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Lechuguilla (pronounced Lech-ah-GEE-ah) [caver]
I write film scripts and IMDb film reviews.
The Atomic Cafe (1982)
The Military Industrial Complex
The decades following the 1950s bring to America considerable historical perspective of a prior era characterized by extreme fear and suspicion of Soviet Russia. Accompanied by patriotic hillbilly songs from the 40s and 50s, retro video clips comprise almost all of the visuals in this documentary about America's response to the Cold War. And what a response it was, as demonstrated by two overarching themes.
The first theme was one of hypocrisy. Government and military propaganda devices tried to reassure people that America was a peace loving country, yet one that needed to be prepared for war. Says one clip: "Our object is not aggression; we need not become militaristic, but ..." Another spouts: "This is the destructive power we pray God we will never be called upon to hurl at any nation, but ...". And yet another: "All the world knows we Americans are constructive, not destructive, however ..." Yes, there's always a "but" after sanctimonious feel-good babble.
A second theme was paranoia. Quite humorous are the responses to the prospect of a nuclear attack. The bomb shelter craze; the silly "duck and cover" instructions that schoolchildren received; those ominous air-raid sirens; those hideous gas masks. It was all a cultural fad of fear, promulgated by a military industrial complex that craved war.
Throughout this era of hypocrisy and paranoia, the distraction of consumerism dominated peoples' lives, egged on of course by the same military industrial complex. A traditional nuclear family and spending money became encouraged values, to counter those evil Russians.
In one segment, a man with great earnestness intones: "It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to represent two outstanding shopping centers ... concrete expressions of the practical idealism that built America ...; you'll find beautiful stores ... and of course plenty of free parking for all the cars that we Capitalists seem to acquire. Who can help but contrast the beautiful ... settings of the Arcadia Shopping hub ... with what you'd find under Communism".
Americans had valid reasons to fear and repel Hitler and similar dictators. But post WWII, the military industrial complex used the experience of WWII to manipulate a fragile and misinformed American public. Without any narration whatsoever, "The Atomic Café", with skillful editing, uses the voices from that era to convey a cultural subtext that, in retrospect, reeks of deception and sanctimony.
Lady of Burlesque (1943)
Cheap And Tawdry
It's a good thing Barbara Stanwyck graduated to better scripts. Had she remained in films like this she would never have become a star. Hubbub and chaotic backstage drama in a NYC burlesque theater set the stage, so to speak, for a backstage murder.
Stanwyck plays Dixie Daisy, a slightly sleazy performer who sings and dances to an audience composed mostly of salivating old men. Dixie's female backup performers are young, curvaceous, bawdy "dames" who wear over-sized hats. The theater's backstage milieu looks and sounds as mocking and caustic as one would expect for such an ignoble place. And amid this baseness a murderer lurks.
The script is talky and the pace seems rushed. Despite the tacky superficiality of the characters, they all seem troubled and hurting at a deeper level. The plot moves along quickly with occasional stage performances interspersed with interpersonal relations, not the least of which is a budding romance between Dixie and comic Biff Brannigan (Michael O'Shea). The film's tone abruptly changes, at the midpoint plot turn, from snappy and light to serious and subdued once the murder occurs. The whodunit mystery is interesting, and the identity of the killer was quite a surprise to me.
B&W cinematography is adequate if ever so slightly blurry. Sound quality in the copy I watched was better than most films from that era. Prod design appears cheap and minimal. Casting is acceptable except for Stanwyck, who looks too old for the role of Dixie. Yet there's almost no better actress, regardless of what role she happens to be playing. Those lady's hats, enormous and grandiose, add interest to the visuals.
"Lady Of Burlesque" presents us with a 1940s theater setting that looks and sounds cheap and tawdry. But the murder mystery element adds depth and interest that ups what would otherwise be my negative opinion of this film. And despite being poorly cast, Barbara Stanwyck slaps on considerable value that only she could have provided in that film era.
Presumed Innocent (1990)
Deep Themes To Ponder
This is one of those films that has a terrific, spellbinding ending, but to grasp the significance of that ending, the viewer must endure a slow, plodding, two-hour story that slowly builds suspense with subtleties and tedious detail.
Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford) is a smart prosecuting attorney who comes under suspicion in the murder of an attractive female colleague. The first half builds the back-story, establishes the main characters, and sets up appropriate red herrings. The second half is set mostly in the courtroom, where a trial plays out in interesting ways. Near the end, we think we know the solution to the mystery, but we are in for a surprise twist, one which I never saw coming.
The script presents us with a legal dilemma, one that's fascinating to ponder because it is so bizarre. In so doing, the film has great thematic depth. But the slow, plodding plot seems tedious, with long scene-takes and considerable dialogue. Most scenes are set indoors. Characters trend stereotyped upper-middle class. The tone is serious and intense.
Production values are generally good, with excellent prod design and effective though dimly lit visuals. Background music is annoyingly elevator-style that amplifies the plot's lethargy. Casting is acceptable except for Harrison Ford, with his never changing facial expression and monotone voice that's tantamount to Chinese water torture. Almost any other actor would have been preferable. I enjoyed the performances of Raul Julia in the role of Sabich's lawyer and Paul Winfield in the role of the Judge.
Despite a slow plot and the casting of Harrison Ford, I recommend this film, with its deep legal themes and terrific ending. The plot is very subtle, a characteristic which one doesn't see much of in current films.
Gorky Park (1983)
Cold And Aloof
The film's premise infers an interesting question: could the murder of three presumably innocent young people be connected in some way to the secrets of the Russian KGB? A high-level Russian policeman named Renko (William Hurt) sets out to answer that question. Plotted as a semi-police procedural, "Gorky Park" belongs in the murder mystery genre, yet it's also something of a political thriller. Interestingly, the underlying theme relates to freedom, political and otherwise.
Probably the best element is the overall production. What a well-made film, with attention to detail in costumes, production design, sound quality, and editing. Color cinematography is professionally done, as well. Consistent with Western perception of Moscow, colors trend a grayish, low-contrast look. The background music gives viewers a murder mystery feel at the outset, which continues intermittently throughout the film.
The big problem is the script. Though the premise is intriguing, the plot is rambling and confusing. Part of the confusion for me was the difficulty in understanding the significance of all the Russian characters. They all seemed to blend in together; as an American, I found that their names did not help differentiate them.
Further, all the characters were as cold as the ice the three victims were initially skating on at Gorky Park. Even Renko came across as aloof and emotionally cold most of the time.
I suspect a European audience would like this film a lot better than Americans. Since most of the story was set in Moscow, the entire film seemed cold and bleak, not just the characters, but also the weather, the outdoor scenes, and the mostly drab interiors. Overall, "Gorky Park" conveys a good premise but a weak script. And the cold, aloof look and feel was a bit much for me.
When the Bough Breaks (1994)
Some Good Suspense
Up until near the end this film held my attention. There's plenty of suspense. Set in Houston, the story involves a hotshot young investigator named Audrey Macleah (Ally Walker) assigned to assist police Captain Swaggert (Martin Sheen) in a grisly case of severed hands.
The plot plays out in segments corresponding to dates, beginning on July 4th and spans a period of about two weeks. During this time, Macleah interviews a young boy in a mental ward, chases a prospective child killer, and ends up in a spooky old house that contains some spooky surprises. This thriller genre film sports foreboding background sounds and music to enhance the scary visuals.
Unfortunately, the ending collapses into a pile of unresolved issues and an incoherent resolution that left me confused. It's like the scriptwriter knew exactly where he wanted to take the story, but then near the end got his pages all mixed up, or lost, and used pages from another script to complete this one. Baffling.
The casting and performance of Walker is also baffling. She comes across as jittery and abrasive, in marked contrast to Sheen who gives a convincingly realistic performance. But maybe Walker's problem relates more to the Director's style. The film exhibits good production design and color cinematography. Amplified sound effects convey an appropriate immediacy to scenes.
Despite the script's loose ends and poor ending, "When The Bough Breaks" is still worth a one-time watch due to superb suspense through most of the film.
The Midnight Warning (1932)
Interesting Premise, Very Poor Production Values
Someone is firing a gun into a hotel suite to frighten guests. But who, and why? You'll never guess the "why" part. Set almost entirely indoors, "Midnight Warning" could easily be a stage play. Which isn't altogether bad. Though the script is indeed somewhat talky, there is a secondary mystery that gives the story thematic depth.
The script is not well written. An inspector that can read suspects' lips expedites the plot but his talent isn't believable as used here. The good guys always manage to be at the right place at the right time, a time-worn cliché. And as the plot proceeds, some of the male characters blend together, so they don't stand out well as unique or interesting. The morgue sequence near the end is just downright tacky.
Yet despite the script's overall poor quality, the story's underlying premise is effective, as the ending dialogue communicates a twist that puts the entire story into perspective. I had never before seen such a plot twist.
The worst element is the film's production. B&W cinematography is awful. The visuals are so dark there were scenes that I couldn't distinguish characters from a solid black background; all I could see were their white shirts. Annoying splotches appear in a few scenes, suggesting inferior film stock. And the crackling and static that overlaid the dialogue rendered poor sound quality. Of course one needs to take into account the inferior technology that existed in those early days of film-making. Production design, film direction, and acting are below average.
The underlying premise of "Midnight Warning" is thought provoking and interesting. But viewers will need to lower their expectations due to a substandard plot and dreadful production values.
Jurassic World (2015)
Those Lovable Dinosaurs
It's more tolerable than most blockbuster films, but only because the dinosaurs, however digital, still make effective characters. Not so with the humans who come across as stereotyped and annoying. I didn't know some of the human characters' names until the end credits. The human cast probably exceeds a thousand. Then there are at least a billion extras, nameless human chumps eager to tell their grandchildren they were once in a Spielberg movie.
And though not directed by him, this is, after all, a Steven Spielberg movie. That's all you really need to know, as in: action is more important than characters, plot, dialogue, casting, or acting. But, hey, the production design is good. And visual effects are really spectacular. Mostly, the film aims to please a 12 to 24 year old, easily wowed, viewer demographic.
Of all the irritations here, which include a predictable Disney-style plot, none is more annoying than the loud background music. It's a manipulative and insulting device, to remind us that the film aims to be epic in scope and costly in budget. Which is made worse by the film's run-time. At least 15 to 20 minutes could have been shaved off, mostly in the second half repetitive action.
But the dinos are still lovable. Of course, that's cinematic manipulation, too, to get us to care for and relate to these nonexistent creatures. Ever since I watched "Walking With Dinosaurs", I have enjoyed researching these prehistoric beings. "Jurassic World", with all its Steven Spielberg cinematic faults, gives us plenty of them, and for me that makes this blockbuster at least tolerable.
The Night Stalker (1972)
Supernatural Theme Is Disappointing
Narrated by eager-beaver newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), "The Night Stalker" is Kolchak's account of his involvement in the murder cases of multiple young women in Las Vegas. His narration style is that of a diary of major events, even citing the date and time of day. The script consists of a talky first half wherein a lot of the scenes take place in meetings and one-on-one chat between Kolchak and his co-workers. Action picks up in the second half after the villain has been identified.
There are several major problems here. First, Kolchak is not an especially likable guy. He's arrogant, cocky, egocentric, superior, and dominates discussions. Second, the ghoulish theme I found boring. I would have much preferred a standard whodunit with multiple suspects. The film does contain suspense, especially in the second half, but by that time the viewer already knows who the killer is.
In addition, the script makes use of the old standby cliché whereby the lone hero solves the case and in the process makes the paid cops look inept. Also, there's no real point to the "Gail Foster" character (Carol Lynley), though Lynley does a nice job in the role.
Production design, color cinematography, and editing are acceptable if a bit uninspiring. But that's to be expected, I suppose, given that this is a TV movie. Background music is jazzy in a 1960s sort of way, except for appropriately creepy sounds during the fairly suspenseful second half. Casting is fair. Actors Oakland, Meeker, Smith, and Akins have a similar look and tend to blend into a single character. Overall acting is average.
"The Night Stalker" (1972) is a cinematic vehicle for Darren McGavin. The film will appeal more to horror fans than fans of whodunit murder mysteries. Since an explanation by logic is not possible in a supernatural theme story, I just could not relate to it. Though by no means a bad movie, I find nothing special about it.
Oh How Dated
Most films have at least some transferable value to future generations. But this film has very little. Some kind of technical failure in an American missile system propels the plot, and this failure leads to bad decisions by American military experts. The tone is painfully serious.
The premise hinges on a staggering display of American paranoia about Russia. Near the film's beginning, a wealthy group of socialites sit around listening to a professor talk about nuclear war with the Russians. Within hours, the system failure occurs, and viewers are burdened with intense arguing among the experts on how to respond to an event that calls to mind the previous academic discussion.
The contrived plot is talky. Cold, humorless VIPs make up most of the characters in the script. And these VIPs are, by today's standards, politically incorrect, as all of them are old white men. The script also contains way too much exposition, defined here as questions, debate, and arguments of a technical nature that would be unnecessary in real life, but are inserted into the script solely to help viewers understand the story's plot points.
Production values are surprisingly poor. Control room panels with flashing lights exist in lieu of modern computers. The big world map is sketchy and amateurish. Their clunky hardware looks like it was borrowed from the set of "Plan Nine From Outer Space".
Sound quality in the copy I watched was poor. And given the film's grave subject matter, absence of background music amplifies a sense of hostility and heavy melodrama that already was apparent in the script and the acting. B&W photography has a disappointing lack of tonal contrast. Casting would have been better without the distraction of Hollywood "movie stars".
Fifty years after "Fail-Safe" was made, we now have films that warn us of the danger of nuclear power, in the form of documentaries that describe real-life nuclear disasters, like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Accordingly, the only value I see in this humorless, outdated horse opera is that it gives viewers an interesting historical perspective on Cold War paranoia.
The Endless Summer 2 (1994)
Ride The Wild Surf
This is a sequel to the original film "Endless Summer" (1966). Number 2 echoes the same basic format, as voice-over narrator Bruce Brown follows two professional surfers, here "Wingnut" Weaver and Pat O'Connell, who travel around the world in search of the perfect surfing waves. The documentary inspires youthful idealism with its two young surfers and a theme of carefree innocence. A travelogue of local places in a non-American setting augments the surfing scenes.
Using 35-mm film, color cinematography is by far the best element, with terrific shots of surfers riding ocean waves from up close and from far away. The height, symmetry, and fluidity of the waves are inspiring. And some of Brown's narration is clever and funny.
Unfortunately, aside from the beautiful camera work, there's not much to this film. Watching surfers ride a wave is interesting for the first four or five minutes; then it starts to get monotonous. The two surfers are slightly annoying and stereotypical of hip California surfers only interested in having fun, sans responsibilities. Maybe that's intentional, to appeal to a youthful audience.
The travelogue of local cultures is frivolous, "cute", and highly contrived. And please, enough with the jargon; the word "stoked" was so overused, hearing it again and again made me want to turn the sound off. Does Brown not have a script editor? Frenetic background music also is irritating and could have been replaced with the natural sounds of the ocean.
Obviously, "Endless Summer 2" will appeal to viewers interested in surfing, and to those who gravitate to National Geographic documentaries of non-American cultures. My biggest complaint here, aside from the repetition and the "shallow" (so to speak) plot is that the film was made by and for surfer-centric specialists. Brown and company know what surfers like; if only they could make a comparable film aimed at a wider audience.