2001: A Space Odyssey – A Science Fiction Movie Review

(Warning, this whole review is one long spoiler.  In my defense this movie is 49 years old.)

The only good thing about The Academy Awards is that for the whole month before, TCM plays many good (and not so good) old movies.  Last night I watched 2001.  As the exit music was finishing it occurred to me that this was the first time in almost fifty years that I had watched the movie from beginning to end.  Back in 1968 I attended the film in a large theater in Manhattan as part of a class trip.  At the time I was a sci-fi fan but I distinctly remember becoming incredibly bored during the “Infinity” sequence.  And sure enough, last night I found my eyes glazing over as I waited for Keir Dullea to stop making funny faces and show up in Versailles.  And then it also occurred to me that it was actually a very, very good movie.  So, let’s talk about it.  You already know I don’t like the “Infinity” sequence.  But I find the rest of the film is excellent.  Not everybody cares for Kubrick’s style in film-making.  There is a great deal of stylization and idiosyncratic imagery that bothers many people.  And without a doubt it is highly un-naturalistic.  In fact, the ape men were the most realistic as personalities.  The other characters are decidedly wooden.

But without a doubt this movie is an amazing spectacle.  The matching of images to the musical soundtrack is perfect.  The sequences of space ships landing and maneuvering are shown as if they were dancers in a ballet.  The “Dawn of Man” sequence is riveting.  I could believe that the actual event was very much like the portrayal (minus the monolith of course).  It captured the essence of human ingenuity.  The desperate and sordid circumstances of that ingenuity ring true.

And then there’s HAL.  I hate HAL.  I always have.  But he is the perfect Frankenstein Monster.  And the arc of his crime and punishment is, for me, a thing of hideous beauty.  His relations with the astronauts are as creepy and dishonest as some Dickens villain, something like Uriah Heep.  Some people feel sadness when Dave lobotomizes HAL and reduces him to the level of a two-year-old singing “Daisy.”  I never shared that sadness.  I guess I’m more Old-Testament.

So, that brings us back to the “Infinity” sequence which sucks.  But following it we have what I call the “Versailles” scene where I guess Dave lives his life out as a captive of the monolith makers.  This is weird and I guess necessary to set up the conclusion.  Dave dies and is reborn as the next stage of human evolution.  And he is returned to our solar system and the picture ends with him floating above earth to the sequence of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz” playing us out.

In sum we have a fifty year old movie that is still visually stunning, that addresses the inexplicable advance of savage animals to the brink of interplanetary travel and the frightening prospect of facing our masters in artificial intelligence.  What’s not to like?  Well he could have added a few good-looking space babes but nobody’s perfect.

One Million B.C. – A Science Fiction Movie Review

Turner Classic Movies is a mixed bag. They do play a lot of good old movies.  But then you have to endure Alec Baldwin or Tina Fey talking to the insufferable host, Ben Mankiewicz about movies or anything else.  Well anyway, they’ve been playing a lot of old bad sci-fi movies lately.  It’s been great.  I’ll give my thoughts on them.  This is usually a combination of nostalgia and shock.  I’ve seen most of these movies before but in some cases I haven’t seen them in over fifty years.  Neither they nor I have aged well and so the re-acquaintance is sometimes off-putting to say the least.  Both these movies and my younger self have lost a lot of respect in my current eyes.  But today’s movie is a treat because I actually never saw this epic before.  And first off do not mistake this masterpiece for the sound alike “One Million Years BC” re-make with Raquel Welch.

This is the 1940 masterpiece with those two towering thespians Lon Chaney Jr. and Victor Mature. Honestly this movie should get a special award for unbelievably bad special effects.  But special effects is just the tip of the iceberg.  The cheesiness of the sets, the really bad acting and the silliness of the plot combine to create a feast of cinematic awfulness.  I loved it.

One of my favorite scenes has Victor Mature as caveman Tumak poking a seven foot tall miniature Tyrannosaurus rex in the stomach with his poorly made spear.  The monster is so obviously a man in a cloth suit that it’s hard not to burst out laughing, and actually I did.  Only slightly less silly are the real animals like dogs, goats, cows and even elephants covered in fake hair to make them “prehistoric-looking.”  Especially funny is the armadillo with horns glued onto its head.  It has been magnified to be the size of an elephant.  But it doesn’t seem to be doing anything particularly dangerous.  But the cavemen do look really scared of it.  Equally frightening to the cavemen are magnified images of modern day reptiles.  There are tegus and rhinoceros iguanas and even a baby alligator with a fake sailfish sail glued to its back.  One interesting historical circumstance is the fact that several of the reptiles are noticeably harmed by each other in some fight scenes including one tegu that is obviously killed in a fight with the fake sailfish alligator.  Nowadays the Humane Society would have the film-makers drawn and quartered for so much as stressing out a mosquito on set.  Progress!

But where the movie really shines is the portrayal of caveman tribal dynamics. Tumak is the son of the clan leader Akhoba (played by  Lon Chaney Jr).  When Tumak accidentally attacks Akhoba for trying to steal a chunk of dino-burger.  Akhoba throws him off a cliff.  After this he wanders away and ends up being adopted by a more enlightened clan.  They’re probably from Scandinavia because they have blondes, good table manners and neutered males.  After he gets ejected from the new tribe for beating a spear maker who objected to being robbed Tumak ends up back at the old clan cave with his blonde girlfriend in tow.  Apparently she likes the bad boy type and thinks she can fix him.  While Tumak was gone Akhoba has been demoted from chief to crippled loser after being severely injured in a fight with a giant goat.  Breaking with caveman etiquette Blondie institutes women and children and crippled losers first at food distribution time.  Surprisingly, Tumak is supportive of the new arrangement.  Progress!

Well anyway there soon ensues a crisis involving a volcanic eruption and a giant iguana that ends up with both clans coming together with Tumak as the new chief. The End.

Wow. This movie must be seen by all science fiction fans.  Afterwards you’ll have a new found respect for stop action animation or even well-made monster suits.  Only recommended if you really enjoy very bad sci-fi.

The Girl on the Train – A Movie Review

This week Camera Girl picked a Netflix movie.  She remembered seeing commercials for the movie back in 2016 and so she had the impression that it was a good mystery.  Well, we watched it tonight.  Camera Girl will not be recommending movies for a very long time.

To say that this movie was awful would be understating just how bad I found it.  The star is an actress named Emily Blunt.  Along with the seven other main characters I can’t remember feeling even a twinge of empathy for any of them.  Even in the extreme case of one character discussing the accidental drowning of her infant daughter all I could think of was that she should have been prosecuted for negligent manslaughter.  The movie seemed to be a vehicle for building one of the male characters into a monster.  Apparently, all the women were either too stupid or too beaten down by the evil patriarchy to recognize this man for the ogre he was.

But even putting aside the anti-male strawman plot line, the movie is just a train wreck of other problems.  The first and most annoying problem is that the action is constantly jumping back and forth between different scenes in the past and the present.  It’s today, then it’s two years ago, then back to today and then four months ago, then last Wednesday, then Bastille Day (okay, I made that one up but you get the picture).  Eventually you lose track and finally you lose interest and in my case consciousness.

In addition to the flash backs, two of the actresses are very close in appearance.  So much so that at certain critical points in the plot you’re not sure who you’re looking at.  And this is even before the characters have been identified.  Basically, you really don’t know what the hell is going on.  So, the plot unwinds and slowly and painfully all the other explanations are exhausted and you’re left with the most hackneyed setup since “the butler did it.”

I will go out on a limb and say that most people will find this movie to be poor.  The movie is intentionally tinged with misery and psychosis.  In this environment none of the characters displays endearing or attractive or even admirable traits.  Even the victims come off as unlikable zombies.  I know it’s a cliché to say you want that two hours back but in the case of The Girl on the Train it’s entirely accurate.

Verdict:  This movie sucks.  Don’t watch it.

Equilibrium – A Science Fiction Movie Review

I work with this young guy, he’s fresh out of college, maybe twenty-three-years old.  He’s an engineering graduate and is well read and has a good classical grounding in literature and history.  Good kid.  Sometimes we talk about popular culture stuff.  I can remember talking with him about the Matrix and saying there’s good and bad about it.  I think I said it would have been better if Reeves weren’t the lead.  And I think that’s when he recommended “Equilibrium.”  Now I think I know what he was getting at.

So, Equilibrium is set in a dystopian future after World War III has devastated humanity.  Mankind has decided that rather than chance another war, the root cause of war must be abolished.  If I remember the chain of logic is war is caused by hate.  Hate is an emotion.  Therefore, eliminate emotion, eliminate war.  So everyday every man woman and child self-inject with some kind of emotion deadening drug.  And of course, it doesn’t just eliminate hate and anger.  Love and happiness are extinguished too.  Brilliant.  Of course, it’s not explained why exactly they still want to live but whatever.

So just in case this premise isn’t bizarre enough, this society also has some kind of priest-like caste of ninja police whose job it is to hunt down and splatter anyone who doesn’t take his no-feelum medicine.  And of course, the Ubermensch of ninjas and protagonist of the movie is Christian Bale.  He is the most skilled proponent of the gun kata.  This stylized dance-like routine allows him to (somehow) avoid the bullets of apparently any number of gun toting opponents while literally mowing them down like grass.  The other mission of these holy stormtroopers is to root out any remaining pre-war artifacts that have emotional content.  And once located, apply a flamethrower to these emotional touchstones.  So, for instance, during one of Bale’s raids he somehow intuits that under a floor is the actual Mona Lisa.  He gives the order and the barbecue crew incinerates Leonardo’s mischievous lady.  So, what’s the problem?  It turns out there’s a resistance!  And it turns out Bale is not as emotionlessly happy as he could be.  It seems his wife unbeknownst to him was a secret feeler.  When she’s dragged away to be incinerated it seems to have left a mark.  And we’re off.  The rest of the movie is Bale going from emotionless executioner of the innocent to a guy who can’t let a puppy dog get shot.

Now let’s bring it back to my young co-worker who recommended this movie based on a comment about the Matrix.  Well, stylistically this movie is extremely dependent on the Matrix template.  Guns and swords abound and the wire work and fight scenes are very Matrix-esque.  Even Bale’s priestly cassock is like Neo’s garb in the second and third movies.  The emotionless police a level below the ninjas are close to the Matrix agents in appearance and behavior.  The Resistance is equivalent to Zion in the Matrix.  Without a doubt this movie is a reaction to the success of the Matrix.  But interestingly the dystopia is a completely different science fiction catastrophe from the AI revolution and human battery future of the Matrix.  What they share is humans fighting to be allowed to be actual humans.

What’s the verdict?  Well, it’s derivative in a number of ways but it is well done and Christian Bale is a slightly better actor than Keanu Reeves and there is the puppy dog, so there is that.  I don’t know.  I’m not a big Matrix fan.  So maybe I’m biased.  But I can’t say I recommend it unreservedly.  I will say if you really liked the Matrix you should give this a try.  It has all kinds of hyperkinetic gun and sword battles.  So, if that’s a big plus for you it’s definitely something to look at.  That’s where I’ll leave this one.

Since my readers don’t always stop by every day I figured I’d paste this poll on each post for a while to see what folks call themselves.  This is the post the poll came from  Who Are We?

… And that got me thinking. Who are the people who read my blog?  I thought it might be fun to see what the cross-section looked like.  If you feel like saying what you believe in, feel free to leave a comment and/or pick a label from the poll below.  I think it might be interesting.

 

Coming Soon
Total Votes : 54

Psycho – An OCF Classic Movie Review

In honor of Halloween I’ve gone through the Universal Classic Monster Movies.  Moving along let’s look at the first modern horror movie.  And let’s start by defining what a modern horror movie is.  Well, what it isn’t is Frankenstein or Dracula or any make-believe monster.  In fact, it isn’t even a more contemporary monster like a zombie in “Night of the Living Dead.”  The generation that had lived through World War II and the Korean War and was living under the threat of nuclear annihilation probably couldn’t pretend to be afraid of rubber-masked monsters.  What they could fear was the monster that might be living behind the eyes of the boy next door.  Insanity was a monster that they knew had broken free before and once loose inflicted real horror on all in its path.  So that’s the modern horror movie monster, a homicidal maniac.  And before there was the Red Dragon, or Hannibal Lector or Saw there was Norman Bates.

Psycho was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who wrote genre fiction in Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery categories.  It was inspired in part by a truly depraved serial killer named Ed Gein but the details of the story mostly came out of Bloch’s imagination.

But the reason Psycho is the subject of this review is that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make that movie.  Always an innovator and aware of the need to push the boundaries of what was allowable on screen, he produced a film that fit its time.  The sexual nature of the relationship between Marion Crane and Sam Loomis is highlighted.  The murder scenes although tame by today’s standards are truly frightening.  For audiences of that time (1960) some of the scenes would have been shocking.

But Hitchcock didn’t make just a scream fest.  The movie is a complete story.  Each of the main characters and many of the smaller parts are skillfully crafted with loving detail and come to life on the screen.  And one character who has been dead for ten years and only survives inside the tortured brain of a madman get several good lines including the closing soliloquy.

And here is one of the strangest twists of the movie.  The monster gets to tell his side of the story.  In the scene where Norman Bates brings Marion a meal, he tells his side of the story and even gives his mother’s side too.  Obviously, it’s couched in self-delusion and the confusion associated with a split personality but he describes his life as being in a self-inflicted trap that he no longer even tried to escape.  And he admitted that he depended on his mother as much as she depended on him.  And the portrait we see is personable, sympathetic and pitiable.  Of course, this just sets us up for what follows.

Norman’s sexual frustration is illustrated in the voyeurism we are shown and of course the maniacal rage is on display in each of the murders and the attempted murder.  When the psychiatrist comes on at the end as a deus-ex-machina, he not only explains the origins of Norman’s psychosis but also reveals that there have been additional women victims of “Norman’s mother.”

And finally, in the soliloquy that ends the dialog, we really get to meet the monster.  Mother tells us how sad it is that Norman must be punished and how innocent she is of all the blood.  But the dishonesty and the cruelty are on display and at the very last image of “her” we see the monster showing.  And the very last image we get is Marion’s car being winched out of the swamp (her coffin being exhumed from her grave).

What do I like about this movie?  Everything.  The actors are excellent.  The dialog is perfect.  Even the music and sound effects reinforce the action on the screen.  I don’t watch this movie often because I don’t want to wear it out.  But it’s the perfect adult horror movie.  The only thing that gives it competition is Silence of the Lambs.  I find it to be the perfect embodiment of the modern monster.  Man.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 7 – The Lesser Works and A Final Verdict

The follow-on episodes to each of the primary monster movies vary in quality but the one given is that anything with a title that begins with “Abbott and Costello Meet …” isn’t going to be scary.  It could be funny, but definitely not scary.

Sort of in a class by itself is the first sequel to Frankenstein, “The Bride of Frankenstein.”  This movie has a lot of interesting things going on.  The actors who portrayed Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster in the first film reprise their roles here (Colin Clive and Boris Karloff).  The script is leavened with a little humor.  Some scenes add some human interest to the Monster’s otherwise predictable behavior of grabbing people and things and tossing them about.  One of the best known of these is the Blind Man Scene.  The Monster escapes from his enemies.  He’s been shot and is on the run.  He wanders into the cottage of a blind man who welcomes him and treats him with kindness.  The Monster is sheltered and his wounds treated.  The blind man teaches him to speak and introduces him to bread and wine and even the pleasure of a good cigar.  And he learns what music is and he calls the Blind Man friend.  Of course, inevitably, reality strikes back and a couple of hunters show up at the Blind Man’s cottage and tell the blind man he’s living with a monster.  And somehow, they manage to burn down the cottage before fleeing from the Monster.

Standouts performances in the movie are Dr. Praetorius and Minnie, Elizabeth Frankenstein’s Housekeeper.  Dr. Praetorius is a competing mad scientist who has also dabbled in the creation of human life and wants to convince Dr. Frankenstein to create a woman.  Minnie is an almost Shakespearean character who combines the qualities of busybody and wise fool with the ability shriek like an air raid siren.

 

The Monster meets Dr. Praetorius while he is selecting body parts for the Monster’s bride in the catacombs beneath the graveyard.  The Dr. offers him wine and a cigar and they become quite chummy.  So much so that the Monster becomes Praetorius’ henchman in a plan to kidnap Elizabeth to force Dr. Frankenstein to complete the Bride project.

 

Appended to the story is a foreword that portrays Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and the Frankenstein authoress (his wife Mary) discussing the story on a stormy night and segueing to the creation of a mate for the Monster.  Interestingly, they cast the same actress, Elsa Lanchester, to play both Mary and the Monster’s mate.

 

The final scene where we see the meeting between the Monster and his prospective bride the atmosphere is bizarre and overwrought to say the least.  Suffice it to say that Monster love does not conquer all.  The spurned monster decides to blow up the laboratory taking himself, Dr. Praetorius and the Bride “to kingdom come.”  But interestingly, he decides to spare Dr. and Mrs Frankenstein.  So, once again, the producers decided that a non-literary happy ending was the way to go.  Assuming that they realized they would need descendants of Dr. Frankenstein to allow for further sequels I guess you could say this decision was at least monetarily warranted.  Artistically, maybe not.  It is pretty much acknowledged that the quality of the Frankenstein sequels after the “The Bride” falls off almost asymptotically.  The next installment “The Son of Frankenstein” has a few good moments that mostly don’t involve the Monster but otherwise is mediocre.  After that the rest of the series is almost unwatchable.

 

And unwatchable is how I would describe the rest of the sequels and reboots that fill out the Universal Classic Monster movies.  The later installments of the Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman and Mummy series are very poor indeed.  The Mummy series was not continued after the original film but instead rebooted with the new Mummy character identified as Kharis played by our old friend the Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr.  In these later movies, the Mummy is never given any personality but mutely wanders through each of the movies of this series wrapped in his bandages and chasing ponderously after the protagonists who are murdered one by one for possessing the Scroll of Thoth (or whatever they called it in the later series).  I think in the last of the series I remember he is somehow or other running around the bayous of Louisiana hunting the scroll and its owners.  In the last scene, he is seen plodding into the swamp until he is lost to sight under the muddy water, apparently ending his undead life far from the deserts of Egypt as a soggy meal for alligators and crawfish.  A fitting end.

 

So, what’s the verdict?  Is the Universal Classic Monster series a worthwhile cinematic collection or an embalmed thing that is only noteworthy as a museum piece to be fussed over by academics and fanatics?  I vote worthwhile.  Granted the movies are antique and the audience surely won’t be scared in the same way your great grandparents were.  But the movies still provide the fantasy experience that they originally were designed for.  In the same way, a nursery rhyme can still charm children who have never seen lambs and cows and ducks except on a screen so these movies give an archetypal experience of the dark fantasy world they are meant to represent.  Dracula is the evil seducer of young innocents.  Frankenstein’s Monster is the raging step-child of God.  The Mummy is a Promethean character punished forever for attempting to preempt the prerogatives of the gods.  Each of these movies is an outdated but enjoyable attempt to entertain an audience with a passion play of what happens when humans are juxtaposed with the darker side of the fantastic.  And because of the gap in time since they were made I think that the best audience for enjoying these films are kids.  I’d say 9 to 11 is about the optimal age group for maximum effect.  That age is old enough not to be scared by the images but not old enough to be jaded by modern movie magic.  And come to think of it, I think that’s how old I was when I thought these movies were great fun.

John Wick 2 – A Movie Review

Earlier I reviewed John Wick.  And he killed everyone in sight and got a new dog, so story over and he lived (or bled to death) happily ever after.  But, doggone it, John Wick must have made some money so there’s gonna be a John Wick 2.

I watched it last night.  I even rented John Wick, just in case I needed to be refreshed on the details.  But it all came flooding back.  As luck would have it, there’s an evil crime lord who has a marker from John Wick that he can cash in if John comes out of retirement.  Wouldn’t you know it!  John declines.  Crime Lord blows up John’s house with some kind of a grenade launcher which based on its effect must involve anti-matter.  John is blown clear of the house (relatively unharmed mind you) and luckily for the Crime Lord the dog is unharmed.  You would think after what John did to a Crime Lord in the first movie word would have gotten out to the Crime Lord community.  Alas it hadn’t.

The remainder of the movie is the body count involved in first fulfilling his debt to the above referenced Crime Lord and then completing the vendetta against this self-same Crime Lord.  It is a ponderous count.

So, to review my take on this series, it’s based on John Wick being possessed of ultra-fast reflexes and a machine-like precision at killing men, whether with gun, knife, hands, head or pencil.  In fact, I think in one scene he stabbed his opponent to death with a rather blunt pistol.  In John Wick 2 he gets to mix it up a bit, in that a couple of his opponents are women (I think).

So, if you’ve already seen John Wick why would you need a second dose of the same?  The innovation in the second film is speed.  In this second outing a mere ten or twenty opponents would only be a momentary diversion, perhaps something for him to keep busy with between brushing his teeth and flossing.  During one sequence he’s armed with three guns (a pistol, a fully automatic rifle and a shot gun) and he’s barely able to reload anything fast enough to keep from running out of ammo.  And he’s not wasting bullets.  Amazingly, no matter what lighting conditions, distance or direction every shot is a head shot kill.  Sometimes he’s so busy that he’s forced to kill his opponents with one hand while reloading with the other.  And sometimes he’s so hard-pressed that he has to kill other attackers with a gun that’s still being held by a guy he’s also throttling.  It’s a dizzying dance of death that goes on and on and on.

The twist in the plot is that the Crime Lord has put out a seven million dollar price on John’s head and apparently all eight million inhabitants of New York City are hit men (and women).  So wherever he goes, subway, museum or restaurant, he’s assaulted by multiple assassins trying to collect on the contract.  So, knowing he needs help to survive he goes to the King of the Homeless (played by his old Matrix buddy Lawrence Fishburne) and is brought to the location of the Crime Lord.  The catch is he’s only given one gun and it only has a seven-bullet clip.  That would only last John Wick for at most four seconds.  But he agrees and away he goes.  The finale is another ballet of bullets.  Only this time exchanging guns with his victims is a pressing detail.

John Wick 2 is full of growth for Keanu as an actor.  At one point he makes a joke ( it’s about a knife in an aorta).  And he gets to banter with his friends and enemies in multiple languages, English, Russian, Italian and American Sign Language for the Deaf (one of his victims is a deaf woman, I think).  He truly is a Man for All Seasons.

By the end of the movie John Wick has now broken the code of the Continental Hotel and Hitman’s Club.  He is given an hour’s grace before all the same bounty hunters as earlier are coming to kill him.  We last see him heading south (I think) out of Central Park.  And he’s moving pretty fast considering the beating the movie has inflicted on him.

So, I once again recommend this new John Wick movie.  It provides fair recompense for your time and money in the form of ludicrous speed gangland killing.

My only worry is what about John Wick 3?  Based on the increase in killing speed between the movies, in the next one he’ll either have to upgrade his brain and body with cybernetic replacements or he’ll have to put in a lot of overtime.  I guess if he can learn to kill people while simultaneously performing his other daily activities he can get his quota up high enough.  Showering, shaving, eating breakfast, talking on the phone.  These things can certainly be done one-handed.  Working out at the gym could get tricky but I guess he could try shooting a gun with his foot while working the Lat-Machine.

Watching All Three Extended Versions of the Lord of the Rings Movies in One Weekend – Part 2

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this review, it really isn’t advisable to watch all three extended versions back to back.  However, that is probably the best way to judge the entire series as a unified work.  And that is why I wrote this post.  I wanted to judge the entire work.

I’ll start with the things that I think Peter Jackson got wrong.  I’ll follow with what he did very well.

The Elves.

As I stated earlier, Galadriel and Celeborn are awful.  Some kind of other-worldly or ethereal quality is being portrayed that just comes off as weird.  I do not believe it matches the intent of the books at all.  In the book, when Galadriel talks to Frodo about taking the Ring she does give him the image of herself amplified to some terrible queen.  But at the end she shrinks back down and assumes a normal form and speech pattern.

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

“I pass the test”, she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”

In the book, in her dealings with Frodo, Galadriel displays a totally normal human personality.  In the movie, many of the elves, but Galadriel especially, are these weird non-human things.  This is a failing.  Galadriel is a major character.  Her kinship to Arwen and friendship with Aragorn are important points.  If elves are not human in their emotional make-up then the love of Aragorn and Arwen makes very little sense.

Luckily, Legolas is given a human personality.  His differences are portrayed as largely super-human physical abilities.  His banter with Gimli and his good-natured behavior toward most of the characters strikes the viewer as completely natural and not as some inhuman personality.  At most he displays a sort of noblesse oblige.  Which considering his greater age is completely reasonable.

The Siege of Minas Tirith

Several problems crop up here.  One I’ve mentioned, is the characterization of Denethor.  He is portrayed as a base individual.  In the scene where Faramir was forced by his father to attack the orc army on the Pelennor Fields we are forced to watch Denethor eat a meal of grape tomatoes and chicken.  His inability to keep the food from dribbling onto his chin and the noises he makes eating are obviously meant to give us the impression that he is a slob.  His cowardice during the initial attack and Gandalf’s cavalier assault on the Steward’s person is completely at odds with the book.  Denethor is a noble and honorable individual.  The misfortune to his sons and the disheartening images he has seen in the Palantir have driven him to despair.  But he is not the evil character that the movie portrays.

The other major problem of the Siege is the meeting of Gandalf and the Witch King.  In the book, they meet at the point where the Gate has been breached with Grond.  At this point they are face to face and the Witch King taunts saying that the moment belongs to him.  At this point the Horns of the Rohirrim are heard and the duel is interrupted.  In the movie, the meeting is not at the gate but during the ongoing retreat upward in the city.  And in fact, the Witch King shatters Gandalf’s staff, much the way Gandalf did to Saruman’s staff.  This seems to be too much.  I could see Gandalf overwhelmed by thousands of orcs and Trolls with the Winged Nazgul providing aerial reinforcement.  But if Gandalf the Grey could destroy a Balrog, how could a Ringwraith, even one who was perhaps super-charged with Sauron’s spirit during the attack so easily take him down now that he was Gandalf the White?  Seems wrong.

And finally, the scene between Eowyn and the Witch King.  The scene is still very, very good.  But it should have more exactly followed the book’s lead.  It should have been from Merry’s point of view.  And Eowyn, should have revealed herself as a woman before the fight and in exactly the words printed.  The dramatic force of the scene was perfect in the book.  But the scene is still very good.

Frodo and Sam

This is the most difficult fault to describe.  Sam for the most part seems fairly close to the intent of the book.  He’s a simple village boy caught up in the chaos.  Frodo is some kind of invalid from start to finish.  It’s not at all apparent why he is a reasonable ring bearer.  It seems altogether more reasonable to have given the Ring to Sam.  Granted Frodo’s personality is not completely at odds with the portrayal in the book.  Frodo is always a problematic personality.  But I believe this tendency has been brought much too far.  There’s not much more that can be said other than I think it harms that aspect of the story severely.

Alright, I’ve laid the bad stuff on you first.  So now I’ll tell you what I did like.

Aragorn

The portrayal of Aragorn is just about perfect.  He is a kingly man who also has the common touch.  He interacts with the other characters and always improves the scene.  He displays humor, mercy, gallantry, wisdom and each when it is needed.  All of this and yet he always appears human and in the moment.  He isn’t a superman.  He’s a hero.

Boromir and Faramir

I believe in the scene where Faramir is remembering the day when Boromir recaptured Osgiliath, I think the movie outdoes the book.  Boromir and Faramir are shown as brothers in the best sense of the word.  Their good qualities as men and soldiers are on display.  We get a scene that defines both characters and their relationship.  Unfortunately, this was outside the scope of the book.  Kudos to Jackson for inventing it.  And here it can be seen how the danger of the ring is thrust on Boromir who, as a man of action is least able to resist it.  The type of man who would see it as a solution to the enemy at Gondor’s gate.  It is an explanation for why he was both a good man and tempted by the Ring.

And the other great scene for Boromir is of course, his defense of the hobbits against the Uruk-hai.  You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel admiration and sorrow watching Boromir battle on as each arrow pierces his body.  It is perhaps, the best acting scene anyone gets in the movie.  Then his dying speech with Aragorn is equally poignant.  He shows his love of his people and nobility toward his rival Aragorn.  It’s a fantastic sequence.

The Ride of the Rohirrim

This in my mind is the high point of the movie.  When Theoden’s army overlooks the apparent destruction of Minas Tirith and he leads the stirring charge against the enemy’s main force it is electric.  And after they break the siege and see the Haradrim and the elephants approaching it is stirring and finally when the Witch King smashes Theoden and Snowmane to the ground we get Eowyn’s moment.  I have stated that the book’s portrayal is better.  It is.  But the movie version is still great.  And although Theoden’s farewell to Eowyn isn’t in the book it is still very affecting and natural.

The Black Gate

This scene differs in several particulars from the book.  The killing of the Mouth of Sauron is notable but not critical.  In general, I would say it was very well done.  And in one particular it exceeded the book.  Aragorn’s rallying speech to his troops before the battle is stirring.  And does not occur in the book.  The other effect that the movie added over the book was the sight of Barad-dur in the background and the line of sight to it allowing Sauron to call to Aragorn right before he started the battle charge.

 

Conclusion

So there is the bad and the good.  Over all, any real fan of the Lord of the Rings has to recognize Jackson’s movies as a great achievement that brings most of Tolkien’s wonderful story to life.  Maybe someday the story will be done again and improved on.  But what we have is a great work and something to be enjoyed.

Treasure Island – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Robert Louis Stevenson is the author of a number of interesting stories including the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island.” I’ve always thought Treasure Island is one of the best boy’s stories ever written. I give a copy to each of my grandsons when he reaches the age where he can read it. It is one of the best.

Treasure Island has been made into a movie several times by Hollywood but for my money the best by a mile is the 1934 version with Victor Fleming directing. It stars Jackie Cooper as the boy hero Jim Hawkins and Wallace Beery as the pirate chief Long John Silver. Cooper was a kid actor in the Little Rascals series and also known for melodramatic roles in some big movies. Beery was a big star of the time who appeared in both comic and dramatic roles. The idea of using American actors in this British story seems ridiculous. Cooper doesn’t even pretend to use a British accent. He speaks in an obviously 20th century American accent. Beery uses a very stagey 18th century English accent. This is also the case with the rest of the cast. There is one actual brit Nigel Bruce (of Sherlock Holmes’ Doctor Watson fame) in the cast but he doesn’t come off any more authentic than any of the other actors. On the face of it, it seems impossible that anything good would emerge. But it does. It’s the best.

The story entertains at every turn. Boys from six to a hundred and six love this movie because it has everything they want. Treasure, pirates, sailing ships (the Hispaniola), desert islands, battles with flintlocks and cutlasses, and all manner of exciting adventure. The movie version takes some liberties with the book (mostly to put Long John Silver in a slightly better light) but the adaption is faithful to the spirit of the story and it remains solidly entertaining.

One of my favorite scenes is Jim Hawkins confronting the pirate, Israel Hands, while Jim is stealing the Hispaniola from the pirates to forestall the use of the ship’s cannons against his friends in the besieged blockhouse. In that scene Jim needs to be brave and resourceful and no adult is there to help him against a deadly adversary. In other scenes, the comedy inherent in his conversations with the ruthless but personable Long John Silver are memorable.

I guess what makes it timeless is the young protagonist proving himself a heroic and resourceful figure in the company of men, both good men and truly evil men. Basically it’s the same formula in the greek myths and every other hero coming of age story.

If you have a son or a grandson or a nephew or other boy who enjoys adventure (as most boys do) buy him the book and after he’s read it give him the movie to watch. And make some popcorn and watch it with him. You’ll enjoy it and so will he. Certain he will matey. Certain he will.

Cowboy Bebop – A Sci-Fi TV Review – Part 1

Years ago, I had read that Cowboy Bebop might have been one of the influences on the making of the TV show Firefly.  Being a big fan of Firefly, you would have thought that I would have tracked it down and watched Cowboy Bebop long ago.  And you would have been wrong.  I never did.  Now this might have been because it was an animated series.  Or maybe because it wasn’t originally an English language show.  Or maybe because I figured it wasn’t as good as Firefly.  Who knows?  Anyway, I started watching the first few episodes last week.  My first conclusion is that Joss Whedon definitely borrowed heavily from the look and feel of Cowboy Bebop.  Secondly, it is an enjoyable show and stands on its own merits.  Now let me qualify that second statement.  It’s a cartoon.  The characters and the action are larger than life.  When a gun fight breaks out bullets saturate every last square inch of wall space around the protagonist.  Every fight has fists and feet flying in all directions and every facial close up has clenched jaw muscles and popping eyes.  Basically, everything is exaggerated to cartoon level.  Oh, and there’s a Welsh Corgi as part of the crew of a space travelling bounty hunters.  Suffice it to say that reality is in no way a condition for something showing up in this show.  But the characters have consistent personalities, the look of the show is very well done, there’s a fascinating backstory with terrible enemies and mysterious women and the plots although wildly unrealistic are (in my opinion) enjoyable.  As I’ve said, I’ve only watched the first five episodes but I like it well enough to want to keep watching it.

 

Alright, now what’s it about?  Cowboy Bebop is a space ship that so far has a crew of three humans and one Welsh Corgi.  They are bounty hunters who work for whatever government (or other organization) that can provide a large enough pay day.  Like on Firefly the culture seems to be a combination of American and Chinese culture.  Also, as on Firefly, humans inhabit a number on moons and planets (but this time within our own solar system).  Cowboy Bebop seems to work on both sides of the interface between the criminal and legal spheres.  Their biggest problems seem to be monetary.  They are chronically short of funds.  The protagonist is named Spike and seems to be a young man in his thirties who enjoys his job as much for the fighting as for the rewards.  In his past, he worked for a very high-level mob boss.  Spike’s partner is an older man with a much angrier façade but can also be depended on in a fight.  The similarities to Mal and Jane Cobb in Firefly are pretty strong.  The regularity with which the ship comes up empty handed after a mission is also a point of similarity to Firefly.

I consider that I prefer live action movies to animation but I’ll go on record as saying that Cowboy Bebop seems a highly creative show and has many features that make it interesting and entertaining.  I look forward to seeing the remainder of the series and will report back on its qualities.

 

So now I know where Whedon got his inspiration.  And maybe his own effort may not have been the superior to the model.