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brianmartin

Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013), directed by John Luessenhop

Texas Chainsaw 2013 [DVD] - Alexandra Daddario, Tania Raymonde, Carl Mazzocone

He'll fuck you up, he'll fuck you up / Yes, God will fuck you up / If you dare to disobey his stern command


If you google this song, which plays near the beginning of Texas Chainsaw 3D, you will find a few instances of it being miscredited to the John Butler Trio, an Australian group with several platinum albums to their credit. In fact, it is by John R. Butler who, as one website puts it, "has had few brushes with greatness." Can't imagine why.

I tuned in to this movie thinking it was the remake of Tobe Hooper's 1974 original. On Netflix, the "3D" is absent from the title. But I was egregiously uninformed. Turns out that the Chainsaw "franchise" currently consists of no less than seven films. The one I was thinking of was the fifth, from 2003. This one is the most recent. But for my purposes it was just as good, in the sense that it references nothing but the original. In no other sense is "good" a word I would use to describe it.

The premise, for example, rewrites Hooper's film. If you're going to do a "sequel," you ought at least to get the original facts straight. According to this film, Leatherface, the chainsaw wielding maniac from the first film, belongs to and lives with an entirely different family. Not psychos themselves, they nevertheless protect him and cover for him. But they are no longer able to do this when Sally (from the original) escapes and tells her story to the police. The police and several townspeople converge on the house and burn it to the ground, killing all but two people: Leatherface, of course, and a little baby, whom one of the vigilantes adopts. Twenty-some-odd years later, the baby has grown into buxom Heather Miller. A letter she receives one day informs her that a grandmother she never knew she had has died and left her her house -- and all within it. It's in Texas, baby, and that means a road trip for Heather and her friends.

At first, it's kind of fun comparing the doppelgangers of the characters from the first film. The only one missing is Franklin, Sally's invalid brother. He gets double-doppled, being both the odd man out (Franklin) and the hitchhiker they pick up on the way. These kids would never pick up the twitchy weirdo of the first film, of course, so this time he's young, good-looking, and ripped. Makes sense, I suppose, but the vérité of the original is missing. There, the kids were hippies, and picking up hitchhikers was a natural thing to do. Here, the sex-crazy girls are already paired up, so what's the point?

But it isn't the details that kill this movie (though the complete lack of humor is striking when judged against the original). It is its moral anarchy, which begins with the wholesale overhaul of Leatherface himself. Hooper's film hinted at the character's retardation yet never used that as an excuse for his behavior. This movie, over the course of 90 minutes, takes him from psychotic killer to sympathetic victim. It's a change that cascades to the cast: if Leatherface isn't really the villain, then who is? The answer is, government and the police. One of those vigilantes, you see, has somehow gotten himself elected Mayor. Gimme a corrupt cop, gimme a crooked politician, but don't slap me in the face with a retarded homicidal hero. Blood may be thicker than water, but Heather's is pure sludge. She can forgive the murders of her friends because Leatherface is "family." Really? I'd say her friends would be better off without her, but her misunderstood cousin kind of made that a moot point.

Used to be, what with the virtual guarantee of nudity in a horror film, that people worried about the conflation of sex and violence in the impressionable minds of the audience. This film has no nudity (not quite), but combining violence with its bizarre take on what is right and honorable is more insidious still. Of the original, Roger Ebert wrote, "I can't imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective." Regarding this new film, I agree completely -- with everything before the first conjunction.

Pursuit (1972-Made for TV), directed by Michael Crichton

Pursuit - Robert R. Dozier

I've seen Coma, The Great Train Robbery, Looker, Runaway, and Physical Evidence and still it makes me smile to see Michael Crichton's name listed as director. Pursuit, based on Binary, his last novel written as John Lange, is his first film, a made-for-TV movie. It was followed the next year by Westworld, the only film he directed, in fact, that I haven't seen. I think my reaction is a combination of two things. First, I think of him primarily as an author who, like most authors, doesn't direct his own adaptations (which is true of every one of his books but this one and TGTR). And second, though he once said he believed you could learn everything you needed to know about directing in a month, he failed to mention that style isn't so easily acquired. His movies are well-made, but they lack flair.

Pursuit is a good movie. Ben Gazzara (if you're old enough, you may remember him as the star of Run For Your Life, a series about a man working his way through his bucket list long before the term was even coined) is pleasing as Steven Graves, the intelligence agent who must stop a wealthy extremist from murdering thousands of people. As the extremist, E.G. Marshall does a fine job. Martin Sheen, in a small role as a computer hacker, is especially good. And there's nothing wrong with the story, which is reasonably suspenseful. So, yeah, it's worth your time, but you won't be texting anyone about it afterward. Crichton hadn't yet developed, and indeed never did, that certain cinematic savvy that would put it over the top.

He does, however, include one touch from the novel that echoes forward to the present day: a countdown clock. A TV movie about an agent tracking a terrorist with a countdown clock that appears throughout, especially at the obvious commercial breaks. It's a proto-24. The big difference is, when Graves has his man in an interrogation room, he doesn't torture the hell out of him.

Also of note, for those who attach importance to these things, the film is textbook adaptation. Or rather by-the-book adaptation. If, after reading Binary, you thought to yourself, Gee, I'd like to see this in moving pictures, you could, just by watching this movie, it's that close to the original. Crichton didn't write the screenplay, but Robert Dozier, who did, may not have been above a little ego-stroking.

Dementia 13 (1963), directed by Francis Coppola

Dementia 13 - Digitally Remastered (Amazon.com Excluive) - Roger Corman

Dementia 13 was the result of a 9-day shoot, from a script written in 3 days, from a story idea that was produced overnight. And yes it looks it, though that isn't entirely a bad thing. It's a cult movie, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (before he began using his middle name), supposedly at one time widely believed to have been his first film. All I know is, by 1983 at the latest, that myth was dispelled by Michael Weldon, in his great Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. Now everyone knows that Coppola actually worked on a couple of nudie pictures before this one, though it appears only one of them -- Tonight For Sure -- was completely his. Still, it is his first "legitimate" film. Weldon says, "With a great trick ending, some truly shocking gory axe murders, and lots of inventive photography...[Dementia 13 is] a minor horror classic from a master filmmaker." Now, you can go with that -- or you can read on.

 

Several years ago, young Kathleen Haloran drowned in the pond on her family's Irish estate. Lady Haloran seems to think of little else and her three sons are all affected by the tragedy in different ways. The eldest married a gold-digger and the youngest is plagued by nightmares. The middle brother, Richard, appears to be the steadiest of the lot, and he is about to be married to a pretty young thing named Kane. But Richard is a sculptor and when a creepy shrine to Kathleen is discovered, he seems to be the most likely culprit. Meanwhile, anyone who gets near the solution is hacked up by a shadowy figure wielding an axe.

 

One of the murders -- the most gruesome one, in fact -- wasn't shot by Coppola. It was ordered after producer Roger Corman saw Coppola's finished film and decided it needed more horror. If it weren't for that, the body count would be cut in half. So it's safe to say the cult following for this film isn't based on violence.

 

I'm going to go out on a limb and say it isn't based on the clever logic of the screenplay, either. The killer only shows up when some new clue is revealed, and it's as if the revelation itself is psychically transmitted to him so that he can grab his axe and teleport to the site to do his murderous business. That would have been an interesting movie!

 

So it must be Coppola, right?, him and his "inventiveness." Well, if by "inventive" you mean "awkward," and if there are a lot of people who enjoy that sort of thing, then I suppose that could explain it. The movie opens with a high-angle shot of a bickering married couple on a dock. The angle adds nothing to the scene, except a bit of queasiness. Nor is it followed by anything I could identify as noteworthy. That is, unless you count a bizarre scene in which it appears as though a woman climbs through a window -- from a hallway. And of course as screenwriter, Coppola "invented" the dialogue, which even the actors complained was "stilted."

 

No, I think this film's following must be related to Kathleen, the poor little girl who drowned. We see her alive in a flashback, but more importantly we see her dead. Supernaturally dead, it would appear, for she looks as she did in life; she might simply be sleeping. Her presence literally haunts the film, and when you include the shrine and its unlikely location, she overshadows all the rest, an eerie reminder of what horror films are all about: wreckage, despair, and the loss of innocence. The ending encapsulates all this in a single violent act.

 

For Kathleen, Dementia 13 deserves its place as a cult film, but that comes with its own warning: Don't expect much in the way of traditional entertainment.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), directed by Tobe Hooper

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: 40th Anniversary - Tobe Hooper, Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel

It's kind of funny, 40 years later, to look back and say that the most successful alum from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was its unseen narrator, John Larroquette -- and that includes its director, Tobe Hooper. Hooper, of course, went on to direct Poltergeist, but he, like Christian Nyby before him when he worked with Howard Hawks on The Thing (From Another World), was overshadowed by the uncredited influence of the man with the real talent, who in Hooper's case was Steven Spielberg.

Yet, as narrator, Larroquette gets the movie's goofiest line. "For them," he says, referring to the five kids whose lives take a dramatic turn for the worse on August 20, 1973, "an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare." Part of the reason Chainsaw is so good is that the closest any of these kids get to "idyllic" is a romp to a dried-up swimming hole.

The movie opens with shots of decaying corpses and a radio news report of the dismemberment and theft of corpses at a Texas cemetery. The kids, in fact, are on their way to the cemetery because two of them, Sally and Franklin Hardesty, have a grandfather buried there: they want to know if his grave was disturbed. On the way, a friend reads from a book of astrology, noting that Saturn is in retrograde -- not a good sign. They are nearly out of gas. A rest stop for Franklin, who is in a wheelchair, ends with him at the bottom of a ravine. And then, of course, they pick up a hitchhiker.

But this cat is no ordinary hitchhiker. He's twitchy and weird and sports a large red welt on his face. His greatest pride, it seems, is connected to the nearby slaughterhouse. "I used to work there. My brother did too. My grandfather too. My family's always been in meat!" His greatest disappointment? That the business upgraded to a bolt-gun for use in killing the animals; he liked it better when they used a sledge.

These early moments are incredibly awkward, partly because of the situation and partly because the actors are all young and inexperienced. But unlike many similar scenes in other movies, they aren't, for the viewer, embarrassing. They have a genuineness that lifts them somewhere between comedy and horror. The kids are all hippies, without being self-conscious about it. It's a nice moment when they "naturally" decide to pick up the hitchhiker. The driver slows, giving them a better look at him. One of the girls then notices how strange he looks and urges them not to stop. But by then they are committed. And in the end, it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway.

This is a bad day from the get-go, and the movie uses that in an almost fatalistic way. The first murder is so matter-of-fact, so quick, that's it's almost as if it is just one more thing gone wrong, like driving into a gas station and finding that the pumps are empty. It establishes a sense of helplessness (and hopelessness) that makes everything that happens that much more horrific.

The film's masterstroke, however, is its use of comedy. Hooper weaves in a surprising amount of comic material, often dark, sometimes gruesome, but always beautifully timed to bank the boiler and keep the film from getting ahead of itself or blowing up too soon. One scene has one of the crazies telling Sally not to worry while he pokes her with a broom handle. It's flat-out torture, but it's funny, too, and like the early scenes with the hitchhiker, it's all too plausible.

This makes Hooper sound like a genius and I started this review by suggesting that he is not. For that conclusion, I refer you to his subsequent work. But for a few months in 1974, he acted like one.

Deja Dead (1997) by Kathy Reichs

Déjà Dead  - Kathy Reichs

Go figure: living in a vacuum can lead to some surprises. I watch virtually nothing that isn't live on live TV, and where TV shows are concerned I also try to avoid reading or watching anything about the series while I am watching it. In some cases this leaves me little choice but to extrapolate from my own experiences. Since my experiences with Bones have mostly been good ones (though that seems to be changing ever since the death of one of my favorite characters), I assumed that the rest of the world saw what I was seeing. Evidently this is not so. Bones has never been ranked higher than #29 in the ratings and its average rating over the first nine seasons is right about 43. That's pretty good, I guess, but not what I would have expected.

I approach books the same way. About all I knew of Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan books was that they (and Reichs herself) had inspired the series. So I was in for another surprise when I read Deja Dead, the first book in the series, only to discover that if, in either one, the books or the series, the name of the main character was changed, you'd have a difficult time connecting the two. For one thing, the Brennan of the book isn't the robot she is in the series. This makes her in some respects more realistic but, I've discovered, significantly less entertaining. Deja Dead, in fact, is a slow-starter that works its way up to middling. Perhaps the later books improve, but I doubt that I will ever find out.

The book is premised on the idea that Brennan, an American serving as the Director of Forensic Anthropology for the Canadian province of Quebec, investigates a series of murders that may be linked to a serial killer, thereby putting herself, her family, and her friends in danger. But it's really all about her. Her "family" is a daughter away at college and her "friends" aren't plural. The friend in question is named Gabby, and she's a flake. Not a charming flake, just a flake. As characters go, she could get killed and it wouldn't raise an eyebrow.

So that leaves Brennan. She truly is in danger. Why? Because Reichs says so. What I mean by that is that Brennan is compelled to take to the field primarily because Reichs saddles her with a sexist, proprietary cop who's smart when he wants to be, dumb and exclusionary otherwise. And even at that Brennan's actions are often dangerous and silly. But it is interesting to note, for Bones viewers, that another reason she must take to the field is that bones don't reveal nearly as much as the show would have you believe. With just her lab results, she finds it difficult to convince even the relatively good cops that the murders are the work of one man. (I'm giving precedence to the book written by Reich rather than the show produced by Reich.)

Let's face it, though: Brennan's actions are typical of amateur sleuths everywhere. The problem is, Brennan isn't typical. She's a highly educated professional working in tandem (ostensibly) with a modern police force. We aren't supposed to identify with Claudel, the sexist cop, but it quickly becomes difficult not to do so. Brennan's motivation is impatience and moral outrage; that it becomes personal is a result of her own meddling. That isn't good enough.

At one point in the book, Brennan reaches out to a friend for a psychological profile of the killer (another significant difference between the Brennans of book and TV). Perhaps, if Brennan herself is so dull (she has a cat and she used to drink -- not exactly earth-shaking character development), we can find something more compelling in the killer. But it's not to be. The profile that comes back is generic serial killer stuff, and it doesn't matter much anyway since he is off-screen nearly all the time. When he isn't...well, then he becomes generically stupid.

On the other hand, the book is reasonably well-written, though excessively detailed -- oddly, though, not regarding the science. After a slow start, it picks up some steam, but it's almost embarrassing when it does. You want to berate Brennan for her foolishness in going into the field, but at the same time, it's only when she does that the book becomes mildly interesting.

World War Z (2013), directed by Marc Forster

World War Z [DVD] - Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos

When every major city in the world is overrun with zombies, Jerusalem stands alone untouched. This is thanks to their "10th Man" doctrine, which states that when nine men in a select group of ten agree on something, it is the duty of the tenth man to disagree. Nine men agreed that an email intercepted from India that talked of a plague of zombies was nonsense. Perforce the tenth man disagreed. So the Israelis built a wall around their city. (Vegas would love these guys.) Unfortunately, they subsequently abandoned the policy that had saved them from the initial outbreak. I say this because I have to believe that having built a hundred foot wall (in a week, no less) around their city, nine men must have thought, A hundred feet is enough, thereby triggering the tenth man to disagree, resulting in a 200 foot wall. And so on forever -- or at least until their supplies ran out or the men and women doing all the heavy lifting adopted their own policy -- of decimation.

You have to fall into one of two camps to enjoy World War Z: either you must love zombies (really, really love zombies) or you must love Brad Pitt (a lot). The movie offers nothing else. The story is frankly inane, the supporting characters little more than living zombies themselves. And the dialogue? The only line I remember is one of Pitt's: "Movement is life," he says. Yeah, tell that to a tree. Maybe one of those 500 year old redwoods.

The movie might work if viewed as an absurdist comedy; it certainly has plenty of material. Take the scene in which hero Gerry Lane (Pitt) tries to save himself from rampaging zombies with a wall of luggage. Or the one where the Israelis, with the rest of the humanity rapidly being wiped out, decide to sing and dance. And then there's the one where the man with the plan to figure out how to cure the zombie infection dies moments after he's introduced. But not before he has time to fill Lane's head with a lot of gobbledygook about serial killers. Oh, didn't you know? Mother Nature is a serial killer. And here I was thinking death was a natural process and the old bird was just doing her job.

"The history book on the shelf," Abba tells us, "is always repeating itself." Would that it were true. It's been a lot of years since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, but the people who made this movie went off and did something new. Romero's film was about people; this one is about mayhem. It's like Gone With the Wind -- if Gone With the Wind had been an endless stream of nasty Unioners bayoneting everyone in sight.

Whenever people in movies go to war, I have to ask myself what they're fighting for. In this film, Lane is blackmailed into working for the U.N. and, when it appears as though he may have died in the line of duty, his wife and two daughters are designated "non-essential" and ordered off the Navy ship he worked so hard to get them on. Well, hell, sign me up. The zombies aren't the problem; they're the solution to the human apocalypse.

Dumb as it's depiction is in this film, I think the Israelis were on to something with that whole 10th man thing. When nine movie producers think a movie is a good idea, I propose Hollywood find a tenth to suggest the opposite. Since nine out of ten movies are pretty bad these days, I like those odds.

Catwoman (2004), directed by Pitof

Catwoman (Widescreen Edition) - Bob Kane, Denise Di Novi, Edward L. McDonnell, Michael Fottrell, Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan, Robert Kirby, Bruce Berman, John Brancato, Michael Ferris, John Rogers, Theresa Rebeck

When I bought issue #1 of a DC comic called Starfire back in 1976, it cost me 30 cents. Only a few days ago I stumbled upon a comics shop and noticed the price of a new comic book in 2014: $3.99. This, of course, is nerd pricing, not kid pricing. If it were just a matter of inflation, that comic book would have cost a buck twenty-five.

I don't know what it means to our society that comic books have gone from a kid's pastime to a nerd's passion, but I know that any moviemaker that doesn't understand that is just asking for trouble. The makers of Catwoman, starring Halle Berry, weren't just clueless; they put on miniskirts and f-me shoes and went for a nighttime stroll down Rue Violeur.

You see, Catwoman isn't about the Catwoman. Selina Kyle exists, but in the past. This Catwoman is named Patience Phillips. She doesn't prowl the streets of Gotham, either, and Batman is never mentioned. How she becomes Catwoman -- well, that rewrites 60 years of history. No longer a woman with criminal tendencies, she is a supernatural creature with spidey powers.

If you invite it, sometimes you get it. This movie got it from critics, audiences, and the box office. Before long, its name was being bandied about in the same breath as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Manos: The Hands of Fate, as one of the worst movies ever made. Nerd fury -- the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.

I saw this movie on the big screen when it first came out and I just re-watched it on TV. My opinion hasn't changed in the last 10 years. It ain't bad.

I admit I shouldn't like it, but that's due to a personal bias against obvious CGI, not because it screws with a beloved comic book character. Not that I don't get the latter: I've also seen the Vampirella movie (which, evidently, this movie's critics haven't). But this, this isn't a movie based on a comic book; it's a comic book movie. It's simple, stylized, and overwrought. Add in Halle Berry in a push-up bra and you have a movie made for the originally intended audience of comic books, and with about as much redeeming value.

But entertainment value counts, when it isn't weighed down with a lot of pretentiousness or greed. Catwoman isn't weighed down by much, other than the squirm-inducing inclusion of a politically correct gay character (very minor) and a basketball scene that's about as convincing as a blue sunrise. Most of the rest floats on the screen like an empty thought balloon. The part of your brain Catwoman wants is prelingual.

What is it about? What does it matter? It's about Catwoman. A new Catwoman, one that oddly enough won't appeal to today's comic book fans, but just might appeal to those of an earlier era.

Merry Christmas?

Never fails. Holiday comes up, I say I'm going to get everything we need a couple days before so I can just relax, and then I'm off to the store for something I forgot at the last minute. Nothing new this Christmas Eve. Except that it happened twice!

Stores here were closing at 8 p.m. I dashed off to Wal-Mart around 4, picked up a few things, got back and had just started to settle in when my wife remembered that we'd run out of tape and she still had some presents to wrap. I don't know about you, but I'm not thrilled by the thought of going to a store and then turning around and going right back to the same store. So this time I decided to go to Tom Thumb. Off I went again (this time in the opposite direction), and of course "tape" had by now turned into a short list of things for me to buy. Nothing I couldn't hand carry, thank goodness. I say that because having plopped my items down on the belt in the Express Lane and waiting patiently for my turn, I reached for my wallet and it was gone.

This has happened a couple of other times in my life. I'm never looking in a mirror, but I can tell I get this deer-in-the-headlights look when it does. The first time I went to Vegas was the worst. I was a whole lot younger then, but I'm not sure it would have made any difference. What does everyone say when you go to an unfamiliar city (or country, for that matter). Make sure, they say, to protect your wallet. And be mindful of anyone who bumps into you. A small distraction is all a good pickpocket needs. One common piece of advice for men is to move your wallet into your front pocket. I did that when we got there (I went with a friend who'd been to Vegas once before.) And so now we're in a casino and I'm marvelling at everything and when I turn around, an old man bumps into me. Alarm bells clanging in my head, I reach for my wallet. Force of habit has me reaching for my back pocket. And it isn't there! I immediately reached out and grabbed the man's arm, completely at a loss what to say to him, but certain that I didn't want him making off with all my money on my first day in Sin City. He was looking at me, thoroughly confused, and I had just begun to say something when I remembered what I'd done. And sure enough, when I checked my front pocket, there was my wallet, safe and secure. It was all quite embarrassing.

So, yesterday, back at Tom Thumb, with the cashier looking at me as I'm fumbling through my pockets, I realize that this time my wallet is really gone. "Is it maybe in the car?" he asked. If it is, I thought, I've just broken the laws of physics. But I said, "Yeah, let me go check." Meanwhile I was thinking hard where it might really be. The only thing I could figure was that I must have lost it at Wal-Mart. And now it's getting dark, and it's 6 p.m., and I know if I can't find it, my Christmas isn't going to be a merry one, for just the thought of everything I'd have to do would occupy my mind the whole time.

Once I got in the car -- and, ok, yeah, I looked, but physical law remained inviolate -- I got on the phone. And got disconnected. I redialed. And got disconnected again. I decided I had to get moving because what if somehow it had fallen in the parking lot. I doubted I could find it even now, but it was getting darker by the minute. So I started driving and then tried calling once more. This time I got through, to the switchboard operator: "How may I direct your call?" I told her what I thought happened and she transferred me to the Service Desk. Several minutes later she came back on the line to tell me they were really busy. Finally the Service Desk answered. When I told the woman that I thought I'd lost my wallet, she said something very hopeful. Not, Nope, nothing's been turned in, or I don't think so, but I'll check. No, she said, "What's your name?" I felt pretty good after that. Once she'd confirmed my name matched the one on the license in the wallet that had been turned in, she reminded me the store was closing in a couple hours. By then I was able to tell her I was just crossing the last intersection and I'd be there directly.

So, yeah, Merry Christmas to everyone. And especially to the person who turned in my wallet on Christmas Eve. I hope Santa was watching.

Dark Skies (2013), directed by Scott Stewart

Dark Skies [DVD] - Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton

Moviegoers are an exasperating bunch. They've turned the works of producer Jason Blum, which include Paranormal Activity and this film, Dark Skies, into huge moneymakers. It's hard to imagine a similar lack of discernment on the part of readers. That would be like elevating a piece of self-published trash to multi-million dollar--

Look, I didn't come here to knock Blum. I came here to congratulate him. Not just for all that money (Dark Skies has made, if not precisely earned, over 20 million), but for his taste in movies. It's not as if I know this guy, but watching Dark Skies has given me a pretty good idea what he likes. To rip off. Close Encounters, Poltergeist, The Birds -- not bad. For those I'll give him Fire in the Sky and Communion.

When I was younger, wistfully looking at the writer's guidelines for science fiction magazines, I noted a common theme: No UFO stories. The editors didn't say why; guess they thought if I couldn't figure that one out on my own, they probably didn't want my stories anyway. It took some time and some thought, but I did eventually work it out. Now I think it would have been easier if I'd just waited to watch this movie.

What I finally realized is that UFO stories aren't really stories at all, that they're all beginnings with no middles and no ends. 2001 is what a UFO story with all three elements looks like, and it looks nothing like a UFO story. Paradox -- or Drama 101?

In a UFO story, the antagonists are the aliens. This, of course, is the writer's first mistake. For the aliens are incomprehensible and unknowable. As antagonists, they rank somewhere below the stupid vines in The Ruins (or would, if the vines were indeed the antagonists).

His second mistake is one of self-contradiction: he defines his aliens as creatures of science, then removes all barriers to their power. The result is an anything goes approach that may work in isolated instances, but which turns the whole into undifferentiated mush.

This movie begins with a quotation from Arthur C. Clarke. No, it isn't the one about science and magic; we can be thankful for that at least. It is this: "Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying." It is the last time, during the next 97 minutes, that you will find thinking a profitable exercise.

Gaslight (1944), directed by George Cukor

Gaslight - Ingrid Bergman, Angela Lansbury

Here, ladies and gentlemen, we have the ax of the 'eadsman and the execution block. These are the originals with which such historic persons as Lady Jane Grey and Queen Catherine Howard was beheaded within these precincts. The victim, kneeling, laid his 'ead upon the block, fitted his neck into the small, hollowed-out space designed to receive it, whereupon the ax descended, severing the 'ead from the torso with one blow...or, in unlucky cases, two.

Gaslight stars Ingrid Bergman as Paula, Charles Boyer as Gregory, and Joseph Cotton.

Early in the film Paula sings from Gaetano Donizetti's tragic opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Paula's mother was an opera singer. Before she was murdered. It doesn't seem to occur to Paula that perhaps the two facts are related, even though she knows perfectly well that her mother was strangled.

I saw an opera once, though it wasn't Lucia. It was Tosca, and the occasion was a class field trip. I can't say that it broadened my horizons much, except in that it taught me one thing: that the kid who sits enthralled by opera is a weird kid. Not a bad kid, but a very odd duck indeed.

Comic opera is another matter entirely, at least when it is written by Gilbert and Sullivan. My Dad had several recordings of their work, and I believe I am the better for having heard them. Indeed, I now own them.

But back to Lucia. Is this the greatest in-joke ever? I'd call it foreshadowing, but not even the lightest of shadows is visible in the dark. Gaslight, as it happens, is about a man trying to drive his wife insane. In the opera, which is based on The Bride of Lammermoor, a novel by Sir Walter Scott, Lucia goes insane. Even better, a letter figures prominently in both. How I envy the man or woman who watches Gaslight and actually gets all this! Why, with all that education, they'd have to be very model of a modern major-general.

Details, details. Gaslight is a movie with many lovely details. Another, in the previous vein, is that Paula reads from Charlotte Bronte's Villette, which also includes some of the same themes as this film. (I didn't get that one, either, having not read the book.) Most of them, however, are more generally accessible, like one involving a glove and its missing mate. The trouble is, the whole doesn't quite equal the parts.

I won't go all feminist on you and explain why Paula's passivity and submissiveness are abhorrent -- partly because I don't even believe that; still, speaking as a human being, I feel that she could have done more in her own defense. Not that it would have been easy. The idea is, traumatized by her mother's death, Paula falls in love with a man who dreams of living in a house in London. Paula, of course, owns just such a house -- her mother's, to which she hasn't returned since the tragedy. On edge already, Paula is pushed further by Gregory, her husband, who keeps her closed in the house and turns the servants, who are Paula's only real contact with the outside world, against her. He does things like hiding a picture and then asking her where it's gone, insinuating she took it and forgot all about it. It takes its toll. Yet being told that you are insane is rather like hallucinating. I scoff when characters see things that plainly aren't there and go on with their lives without a second thought (this happens far too often), and I scoff here at Paula, who resists Gregory's psychological assaults only in her mind. In my mind, I am screaming, Do something, for crying out loud!

A bigger problem is Gregory. Gregory has a reason for doing all this. But if he is the picture of methodical planning and execution in the matter of wrecking Paula's sanity, he is inexplicably haphazard and disorganized in his deeper plot. It makes no sense at all.

Undeniably, though, Ingrid Bergman is a beautiful Paula. She is well-paired here with George Cukor, famously known as a "woman's director." (While the epithet has validity, one wonders, given the director's sexual orientation, if it wasn't also intended as a slur.) More importantly, she plays the part well; she won the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance. Charles Boyer is also quite good, being by turns thoroughly charming and darkly menacing.

Details, details. Gaslight, set in the Edwardian era, also won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. It's a pretty film, and all that gas lighting is very romantic. In a tortured souls kind of way.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), directed by Irving Reis

The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer - Nicholas Musuraca, Robert De Grasse, Frederic Knudtson, Dore Schary, Fred Quimby, Sidney Sheldon

You remind me of a man.

What man?

The man with the power.

What power?

Hoodoo.

Hoodoo?

You do.

Do what?

Remind me of a man.

What man?...



Member when kids were kids, even teenagers? I remember when they weren't, anymore. And the responsible party. That was the Fox television network and the year was 1987. Fox debuted the sitcom Married...with Children and, for variety (literally), The Tracey Ullman Show, on which could be seen the original shorts for what, a couple years later, would become The Simpsons. Bud, Kelly, Bart, and Lisa -- they changed the world. The kids grew up and the adults dumbed down.

So there's no misunderstanding, I'll lay my cards on the table. I've seen every episode of Married...with Children, even the awful ones. When it's good, it's sublime. The Simpsons, on the other hand, not so much. I watched it for awhile in the early days, and I enjoyed it, but that didn't last. Why? Well, (a) it's animated, and I have to be in the mood for that, and (b) it succumbed to the curse of extreme popularity: it became ubiquitous. A clear case of overkill, with me as collateral damage. It was not that I didn't think it was funny.

I'm not sorry, though, that I didn't grow up with these shows. I grew up watching re-runs of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. And I'm not sorry simply because I learned to enjoy my vegetables before moving on to dessert. From all I can tell, it's a much more difficult proposition the other way round -- if not for the consumers, then for the providers. And I think that's a shame.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, with 19-year-old Shirley Temple playing 17-year-old Susan Turner. It's a pleasant movie about a sophisticated artist (Grant) who is essentially blackmailed into dating Susan as a way of quashing her crush on him. Meanwhile, the artist and Susan's older sister, Margaret (Loy), fall in love. The script, which has a number of funny lines, won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. And the scriptwriter was none other than Sidney Sheldon, who went on to create I Dream of Jeannie and write a bunch of bestselling novels. (I grew up on Jeannie, too -- not literally, regrettably. Don't believe anyone who tells you Bewitched was better.)

At one point in the film, Susan remarks that when Richard, the artist, is 60, she will be 42. We know she's 17, so that puts Richard at 35. How creepy is that? It's way above the half plus five rule. Yet the answer is, Not creepy at all. Susan isn't Kelly Bundy, she's not a pretty little liar, she's not a Monster High chick -- she's a kid. Temple is cute -- pretty, even -- but totally lacking any intrinsic fetishistic appeal. (What the viewer brings to the party is, of course, a different matter.)

If nothing else, it's refreshing. It's nice to see a kid who acts like a kid and who, yes, gets treated like one. I love the way the movie marks out its territory. There's the premise, for example. Five or six adults -- including two judges, an assistant district attorney, and a psychologist -- all sign off on the psychologist's plan to have Richard date Susan. But not one of them (and certainly not Richard) takes it seriously. The idea is to let Susan's crush die a natural death rather than to have it grow and fester because Richard is forbidden to her. In fact -- poor Susan -- the whole plot is a ruse by which the psychologist can get Richard and Margaret together.

Even if Susan knew the reasons behind it all, she wouldn't accept it. We learn early on that Susan's interests change on a regular basis, that she romanticizes everything, including destitution and crime, and that, while she is precocious, she isn't anything like the kids we see on modern sitcoms. Part of the film's humor lies in the the way she self-consciously tries to act older than her age while unconsciously revealing her 17 years. She doesn't even have the life experience to get Richard's jokes. If she knew what was really going on, she would believe that she could prove everyone wrong and stay with Richard forever and ever.

Which is actually very cool. Susan gets to try new things, go to basketball games and picnics, and learn about life the way a kid ought to: by experiencing it while under the care and protection of adults who love her and want what's best for her. Which is, I think, how things are even today, in the real world. It's just that it gets harder and harder to find that depicted in quite such a positive way.

Fifth Planet by Fred Hoyle and Geoffrey Hoyle

Fifth Planet - Fred Hoyle

You can put this one next to 2001. It isn't as cosmically imaginative as Clarke's book, but it has a similar vibe. One hundred years in the future, a star with its own planetary system passes near Earth. Four of its five planets are gas giants, but the fifth, dubbed Achilles, is Earth-sized and evidently Earth-like. Two expeditions, one Russian, one American, set out for Achilles, where they discover endless swards of grass and long, shallow lakes. Then things get weird.

To be honest, it's all a little weird from the beginning. Written by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle and his novelist son Geoffrey Hoyle, this book doesn't read like any ordinary science fiction novel. This is a good thing: it's different and it suits the subject matter. It has the deliberateness of the scientific mind and also its leaps forward, as well as its odd digressions. In a way, its characters are digressions. They aren't as colorless as Bowman and Poole (I'm thinking of Kubrick's 2001), yet they aren't quite what one would expect in a science fiction novel, either. The astronauts, for example, are strangely laid-back, largely unmoved by the momentousness of exploring a new, living world. And then there's the hero of the story. He isn't one of the astronauts; he isn't even on the trip. And he's happy about it. This is because his wife's lover is on the trip, and he's looking forward to having her all to himself for awhile. Find me another science fiction book with a cuckold as the hero. There aren't many. I doubt that any of this was intentionally designed this way, but it all dovetails to give this book a slightly off-kilter feel that keeps it surprising -- and eerie, once the explorers begin to realize there's more to Achilles than grass and water.

The anonymous author of the book's description on Goodreads (which, by the way, I do not recommend reading, as it is replete with spoilers) said, "It's at the novel's conclusion where Fifth Planet comes into its own." I mention this less to disagree than to point out that clearly others do not share my opinion. Nevertheless, I was disappointed with the way the book ended, for a number of reasons, none of which I will go into here. That having been said, this is a fascinating novel, one you won't regret reading even if, like me, it's the first 150 pages you will remember, not the last 30.

Marnie (1964), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Marnie - Alfred Hitchcock, Jay Presson Allen

It's hard to find the subtlety in a whip or a pair of handcuffs, but I don't suppose that means that one can't find an appreciation of nuance among the devotees of BDSM. Marnie, without quite coming out and saying so, is a movie made for dominants and submissives. It's about a frigid kleptomaniac with a dreadful past and the man determined to rehabilitate her, even if it means binding her with blackmail and thrashing her with his unwanted sexual advances. It is, according to the original poster, Alfred Hitchcock's "suspenseful sex mystery."

 

Now, I'm not sure what a "sex mystery" is -- a glory hole, perhaps? -- but whatever it is, it sounds more like a Hitchcock picture than what I think this movie really is, which is an exploration of the mystery of sex, albeit the darker side of it. It asks questions like, "How far do love and good intentions allow a man to go?", "Is blackmail ever justified?", and "When is rape for a woman's own good?" Clearly, this is no movie for the knee-jerk crowd.

 

The logic of most movies (and books, for that matter) is one of begging the question. The end doesn't justify the means, it determines them. What would you do if you knew everything would work out in the end? Probably all the crazy things Hollywood heroes do. And would you be wrong? Or would it matter if you were, if you had that bright conclusion to point to in your own defense? As disturbing as this movie is, it becomes even more so when Hitchcock's record of playing around with this logic is factored in. His two previous films were Psycho and The Birds, neither of which can be said have a "good" ending. At one point in the film Mark (Sean Connery) promises not to touch Marnie (Tippi Hedren). What we don't know is whether the promise of a happy ending will be just as ephemeral.

 

The movie opens with Marnie carrying a bag of money she stole from her most recent employer, Mr. Strutt. Strutt does business with Mark; earlier he had pointed out Marnie ("the dish," as Mark's sister-in-law refers to her) to Mark. So when Marnie, clueless, interviews at Mark's company, Mark, curious, sees to it that she gets the job. Knowledge is power, so Mark is already dominant. He becomes more so when Marnie reverts to form and steals from Mark: now he has the threat of jail to hold over her.

 

Marnie, though, is a reluctant submissive. With one exception, she resists every step of the way. This brings up the pesky matter of consent, but Mark doesn't sweat the small stuff; he disciplines her as he sees fit, beginning by coercing her to marry him. As Marnie sarcastically remarks, he owns her now, and Mark cheerfully agrees.

 

Is this a feminist nightmare or a kinky sex fantasy? A bit of both, I think. But it's Hitchcock all the way. The suspense is generated by Marnie's life of crime, the mystery by her psychological problems (they date back to her childhood), and the sex by about a million years of cold, hard instinct.

 

The first time we see Marnie, she is just a dark-haired woman walking away from the camera. We see her packing her stolen booty in a suitcase, selecting a new identity, and rinsing her hair. The first time we see her face, it's an eloquent shot of the blonde Tippi Hedren throwing her hair back and smiling. It's the last time she will be in control, but it sets her up as the center of the film, dramatically and emotionally. I believe they call that topping from the bottom.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

The Caves of Steel  - Isaac Asimov

The Caves of Steel made me feel like a kid again. Which is funny because when I was a kid, I had no interest in reading it. I didn't say I was a smart kid. It's a book that transports us to another world -- Earth, in the far future -- and even as it tells us how rotten that future is, fills us with hope for tomorrow. Detectives Lije Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw may be the protagonists, but science and technology are the stars.

The fact is, "robots" didn't particularly interest me back in the day -- and especially not robots that were incapable of harming a human being. The Three Laws of Robotics, the first of which states this limitation plainly, are among Isaac Asimov's most-loved legacies, but I never thought he did anyone any favors by creating them. Should I praise him for creating a "race" of lobotomized slaves? Not likely. But that was just my own limitations talking. Daneel (the "R." stands for "Robot," of course) is something less than a man, but also something more. If he doesn't actually deserve our sympathy, nevertheless because we are human, he gets it. When a much less sophisticated robot is maliciously and irreparably deactivated late in the book, it's easy to identify with the humans who refer to it as murder.

This identification is crucial to the story. Earth is an overpopulated mess, with its eight billion people crammed into huge cities, subsisting on yeast products and scarce jobs. Once, long ago, they ventured into space and colonized several worlds, but now those colonists have, in their eyes, become elitist "Spacers" to whom Earth is an embarrassment perhaps best done away with. What simpler way to accomplish this than to introduce robots into the cities and have them take jobs away from men? Certainly there is no easier way to make human beings hate and fear robots. But as Detective Lije Baley, who is forced to take on a robot partner in the investigation of the murder of a prominent Spacer discovers, things are more complicated than that.

Asimov does a wonderful job constructing his future Earth, working in bits of science, technology, socialization, and psychology to fashion a strange new world full of promise and possibility, even if, at the moment, it is mired in hatred and stagnation. Baley and Olivaw neatly tie everything together, Baley with his distaste for the present but fear of the future and Olivaw with his all-too-human rationality: if you can choose a better world, why wouldn't you?

Does Asimov get the future right? No, not really. His Cities are unlikely in the extreme and the agoraphobia of their millions of inhabitants has, I suspect, more to do with his own claustrophilia than anything resembling the mass of humanity, but that's incidental. Prognostication, as a quality of science fiction, is highly overrated, anyway, and I think that looking for it began as nothing more than a bid for respectability for a genre that was habitually ignored by the mainstream. Asimov instead does something far greater here: he uses science and technology to restore our sense of optimism.

Grave Descend by John Lange (Michael Crichton)

Grave Descend - John Lange, Michael Crichton

The feminist take: Three women. One is deceitful, one is a whore, and the third is a hot-tempered Latina.

The Jamaican perspective: White mon too good, da black mon do all the killing.

The male Anglo view: Good, fast-paced crime thriller.

Well, reasonably good. It's about a diver who is hired to salvage a ship which, he discovers, hasn't sunk yet. It was nominated for an Edgar Award in the Paperback Original category, and it delivers on that level. Before it's all over John Lange (i.e., Michael Crichton) has mixed in money laundering, the Mafia, and missing World War II treasure. And a couple of vicious ocelots.

Our hero doesn't say much, but that's probably because the plot is so breathless.

The Vanishing (1993), directed by George Sluizer

The Vanishing - Larry Brezner, Lauren Weissman, Paul Schiff, Pieter Jan Brugge, Todd Graff, Todd Graff, Tim Krabbé

The Vanishing is an American remake of the Franco-Dutch film Spoorloos. Both are about what happens to a young man whose girlfriend goes into a gas station for a beer and simply disappears. One is very good, the other is not. Take a look at the posters below and see if you can guess which is which.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Spoorloos1Spoorloos2

 

Vanishing1Vanishing2

 


Clearly, one movie is about a kidnapping and its dark and devastating effects. The other is about a good guy and a bad guy, and it can't seem to make up its mind which of them is more important.

Oddly, the same man, George Sluizer, directed them both. But if the remake is his commentary on American audiences -- that, ultimately, they lack subtlety and possess a slasher mentality -- then it is heartening to report not that the film was widely panned, but that those very audiences rejected it: the film lost nine million dollars.

And, though it isn't entirely bad, it deserved to.

I enjoyed some of the scenes at the beginning, when the bad guy (Jeff Bridges), a true sociopath, is rehearsing the kidnapping. There's another scene later, when the good guy (Kiefer Sutherland), after three years spent in a fruitless search for his girlfriend, pulls a clever ruse on his new girlfriend to continue his search without her knowing about it. But these are isolated scenes with very little to pull them together. In fact, by starting with the kidnapper, it's questionable whether it is the young man's obsession we should care about or the crazy man's crime.

In the end, it doesn't matter either way, because both get shoved out the window. It begins with the new girlfriend. In both versions, Sutherland's character is a man obsessed. Obsession, despite what you may have read or seen on the screen, isn't particularly conducive to a healthy relationship. In the original, the man's new girlfriend leaves him as a result. Here, she tells him she's a fighter, and that sets up the third act, which could have been pulled from any number of unbelievable horror movies (or thrillers, for that matter).

What should have been -- and was, in its original version -- an inexorable descent into darkness ends up here a typical action movie. For that sort of thing, though, you'd be infinitely better off with Breakdown, a movie released four years later with the same sort of premise, a woman who simply vanishes and the man who must find her. It is Spoorloos -- from an action movie perspective. The Vanishing is just spoor.