Surrogates Again

DATELINE: AI Goes Bad

bee-strung surrogates Young Bruce Replicant!

It’s been ten years since one of the most clever and intriguing films about Artificial Intelligence in the future came out. Surrogates deserves another look because so little has superseded its message and style.

All the robotic replicants have bee-stung pouts.

This was another in a series of highly intelligent films made by Bruce Willis in the sci-fi mode. It may be the best of the lot.

Set in Boston in 2054, it tells of an era when the Supreme Court has allowed surrogate robots to replace you in daily work and routines while you lounge in a control seat.

You will be a fat slob, aging and ugly, but your surrogate will be a beautiful toy of whatever gender you choose. So, all the day-to-day people in the film are stunning and stiff, wrinkle-removed and smooth skinned. What’s amazing is that Bruce Willis looks like Baby Jane Hudson-young with his blond locks and handsome young physique.

We could not figure out whether he needed more makeup and special effects to be his middle-aged self, or his young replicant self.

He plays an FBI agent who must investigate the murders of surrogates and their masters—but he has to become a true gumshoe and go out on the street as his old self to do it, despite the agony and stress of being out in the “real world”. He constantly surprises his beautiful partner cop (Rahda Mitchell).

The notion that AI will legalize identity replicants is not so far-fetched, and the hilarious satiric barbs at “loaners,” and other modern problems is delightful. Intermeshed here is a murder mystery.

Yes, there is an obligatory and over-the-top car chase through the streets of Boston, though we have no idea how they did it in reality, so we presume it was all faked.

And the climax in which all surrogate replicants must be deactivated is a delight to see as they literally fall in place around Boston. It was a pleasant, summery diversion during an ice storm in Boston.

 

 

 

 

 

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John Wayne in a Woman’s Picture?

 DATELINE: Duke Takes on Shane’s Girlfriend

not a chance Witless Comedy.

Well, at least John Wayne is not yet in women’s lingerie in 1943. A Lady Takes a Chance is not exactly High Noon. We hate to say it, but don’t leave this film to chance. Just leave it alone.

Jean Arthur was a big star, and John Wayne wanted to be a big star. Despite his accolades and sensational performance in Stagecoach, Duke Wayne needed to cross-over to become super big. So, he even drives a car.

Someone at the studio figured that he needed to widen his audience to include adult women who admired working-class heroine Jean Arthur, the everyday spunky girl of America.

How would John Wayne do with spunky women? You have an early answer here. He treats them like horses. If we recall our Hollywood history: they shoot horses, don’t they?

Among the pallid jokes is to have Duke don an apron, or to watch Jean Arthur try to sleep uncomfortably under the prairie stars.

Yes, this was a time when you went west on a bus. Jean Arthur must ultimately choose between bookish Hans Conreid, paunchy Grady Sutton, or virile John Wayne! Some choice.

Someone failed to plug this movie. Pull the plug, please.

This early misuse of John Wayne is absolutely fascinating as a studio-system miscalculation. Or was it? Then again, we like disaster movies too. We wanted to see Phil Silvers (Sergeant Bilko) with the classic military cowboy.

The only other time we saw John Wayne in a woman’s comedy, he did a guest star role in the 1970s on Maude with the high-shootin’ Bea Arthur. It was a real showdown. Yeah, he outdrew that Golden Girl of cynical womanhood.

Jean Arthur is the queen bee/big star here, hypocritical with her multiple boyfriends in New York, but indignant that Duke Wayne has a few girlfriends from the rodeo circuit. She treated Alan Ladd just as badly in her next Western, Shane, as Brandon de Wilde’s mother.

If producers were aiming for frothy, as in beer suds, most of it stuck to Jean Arthur’s upper lip. Literally.

Brazil, Where the Nuts Are!

DATELINE: Beyond the Twilight Zone

acting chops Whose Acting Chops?

If you thought nutcase movies are here today, you are about 30 years off. Brazil is a movie aficionado’s fantasy and nightmare, defying convention and logic. You just passed the signpost of Ipanema.

Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) went out of his way to make the Citizen Kane of kookoo-bird movies in 1985.

This was no small achievement as the film holds up as beyond modern and relevant. Its madness may yet to be realized in the future.

Like Blade Runner, the future is the past. There is an aura of 1940s film noir interspersed with superhero comic fantasy.

Jonathan Pryce is some bureaucrat by day and by night, in his dreams, some kind of flying circus performer out to save a damsel in distress. In the meantime, he works in mindless government agencies that are after Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro) in an early comedic performance as a heating engineer who is a wanted man for doing duct work without a license.

Pryce’s mother Ida Lowry is played by the youth-conscious Katherine Helmond in a face-stretching performance with Jim Broadbent, as her fey plastic surgeon, striving for tighter skin.

Included in the shenanigans are such familiar faces as Bob Hoskins, Ian Holm, Michael Palin, and Ian Richardson. If they wanted to kick off the unorthodoxy of their careers, this film is definitely the forerunner.

If you want a plot, you will fall into a black hole and likely be stretched to kingdom come.

You can ride the wave of this movie from one loony tune moment to the next, not bothering to connect the dots or the scenes. It’s like being in the Trump Administration: you just sit back and experience the Cinerama of movie magic to the mambo-jumbo notes of the song “Brazil.”

Heavens, or is that Land of Goshen?

Sad Hill Unearthed! Fake Cemetery

 DATELINE:  Restoring the Un-Dead to Fake Life

sad hill trio Famous Trio at Sad Hill!

In Burgos, Spain, an amateur group of archeologists located the place where the climax of the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was filmed in 1966.

You have to love the spaghetti western (and it is hilarious horse opera with Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, and Clint Eastwood). Its climactic graveyard shootout is magnificent film-making—and its restored grandeur is stunning.

It is called Sad Hill Cemetery (not real), except as reel film history.

The responsible men are descended from locals who worked as extras in the movie, and they find the place is magical. It had been lost and buried under six inches of dirt. They dug up to find the circular stone center. Around it were mounds where the fake graves once stood with crosses.

It took much work, and many volunteers. They sold gravesites, with your name painted on a wooden cross, to finance the excavations.

A few survivors of the movie:  film editor and composer Ennio Morricone gave interviews. The film documentary is enhanced with behind-the-scenes photos—and movie clips. Old interviews with Sergio Leone are also a treat.

It was backbreaking work to restore the concentric circles of Leone’s visionary shootout scene among the crosses, row on row.

When finished, the magic returned. A large crowd showed up in the rural area where an orchestra played the film score, the archeologists re-enacted the shootout. It went on for ten to fifteen minutes in the film, and Clint even sent a recorded thank you message to the assembled crowd.

restored reel cemetery Restored at Last!

If you love this classic Western, you need this companion piece to history, myth, and movie magic.

 

Colonel Effingham & Trump Style

DATELINE:  General Nuisance?

patterson Grand Dame Eliz. Patterson!

A long-forgotten movie from 1945 with Charles Coburn is called Colonel Effingham’s Raid. It concerns a retired blowhard army officer who returns to his Georgia boyhood town to learn they are taking down the Confederate monument in the town square.

It seems ripped from today’s headlines, but was a pop novel by Berry Fleming, another forgotten literary dim bulb of ages ago. It is supposed to be whimsical by standards of a century ago. Appalling would be a better word.

The notion that people would fight to keep up a symbol of racism in the Old South is played as a comedy! Indeed, black kids sit around and listen to the old white mayor praise the slave-owning South. Effingham hires black servants and treats them like basic training punching bags. Yikes.

One progressive woman (Joan Bennett) blames the corrupt mayor and his home-grown political party for hiring his “poor white” relations in town patronage jobs.

Effingham is a colonel in the general sense of Trump military leaders. Pompous and patriotic in an old-fashioned way, he will lead a pre-World War II Georgia town to rise in revolt to protect the Confederacy. How quaint, but it made America great back then.

The film is notable for its costars Cora Witherspoon and Elizabeth Patterson, two old biddy character actresses, as grand dames of the South. It also features the fake news media, up to its tricks for Trumpite Effingham.

If you want to see what made America 75 years ago, this hoary movie may be a rattling of your teacups. Ef-ing-ham is a satire, unlike his real-life counterpart in the White House, but both are ridiculous for sure.

 

 

 

 

 

Trumpet Blowing at Midnight

DATELINE: Blowhard Comedy

Bugs Benny

For most of his career, actor and comedian Jack Benny blamed a movie called The Horn Blows at Midnight for ruining his movie stardom. In fact, he never made another movie for decades, succeeding on a newer medium called TV.

In some ways he was a re-actor, mostly playing off situations and people. Having a personality with notable quirks; vanity, greed, among his most notorious deadly sins, he was mostly asexual and devoid of anger issues.

Here he is faced with irony after irony: he drinks Paradise Coffee that ‘helps you sleep’. He is too ineffective to start the doomsday scenario.

As a milquetoast, he was the antithesis of heroic post-World War II men–those tough guy approaches bordered on psychotic (all the major stars went from their usual roles to a more sinister version in the years after the war).

That bring us to Midnight: where and when Benny is a second-rate angel in heaven given the task of blowing Gabriel’s horn (Heaven’s real star’s too busy) at midnight in New York City to end the corrupt world of a small planet called Earth.

It is whimsy gone mad. Nearly every joke is told twice. It almost becomes a Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoon. Yet, the film was directed by action  helmsman Raoul Walsh. It used fantasy special effects and had a cast to die for. Yes, that is the original pantywaist Franklin Pangborn, and yes, that is Margaret Dumont from the Marx Brothers. Oh, yes, that is Robert Blake as a kid. Yes, that is every notable second-banana in second-banana roles. They are wonderful to behold.

It is not much more than a mild, simple whimsical tale with a few digs. Worse yet, the gimmick of the movie is blatantly false, which undercuts its sharpness. We won’t tell you if Benny falls asleep too often.

It was not a bad film, but no one went to see it—and Jack took it personally. Of course, it does not help when Jack tells the audience that, if he saw this stuff in a movie, they would not believe it.  They didn’t.

Benny retired from movies. His last starring vehicle is a diversion for the cynical, harsh times that followed World War II and the burgeoning Cold War. It also fits for us today in a mad, mad, mad world of Trump daily crises.

Big Papillon

DATELINE: Renewed Classic

Rami & Charlie.

Perhaps every 50 years or so, a movie needs to be re-made.

This gives a new generation of actors a chance at grand roles, and an audience unfamiliar with the original to see a version that is in tune with the times that half-a-century causes.

Take Papillon, the Devil’s Island classic tale that starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman so many years ago. Those who remember will tell you how great they were.  Those who see Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) in the recent version will not understand how these two could be surpassed.

Yes, this remake is brilliantly done: in ways that the other never touched:  such as the motif of bowels as hiding places. Money pellets are within the mess of diarrhea to be searched. This film is brutal in its sadism and disgusting conditions, perhaps even more appalling than the original.

Henry Charriere’s true story of a man battling the odds of prison condemnation is always a good yarn of hope and hopeless. Director Michael Noer manages to convey the power of a literary classic.

We particularly liked the sequence when the warden has a showing of 1933 King Kong while the repugnant, fat turnkey is in dalliance with a young whelp while Papillon plans his escape.

There is a chemistry between Malek and Hunnam that transcends the original pairing of actors who were stars for more distinctive, discrete audiences. These new young stars have rapport and remain in tune as their relationship blossoms. In a scene Malek plays a mime who performs for Hunnam in a Paris dream sequence.

Hunnam notes it is too soon for a “proposal” in one scene, but the fearless director makes his song of bonds between oddball men quite effective.

Watership Upside Down in Bugsy Demeanor?

DATELINE: Hare-brained cartoons?

Watership Down Bugs & Daffy, or B’rer Rabbits?

Two movies about rabbits we have seen recently are cartoons. Of course, by today’s high-falutin’ standards, they are now called ‘animation’. Watership Down, based on a children’s book, is a think-piece, now remade with a couple of big-name Brit stars.

The other film we saw was a compilation of Bugs Bunny cartoons from the Golden Age of 1942-43. The gulf between these two film works transcends streaming DVD and enters the realm of unreal hare-brains.

Stars Nick Hoult and James MacAvoy have definite chemistry as actors together, as B’rer Rabbits, in Watership Down. They play the voices of Hazel and Fiver. You may not see it, but you can surely hear their rapport.

The new version of the animated story has shown up as a Netflix movie series. Unlike Disney animation, in which characters can be distinguished, this film has a bunch of hares and bunny rabbits that are clones. After a while, we are trying to determine accents and vocalizations to tell if we are listening to Nick Hoult or James McAvoy.

We love both actors, and that’s the long and short of it.

We also do not love four hours of animation to tell a story. Alas, even broken into 4 episodic chunks tested our mettle. On the other hand, the eight Warner Brothers cartoons are about six minutes each. They are also racist, filled with fat hatred, and feature Bugs in drag often, but can’t end soon enough.

Though Warner cartoons are claimed to be highly restored, they grow increasingly unwatchable as color fades and clarity blurs. On the other hand, you can see every fur-laced lash of the hares of the new animation in Watership, if you really care enough.

The Biblical tones and literary pretensions of one are undercut in the other’s attempt to play down to Brooklyn rabbit accents and fat Elmer Fudd. Yes, Fudd has not yet gone on a diet in these early films—and even wears a corset in two cartoons.

If there is a big difference in the films, one has personality unleashed, and the other is less brash.

We may find that in each lesson it may be that teachable moments are less successful in cartoon form. It undercuts and underscores at the same time. However, in the age of superheroes and Marvel Comics, we suspect this is the new Dickensian epic-style.

We’d just like to see Hoult and McAvoy in human form. Give us a real movie please.

Twilight of the Hollywood Gods

 DATELINE: Gemstone Ignored?

twilight

It was 20 years ago that Paul Newman played one of his last tired, cynical, lethargic private detectives up to his eyeballs in corruption. The movie was Twilight, and it was so laden with talent that it apparently sank into oblivion.

On the other hand, there are dozens of movies with Twilight in the title, and most are forgettable.

This ignored classic is out there for those who want to stream through it. Thank heavens we found it. And, it is well-worth the time. This is high-quality, high-level movie-making. Every scene is gripping and intriguing.

When you look at the stars in the twilight of their careers from this picture, you wonder if there is a double meaning:  Gene Hackman, James Garner, and director Robert Benton, join Newman at journey’s end. The fictional stars are on their last legs too.

Playing at a coverup of corrupt Hollywood stars in the murder for pleasure motive, Newman plays a former cop and private eye who does the cleanup for big stars. The plot centers on some dirty blackmail scheme, but by whom and why?

Your second generation of stars include Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon as the daughter of the stars and her dubious boyfriend played by Liev Schreiber. An honorable mention goes to Margo Martindale as the zaftig rinse-bottle blonde.

As you may guess, this is first-class travel all the way—and makes us wonder why it fell through the cracks 20 years ago. It was likely just too familiar ground for Newman whose posturing resembles a teenage boy, not a man in his 70s.

By today’s dubious film standards, this movie is a sheer delight of crime melodrama.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Twonky: 1st Artificial-Intelligence Movie

DATELINE:  Non-conformist Weirdo Stuff !

twonky To Twonk or Not to Twonk?

When the protagonist of your movie is a pedantic philosophy professor (the ubiquitous Hans Conreid) in 1952, you likely had a bomb of a movie on your hands. When star Conreid said this to director Arch Oboler, the temperamental auteur noted he needed a tax write-off for the year anyhow.

The Twonky was based on a Lewis Padgett short story, one of the earliest visionaries to see computers and AI as the controlling force of the future.

Robbie the Robot and Gort were the mechanical men of the age (though a primitive slave robot was at work in Gene Autry’s Phantom Empire in 1935). It was the Twonky, a creature from the future who took up life in a modern TV set.

As eggheads decried television as a wasteland back in the 1950s, it is all the more ironic that the future visitor and time traveler would end up as an animated TV set.

Though Professor Conreid finds it distasteful to be at the mercy of a trained computer that tries to fulfill every wish, it would today make for a great weekly series on TV. The Twonky is there to make life easier for humans—and to monitor them, depriving privacy and free choice.

Its comedic elements are frightful, and the man who sees it all to clearly is the college football coach, an old geyser played by Billy Lynn. He drops pearls of insight and knocks the hero for not knowing his science fiction.

Arch Oboler’s weird film is decades ahead of its time, criticized for its humor and poor technical effects, the movie is actually on the marvelous side. We enjoyed watching the Twonky climb stairs, throttle a TV repairman, and strip a bill collector down to the birthday suit.

The best moment for us, as former college professor, was when the doctor offered Professor Conreid a sedative. He demurred as he had to write his college class lecture that night—to which the doctor noted, “Oh, well, then you don’t need a sedative.”

Noir Classic: He Walked by Night

DATELINE:  Movie as TV Pilot

Dragnet

We had never seen He Walked by Night, and it took us aback right away. It is thought to be a 70-year old black and white masterpiece of low-budget, poverty-row studio. Even the directorship is mysterious: was it really Anthony Mann who sneaked over to another studio to do the work?

Right from the Prologue, we recognized the classic line: “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” What’s more, actor Jack Webb had a featured role!

Then came the ponderous narrator talking about Los Angeles, a big city, etc.. This was followed almost immediately with a long discussion of a dragnet across the city!

Yep:  it was Dragnet!  We were about to see some kind of movie prototype of the famous police show of the 1950s.

Webb did not play Sgt. Joe Friday. No, he was some lab rat in the forensics department, and young virile Scott Brady was the cop.

We learned later that Jack Webb befriended Marty Wynn, the LA technical adviser (whom Brady played). They partnered and came up with the radio/TV show Dragnet in 1950.

This movie was unusual for other reasons. The LA criminal psychopath was played by young Richard Basehart—in cashmere gloves and Brooks Brothers suit. He was a tech-savvy genius, creating 12-foot TV projection screens 40 years before they really happened.

This villain was brilliant and diabolical in his murdering rampage. The intriguing concept of Dragnet, always, was that the pedestrian and bland cops were flatfooted, but persistent.

The other feature here was the deadpan humor of the police, likely a defensive response to the evil they always encountered. It too would surface on Dragnet a few years later.

Also a bit ahead of its time, the climax in the underground flood tunnels of Los Angeles is a precursor of the Third Man where Harry Lime (Orson Welles) was chased by police in Vienna.

Gilligan’s Island Manifesto

DATELINE: Commie Plot on Deserted Isle

cast your fate

Never kid a kidder.

Well, this documentary takes the bizarre position that a moronic, if not sophomoric, TV series Gilligan’s Island was a communist plot to brainwash American children.

Of course, this could all be a case of mistaken identity, or Swiftian satire. File this Twilight Zone film under the heading The Gilligan Manifesto. It is nearly compelling and convincing that lessons of Karl Marx were open secrets of the plots. After all, the island is community property.

Creator Sherwood Schwartz admits that his original dramatic idea was to put a group of nuclear holocaust survivors on an island but found the comedic approach more agreeable.

When you combined a skipper without a boat, a professor without a college, a millionaire without a bank, and a movie star without celebrity, you had downgraded everyone to equal status. Add to the mix a worker from the proletariat, in the form of benighted Gilligan, and you have communist lesson plans.

You may wonder where and what Edgar Hoover was doing the years this series was top of the ratings after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Episodes routinely satirized money, government, judicial systems, police, and religious values. Yes, the clips bear it out. Actress Dawn Wells, the last survivor, admits no one had a clue about this in the 1960s.

The film gives a background of nuclear horror: from Robert Oppenheimer’s ominous platitudes to a series of trailer clips from every 1950s movie that dealt with shipwrecked souls on islands and small bands of apocalyptic survivors trying to rebuild civilization. And, there were plenty of such movies.

The entire enterprise has a lip-smacking, tongue-in-cheek quality. The Gilligan Manifesto is pure Marx (Groucho, Harpo & Karl).

Soylent Green Revisited

DATELINE: Ben-Hur Takes on The Rifleman?

soylent

In 1973 came a prophetic movie about greenhouse gas and environmental calamity in the ruse of a murder mystery. Its cast stuns:  Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Joseph Cotten, Chuck Connors, and a raft of familiar second bananas like Cyril Develanti and Whit Bissell.

Apart from the all-too-soon prediction, suggesting the calamity arose by 2022, the film is prescient. We think it may be the world of New York in 2073 when crowds teem the streets and heat and lack of supply dominate the lifestyle.

Only the rich have soap and beef. When Heston the cop goes investigating, he is awestruck by the luxury.

His roommate (perhaps college professor mentor of years past) is Edward G. Robinson in his final acting role.

Chuck Connors has a wig also as outrageous as that on Heston. You keep wondering why it never fell off during those crowd scenes.

From its opening montage of fossil fuel guzzlers and growing population, the film has several bravura sequences. Reminiscent of Nazi liquidation and final solution, there is a “home” base where people go to die.

Cue up the Tchaikovsky symphony “Pathetique,” used also in Howard Hughes’ movie called The Outlaw.

It remains a highly prized movie by aficionados of the genre, making it the second act of sci-fi flicks for Heston after his epic heroes like Moses and Ben-Hur. This one is less known than Planet of the Apes.

You don’t have to be clairvoyant to figure out the problem with soylent green, the new foodstuff. And, it all seems quaint in the age before computerization. An early computer game is played in 1973, a half-dozen years before the craze caught on.

 

 

 

 

 

Rupert, aka Xmas Wish

DATELINE: Two Orders of Ham.

durante

One of the most forgotten of low-budget Christmas movies is a strange concoction from 1950. It has been titled Rupert the Great, and when colorized in recent years in India, was re-christened, A Christmas Wish.

Whatever you call it, this is a bizarre film billed as “heart-warming,” but it is an odd duck about an odder squirrel.

Yes, Great Rupert is a Puppetoon squirrel in show biz (made from stop-action). He dances in kilts and is highly intelligent. The film comes from the mind and production of the great George Pal. Alas, Rupert is a mere second banana in a second-rate movie directed by Irving Pichel.

The star is non-stop action. It is the inimitable Jimmy Durante who pulls out all the stops.

Perhaps kids in 1950 were more easily entertained.

However, this does not prevent us from watching in utter fascination. Jimmy Durante pretends to be Danny Amendola, not the former Patriots player, but some kind of vaudeville comic. Don’t be fooled: it’s Jimmy Durante playing himself.

If you ever wondered why Durante never starred in more movies, this one reveals the amazing truth. He steals every scene, wipes out other performances, blows away any semblance of plot, and dominates every moment of the film.

Not even an animated squirrel can stand up to Jimmy. He is a happening, an event, a force of nature.

Terry Moore was supposed to star with top-billing, her major film role after Mighty Joe Young, another animated creature by George Pal’s protégé Ray Harryhausen. Miss Moore was too cute to worry about animals. Durante was another matter.

The film was re-tailored to allow Durante to do his usual patter and sing “Jingle Bells,” in one scene at the piano.

Even Rupert the Great never dared to show his rodent face when Durante was about. This is a weak Christmas film, but a work of stunning film history. Thus, we have rendered this year’s Xmas movie review moot.

 

Two Great Directors Pass, & Hardly Anyone Notices…

DATELINE:  The Men Who Tango & Fall to Earth

Performance

For movie fans of a certain generation, this has been a watershed week.

Two famous names of the past, great directors from the 1960s and 1970s died within days of each other:  Nicholas Roeg and Bernardo Bertolucci.

We are not surprised at how many people will say, “Who in hell were they?”

If you did not write, direct, or produce a blockbuster cartoon like Superman, Batman, or one of the other Justice League jokers, you likely are not a household name in the 21st century.

In their day, these two men were considered thought-provoking filmmakers. Each started as an apprentice cinematographer under one of the titans of old Hollywood:

Nicholas Roeg worked with David Lean, notable for Lawrence of Arabia.

Bertolucci worked with one of the giants of Italian 60s cinema: Pier Paolo Pasolini.

They managed to step out of the shadows to their own highly recognized movies: Roeg took several music stars and transformed them into movie icons. We think of Mick Jagger in Performance, one of those weird mythic blurring of music and movies. He followed up with a science fiction think piece, The Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie, no less.

Bertolucci seemed to take sexual politics as his nest-egg. His biggest film was the notorious Marlon Brando movie, Last Tango in Paris.

How quickly these two directors seemed to fall from fashion. In recent years they might have been thought to be dead for decades, not days ago. They never sold out to Hollywood blockbusters or TV miniseries. And, that may be their anonymous curse in the summaries of their lives.