl a pleasant surprise.
Humanoids from the Deep (1980)
Amongst endless cliches, a profound revelation!
As near as I can tell this is the first monster movie to make explicit what has been implicit in monster movies from at least as far back as King Kong in 1933... that monsters just want to have sex with human women. Since this has only been suggested at before, nobody has ever bothered explaining this rather inexplicable behavior, beyond something like "beauty killed the beast". But Humanoids from the Deep explains all (at least for Roger Corman's man-fish critters) and gives a reason for their unusual mating habits... that "these creatures are driven to mate with man now in order further develop their incredible evolution." Alas, if only the 'scientist' who came up with this theory had just pronounced "coelacanth" correctly she would have had a great deal more credibility in my books. Still, on the plus side, it is a fine example of it's genre, where lots of nicely done rubber-suit-monsters tear the men up into bloody shreds so they can strip and ravish the women. If you watch this film expecting anything more... well, why were you?
Flesh Gordon (1974)
An unusual and surprisingly successful blending of low budget genres
The filmmakers of Flesh Gordon spent so much effort lovingly recreating the look and feel of the original Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s that they actually created a soft porn movie with real (if very modest) cinematic worth. In fact, it's in some ways superior to the original Gordon flicks - particularly its special effects - with an extensive and surprisingly good use of stop-action animation.
Fortunately, sub-par acting is common in both porn and the old serials and this adds to the authentic feel of this parody. But there is also some genuine acting going on too. The best actors in the movie deliberately over-play their roles to wonderful effect. Emperor Wang and Dr. Flexi Jerkoff brilliantly recreate the essence of Emperor Ming and Dr. Zarkov. Craig T. Nelson gives the voice of the monster a kind of laid back (yet lewd) sophistication. It's a voice that reminds me of Bing Crosby, which makes the scene just plain weird.
What makes this film work is that instead following the usual porn formula of using the plot as a mere device to show sex, Flesh Gordon uses sex as the fundamental source its humor, enthusiastically blending the rather banal soft-core porn of the seventies with the hackneyed storylines of the thirties. The sex takes the hackney out of the story, and the story takes the banality out of the sex scenes.
Is this movie a masterpiece? Clearly... OBVIOUSLY... not. But it is distinctive and original. Flesh Gordon is an unusual case where the quite good and the very bad somehow manage to complement each other and average out to make a very entertaining movie.
The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971)
Pure atmospheric horror
If I were to pick the single element that makes this movie work it would have to be its rare mood of authenticity. It's characters and environment convey a sense of people actually living in a remote rural region of 17th Century England. Credit goes to the filmmakers for trying to populate the story not with Hollywood's stale stock characters but with people recognizable as real, albeit living in a culture of a different time and place.
And in this time and place - where beliefs would figure more prominently than knowledge even in normal times - frightening inexplicable events become even more dreadful.
This isn't a strongly plot driven movie. For the first half of it we see more the consequences of the evil, without explanation of what it means or even exactly what it is that's happening. But because of that we are put into the same helpless position as the innocent and good characters in the movie. And people who turn to evil? A nice touch is that that the actors don't go over the top trying to be the most utterly evil of all possible screen characters. Rather, they are evil enough, but appropriately for who and when and where they are. And in a sense that is the REAL evil that happens in the movie, the people who become so.
And that's why the movie survives the murkiness of its presentation of the more overt evil. Since even after seeing the movie it may be unclear, here it is, with a mild ***SPOILER*** warning because the confusion actually creates some of the atmosphere in the early part of the film:
Various body parts of an evil being (called "The Devil" by the locals, though we needn't take that too literally) begin turning up, occasionally found in places like a plow furrow, but most often through the transformation of body parts of the local people. These parts are then cut off either voluntarily (by those who become this "devil's" followers) or involuntarily (from those who don't). The aim is to re-assemble them and actually create the body of this being.
But in truth this is only the motivation and background to the main focus of the movie, which is to produce an excellent period piece where the people act and react to a horror in character with their times and culture. And it's a pure pleasure that they succeeded in that. But as a movie and as a story would have been helped by running somewhat longer, so they could linger over some events and add more depth to the characters and their interactions. For as it is, sometimes a brief scene, or even just a few lines, are used to set up situations where a more extended treatment would have enhanced all the scenes that followed. That the story still held together using so little glue to stick the scenes into place shows commendable efficiency in the writing, but perhaps it was excessive efficiency. The ending is particularly hurt. A resolution should flow from the main body of the story and not from a relatively minor side-stream. Their ending came very close to being merely tacked on. Not quite, but they could have used more storytelling glue when they put it in place.
And I do have to mention the wonderful score. The melody of main theme sounds like it's based on an old English folk song, but it's arranged in a very 20th Century horror manner. The result is superb. Not only is it haunting, creepy and effective, where a mere switch in key can make it sweet or spooky, but the basic tune is also appealing and memorable.
From what I've written here, pointing out flaws and weakness, you probably won't pick up on just how extraordinarily fond I am of this movie. It's the kind that can stick in my mind for decades between viewings and I wish people would make more like it.
About the version I rented (under the title "Blood of Satan's Claw", distributed by the Cannon Group)... though less edited than the TV version I saw some 30 years ago, still this video shows signs of being cut. Though by todays standards this movie's virtually sole scene of sex and violence would be exceptionally mild, evidently it was considered too much at some time in the past. I dislike this kind of editing in general and I find the choppy cuts and jumps in the music during this one scene to be irritating. If an original version exists on video, possibly under a different one of its several names, that would be the one to own, though feel free to rent any version... the edits are minor and shouldn't be cause for you to pass on this movie.
Battlefield Earth (2000)
If they had been smart, would they have seen Battlefield Earth?
Since a previous comment believes that low SAT scores of IMDb voters are what put Battlefield Earth in the Bottom 100, truth in commenting forces me to disclose that my combined score was only 1540.
In truth, a weird view of intelligence underlies many of the major flaws in this film. Unless you are making a comedy, the villain should be the smartest person in a movie. The greatest dramatic tension is created when the hero is facing the greatest odds. And having a villain who can consistently out-think the hero makes the hero's ultimate victory all the more satisfying. Yet the Psychlos in general and the John Travolta character, Terl, in particular are especially dimwitted... always pompously posturing while being thoroughly deceived and defeated.
It doesn't make them any smarter to say that the Earth was conquered in mere minutes by these people. That is simply violating a basic rule of storytelling, which is "Don't say it, SHOW it!" SAYING that the Psychlos flash-conquered the Earth carries no weight, and we just refuse to believe it, when we are SHOWN what incompetents they are all through the movie.
And the way that our hero, Jonnie, prevails? He is hooked up to a learning machine through the stupidity of his foes and suddenly he is capable of outwitting the entire Psychlo empire. This is deus ex machina at it's worst. Not through any particular virtue of his own, he is suddenly master of the situation.
This all adds up to a strange taste in storytelling. A style that evidently some people like (though not most, the evidence shows). If I can judge by the comments written here, these people require villains to be nasty evil posturing boastful... and stupid. Especially stupid. Somehow giving them intelligence would be giving them a virtue, which you can't have in nasty evil posturing boastful villains. Well, if that's your taste... but it makes for poor storytelling. And if that isn't enough, the hero doesn't so much grow and change because of his travails as he is zap-transformed through the generosity of his foes. This makes for something less than interesting character development. In Storytelling 101 this formula would earn you a grade of D... for Dull.
For those who admire this movie, perhaps Battlefield Earth is simply their style of wish fulfillment, where their foes are always stupid, and a simple trick will suddenly guarantee them absolute victory. The lazy man's path to being an epic hero.