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Giant floating bananas disconcert the Chinese
The banana is the most remarkable of fruits. Not only was it explicitly designed by Jehovah Himself for the health and pleasure of higher primates, the banana has contributed more to comedy than any other member of the Plant Kingdom. For example, who can forget this classic schtick
BURLESQUE SHOWGIRL: Why do you have a banana in your ear?
BAGGY-PANTS COMIC: Eh?
BURLESQUE SHOWGIRL: (shouting) Why do you have a banana in your ear??
BAGGY-PANTS COMIC: You'll have to speak louder, I have a banana in my ear.
And of course, there are all those wonderful banana-precipitated pratfalls performed by every farceur since Charlie Chaplin. But alas, in spite of the banana's inherent jocose propensity, the gargantuan gravity-defying interstellar bananas that are the star attractions of this film elicit not a single titter, let alone a full-throated chortle. This is unfortunate because "Arrival" must be some kind of absurdist comedy. Otherwise, how does one account for the backstory sequence serving as the film's frontispiece which centers on the most laughably sentimental demise since Little Nell kicked the bucket? It's pretty much downhill from there with precious few yucks to ward off the encroaching ennui.
All joking aside science fiction is a tough genre that Hollywood routinely fails to pull off. Offhand I can think of but two that entirely met expectations: the brilliant 1950's B-picture "It Came from Outer Space" and Stanley Kubrick's enigmatic masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey". These films are relevant in context since they both address the theme employed by "Arrival", specifically Man's first encounter with an off-world intelligence.
"It Came from Outer Space", faithfully based on a story by the remarkable Ray Bradbury, deals with a visitation by creatures that, though as physically alien as cheap 1950's special effects can realize, reason by a logic not dissimilar to our own. Crash-landed on a planet inhabited by well-armed and violence-prone primitives the aliens execute a reasonable yet desperate plan of escape. Through the aid of a human astronomer, they manage to repair their spaceship and depart, leaving the scientist longing for their eventual return. Kubrick took the opposite tack in his magnum opus. His aliens are apparently incomprehensible, yet they are definitely purposeful. They no sooner land on Earth, or more precisely their machine does, then they commence to execute their plan, which is the manipulation of the evolution of just another undistinguished root-munching anthropoid into an ingenious predator for purposes they keep strictly to themselves.
It is reasonable to assume that one or the other situation will apply if and when real aliens make contact either we shall understand them or we won't, but in any case, their visit will be purposeful. ET isn't going to cross the galaxy just to sit in its starship and idly twiddle its appendages as the banana-nauts of "Arrival" spend much of movie doing, or more precisely NOT doing. Not doing stuff is much of what happens, or not happens, in "Arrival", which makes an inquisitive mind wonder what the popcorn one failed to buy when first traversing the lobby tastes like. And speaking of appendages this movie's aliens have tentacles. Yet more galactic squidoids... yeah.
D'oh! What a stinker!
A miserable, shameful insult to Indianapolis, her officers and men, and just about everyone who has worn the uniform of the United States. I got this film on DVD as a bonus for spending $20 on a pizza. The pizzeria had a list of about 75 titles to choose from and, silly me, I selected this one out of pure ignorance. I finished the pizza, but I couldn't finish this gawdawful movie. Every scene was a travesty -- every single one! How could that happen? One would think Van Peeples could get at least one right by nothing more than probability. To make a movie this crappy takes determination. Maybe he was incensed by having been given only $40 million dollars and consequently decided to "stick it to da Man" in revenge. Or maybe he really is as incompetent as this film suggests. Whatever... Don't waste your money or your time. Look for "Mission of the Shark: the Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis" instead. It's a made-for-TV feature and nearly 27 years old, yet superior in every way to this film.
The Absolute Worst Film on the Subject of the Holocaust Ever Released
Hollywood likes to make movies about improbable people doing improbable things: Superman an outwardly human alien who flies without any means of propulsion and who can't be harmed by anything other than exposure to exceeding rare radioactive mineral. Harry Potter an apprentice sorcerer who attends an invisible academy for magic users. Sauron the Great an immense disembodied floating eye with virtual omnipotence. However none of these characters is as improbable as the main character of this miserable excuse for a feature film.
I invite those who have praised this film to read some history and learn something of the true nature of Nazism, especially to whom its most fervent and extreme propaganda was aimed. The most all-encompassing indoctrination was directed not to adults, but to children, especially to children like Bruno, sons and daughters of the "racial elite" who served as officers of the SS. The premise of this film is so ludicrous it amounts to an insult to the memory of the slaughtered millions. A realistic Bruno would not have befriended any Jew, especially one already imprisoned. Instead of dying in Schmuel's place, a realistic Bruno would have gleefully dropped the Zyklon B crystals on poor Schmuel's head.
Curse of the Undead (1959)
No Vampire Lore Plot Holes
One reviewer had this to say as a critique of alleged plot holes in "Curse of the Undead": "...I have never heard of this premise for a person becoming one of the undead. Also, the vampire of this movie can walk around in the daylight with seemingly no ill effects, and everyone knows that vampires absolutely cannot be exposed to sunlight, or they will be destroyed."
Actually suicide is the most important cause of vampirism according to the primary folklore sources used by 19th century writers such as John Polidori, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Bram Stoker. The idea that a victim of a vampire inevitably rises as a vampire himself is not widely supported in folklore. Stoker played up this rather atypical aspect of vampire legend mainly for dramatic purposes.
As for the common movie trope of the vampire's allergy to sunlight, this too is not supported by the primary sources. According to most Western folklore vampires are unconscious during the daylight hours, resting in their coffins much like the ordinary dead except that they show no evidence of decay or wasting. If exposed to daylight their bodies react exactly like dead bodies, which is to say they react not at all. Polidori, Le Fanu, and Stoker contrived to allow their vampires occasional daylight forays as a means to advance the plot and to sustain suspense. The Hollywood cliché that vampires first into flames or wither into dust a the mere touch of sunlight is entire that a film cliché which dates from F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922).
"Curse of the Undead" may have plot holes, but they don't derive from vampire folklore. In fact this movie is more faithful to the legends than anything filmed by Hollywood in decades.
Moby Dick (1998)
Misses the Mark by a Mile and More
I must reiterate the remarks made by Mr. Vaugh Birbeck. This made-for-TV version of Moby Dick misses the mark by a mile and then some. All of Birbeck's points are valid, but I'll add a few of my own.
Moby Dick is about a lot of things obsession, revenge, objective evil, the nature of existence the novel is so pregnant with meaning both within and below the text that it has become a byword for significant literature. It is the perennial head-scratcher which has introduced generations of students to the richness of the English language as an artist's palette of tones and colors. Captain Ahab is Socrates run amok. He has seen beneath the façade of mere things to glimpse a sublime Truth, which isn't simply a benevolent deity, but a horror show of forces vast, inscrutable and infinitely hostile.
But Moby Dick is also about whaling. On top of everything else it's a story of mariners and ships and the trade of whaling as it was experienced by Melville himself. Director Franc Roddam doesn't seem to realize this. Evidently he has so little regard for the source that he doesn't feel the need to make the Pequod a real ship from a real place on a real whaling voyage with real whalers aboard. Instead we get a rather unconvincing studio prop for a ship, miscast actors with slipshod direction for a crew, and the classically trained Patrick Stewart struggling with a wretched screenplay that preserves little of Melville's language. Watch the 1956 John Ford production with Gregory Peck in the role of Ahab instead. Even though it is only 116 minutes long Ford's direction of a masterful screenplay by the brilliant Ray Bradbury really gets under the skin of the novel.
The Three Musketeers (1973)
One of the best period movies ever, period
Not much to say that hasn't been said already, except for a few points.
From the standpoint of action any version of Dumas' novel is about swordplay, and only this film or films (my comments apply to The Queen's Diamonds and Milady's Revenge equally) get it right. Firstly, the weapons are absolutely correct (with a few notable exceptions). Every sword and dagger seen is correct in hilt style and blade dimensions for the period (1625), except for one that's distinctly different and yet totally correct in context of the story. This is the sword given by d'Artagnan the elder to his son. It's described in the dialog as used "against the Moors at Lepanto" and it is a typical rapier of that era (Lepanto was fought in 1571). Late 16th century rapiers had developed into weapons of absurd length and were quite unwieldy, suitable only for the thrust. By the time of the Musketeers, however, swords had grown shorter, lighter (but still weighty at about three pounds) and considerably speedier in use -- deadly on the point and able to inflict disabling cuts by the edge. The whole sword was used as a weapon and not always as a blade; the many extant fighting manuals prove it. The pommel could crush a skull, the guard could punch like a mailed fist. Swords were thrown, and griped by the blade they were employed as clubs. The fights seen in this film are as authentic as we're ever as likely to see because the weapons are real and the actors are doing it all -- there are no stunt doubles, no wire work, no Gene Kelly choreography, no tricky editing, and (obviously) no digital effects -- though Lester did help his actors keep their skins more or less whole by using telephoto lenses in some of the fight sequences, thus making the action seem at closer quarters than it actually was. We even see some fighting styles that were distinct to the era, such as the sword/parrying dagger (main gauche) combination, and the use of two swords of equal length. Outstanding! The historical rightness of this film as never been surpassed and seldom equaled. My only complaints regarding edged weapons seen in the films are mere quibbles: Early in the first film Count Rochefort and his henchmen conduct a midnight raid on the Bonacieux lodging. Two of them carry halberds of very great length. I've never seen anything like them in any museum I've visited. The acid-filled glass daggers used by Milady in the attempted murder of d'Artagnan in Part II are pure invention, but effective nonetheless.
Guns are only seen briefly in the first film, but are important props in the second. I must say that though the swords and swordplay are uniformly excellent, the filmmakers did a less than perfect job with the firearms. The muskets are only passable as period replicas. Though they are all matchlocks, correct for the era, they are often too small. Until about 1670 the typical musket was a notoriously awkward and heavy weapon, so heavy that a forked rest was required to fire them with any hope of accuracy. Correctly proportioned matchlocks are seen in use by Huguenot rebels and Cardinal Richelieu's guards, but the Musketeers themselves seem to have been issued a shorter, lighter gun that can be used like a carbine.
There is one sequence of matchlock work that needs extensive comment. In the opening of Milady's Revenge Rochefort is about to be executed by a very ill-trained Huguenot firing squad. After laboriously going through each text book command regarding the loading and firing of a matchlock musket the dunderheaded Protestants only succeed in firing their ramrods at the haughty Count, and miss him to boot. This is a funny sequence and points to us the seeming absurdity of such a cumbersome firearm. However, with a little thought one is struck by the importance of the matchlock musket -- weighty, slow-firing and short-ranged as it was. In spite of its drawbacks it was powerful enough to capture the battlefield from armored nobility on horseback. In a matter of a fews weeks it was possible to train a raw recruit to use a matchlock with all the efficiency the weapon was capable of, this compared to the years needed to produce a heavy cavalryman or even a longbow man, to say nothing of the horse and its training and upkeep. The advent of the musket made effective mass armies possible, and that in turn made the armed common man the essential ingredient to successful war making. Throughout much of European history the mounted noble had argued that since his class assumed all the risk and inconvenience of war, then the nobility had the right to demand economic support and socio political deference from those they protected, this being the fundamental precept of feudalism. When the common man began to carry firearms en masse into battle, he began to re-evaluate his social status in light of his new role as the principal warrior of his society. With the commoner's newly acquired battlefield potency and a Bible printed in the common language cheaply available, the stage was set for revolution - first in France, which failed, then in England, which succeeded, failed and succeeded again, then in America, then in France again! My point here is philosophical rather than technical. Lester gives us a cheap laugh at the burlesque antics of some less-than-competent Huguenot musketeers, but the real relationship of the rebels to their weapons was so fundamental to their world view that I doubt any such nonchalant attitudes existed. And another thing, matchlocks had wooden ramrods, so they wouldn't have twanged into the masonry like arrows as the movie shows it, they would have exploded into toothpicks instead.
As for pistols, there is only one inaccuracy, Milady tries to kill Buckingham with a cap-and-ball derringer, a 200-year anachronism!
The Bounty (1984)
The best history of the mutiny so far
I'm only giving this film 8 stars, because as good as it is "the Bounty" still leaves some undeserved blots on the reputation of a great and courageous man. A bit more truth and this film would get a TEN from me.
There have been many film treatments of this amazing story, but only "The Bounty" gets it even halfway right. The 1935 Lawton/Gable "Mutiny on the Bounty" is 49% balderdash and 51% falsehood. The Trevor Howard/Marlon Bando stinker is even less factual. "The Bounty", however is pretty good history in many places, especially Bligh's court-martial and the actual mutiny sequence, which is almost word-for-word what Bligh recorded in his own writings on the matter. The ship itself is correctly represented, right down to the figurehead a woman in a blue riding habit, which makes no sense until one realizes that HMAV Bounty was originally a merchant ship called the Bethia.
The movie does take liberties with history. Some characters are composites and some important figures are absent entirely. In the plot Bligh seeks out Christian to be his second officer. In reality Christian was a friend of Bligh's wife's family, and it was he who sought a posting on Bounty; Bligh didn't solicit his participation. In fact Bligh jiggered the ship's roster to make room for Christian.
But the worst departure from fact is the business about Cape Horn and circumnavigation. The movie wants us to believe that Bligh chose the route for his own glory. Not true. Bligh complained to the Admiralty about the chosen course before they set sail from England, thinking it too dangerous for such a small vessel. But he was overruled. The return trip was never intended to go by way of Cape Horn. The cargo was breadfruit seedlings, a tropical plant that can't endure the kind of temperatures encountered in the Drake Passage or the Straits of Magellan. Bligh was forbidden to return via this route. Even if he wanted to such a course of action would have ruined his career. Also the mutiny occurred near Tofua, about 1300 miles west of Tahiti, the wrong direction to sail if you're bound for Cape Horn.
Bligh was a man and a professional. Christian was a silly, overwrought upper class schoolboy who committed a vile crime over puppy love of a Polynesian girl. He got away with attempted mass murder, and 200 years later people still praise him. Bligh was a true hero who hasn't got justice yet.
The War of the Worlds (2005)
Not the worst movie of all time (scant praise)
Is it possible to give a movie NO STARS? I suppose not. However many stars IMDb displays this just think zero and you'll get my drift. Director and photographer Timothy Hines didn't have much of a budget compared to Spielberg's Herculean effort with the same material (rumored to be the most expensive movie ever made), but that need not be an insurmountable handicap. I've seen some wonderful work done on a comparative shoestring ("Soldier and Saints" is a recent example). With hard work, integrity and, above all, talent it is certainly possible to realize a faithful rendition of Wells' novella -- and at fraction of what was spent by Dreamworks on its "War of the Worlds". Unfortunately, Hines failed in all these departments. Even if he had had Spielberg's budget and Tom Cruise signed for the lead his movie would have stunk just as badly as this barnyard animal he's foisted on us.
Primarily, Hines seems unable to tell a story. Thanks to digital video technology he can record images and sound, but he shows little aptitude for assembling a narrative with what he records. A guy walks down a country lane, a lot. He talks badly aped Received English to some other guy. Then he walks down the same lane, only shot from the back this time to show he's returning -- clever, eh? Walking and talking, for nearly an hour that's all that happens. OK, I'll grant that one extended excursion from the main character's house to the impact site on Horsell Common to show that it's a considerable distance from one place to the other might be useful (a first-year film student could storyboard a more economical and more aesthetical establishing sequence than this, btw), but half a dozen times? Back and forth, back and forth, et cetera, et cetera with some yakkity-yak in between. Remarkable. The only explanation for this surfeit of redundancy other than total artistic ineptitude is a desire to pad out thirty minutes of wretchedly amateurish CG works into something that could be offered as a feature-length film. Finally the Martian fighting machines appear and the walking and talking becomes running and talking, or shrieking. Later we get staggering and wailing for dessert.
Thankfully, much of the dialogue is lifted straight from H.G. Wells' text; else we'd have no idea what is going on. But is it not the whole point of cinema to illuminate a text, to realize what words alone can't convey? If a film relies on dialogue or monologue to tell us what we see or how to feel, why bother? Why not do a radio play? Orson Welles made himself a household name doing just that. However, Hines thinks he's a filmmaker, so he's content to mouth the words and swallow the meaning.
Secondly, Hines was able to buy some CG effects of a sort for his movie, but he has no idea how to use them. Now I for one have no unquenchable sweet tooth for eye candy. I believe good science fiction cinema doesn't need dazzling technical effects. Some really potent Sci-Fi's have flourished on virtually none at all. But "The War of the Worlds" as film requires a certain baseline effort. Wells tells a story that hinges on things can be seen and heard and even smelled. The effects don't need to be complex; they can even be crude (e.g. fighting machines on wires gliding over miniature streets as seen in the George Pal/Byron Haskins 1953 version), but they must be handled well. Unfortunately Hines' effects are both crude and incompetent tripod fighting machines higher than a cathedral spire stomp around making a noise like a pogo stick bouncing on linoleum Martian squidoids even though oppressed by four times the gravity of their native world scurry and flit about without perceptible effort skeletons totally denuded of flesh and muscle writhe and scream -- the same damn horse and buggy greenscreens its way across the foreground a dozen times (flipped left for right occasionally in hope that we might not notice) and on ad nauseum. Crude technique is forgivable. So you have a CG fire effect that's less than convincing? Fine, we can work around that. Just don't use it too often and only show glimpses of it. That stomped woman sequence looks more like a crushed plum? Throw it away. It's not necessary. You say your Martian flyer looks like a toy on a string? If you must use it, go ahead, but please don't show it twice! But no, Hines won't listen. We get the worst looking stuff used again and again. Gotta get those 180 minutes somehow, boy.
Next we have acting, or more precisely too much acting. Whether in a speaking role or just paid to die on queue everybody in this film is acting his little heart out. Evidently Hines thinks he's getting a bargain -- More fleeing in terror over there! You, quaking behind that tree, let's have a real conniption fit this take. You call that writhing in agony? Nonsense, my grandmother can writhe better -- Nevertheless the cast as a whole and individually stink. They aren't even good amateurs. But this needn't prove fatal. Many a good movie has been made with rancid acting. That's what directors are for. And editors. Which brings up another point
Who the hell let Tim Hines edit this cheese factory? If America's butchers were as adept at meat cutting as Hines is at film cutting your next hamburger would be all fingers and no beef. In spite of the near three-hour running time there is lots of stuff missing from this movie -- not sequences, but single frames, creating a herky-jerky effect that's nauseating to watch. Maybe Hines intention was to simulate the effect of a hand cranked cine camera of the 1890's. If he was I can say he doesn't know how to do it.
The War of the Worlds (1953)
The 1953 Paramount version of the H.G. Welles classic is story is a minor masterpiece of the sci-fi genre.
A number of commentators here have registered complaints, making what I think are unfair comparisons of the film to much later and more technically sophisticated movies, and to Welles' original short novel. I intend to address some of these issues here. BEWARE, SPOILERS AHEAD.
The screenplay by Barré Lyndon updates and relocates the story to rural California in 1953, where a supposed meteorite crashes to earth near a small town. The choice of a modern day American location versus the original late Victorian England was made partly for budgetary reasons, staging a mass exodus from Los Angeles was certainly easier for a Hollywood studio to manage than an evacuation of London. However, updating the action to the age of nuclear weapons allowed the besieged Earthlings to confront the Martian invaders with a much more powerful array of weapons than anything dreamed of in 1898. Thus when the alien fighting machines prove invulnerable even to the most advanced nuclear explosives it is much more effective visually and dramatically than if they were being fired upon by the small and relatively crude horse-drawn cannons featured in the original story.
The central character is Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), evidently a physicist with a major California-based university, who fills in the role given to the unnamed narrator of the original story. By making him a scientist the screenplay is able to economize on characters whose only job is to provide exposition, Forrester can be both the object of the viewer's sympathies and can instantly explain some of the more dramatic elements of Martian military technology, such as the fighting machines, which rather than flying actually walk on invisible legs of magnetic force, and the devastating anti-meson plasma weapon. The narrator of the original story has to rely on extraneous characters or post-invasion scientific analysis of Martian technology to supply similar important information to the reader. Dramatically the movie's solution is more satisfying since the references in Welles' text to post-war scholarship telegraph the ending (i.e. human civilization survives) whereas the movie version could have ended with mankind's extinction without internal contradiction. One particularly satisfying point about Forrester character is, brilliant as he is, he is not the lone authority with all the answers he is part of a highly respected team of scientists from many disciplines who jointly tackle the problem of alien invasion.
Providing the romantic foil, which Hollywood always deems to be necessary in sci-fi films, is Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Richards), a graduate in Library Science (the most misnamed academic discipline ever). She has no parallel in the Welles text except perhaps the narrator's wife, who is only referred to obliquely and has no dramatic role except as an object of longing. Sylvia is mostly ornamentation, but she does provide emotional counterweight to Forrester's cool intellectualism and curiosity.
The original story has two important secondary characters, the artilleryman and the curate. Welles uses both as vehicles for his social commentary, employing the artilleryman as a symbol of a reformed European society (i.e. a rational, scientific meritocracy without class distinctions) while the curate functions to show the weakness of religiosity in the face of mortal peril (Welles was an avowed atheist). Not only is his curate is a despicable coward; he is also a parasite who endangers his fellow humans. The artilleryman comes off somewhat better, but he is shown to be lazy dreamer rather than a true visionary, perhaps this is Welles' veiled criticism of the socialist agitators of his day who offered themselves as spokesmen for the working class yet were notably shy of personal experience as workers themselves.
The movie has no parallels to the curate and the artilleryman, except for Sylvia's uncle Mathew, the minister of a local church. In keeping with George Pal's religious optimism (faith is always a central and positive force in his body of work) Uncle Mathew offers hope and kindly guidance to his flock in the face of imminent war, helping to organize and comfort the townspeople. He also shows a remarkable curiosity about the alien invaders an unexpected and refreshing take on the clergy considering the usual Hollywood stereotype.
Much as been made about the fighting machines as a regrettable deviation from Welles' animated tripods. Personally I think the gliding metallic manta rays (designed by master prop artist Albert Nozaki) are an improvement. When Welles pictured his tripods he evidently didn't work out how they would move. When the movie was in preproduction the tripod concept was discarded as unworkable and visually unimpressive, even comical. Granted the supporting wires are too obvious and distracting in many scenes (perhaps with a larger budget they could have been matted out), yet their stately, inexorable movement and scanning swans necks do communicate a thoroughly alien technology with no reliance on the concept of the wheel, a point Welles makes in his narrative. UPDATE -- I have since learned that the original theatrical release prints using the Techicolor process effectively masked fighting machine support wires, ergo more kudos to "War of the Worlds". I've never seen this film in Techicolor, unfortunately. This makes me long for a re-mastered DVD or Blu-Ray which has the wires obscured digitally.
My final point is the appearance of the Martians themselves. In Welles' conception the Martians are essentially body-less heads, which make and use mechanical substitutes as needed. In place of arms and hands they have tentacles. From the standpoint of a Victorian layman's thinking influenced by Darwinism, the idea of evolution producing giant brains without a supporting suite of organs might be tenable. However, more advanced research would tend to discard that notion. The movie Martians are a much more alien and more plausible with their functional bodies, three-fingered (and thumb-less) hands, and their remarkable tripled-lensed eyes.
Overall I give the movie high marks. It has little of the social commentary of Welles' novel, but it is better sci-fi, a pioneering work in the context of its times.