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Queen of Blood (1966)
Americans improved on something great
This movie uses footage from a Soviet film, Mechte Navstrechu (1963). I hope the Soviets got paid something for it, because it is really artistic. The Soviet film is currently available on YouTube. It's interesting to compare the two stories. The Soviet film is an optimistic story about how wonderful a meeting between humans and aliens might be. The aliens overhear a love song about apple trees flourishing on Mars and decide they'd like to get in contact with us. Maybe not surprising, there's an American or English scientist named Laungton who can't believe the aliens could really have good intentions. But it turns out that Soviet cosmonauts, after one sacrifices his life for the cause, manage to rescue a beautiful alien woman and bring her back to earth, and happiness ensues.
The American film takes the rather eerie footage from early in the film and turns it into a vampire story. The aliens intended to come to earth to take over our planet and suck our blood. I believe that much of the footage they took of the astronauts/cosmonauts investigating the alien space ships is identical with the original film. Only when the camera focuses on the faces of the American astronauts is it different.
I have to say I like the American version better, in spite of its rather less edifying message. I think maybe Roger Corman, who had a role in putting the American film together, recognized the eeriness potential of the early Russian footage. I think the Russia film makers, in spite of their obvious artistry, didn't realize how the eeriness of the early part clashed with the rather schmaltzy love story and music at various points in the film.
However, the Russian footage is absolutely fascinating. I've watched it again and again.
I noticed that a reviewer said this drew from another Russian film, Nebo Zovyot (1959). I watched that and never noticed anything from Queen of Blood.
Good acting in a terrible story (Spoiler)
This movie is interesting in that the acting is competent though the story is terrible. The special effects are also terrible. It was intriguing to watch and contemplate why they made such an inept movie. Evidently, they were able to sign decent actors to play the roles, but the people who put the whole thing together were unable to create a believable story. They wanted to create a story with a monster, but they didn't have the ability to make it do anything scary. The monster barely moves in the film. But since movies about the monstrous effects of radiation were common at the time, they figured they could put together something people might want to watch.
This might be an example of what decent actors do in between good roles. When they can't get anything decent, they take roles like this to make a few bucks.
Actually, the story isn't completely stupid. But the makers apparently could not afford to pay anyone to storyboard the film or plan how to make the monster scary. In the past, I've thought what a horribly tedious job story-boarding must be, but when you see this film, you see why it's important. You have to lay out in detail what the visuals will look like.
Republican KKK is okay?
This movie tells us a great deal about the first 185 years of this country but almost nothing about the last 50.
Most of the argument is guilt by association. President Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party, seized the lands of American Indians in the 1830's. Democratic President Andrew Johnson returned lands to slave holders after the Civil War. Democratic President Woodrow Wilson segregated government jobs in the 1910's. Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt agreed with racist Southern Democratic Congress members to restrict blacks' access to New Deal benefits in the 1930's. (No mention of the fact that he couldn't have passed the New Deal programs at all without support from those Southern Democrats, or that his wife Eleanor was a tireless advocate for blacks.)
But now that the KKK supports Donald Trump, there's no need to mention that in the film. Guilt by association only counts against Democrats.
D'Souza also implies that President Obama is in some sort of alliance with the authoritarian leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin. No mention of the fact that Trump and Putin have expressed admiration for each other.
D'Souza poses as an impartial scholar of American history. Early in the film are obviously fictionalized scenes of him in a short jail term for illegal campaign contributions. In the film, there is a clear implication that D'Souza, as a harmless, scholarly man, doesn't deserve to be locked up with the "rough" characters he was in with. But this presents him with a clever angle for the film. He claims to have had a conversation with gang members in the halfway house who told him the way scams work. You lie to people to sell them life insurance and then murder them to collect on it. A gang member is supposed to have told him that the government is the most successful at scams.
This conversation (which I doubt ever happened) gives D'Souza an opportunity to claim the Democratic Party is one big scam. It's always been about stealing from deserving people to give to undeserving people. It was that in the 1830's when it stole the Indians' lands; in the 1860's, when it took land black farmers had been rightfully given by Republican Abraham Lincoln; in the 1910's, when it took decent jobs from black government workers; and in the 1930's, when African Americans didn't get the same benefits whites got.
But how does D'Souza take the story from there? Obviously blacks and other minorities now mainly support Democrats. How can he make the case that the theft is still going on? He uses two ploys to make the case. The first is to point out that more Republicans voted for civil rights legislation in 1964 than Democrats. This obviously glosses over the facts that Democrats in the South at that time were mainly segregationists and that the Republican Party was a lot more moderate then than it is now. However, 1964 Republican nominee Barry Goldwater opposed civil rights legislation. D'Souza also insinuates, based on no evidence I have seen, that President Lyndon Johnson was a closet racist.
His other ploy is to make a false comparison between the South and the North. First, when blacks moved to the North, they created a "plantation culture." Blacks lived with other blacks and had businesses that mainly catered to other blacks. No mention of the fact that those were the only neighborhoods and businesses they could get.
On the South, D'Souza claims that it didn't become Republican until it became "less racist." As a white person who's lived in the South for 11 years, I know that's false. While certainly not all Republicans in the South are racists, there is still a pattern of reduced opportunity for blacks in the South. For example, Alabama, where I live, is one of the few states that provide no funding for transit, which is disproportionately used by blacks. The attitude of white legislators seems to be "we gave them integration. That's all they have coming." As a result, there are a lot of low-income people forced to buy cars they can't afford.
D'Souza's arguments are the most outrageously hypocritical I have seen.
The film ends by depicting Hillary and Bill Clinton as unsavory characters. Hillary is the only one who's really interested in politics, and it's just for her personal aggrandizement. But she figured out early on that she could use her charismatic husband with an eye for other women to further her career. When women were victimized by Bill, Hillary defended him.
One obvious question: if she's the only one who really cares about politics or public service, how come he ran for president? Now, I have no intention of arguing that the Clintons are without faults. Bill did have a serious problem with women, and it may be true that Hillary didn't recognize their victimization when she should have sometimes. It may be true that the Clinton Foundation isn't always above reproach. But how realistic is it to think that a couple involved in politics and public service for 40 years will never do anything wrong? Bill Clinton's weaknesses may in some ways go along with his strengths: he has awesome social skills, and perhaps when paired with power, that exposed him to temptations others did not face.
Finally, I'd like to pose the question: how good is the alternative D'Souza supports, Donald Trump? The only thing that could possibly make him think Trump is better than Hillary Clinton is believing the nonsense he presents in this film. Too often people delude themselves.
Female Trouble (1974)
This afternoon I was watching a rerun of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood on PBS and thinking about watching some of John Waters' film Female Trouble, and it occurred to me that both shows were very wholesome, at least for me, and that I should post an explanation of why I think they are. Of course the two shows are a lot different, but here's my explanation of why they're both so good and wholesome.
Mr. Rogers is wholesome because of the support he gives to children. I remember hearing an interview of his widow, who talked about how after his death, she'd heard from a woman who said he probably saved her life when she was a child. She was abused, but every day she'd watch Mr. Rogers on TV, and he'd tell her she was good. That enabled her to move on and not become a hater, drug addict, and such like. So one way to put that is to say that this show enabled children to deal with traumas they had experienced or might be in danger of experiencing. Mr. Rogers was a real friend to children whom he never met because of the gentle way he talked about life and the various things children would see and deal with.
For me, Female Trouble's wholesomeness is different. I say "for me," because I don't know if it's necessarily wholesome for everybody. Not everybody can profit from every movie. Movies are too diverse for that. But I think it's wholesome for me in a way that's quite different from Mr. Rogers. Of course I'm an adult, and this is a thing that's specifically for adults, as I understand it. We have experienced a lot of pain in our lives by the time we reach adulthood, and Female Trouble provides a sort of relief from it. Maybe especially if we aren't the "winners" in the world. Not the people who got the girls, were the football stars in high school, and such like. Maybe because on some level, a person who hasn't been a "winner" identifies with Dawn. She's definitely a loser who thinks of herself as a winner, and we can laugh at that, but it also means laughing at the "shams" of the world at the same time. At the same time we laugh at her delusions, we laugh at the ridiculousness of anyone trying to get famous.
I do think Dawn is the "hero" of the movie in a odd way, because at least she's always true to her ideals. She always tells the truth, however twisted it may be. And actually, I find the scene in the prison strangely dramatic and sad. Especially at the beginning. You expect it to be silly like most of the rest of the film, but I think Waters wanted to project a real sense of pathos there. It's not just funny. It's true that the scene where Dawn gives her speech on the electric chair is funny, but the one where she's in the cell with the other two inmates has a strangely dramatic quality to it, even while Dawn acts silly. It brings me to tears sometimes.
Another reason the movie is a relief from the pain of the real world is that while lots of awful things happen in it, they're so exaggerated, so "over the top," that they don't seem real. When Dawn strangles her daughter Taffy, you can laugh at it, because it doesn't seem real. The very idea that she'd be upset because Taffy joined the Hare Krishnas doesn't make a lot of sense, like a number of other things in the film. So the violence in the movie doesn't "desensitize" you to real violence, because it doesn't seem real.
So to summarize my point, Mr. Rogers is wholesome for people who are just beginning to deal with the world, and Female Trouble is wholesome for some of us adults who have lived in it and need relief from its pain. Now, in saying these things, I'm not implying that Waters was trying to make an "edifying" film when he made Female Trouble. He was trying to make one that is fun. Fortunately, what was fun for him and the actors is also a lot of fun for us, and "wholesome" in the way I explained.
The God Who Wasn't There (2005)
Pretty sloppy scholarship
Like Michael Moore's films, this film makes some good points. I agree with the point one speaker in the film made about the dangers of people expecting an imminent "rapture" making policy decisions for our society. However, I think there is a serious problem with Flemming's basic thesis. His research was sloppy, and I wonder if some of the "talking head" experts will be a bit embarrassed when they see the finished film.
I don't think there's much plausibility in the idea that Jesus is completely fictional, and the reason comes from, not a strength of the Bible as history, but really from a weakness. This is particularly the narratives of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke. The striking thing about them is that they really only agree on three points: Jesus was born in Bethlehem; he grew up in Nazareth; and he had parents named Mary and Joseph. Otherwise, their accounts are completely different and, I think, irreconcilable.
Also, the Gospel of John provides some important testimony. You might remember that early in the book, when Jesus is just starting his ministry, someone asks, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (1:46). Later, in John 7:52, someone objects, "Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee" (where Nazareth is--see also 7:41-42). Now the point is that in John, Jesus never contradicts those who say he can't be the Messiah because he's not from Bethlehem. If you read chapter 8:21-23 in context with these other statements, it's pretty clear that Jesus implies that it doesn't matter where he was born on earth: he comes from God, not from the earth. So it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the author of John was very doubtful about Jesus having been born in Bethlehem.
Now, to bring this to a conclusion, what does that show? Well, it's clear that some early Christians did want to believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem, because of the prophecy in Micah 5:2. The best way to understand the narratives in Matthew and Luke is as attempts to find some way of reconciling what we could call "the mythical Jesus" or "Jesus of faith" (born in Bethlehem) with the "Jesus of history" ("Jesus of Nazareth"). Now, of course that also means there must really have been a Jesus of Nazareth. If he were a purely fictional character, the stories would just have said he was born in Bethlehem, and that would be the end of the matter.
I realize that the mere historicity of Jesus of Nazareth doesn't go too far in proving God or Christianity, but it is worth recognizing.
One other small point: Fleming quotes Paul as having said in Hebrews 8:4 that Jesus was "not a priest on earth." For one thing, that is really taking the verse out of context, because the writer is speaking of the "exalted Jesus" there, the Jesus who has ascended to the Father, not Jesus during his earthly ministry. Also, most scholars don't even believe Hebrews is by Paul, so I think Fleming would do well to do a bit more careful research.
21 Grams (2003)
Deeply compassionate view of human life
If you only watch movies for entertainment, this is clearly not for you. But if you want to deal with the human condition, it is. I had to see it twice to appreciate it completely, and of course it takes some endurance to do so. It had me bawling for days.
I think Guillermo Arriaga intended some very deep symbolism here. Sean Penn's character appears to be a "Christ figure" in the movie. Towards the end, he grabs a gun and shoots himself while Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro are fighting on the other side of the room. If he had done what we would normally expect and shot Benicio del Toro, the signs of reconciliation that we can detect near the end of the movie would not have been possible. He and Christina (Naomi Watts) would have spent the rest of the film running from the law or otherwise trying to hide the fact that they'd killed him, and, I suppose, justifying the act to themselves because "he deserved it." But as it is, there is room for reconciliation at the end because of what Sean Penn does.
I'll admit that my idea that there's reconciliation might seem doubtful to some of you. The reason I think there's a bit of reconciliation is that in one of the very last shots of the film, while the narrative voice-over is on, you see Christina turn to Benicio del Toro while he speaks to her. I think that in a film like this, written by someone like Arriaga, there is reason to read even small details like that in such an optimistic way. And actually, because the film is giving us what we could call a "God's-eye view" of these people's lives, the exact degree of Christina's reconciliation with Benicio del Toro's character is not that important. What is important is that Arriaga has shown us there is potential for reconciliation.
And as you might guess, I interpret Christina's pregnancy at the end as being a sort of resurrection. She lost her family, and Sean Penn's love has given her another one. At the very end, you see her in her daughters' bedroom, cradling her pregnant abdomen and holding one of her daughter's stuffed animals. Earlier in the film, she had said she could not bear to step into their room.
I also wonder if Arriaga intended Penn's wife to be a sort of representation of Law, given that she's always trying to "manage" his life and get him to do sensible things like not smoking. Much of what she demands seems sensible, but in the context of his life, it doesn't seem to work. And you might notice that later, when he attempts to get Christina to stop using drugs, he is more understanding of her position than his wife had been of his. What finally gets her to stop using drugs (I assume) is the new life he has given her, rather than someone browbeating her.
Another real powerful character in the movie that might seem rather minor is Christina's drug dealer in the bar. The actress, whose name I couldn't identify because IMDb's page doesn't seem to identify her as a drug dealer, did a real good job of depicting that sort of role and its place in the life of someone like Christina. I think it's also interesting to notice that Christina does not disclose any of her sorrow when talking to her. She can just smile and nod affirmatively when she asks if she "married that hunk" and whether he's "a good lay." This is a purely commercial relationship, so Christina feels no need to disclose her inner life.
Some of you might be thinking, "you're ruining the movie for me," but this film is so hard to watch that if you don't think there's going to be something of a "happy ending," be it ever so tentative, you might not be able to get through it. And of course I understand if you decide it's not for you after watching a few minutes of it. It is real tough to watch.