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Uh, what?
15 September 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Raymond Chandler was one of the best writers of popular fiction of the 20th century. He could draw you in, and keep you in, a claustrophobic world of danger and weirdness. Unfortunately, this movie does very nearly no justice at all to his work. The director, Robert Altman, didn't even bother to read the novel, preferring to work from a script that completely changed the ending (and lots of everything else), and made no sense whatsoever. He seems to me to be completely uninterested in telling Chandler's story; he seems mostly interested in giving his friends a job.

Major dialogue (notably every line by a useless Sterling Hayden) was "improvised" -- that is, just mumbled in front of the camera. The other actors generally look confused and slightly alarmed whenever Hayden stumbles into view, and now we know why. But Altman, despite knowing that Hayden was drunk and stoned all the time on set, decided this was wondrous "satire", and inflicted it on us.

Scenes take too long; dialog is clearly a surprise to most everybody (having little to do with the plot), important plot elements are inserted at random times (making Marlowe instead of an investigator, a wandering man, handed clues by passersby right before they're needed) and variations from the original novel all fall utterly flat. The movie is at least 20 minutes too long, and probably more like 40. This is *not* a "good" Marlowe movie. But 3 stars for the stunt casting of Henry Gibson.
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Disappointing, cookie-cutter treatment
31 August 2018
Warning: Spoilers
The novel kind of tired me out; even though I am of an age where I get *every* pop-culture reference, and played *every* video game, I got bored with the never-ending gushiness of it all. But I read it, and generally enjoyed it.

But the movie uses pretty much all of the dazzle of the book, and leaves behind pretty much all of the "meat" of it. Yes, the oasis is cool; it's a crossover between "second life" and your average PS4 game -- but for all its supposed sophistication, the oasis looks like a game of "World of Warcraft". An old one.

But what happened to the characters? Parzival is your average Spielberg hero -- pretty, but empty. He's pretty empty. But he must, no matter what, stop whatever he's doing to... save the girl. (In the book, it is Z who is captured.) And the heroine can thereafter wander around the evil guys lair without let or hinderance because even though they know *exactly* who she is, and exactly what she looks like, she can go anywhere -- even the head naughty-man's sanctum, and nobody notices. There were people who were not me what were saying (out loud), "oh, c'mon!" at this.

And the others 'gunters'? They are supposed to be the best of the best -- heck, Artemus is supposed to be *the* best. But she knows practically nothing that matters. Another supposedly 'elite' character announces that he can't help with a puzzle (the endlessly dull "Shining" one), because he is scared of the movie. What, he couldn't read the script? But anyway, since this is a Spielberg movie, there must be a 'fish out of water' that the hero explains things to -- to pass on information to the audience. In this case, this involves Z telling Artie things she *must* already know, to be the gunter she supposedly is. In the book, the quest is a matter of figuring out puzzles. In this movie, it's basically Z already knowing all there is to know, slogging his way through it, and dragging the rest of the "high 5" along; apparently because he likes to talk to them.

The movie nevertheless has a real problem with the contests for the keys, which are the driving force of the quest. For the book, the puzzles were tough, and led you to a tough contest to 'win' the key. (Also, it left out entirely that each character had to win the key personally. In the movie, once the key was used, everybody could just rush in. It cheapened things.) In the movie, the contest was an afterthought; once a character arrived at the contest arena, the key was essentially handed to them.

So, no, didn't like it. It did what Hollywood often does to complex stories, it dumbs them down ("simplifies them for the audience"), it uses stereotypes shamelessly ("uses archetypes"), and whenever things slow down, throws in explosions ("action sequence.") The only really surprising thing is that the original author at least put himself in as a script-by. They took a cute niche story and turned it into "Indiana Jones and the Temple of 80's Videogames", and he, apparently, helped. I'm sure the money was... excellent. The movie was... not.
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Frontline: Storm Over Everest (2008)
Season 26, Episode 9
Curiously altered story line
22 April 2018
A very workmanlike effort, with the usual big-face interviews, and slow-pan-and-zoom-of-stills video, and tragic music. However, there is a giant hole in the narrative that centers around Sandy Pittman, the rich-girl 'adventurer' whose presence on the mountain was pivotal in the disaster. (Ms. Pittman consumed the entire attention of the Sherpa who was supposed to fix ropes on the final day, and of chief guide Scott Fischer, who stayed with her and said Sherpa all the way up the mountain, thus arriving over 2 hours at the summit after 'turn around time'. Fisher died on the return trip - his body is still there - as did seven others.) Ms. Pittman, who has loudly proclaimed that she is just a swell person and that accounts describing her actions as biased, was nevertheless the most important person on the mountain on that awful day, because of the chaos she caused to occur (allegedly. There, she can't sue me.) It is a curious ommission on the part of "Frontline", however. In their telling, she pretty much magically appears after the storm breaks, and is saved by Boukreev, whose own curious behavior (racing up the mountain sans oxygen and then back down to camp 4, leaving clients behind) is papered over. Then she vanishes again. Try and find "Mountain without Mercy", from ABC (Ms. Pittman was employed by NBC on her jaunt, another unmentioned item in "Storm"), produced six months before any of the various competing books on the matter, with better interviews, and with less recast-the-narrative bias (in my opinion. There, PBS can't sue me.)
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Two hours of film to get one shot
12 March 2018
There's one amazing shot in this movie - it's the five Elvii walking toward the casino to the tune of Crystal Method's "Vapor Trail." Everything before that is trying to come up with a reason for that shot. Everything after is to have something after, because, well, they needed something after.

In the end, it simply isn't interesting who lives, who dies (which is practically everybody), and who gets money. Characters who aren't played by Kurt Russel and Kevin Cosner are all forgettable, and for the most part unbelievable. Did anybody tell Howie Long or Ice-T how bewildering their appearance at the end as talking (and shooting) puppets would be?

Nothing before 'the walk' matters, nothing after 'the walk' matters. And I'd argue that all that money, blank ammunition and blood squibs was not worth the 17 seconds of 'the walk'. Certainly not two hours of sitting in the theater.
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Well above average 70's TV movie, but...
5 February 2018
Warning: Spoilers
This was a movie that had one too many bad-things.

We start with a group of strangers (reminding one of TZ's "five characters in search of an exit," in all the right ways) tossed into a it's-the-end-of-the-world survival pod. Add in one maintenance man (the always reliable Richard Jaekel), and one... well, traitor (Bradford Dillman in strangely fitting glasses, for some reason). And pretty much everybody falls to pieces with the knowledge of what's happened to everyone they know.

That's a great story. Add in the possibility that this is some sort of macabre psychological experiment, but that no matter what, nobody can leave.

That's a greater story. Add in... vampire bats?!? Suddenly a human story is converted into a piranhas-are-out-to-get-me scream-fest. And suddenly ridiculous. Now we're just waiting for someone to be killed, screaming, by swarms of vampire bats, while some try to find a way out, and are killed, screaming.

This could have been a fantastic movie (along the lines of another 'survivor' tv-movie, the superb "Sole Survivor" (1970), or the equally superb "Groundstar Conspiracy" (1972)), but somebody decided "there needs to be an immediate danger", and that it should be vampire bats. Too bad.
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Jean-Claude Van Johnson (2016–2017)
Surprisingly good - hope there's a second season!
16 December 2017
Very tightly written; lots of in-jokes, a parody in each episode of something Mr. Van Damme has ever been in (made all the better by he joining in with gusto.)

Each episode is very nearly its own action-movie, with shootouts, kicks, punches, and kung-fu-theater cliches, lovingly rendered and expertly done. Van Damme's acting is extremely good -- from slapstick, to tragedy, to simple world-weariness, to hopeless romantic, to tough-guy, and occasionally to characters (notably 'Filipe' in episode 4) that should be simply awful, but nevertheless, somehow, work.

Give it a try; you might be pleasantly surprised.
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Ghostbusters (2016)
Not worth your time
21 July 2016
Warning: Spoilers
The writer of "Freaks and Geeks" and the writer of "Parks and Recreation" no doubt struggled mightily to come up with a good script. The "Freak" guy also directed, and he strove mightily to make Boston (and Australia) be NYC and breath life into his words.

They both failed. This remake (it is entirely a remake of GB-1) has no energy, no wit, and cannot bring itself to do anything new at all. The actresses struggle mightily (the actors might as well have all been made of cardboard -- including the bizarrely-Australian Chris Hemsworth), but cannot escape the flaccid story and lines they have been presented with.

Its just all so lazy. They expect us to giggle like children for the cameos of the originals (and so they are carefully sprinkled through the movie -- including the firestation, and the sta- puft man), and love the story because of it. Sorry, no. They expect us to be enchanted with anti-ghost hand grenades and such. Sorry, no. They expect us to love the characters because they are just like the originals. Sorry, no. They expected us to laugh when characters screamed and shouted, in simulation of emoting. Sorry, no.

Nobody wanted to take a risk "with the brand", so nobody did. The movie is dedicated to Harold Ramis, who I suspect would be disgusted with the lack of originality and humor.

Save your money.
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JJ does it again (and not in the good way)
14 January 2016
Warning: Spoilers
You'll notice that SW7 only has a "based on characters" credit for George Lucas. That's because Disney decided to make it "for the fans" -- that is, a movie pieced together out of a sort of "greatest hits" of the other 6 movies, with nothing new whatsoever. We are, they suppose, not smart enough to absorb new plot devices, and will be perfectly happy to give them money to show us the old stuff over again. And based on box-office revenues they appear to be right.

So we get a search for 'the last jedi' (like when we were looking for Obi-Wan all those years ago) to return to the fight against tyranny, but along the way, an orphan on a desert world (like Luke Skywalker) will come into possession of a robot with information crucial to the rebellion (like R2D2), leading to an attack on a powerful planet-killer (like the Death Star), to be supported by an attack on a nearby world (like the moon of Endor, mercifully without ewoks). Then an all-in-black villain (like Darth) will be faced down by a new jedi (like Luke - - except this one can defeat a jedi master after beginning the fight not even able to activate her lightsaber), and a father and son will face off on a long bridge and one of them will fall off it (like, well, you know.) Harrison Ford appears, and doesn't even seem to even be enjoying himself -- just saying what's on the page and trying to put the whole experience behind him. (And given the awful stuff on the page, its understandable.)

Meanwhile, storm troopers are appearing and disappearing as necessary, still can't shoot, their armor still doesn't to a bit of good. Just like... you get the idea. Oh yeah, and there's a bar with an alien band. Gosh, that's new.

So, what do we have instead of new ideas? Lots and lots of explosions. And I mean a LOT of explosions. And x-wing fighters and tie fighters swooshing by in entirely incomprehensible combat. And more explosions. And shouting, and talking about... something -- mostly, I think, to give the effects guys time to reload their explosives. Did I mention the explosions?

You don't need to see this movie. You can watch "the middle three" again, and you'll have the exact same plot. Don't see it -- it's a waste of your time (it certainly was a waste of mine.)
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Yellowbeard (1983)
Close, but no cigar
14 January 2016
Warning: Spoilers
This movie could have been great, and it certainly shows flashes of brilliance. But they are flashes only (and generally in the use of language -- probably written by Peter Cook), and are separated by tiresome pirate-based skits that (kind of) hang together. My rating of 6 is for the flashes, and not the tiresome-ness.

Cheech Marin and Peter Boyle dig into their parts and play with gusto, but everybody else seems to be sort of standing around a lot and saying things to get us to the next scene of people standing around. James Mason plays Charles Laughton gamely, but Marty Feldman is mostly wasted. John Cleese seems to be acting in an entirely different movie all together. The best line (by Spike Milligan) is spoken by a character not even given a name. A shame, really.
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A document, not a documentary
6 November 2015
Mr. Morrison has done a very fine thing in rescuing what can be saved of these old films from themselves (nitrate stock film destroys itself over time, but at the time there was nothing better for the price.) But his presentation of them is maddeningly sterile.

Not once is there a narration or description of what we are seeing (except for the title). Not once is there context for whose army we're looking at, what they're doing, whether this is thought to be 'combat footage' (though most is, obviously, not), even what year it might be. Were there no historians standing nearby to ask? Even I, an amateur, can see some things (what helmets are worn, type of cannon or tank) that might help a novice viewer get some context.

As it stands, the film is mere a curiosity, a set of pictures books lying open to show random pictures with no captions. Mr. Morrison has obviously done a hugely difficult task, and done it well. But the payoff is missing. The viewer has nothing to latch onto, no way to learn anything about what is being shown to him or her.

And the music? You're better off turning the sound off. The music, often simply a group of string musicians literally sawing away at their instruments, is only distracting. It doesn't do anything (but presumably get some grant money to keep the saw-ers all in spritzers) to help the movie. Couldn't Mr. Morrison have used music, and recorded words of the period, having spent so much time and effort to show us film of the period? What could be better than gramophone recordings, tinny and imprecise, to go with the grainy, discolored, warped- image film? Why is it a nimrod like me can think of that, but not Mr. Morrison?

To better appreciate the work here, take the video, wash out all the color (so its all in the grey it originally was - the nitrate-deterioration-affected other colors are just jarring, to no use), and put on some scott joplin or something instead of the soundtrack.
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Highpoint (1982)
Missed Opportunities
25 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers
This movie is pretty terrible, but I gave it an 8 out of 10 because hidden away inside it is a great little (shorter) movie.

If you:

* take out all the scenes with Maury Chayken and Saul Rubinek (who are fine actors, but most certainly not here)

* take out all the speed-up-the-movie-for-humor scenes (most notably the chase through Quebec - indeed, drop most of that chase entirely)

* take out everything before the opening credits (that is, the tedious 'backstory', which is explained just fine later in the movie -- indeed better.)

* leave in everything with Richard Harris and Christopher Plummer (who appear to have someone else writing their dialog from the pretty awful stuff written for everybody else.)

... then there's a cracking good fish-out-of-water story joined with a swashbuckler trying one game too many.

So, be ready with the fast-forward button, and you might just have a good hour or so.
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Ascension (2014)
... put 'em in a blender, and...
21 August 2015
Warning: Spoilers
"Syfy" has an execrable record in either "sci" or "fi", since it was taken over by TV lifers who are chiefly interested in moving up the NBC ladder (and thus could care less about content.) The last show they did that was good? Babylon 5. They took over B5 from "PTen" and... oh wait, no they didn't. OK, MST3000. OK, Eureka -- seasons 1 and 2, and then they squeezed all the life out of that as soon as they could. Otherwise we've seen endless "Mansquito"-like movies shot in eastern europe; miniseries like "The Prisoner" that crapped all over the original and the unbelievably awful "Andromeda Strain", and on and on.

I believe that story pitches at SyFY headquarters are bathed in gin, and the magic phrase for actually creative people is "sure, why not? But cut your budget by 80 percent." In such a maddeningly dull group of people, the "it's A and B, but with C!" pitch is liked above all - mostly because it requires no thought on the part of the decision-makers.

So the makers of Ascension made the following pitch: "It's CSI and Starlost, and the "fake Eureka subplot" -- you liked that, right? -- and with breasts!". Let us put to one side that CSI is deadly dull, that the "fake Eureka" subplot was mishandled (and stretched out too long), and Starlost was disowned even by its creator ("Cordwainer Bird") before it aired. No wait, let's not. Since it's SyFy, we'll make it absurdly disjointed technologically ("launched" in 1963, but with HDTV's everywhere, modern idioms of language, and endless references to modern events), this is held up a social commentary too. And, you know, breasts (and occasionally, butts, but only women's.)

In case you don't know, the original "inspiration" for this story is Zimbardo's laughable prison psychology "experiments" at Stanford in 1971. His "experiment" violated pretty much every possible restriction on psychological experiments -- non-random subjects, inserting *himself* in the experiment to guide it to the conclusion he wanted beforehand. That his experiment was worse than useless didn't faze him in the least, and he's dined out on it ever since (to this very day), generally with the theme that there are no evil people, only people made evil by circumstance and treatment. (That Zimbardo stole his conclusion from the earlier Milgram experiment, but had added grinning sadism of his own, is just waved away.)

Anyway, Ascension is not worth your time. It's not "SciFi." It's hardly "Fi". But, yes, breasts.
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Scalawag (1973)
Ham and Dregs
15 April 2015
Warning: Spoilers
I get the impression that "Director Douglas" told himself and all the other actors, "give me all you got!" for every scene. That, and every time his stunt coordinator said, "hey, we could do a fall from that rock, or tree, or that hillock, or that bridge, or that wall or that flat patch of ground there", they'd shoot it.

That, and the way these pirate gauchos, or whatever they are keep killing each other off for no obvious reason -- I know, the gold, but they didn't just fall from the sky; they must have had fat times to go with the lean times they had right before the movie started. That, and that a major character (Mark Lester's hero-worshiping "Jamie") shows up 20 minutes in. That, and the pointless "twin" story. That, and the movie takes 25 minutes to 'sync up' with the story they're using.

Now, there are a couple of nice scenes, don't get me wrong -- Peg and Jaime when they first meet, and the whole scene that follows, through the funeral. And then Peg starts throwing knives near people and shouting, and things go to weirdness again.

That, and "indians" who seize Peg, "torture" him in a fairly dumb way, and who look a lot like Yugoslavians. That, and wooden legs that are made (and decorated) in the middle of a treasure hunt with evil "indians" and heavily armed "allies" who just turn up and are accepted into the hunt with no wonderings about who will kill who (and try to rape the woman at the first opportunity), and when told to "git", just do. But before and after, we sing!

That, and we'll know the treasure location right away, because... gimme a minute... nope, got nothing. That, and a character actually *saying* as characters keep changing their minds about who gets the gold and who gets killed and where Jamie went, "Hey, it's getting complicated."

That, and who exactly killed who for why at the end? And they did what with the which for huh?

... anyway, an exuberant, but inexpert movie. But don't cry for Mr. Douglas, he may have been a bad director (and a very uneven actor) here, but "Final Countdown", "Draw!", "Tough Guys", a great performance in the lousy "The Fury", and an underrated version of "Inherit the Wind" are in his future. Nobody makes everything great, but as a low point, not such a terrible one.
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Sphere (1998)
Anti-Andromeda Strain
29 January 2014
Warning: Spoilers
(Note: this review is of the movie, not the novel. The novel is pretty good; you can add it to your to-read list. The movie… well, its not something I'd put on your to-watch list.)

In the (original) Andromeda Strain, a group of scientists, lead by Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill), a wise, brilliant bacteriologist -- who thought up and oversaw the "Wildfire" facility and the recruitment of the other members -- try to puzzle out an alien threat.

Now imagine that Jeremy Stone was a moron. He might write a plan like "Wildfire" for the government that was absurd in its premises, procedures, and selection of people. For mankind's first contact with aliens, he selects an astrophysicist, a biologist, mathematician, and a psychologist. Let's never mind that those are pretty terrible selections (a human psychologist to deal with an alien intelligence? An astrophysicist *and* a mathematician? How about, I don't know, a materials specialist? Or maybe more than just four people?), let's move on to the idea that the government would, in the midst of greatest event of the millennium, dust off this lame brained plan and follow it to the letter (including his example personnel), because they didn't have any better ideas.

Beyond that, we have very similar items - disparate people brought together in secret, working cut off from the outside world, mysterious deaths, alien menace, explosive ending danger to all the survivors, slam-bang discovery of the threat from an unexpected quarter. Its Andromeda Strain, but with Larry, Moe, Curly and Shemp.

In the DVD commentary, Hoffman and Jackson make a lot of reference to how the director and actors improvised a lot of what was going on (for instance the whole Beth/Norman thing being made up on the spot.) Pretty much every deviation from the novel is awful, and builds to a horrendous, shouting, incomprehensible mess where characters pretty much literally just thrash around screaming to crashing music -- to make sure the audience knows to start collecting their stuff, because the credits are coming soon.

… and by the way, if they were gonna forget everything and the power, so nobody would ever know what was down there (the whole "unknown event" thing) -- what about them tapes in the mini sub?
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Contract on Cherry Street (1977 TV Movie)
A fine example from the era of "made for TV movies"
17 November 2013
In the 1970s, the TV networks put a lot of money into creating their own collection of original films. The rationale was that they were about as cheap as a series pilot (indeed some, like "Marcus Nelson Murders" did become exactly that -- for "Kojak"; "The Night Stalker/Strangler" for the Kolchak series), and did not entail open-ended commitments like a series would.

This flick is certainly at the high-end of these (the low-end was things like "The Hard Ride" - - motorcycle-gang members with machine guns in Vietnam, in a low budget, low brow version of "Missing in Action"; the immortal "Killdozer"). Frank Sinatra shows his acting chops again (nearly for the last time, from here on there was only one episode of Magnum PI to be proud of), surrounded by the usual suspects of series TV and made-for-TV-movies (notably Harry Guardino, good as always.) The soundtrack is certainly movie-quality (as were most of this era's TV-movies.)

The movie suffers from having an enforced length -- 145 minutes to fill a 3-hour timeslot -- and thus there is painfully unnecessary padding of scenes and dialog, and long traveling shots with the obligatory shoe-leather-sound-effects. But there's a cracking good 90-100 minute movie in here.
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pathetic character assassination
4 September 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Social democrats never forgave Richard Nixon for being alive. He dared to be an anti- communist. He dared to run against their great hero, and nearly beat him. He dared not to go away and die after that. He dared to build a coalition that could beat the Johnson/Humphrey machine. He dared to crush their dream candidate in 1972 and rub in their noses in the inconvenient truth that they were not the vanguard of the new era they fancied themselves to be. He dared to not go away and die after they managed to depose him.

Them people will positively love this movie. Everything they have done though their lives to define themselves -- mostly hating Nixon, and thus feel good about themselves -- is brought out again (with an occasional "just like the Republicans now" to be 'relevant'.)

To others, this might seem like just the tiniest pathetic -- whipping on a dead Nixon (repeatedly calling him "tricky Dick" in the narration, for instance) -- is just the lost generation of social democrats of the 1960s (mostly lost because they ran away and hid from responsibility for 30 years and couldn't find their way back) trying to convince themselves that they still hold the moral high ground. Because they still hate Nixon.

So if you hate Richard Nixon, even if you don't know why, you'll love this movie. If you secretly wish you had lived in the 1960's (I did, you shouldn't), you will love this movie. If you have any actual understanding (or indeed remembrance) of history, or do not wish just hear a pleasant fable to make you wonder where that old American flag headband you bought in 1971 is -- don't bother.
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I'm Still Here (I) (2010)
is it real or not? Who cares?
27 December 2010
Jokehim phoenix (yes, that's sarcastic) has apparently run into the Hollywood equivalent of an existential crisis. He's famous because he's pretty, and can shout (and sing, sort of -- just because you sing in a monotone doesn't make you Johnny Cash, by the way) in front of a camera. That's not an entirely satisfying basis for a career, especially if you have glimmerings of self-awareness.

Such actors with talent write scripts, or direct. Some get pretty darned good at it. Lazy ones apparently get their brother-in-law to point his digital video camera at him and vamp, then cut it together and get it released because of the pretty face and the shouting will make it so. That same pretty face will allow said actor to go on the Letterman show and claim being ridiculous makes him an auteur -- for essentially a publicity stunt. That don't make this good, or even watchable. So don't.
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Witch Hunt (1994 TV Movie)
clever sequel crushed by lame 'message'
2 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
A sequel to the excellent "Cast a Deadly Spell", this movie has a larger budget (so gets pricier actors and much better effects), but is hobbled by its 'message', which is pounded into the audience through the last half of the movie with all the subtlety of a hobnail boot.

Hollywood, see, believes that there were never any commies in Hollywood, ever. Anyone who says so is nuts. They've built this mythology about themselves so completely that scripts like this get written. Here, Eric Bogosian - apparently believing himself to be channeling Robin Williams - shouts and oozes across the screen as the big evil hypocrite (who literally has the cool dude he hates/wants to be inside himself) making de-dam sure you understand that he is supposed to represent Joe McCarthy and anyone who thought like him, and they were evil, evil, evil, and evil. And also evil. And that anyone caught in their gaze was innocent precisely because they were under that gaze. If you don't get that, don't worry. It will be repeated in various forms for most of the movie. But once Bogosian is on the screen, you can mute the TV and go get a drink, because it'll be more of that. I suppose the movie's makers kept giggling to themselves about the subtlety of their story, in which 'commies' are substituted by 'witches' and 'magic' is 'communism' so well hidden that the audience will most certainly be enticed into learning more about history since this will tease their interest in the period. You betcha.

It's too bad, really, because there's another tough-guy private eye murder story (which might have been as good as the one in "Cast") trying very hard to get out, but is hammered back into the background whenever the message is needed to be paraded to the helpless audience. Alas. Hunt up "Cast a Deadly Spell" instead. Its better all around.
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shameful 'remake' of a classic
31 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
It's Michael Crichton I feel sorry for. He wrote a cracking good story, which was turned into a tense, tight technological drama by a master filmmaker back in 1971. But this here retelling (for that's what it is sold as, even though it is not) is what his story will be remembered for. Did he really need the money that bad? Or did this one just get away from him, handed to a hack writer and hack director, and he was helpless to stop it? Is it possible that his agent has been fired and imprisoned for besmirching a good writer's name? God, I hope so.

Where the original had serious characters doing serious work, this one has lightweights acting like lightweights. You can't take them seriously, so you can't take the threat they face seriously. Those that aren't lightweights are brainless, doing things they cannot explain, and make no sense. Bad writing requires unrealistic, unexplained, and rock-stupid behavior from minor characters to move things along, since the writer can't figure things out himself. He's written himself into a dead end (as happens repeatedly here), and so the bad-writing bible is consulted (which reads, "when in doubt, explosions"), the necessary explosion occurs, and we move on.

If Michael Crichton liked this telling of his story, he has seriously slipped as a story teller. This one is full of Hollywood's version of reality. Stupid (but pretty) figures act in ways that make no sense, saying things that are the same, while shadowy governmental (but pretty) figures who act with no rhyme or reason, have trouble at home, and obsess about polls, and all all characters generally have various lightweight obsessions that swamps any larger issues, until you can't see the larger issues except as explosions before commercials. Replacing serious, competent scientists wrestling with a terrifyingly opaque threat, this version has a bunch of doofuses standing around (in what looks like the old sets from "Level 9") talking about pretty much anything but what they should be, until the explosion express arrives to move things along.

Frivolous plot details (like all the endless 'backstory' stuff about Stone, his loser wife, his loser kid and his ex-girlfriend, the entirety of the reporter story, and the whole vent-mining thing, with a message-from-the-future in large part stolen from "Sphere") are brought in at the expense of important original plot details, which are handled by lengthy, voice-of-god exposition, since there isn't time to actually play them out like they should. (How many times did somebody announce that they were not an expert at something, give a ridiculous opinion, which was then taken as fact by all the other characters, and acted upon? I lost count.) This, apparently, passes for 'good' in Hollywood these days (or at least 'normal', because every miniseries I've seen of late looks and sounds exactly like this.) In the land of bad writing - that is, Hollywood - every story needs a bad guy, and to the unimaginative (like here), this requires literally a bad guy; some evil male doing evil things, who must be overcome and who must then die for his pains. In the land of good, imaginative writing, the thing to be overcome can be other things - for instance, the mystery of Andromeda, and that alone. Believe it or not, hollywoodfolk, such a simple, direct story can hold an audience.

The thing I can't figure out is that lots of people saw this script before it was made; they saw what was intended. The people at A and E (who originally broadcast it), at the least. They must have known what a load of drivel it was. They convinced themselves, somehow, despite evidence to the contrary, that this was good stuff - something suitable to be either "arts" or "entertainment". Alas, this is neither.

I am sure some dweeb at 'Scott Free Productions' actually said the phrase "updating a 40 year old story for a new century" in a meeting, and the people around the table nodded sagely and ponied up the money. Are they proud of their labors? Did they think they were really doing justice to the original? God, I hope not. Because if so, then they are gonna ruin more television, and probably give themselves emmies too... Somebody once said that although everybody in Hollywood (and in this case, Vancouver) does their absolute best, sometimes what we get out of it defines how little talent they had to work with to begin with. Nowhere has this been demonstrated better (except, perhaps, by the body of work of Ed Wood), than in this.

Anyway, do yourself a favor - skip this, or you'll wind up like me, shouting at the television "for god's sake, shut up and get on with it" over and over. Better still, see the original. Better than that, read the original.
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Elephant Parts (1981 Video)
not groundbreaking, but certainly pathfinding
12 March 2008
Mike Nesmith was, and continues to be, an innovator and visionary. With "Elephant Parts", he looked at the new technologies available for film making (videotape having reached critical mass, so that 'home video' could be inexpensive.) Quality of entertainment suddenly depended on writing and technique, not so much big up-front expenses for equipment and the people to use them that discouraged any number of director-wannabes.

Music videos had existed for 20 years or more (what exactly is an Elvis Presley movie but story between music videos, the Beatles and of course the Monkees had been doing this sort of thing too), but what made a good video (simple, entertaining 'story', include the band, and always cut on the beat) was not well understood by makers. Mike understood it, and with the help of a collection of crazy and energetic friends made the video equivalent of "I'll get some pallets from the lumber yard for a stage, you get your mom's sheets for a curtain, and you get some clothesline and we'll put on a show right here in the back yard!"

But this backyard show had Mike to know what it should look like and in general how to make it. From this humble beginning, this pathfinding, came MTV, and groundwork was laid for the whole the digital-indie movement (videotapes were cheap to make, but expensive to distribute - once the internet made distribution cheap, anybody with talent -- and loads of people who don't -- could show what they could do.) For the music business, it was discovered that music videos were suddenly ridiculously cheap to make, and became very quickly the primary method of reaching an audience, once MTV made distribution essentially free. From that, came a whole generation of directors, who could get experience away from film school. Pretty long path he blazed, eh?

Elephant Parts (which also spawned a ultra-short-lived TV show, "Television Parts", which Mike sells from his 'video ranch' website (check it out)) is a rapid-fire, no-organization series of Mike's songs (presented as high-quality music videos) and child-of-the-television comedy bits. My personal favorite is the foreign-language-gibberish video. It is, of course, of uneven quality, but all presented in an infectious, high-energy format that pulls you along for the ride. Worth seeing. Hat's off to ya, Mr. Nesmith.
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Pleasantville (1998)
forget this tripe
29 August 2007
As others have said, look back at a 1950s that never existed. Whatever is it about the 1950s that people loath, it is entirely descriptive of themselves and their relationship to their parents. They seem to be trying to buttress their own self-image by tearing down their parents. Its envy, I suppose. Having grown up believing themselves to be gods, boomers (written and directed by someone born in 1956) require not just moral neutrality for whatever they do, but being right. To make themselves right, they must make their parents wrong. Your parents, see, were uptight squares that only your own inate superiority made you capable of recognizing and overcoming. Well, here it is, in terms so black and white (literally) that even morons like your parents can see it! Put another way - if I cannot get history to back the boomers-are-god theory, I'll just rewrite it, and prove it true by making it into a movie. (Hey, it works for Oliver Stone :-) Pass this one by.
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1 May 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Tom Cruise rewrites popular culture. The clever, effective intelligence strikeforce of the 1960's is here a group of amoral crumbs (except, of course, for straightshooter Tom); and the most evil is . . . Jim Phelps?!?!? Oh, please. A silly premise (someone is killing off MI team members) leads to a silly theme (Tom must find out who is doing it - all by himself, except for a small army of superspies who he conjures out of thin air join him), which leads to a silly plot device (the CIA has a super-duper secure room, with man-sized ventilation ducts that lead right to it, so Tom and his people use them, then drop a smoke bomb, and conjure up a fire engine out of thin air, and then just walk out of CIA headquarters, while the security alarms are going off -- yeah, right), which leads to a silly climactic scene (in which one of the bad guys is stupid enough to try to fly a helicopter into the "Chunnel"), and a silly unmasking (superspy Jim Phelps is fooled by superdoofus Tom Cruise).

What it adds up to is not an homage, but an unintended parody of "Mission Impossible". What is it about Tom Cruise's generation that must try and rewrite (stupidly) their forebear's work? (For surely what is this but his generation trying to childishly claim they are smarter than their fathers?) This trend makes me very angry -- because his generation is my generation, and I'd hate to be lumped in with it.
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American Experience: Influenza 1918 (1998)
Season 10, Episode 10
long on testimony, short on analysis
1 February 2006
A fairly typical pbs documentary, which is to say somewhat shallow. Rather than help us understand events, the makers wanted us to *feel* how people felt (they may have been seduced by having living witnesses who look good on camera -- the trap is that they lose the focus on actual history putting off-point stuff on, just because they have it.) Also, they fall into the trap of the "good story" - repeating a good story (with the implication that it is history), rather than trying to get at the actual history.

This is nowhere more obvious in the Fort Riley story ("some say..." that burning manure there "the sun went dead black in Kansas" -- pu-leese) and that this is the cause. The 'spanish flu' -- actually a strain of bird-flu -- apparently first jumped from birds to humans in Haskell County Kansas (then died down, but then Haskell men were inducted and sent to Fort Riley, where it spread again). However, the "burning manure" story is never contradicted. The "good story" (the sun was blackened by mens folly, and death followed) is allowed to trump "good history" (bird flu that probably jumped species in several places almost at the same time on different continents).

So, just be aware that this is yet another case of a television documentary pulled away from good history by the 'good story', and telegenic witnesses. The stories they tell are certainly true, but the implications set up by the makers are sometimes off the mark. The less said about the absurd "nobody's safe" ending the better, eh?
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The Day After (1983 TV Movie)
the Russians really HATE Kansas
30 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This is one of those Important Movies (capital letters and all) that Hollywood comes out with every so often -- you know, like 'china syndrome', and 'farenheit 9/11'. Such movies are so heavy-handed that the makers might as well have just filmed themselves standing on soapboxes haranguing us at how foolish we are for one reason or another.

The dialog is expository in the extreme, with characters labeled 'experts' holding forth to audience surrogates (who ask rock-headed questions); people acting in really unbelievable ways (my favorite is the little girl who has just watched her world destroyed by multi- megaton Russian bombs wrinkling her nose and complaining the the basement smells bad), to further the makers harangue-making.

In sum, the Russians get greatly peeved at us, and decided to nuke the bejezus out of . . . Kansas?!? I mean there are missile silos there (but not just there - one character announces that the silos being hit are all "titan-2's, but the missiles we see launched are minuteman-3's and an occasional atlas -- launched from the suddenly-mountainous Kansas prairie), but it sure seems like the Russians have something against Kansas, and I don't think trading all of the soviet union for several square miles of Kansas is good strategy. (No offense to Kansans, by the way -- great state, great people.)

Anyway, the movie just doesn't work -- either things would be not as bad as described, or much, much worse (in a real general war, for instance, there would be nobody to come to survivors aid). It's just so busy preaching, the flick doesn't tell a good story. If you want to see a movie about nuclear war that will REALLY talk straight, try and find a copy of "The War Game" (British, 1965).
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Super Size Me (2004)
annoyingly self-righteous: nutrition as politics
23 April 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Nothing is less interesting to me that advocacy journalism that treats the audience (that is, me) like a moron. Bouncy music, long pauses (for the important parts), laughably heavy-handed animations (a voice-over about advertising accompanied by fat (white) capitalist types piling up money, lame, guys).) Oh yes, and implications that are just ridiculous -- Houston is a 'fat city', we are told -- the next thing we see? A McDonald's in Houston. Aha! THIS mcdonald's is the reason! Well, thank goodness that's sorted out.

OK, the story - a loser eats every day at macdonalds (accompanied by occasional sonorous pronouncements from various 'experts' and 'geniuses', including a lawyer whose chief interest in suing mcdonald's is that they have the most money), and -- surprise! -- gains lots of weight (and, in case audience doesn't "get it", vomits one meal he force-feeds himself (no doubt hoping to obtain this very result). Criminey, this is just high-school-level tripe (heavy-handed editing of interviews to make points really plain for the audience Spurlock clearly has nothing but contempt - bad food will kill you, make you ugly, vote republican, and - gasp - kill your sex life.)

Its interesting to see this "listen to me you fools" story in light of recent evidence that a 2004 study on obesity cooked its books (to coin a phrase) on health effects to improve its associated pressure group's ability to obtain funding...

... for the record, I don't eat at McDonald's, don't own mcdonald's stock, or anything, so you can trust me. (Well, as much as you can trust Spurlock and his ilk.)
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