Saturday, November 18, 2017

Thor: Ragnorok

We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow
The hammer of the gods 
We'll drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, and sing and cry
Valhalla, I am coming!

I admit to being disapponited this year by the comic book films. (And yeah, I also recognize that most viewers probably disagree with me.) I felt mostly let down by Wonder Woman, was bored by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, thought Spider-Man: Homecoming was slightly more bad than good, and I liked but didn't love Logan. But at last, I have found a delightful comic book film from an unlikely director I have admired for some time. It's the most fun I've had at the cinema all year.

Marvel is a franchise that occasionally is too full of itself, especially with movies like last year's Captain America: Civil War. The Marvel movies that were far better--the first Guardians movie, Ant-Man, the first Captain America film--were all superior to the convoluted litter that is some of their other motion pictures. That's not the case with Thor: Ragnorak, the third Thor film. This movie does complexity just as well as it does simplicity. Most importantly, it's funny, and how could it not be with the immensely talented Taika Waititi at the helm?

Our hero (Chris Hemsworth) is a bit tied up when we meet him again. He is the prisoner of the demonic Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown), who is doing his best to frighten the god of thunder with his prophecy of destroying his home of Asgard. The trouble is that Thor keeps spinning around slowly in his chains, forcing Surtur to pause from time to time, and so we're off to an amusing start. By now, Hemsworth has demonostrated several times just how comical he can be on screen, but this is the first time as his most famous character that he gets a chance to demonstrate that talent. Thor of course manages to escape, fight off Surtur, and return to his home, where his brother, Loki, has temporarily taken over from their father (Anthony Hopkins). This, however, is not what drivers the film. Instead, the movie is divided into two plots.

Thor and Loki meet their sister, Hela (Cate Blahowever), who has returned from whatever hell she was in and is taking things over. Her brothers are no match for her; they cannot defend their home from their sister, and eventually they sort of banished to the domain of the Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum. The Grandmaster (who apparently is the brother of the Collector, Beneicio Del Toro's character in Guardians of the Galaxy) is the host of epic gladiator games, and whether Thor likes it or not, he's a contender. Making matters worse is that his main opponent is none other than the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), a "friend from work."

In addition to those already mentioned, Tessa Thompson delivers one of her very best performances as Valkyrie, the Asgardian bounty hunter who sometimes is a little too intoxicated to capture Thor. She's tough as nails, but maybe even she is no match for Hela, who decimated her fellow warriors. Blanchett has two Oscars and has appeared in gigantic films like The Lord of the Rings franchise, and yet this is one of her very best pieces of work. She has played villains before, but she has never looked like she was having this much fun.

Familiar alumni are here as well: Anthony Hopkins is back (he, too, gets a few moments of humor), as is Idris Elba as Heimdall, leading a quiet revolution against Hela. My favorite addition was possibly Karl Urban as a gun-loving warrior (though there's an awkward joke in there about Texas and guns). The most notable absences are Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgaard, who both appeared in the previous two Thor films. There are a handful of other delightful cameos, and I won't reveal them, accept to say that the standard Stan Lee cameo is as enjoyable as it has ever been. Also appearing are Tadanobu Asano, Rachel House, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange. And then of course there's Jeff Goldblum. There has been a lot of love for this icon as of late, and who can blame us? Goldblum by this point basically realizes that he is the new Christopher Walken, and he does not disappoint. Buzzfeed has declared him the internet's boyfriend, and one of the best tweets I've seen recently about him was that Jeff Goldblum as himself is the best part about Thor: Ragnorok. NPR's Linda Holmes had the brilliant observation that Goldblum in this movie is essentially a hybrid of Jabba the Hutt and Jean-Ralphio. I would add that he's not as creepy as Jabba and not as unfunny or annoying as Jean-Ralphio.

Thor: Ragnorok is not simply one of Marvel's funniest films (the most whimsical since the first Guardians of the Galaxy), but it is arguably Marvel's best looking movie ever. It's ILM visuals--led by Chad Wiebe--make it look more like last year's Dr. Strange than the utter mess that were The Avengers films. Its costume design by Mayes C. Rubeo is worthy of an Oscar nomination; particularly incredible is that of Hela's intense crown of antlers.

Waititi, who also appears as Korg, a pleasant gladiator made up of rocks who provides much of the film's humor, deserves much of the praise for Thor: Ragnorok. I try to avoid auteur-theory rhetoric of assigning all of the success or failure of a film solely on the director, but this movie has Waititi written all of over it. If you had pleasant experiences viewing his other movies, than Thor: Ragnorak will be no different. Waititi's use of the Led Zepplin's "The Immigrant Song" is a delicious addition, augmenting the adrenaline of the action scenes (and it apparently works just as well when used in Star Wars). Like other really enjoyable films directed by Waititi, like Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, this is a movie that will stay with you. It's not great, but well worth the price of admission.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Vote Against Mr. Trump and Governor Pence

I suppose 
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts.

The above lyrics are from discovered work by folk singer Woodie Guthrie, who more than half a century ago wrote of his contempt of Fred Trump, one of two Trumps sued by the Justice Department in the 1970s for racist housing practices. Guthrie signed a lease in an apartment complex in Brooklyn and observed Fred Trump stirring up racist hate and profiting from it. The other Trump involved in those profits was Donald J. Trump, the current occupant of the White House. The apple does not fall far from the tree.

I wrote an article urging readers to vote for Barack Obama in October 2012, about a month before that election. My article praising Hillary Clinton and attacking Trump was written in the summer of 2016, still a few months away from judgment day, when Hillay beat him by 2,865,075 votes but he got to become president anyway. Then, I was alarmed by what I was seeing and thought (unlike virtually everyone I knew) that he had a real chance of getting to the White House. Now, it's only been one year since the 2016 election, and the vast majority of us in this country have Trump fatigue. I need to write this article now, not later. He needs to be impeached, but if that doesn't, then we better work like hell to get him out in 2020. Please, please vote against him and Governor Mike Pence of Indiana.

Never before have we had a someone quite like Trump. Before January, he was simply a man who stoked White Amercia's fear of black and brown people, made up claims about immigrants, had zero qualifications to be president, invited Russia to hack our election, and led the racist Birther movement, to say nothing of his claiming that a judge of Mexican heritage could not preside over his lawsuit because he would be biased against him, bragging about his genitals on stage during a GOP debate, and settling a multi-million-dollar lawsuit just before the inauguration. If Obama had five children from three different wives, bragged about supposedly knowing more about ISIS than the generals, announced that his genitals were not inadequate, and was caught bragging about sexually assaulting women and then sued by a dozen for sexual assault, how much racist garabage, explicit or not, would we be hearing from the right?

It wasn't supposed to be like this. For the second time in two decades, the Republican Party has received the ultimate participation trophy: the White House (due to the Electoral College). The Republicans have lost the popular vote in every election since 1992 except for 2004 (a year they barely won), yet because the founding slave owners created a bizarre rule that is beyond archaic and anti-democratic, and because of redistricting, ubiquitous money in politics, voter suppression, and apparent Russian hacking, the Republicans are able to hang on to power. When they did it in 1876 after Democrat Samuel Tilden was the clear winner, the resulting crisis led to the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow. When they did it in 2000 under almost equally nefarious circumstances, the result was illegal invasions and occupations of two foreign countries (one of which we are still in), a city flooded, and an economic meltdown. And when the Republicans and their buddies in the Russian government and Wikileaks did it yet again in 2016, the result has been whatever clusterfuck historians are going to call this. The U.S. is not a democracy, and if it continues to be like this, we will continue to have despots like Trump.

The list of the egregious aspects of this man and his vile soul are endless: the Muslim ban, the transgender ban, his disrespect of soldiers, his fetish for taking away people's healthcare, his inaction on gun violence, his forgetting which country he has bombed, and making us literally the only country in the world not involved in the Paris Climate Accord because Trump believes global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese to hurt American businesses. Since then, he's continued to show us that he is a man who takes great comfort criticizing people of color he perceives to be against him yet cowers when it is time to condemn Nazis all the while thinking that it might be cute to go to war again with North Korea. This nightmare cannot end soon enough.

Fortunately, this week showed us that people are capable of fighting back. Folks need to say enough is enough and channel their inner-this week and make his time in the White House last no more than four years. Defeat Trump, and work hard to continue to defeat Trumpism.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Star Wars Nostalgia

Star Wars percolates with nostalgia. In fact, the only essential problem with some of the most recent Star Wars films is that they are too nostalgic.

The original definition of nostalgia was as a form of melancholy. Indeed, the word itself is comprised from the Greek roots of “homecoming” and “pain.” Considering the mythological tropes Star Wars has employed, this is worthy of our understanding.

Fortunately, for Star Wars fans, nostalgic items lean more towards homecoming than pain, and luckily there are a plethora of books, games, toys, and other items for every Star Wars fan out there to think back on good times.

Though some of the following list aren't exactly equivalent to Orson Welles' Rosebud, they are, I think, treasure none the less (and some are quite expensive). As we patiently await the December release of the newest Star Wars flick from Lucasfilm, take a moment to think back on some of these items. Below are some nostalgia items for any Star Wars fan out there:

Kenner's Toy Millenium Falcon (1978)

Fans of Netflix's Stranger Things, a show seeped in 80s nostalgia, saw the character Eleven telepathically playing with one of these toys from Kenner. Kenner produced all of the Star Wars action toys since the first film's release in 1977, selling hundreds of millions of toys, including this one.

The many Generation X Star Wars fans out there most likely saw this 53-centimeter toy as youngsters, and there's likely a high number of them who played with it. The commercial alone is likely to take fans back to their childhood. “Nice landing, Han Solo!” one of the kids shouts. “Come on, Chewbacca,” the other replies. “Stormtroopers are coming!”

Toys like these could be worth loads of money these days.

Princess Leia Action Figure (1984)

Also from Kenner, this action figure features Leia dressed in her Endor forest outfit, complete with a removable helmet, poncho, and blaster. The action figure was re-released along with many others in the late 1990s as the Special Edition films were being released in cinemas.

Star Wars only recently embraced the idea that female characters can be just as tough, if not tougher, than the boys. Case in point being characters in last year's The Force Awakens: Daisy Ridley as the the lead, a lady Stormtrooper commander, and Carrie Fisher's Leia changing from a princess to a general were all featured. The lead in Rogue One is played by Felicity Jones. While Princess Leia was always a tough rebel, I thought she was more badass as a general. Leia in the original films ranged from a damsel in distress to a slave in a medal bikini, so she isn't exactly (at least through modern lens) a feminist icon. But in Return of the Jedi from 1983, she was a character of grit and leadership. This action figure embodies that. 

Vlix Toy (1988)

Are you a fan of getting a whopping $6,000? Are you one of the few people on the planet who have an unopened Vlix toy? Then you're in luck. Vlix was a character who appeared in the animated series Droids. And this toy, considered to be the Holy Grail of Star Wars memorabilia, was produced by a Brazilian company, so there are very few of them around these days.

Full disclosure: I've never seen the animated series Droids or Ewoks, though I have seen (and don't recommend) the two made-for-TV Ewoks specials. I therefore can't really comment much more on who Vlix is or how special this toy is meant to be. And since it likely didn't go far from Brazil, it might be challenging to truly classify this as a piece of “nostalgia.”

That being said, for die-hard fans of the series (and especially the rich ones who have a bit of Indiana Jones in their DNA), tracking down this item might well be worth the time and dime.

Heir to the Empire Novel (1991)

There have been dozens of Star Wars novels since the novelization of the original film all the way back in 1977, but none are as terrific as Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, the first of his trilogy.

Taking place only a few years after the original trilogy concluded, this series reunites our characters in a fight against the diminishing Galactic Empire, taken control by the malevolent and blue-skinned Grand Admiral Thrawn, who teams up with a Dark Jedi named Joruus Cbaoth to try and resurrect the Empire.

The novel became a best seller, and can be recommended for fans of most ages. 

As a side note, the 1978 novel Splinter in the Mind's Eye was written by Alan Dean Foster and commissioned by Lucas to serve partly as a framework for a small-budget sequel if the first film wasn't a hit. The Los Angeles Times has called this book the most influential of the Expanded Universe. 

Shadows of the Empire Soundtrack (1996)

In 1996, Lucasfilm, in anticipation for the release of the Special Edition the following year and then the start of George Lucas' prequel trilogy, released a multimedia project titled Shadows of the Empire, a tale of Luke Skywalker et al tracking down the carbonite casing of Han Solo in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

The project involved a novel by Steve Perry, comics by John Wagner, a Nintendo 64 and computer game, and a group of new toys. But the element of the project that was the most impressive was the score written by Joel McNeely to be used for the audio book and games.

An epic and old-fashioned juxtaposition of intense choral arrangements and even a waltz (a first and only for the franchise), McNeely did a phenomenal job of channeling Star Wars composer John Williams without copying him. This music might be the best piece of Star Wars that most fans have never heard of.

Knights of the Old Republic Game (2003)

Released by LucasArts, the now defunct media publisher of Lucasfilm, Knights of the Old Republic, the role-playing video game for Xbox, is still regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time. As a matter of fact, it ranked in the top 100 according to Time a few years ago.

Taking place several thousand years before the formation of the Galactic Empire, characters can even make decisions that will align them with the Dark Side or the Light Side of the Force. The game was followed by several sequels and won a host of awards.

Fortunately for us all, there are more Star Wars films in the making, and who knows how many more games, books, toys, etc. What will the nostalgia items of the future be? The Chewbacca mask made famous by a laughing mom in her car? The Death Star Christmas tree light? Little BB-8s?

Time will surely tell, but the Force is surely strong with many of them.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Drag Me to Hell

A child being chased by a demon is a rather morbid way to start a rather morbid movie. Keep in mind this movie is also a comedy. It's not one that will likely make you laugh out loud, but it's blend of horror and humor will remind you that before he was with Spider-Man, director Sam Raimi made the Evil Dead trilogy. Is his 2009 movie Drag Me to Hell funny? Kinda sorta. Scary? Often. Enjoyable? Most of the time.

Horror might be the only genre I can think of where filmmakers have understood that women in the lead role creates as good results as those led by men, if not better. (In case none are coming to mind, think The Exorcist, Alien, Rosemary's Baby, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Babadook, etc.) Alison Lohman is the lead here, and she's incredible. It's a unique challenge for her, because on the one hand we are meant to applaud her and root for her, and on the other we are supposed to think that as the banker who denied an older woman an extension on her loan, she is somewhat at fault for her tribulations. Lohman plays Christine, a young woman with a good job at a bank and in a serious relationship with a young professor (Justin Long). Christine is so determined to get the promotion as assistant manager at the bank that she practices diction on her way to work. Alarmed that she might be pushed aside in favor of her male colleague (Reggie Lee), she's willing to make "tough" decisions to impress her boss. That means refusing to extend mortgage loans for the elderly. Big mistake.

The older woman (Lorna Raver) even begs for the extension, then attacks when it is denied. But soon, she warns, it will be Christine who comes to her begging for help. She places a curse on her. While Christine's boyfriend may be skeptical at first, Christine know almost from the beginning that something is wrong. She seeks out the guidance of a psychic (Dileep Rao) who might be able to make sense to her the paranormal things happen; indeed, he tells her that a curse has been placed. After three days, she is told, a demon will finally come to drag her to hell. She cannot defeat this devil by herself, so she and the psychic seek the help of another psychic (Adrianna Barraza) who has some experience in this domain.

There are three types of frights in this film. The first is the hackneyed, overused device in which something something abruptly jumps out at us. It's not impressive because it's utilized in virtually every other Hollywood horror film, whether you want it to or not. The second is much scarier. Something moves slowly across the screen. The audience sees what the protagonist sees, and then it's there: some ominous, nefarious presence. We know it's there, and we get a sense of what it wants. It doesn't jump out just yet, it's simply there. This comes right after the first type, and so our adrenaline is already rushing. The third kind is the simple ambiance of the film, the sense of fear of demons and that sort of thing. I went to a Catholic school in the first grade where my teacher told me that the devil drags you down to hell by your hair if you are bad, so you could say this film kind of spoke to me.

Beyond that, there is a surplus of gross horror here. Lohnman is subjected to all sorts of gross things that I hope she was compensated handsomely for. If bugs, phlegm, and vomit are not really your thing, consider skipping this film. I've heard that actors in horror films often find the filming fun, that it's in post-production where things get scary. I still can't imagine how Lohman would be able to sleep without the lights on after having vomit leak out onto her on a set during the filming. Despite some tired cliches about Eastern mysticism and all that, this is a mostly enjoyable horror film. It's not as disturbing as the similar-themed Paranormal Activity from the same year, so that could be either a plus or minus, depending on your perspective. Enjoy it, and don't piss off the elderly afterwards.  

Friday, October 27, 2017

Wonder Woman

In the new superhero movie Wonder Woman, we are presented with perhaps the most interesting and thrilling character of the year. A woman who is tough, kind, compassionate. She's a warrior and yet also a passifist. It's just too bad that the movie she is in is subpar.

In Wonder Woman, the story is bland and the performances are a mixed bag. The title character is also known as Diana, an Amazonian princess on an island of only females. World War I reaches their shores, as an American spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes there and seeks their help. While the queen wants nothing to do with mankind's wars, Diana is convinced that this battle can truly end all wars. She disobeys, and runs away with Steve to end the war. The terrible convenience of a just war is that it's only in retrospect, it seems, when it becomes evident whether or not it truly was just. World War I was meant to be the "war to end all wars," and yet it of course led to another world war, as well as (indirectly) the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Diana arguably goes through a similar realization.

The performances might be a mixed bag, but they work best when humor is involved. Pine is as charming here as he is when he's Captain Kirk or when he's singing in Into the Woods. Taghmaoui and Lucy Davis, as Steve's humorous secretary, provide satisfactory comic relief. Even Danny Huston as the villain and Elena Anaya (whom audiences might recognize in a somewhat similar performance in The Skin I Live In) as his poison doctor engage in a bit of morbid humor. Ludendorff poisons a group of exhausted German generals ready to give up the fight, and then he throws them a mask. "That mask won't help them!" Dr. Poison yells. He responds: "But they don't know that!" Then they let our a mischievous laugh. Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright, as Diana's mother and aunt respectively, deliver dismal (humorless) performances, with Wright's being possibly the worst of her career. (Both struggle to deliver those egregious lines in whatever accent they're aiming for.)

But the title role is played by Gal Gadot, and her performance is the only truly wonderful thing about this movie. She portrays Diana as perfectly complex. Feminists who have been praising the film might be a bit concerned about how Diana appears frequently wearing next to nothing in the same fetishistic outfit and whip (not to mention all the bondage imagery) that she had in the comics. (A biographical film about Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his mistress, Olive Byrne, both of whom lived with him simultaneously, is due out later this year.)

Still, it is refreshing to have a female character tougher than all the boys, and it's long overdue. In addition to the fact that young girls are being provided with a tremendous character to look up, so too do young bisexual people now have a hero; for too long, young bi people have had only cruel stereotypes of them in media. While Diana's bisexuality is not portrayed here, the character has been officially confirmed as being bisexual, and Gadot herself has said the character "can" be bisexual. (Catwoman has also been confirmed as being bisexual.) It's essential that the sequel confirm this.

Wonder Woman is not as boring as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice or as stupid as Suicide Squad, but it is disappointing in its own right. I'd say it's time for DC Comics to throw the towel in, especially when one views any trailer for the upcoming Justice movie. Some, like Matthew Jacobs at the Huffington Post (typically), are speculating that it might win Best Picture. I sincerely hope it does not.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Charismatic, completely selfless, laid-back, so intelligent. This is how many describe a young man named Andrew Bagby. With surgical precision in its massive use of editing, we're introduced to Andrew through these interviews and archival footage, like movies he made with his friends when he was a kid. Andrew loved appearing in the films of his buddy Kurt Kuenne, the director of Dear Zachary, when they were young. They even got Andrew's parents to act in them. As Andrew was saving for medical school, he still donated $2,000 to help fund Kurt's first movie. One can understand how monumental of a person he was.

It becomes fairly evident that Bagby was killed. "Why did Andrew get killed?" a young boy asks. Surely, we will find out.

This movie is part biography, part crime story. The life, times, and murder of Andrew Bagby. Some archival clips of Andrew and interviews with colleagues and friends at time seem superfluous. There are anecdotes of him biting his nails and always wearing shorts. As a narrator, Kuenne consciously or not gets this, because he literally stops showing the interviews. "You gotta know what happened," he says. "The whole truth." Someone hurt him, the young boy is told. A very bad person.

Her name: Shirley Turner, a former classmate of Andrew's in medical school in Canada. Something wasn't right with Shirley, many observed. She had finished her residency but was not practicing. She had three different children who had three different fathers. And she made inappropriate remarks about her intimacy with Andrew to his ex-fiance. When he moved back to the U.S. to become a family medicine practitioner, she followed. She acted, as one interviewee explained, possessive. After his murder, she became the primary suspect in the murder. In the footage we see, Shirley does not necessarily come across as callous, but something is certainly off.

If how an audience is to emotionally react is often based on the guidance of people (and, equally, to music), then those roles are primarily given to Andrew's parents, the two who appear on screen the most. They cry, they swear. They provide examples of incident after incident of negligence in lawyers and judges in the criminal system in Newfoundland. A significant portion is devoted to how "the system" failed. The law is slow (part of the slow pace is due to a disagreement on the English and French translation of the law), and they are helpless. Allegedly, one of the judges gave Shirley advice on how to write her own appeal; another judge allowed her back onto the streets after giving her praise for being a person who is "quite capable" because she is a doctor, but only after Shirley promises to behave herself (white privilege anyone?). The official reason the judge gives is that Shirley was accused of killing one person, and that did not represent the public at large.

By now the audience has been told that Shirley gave birth to a young boy named Zachary, who was given back to Shirley after she was released. And many times, the Bagleys had to spend a considerable amount of time with Shirley in order to spend time with Zachary. Going to the movies, swimming lessons, and they never brought up the trial. To be in the same room with the person you're convinced is the killer of your son while you're trying to play with your grandchild, the son of that accused murder, would require nerves of Herculean level. At any rate, much of their testimony of those experiences will likely send chills down your spine.

Kurt's documentary about his friend and what happened to him took on new meaning several times. Now it was not simply going to be a memorial film for a young son about his father, but a documentary about a horrifying crime, similar to HBO's The Jinx or Netlifx's Making a Murderer. If you've seen either of those miniseries, you know that the content can be rather disturbing at times. That certainly is the case with Dear Zachary, released about eight years before both of those series. When this movie reaches the pinnacle of disturbance, it features the type of sound effects and editing used primarily in horror films, with a clear reason.

I found the film basically as entertaining as the other two I mentioned and perhaps a little more. They are certainly of the same type of documentary. This one, however, is much more disturbing.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Yellow Submarine (And a Special Top-100 List)

1. a kiddie song by the Beatles. Ever heard of them?

2. a cool animated cult classic movie based on the hit Beatles song. It's a funky mind-expanding trip. Show this at your party for a wild psychedelic ride.

3. a marijuana joint. A reefer.

Every color imaginable is present in this animated film, one truly unlike any other. This is Yellow Submarine, the 1968 movie based on the Beatles' 1966 song featured on their album Revolver, and it's how many children are introduced to the Fab Four. Aside from how much joy children take from watching animation, maybe this was the compromise made back in the day by strict parents, many of whom had strong opinions about these four blasphemous musicians all those years ago. "Let the kids listen to 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road,' or let them watch a cartoon?" The Beatles' drug use during this period has been well documented, to say the least, and while as far as I can tell this isn't really a "drug movie," per se, one cannot help but notice how trippy it is. And if a "yellow submarine" is indeed slang for a marijuana joint, then that's good enough for me. Drugs or not, it's all good fun.

The introductory scene of the movie is a happy one, in a land beneath the sea where it lay ("or lie, I'm not too sure," the narrator tells us). Here, in Pepperland, men, women, and children dance to wonderful orchestral music by Beatles producer George Martin. But not every creature in this universe likes music. There are blue fiends (called Meanies) who so hate music that they attack the inhabitants of Pepperland by destroying all music and dropping apples on everyone's heads, rendering them stuck in stone. Most horrifying of all, probably, is the giant flying glove that the vicious Chief Blue Meanie (voiced by Paul Angelis, who also voices Ringo and George) takes particular delight in seeing destroy the village. This glove, with its blue hue, menacing eyes, and thirst for carnage, rivals the horror of the giant whale in Pinocchio.

However, there is one inhabitant who manages to avoid the green apples and run away from the giant glove. This is Old Fred (voiced by Lance Percival, who also voiced Paul and Ringo in the cartoon show The Beatles), and Chief Blue Meanie's fury at his escape is only matched by his maniacal laugh at the thought of destroying him. Old Fred hops in a yellow submarine and escapes. From here, the story gets a bit muddled. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band has been criticized for supposedly being the first concept album and yet not really following any concept. Yellow Submarine, as a film, sometimes suffers from the same problem. There's a ten-minute burst of energy and then the yellow submarine escapes to London (I think), and the next song is "Eleanor Rigby," the one about all the lonely people. Why? No reason.

Here in London (I think), Old Fred escapes and finds Ringo, who sulks that "nothing ever happens" to him. A yellow submarine bumping into him surely is something, though. Here, the movie embraces its meta moments. "Won't you please, please help me?" Old Fred begs. "Be specific," Ringo replies, almost sardonically. We meet the other three, none of whom, disappointingly, are voiced by the Beatles. This is probably the biggest fault I found with the film, but when you're the world's biggest rock and pop group (and you're relatively close to breaking up), there's only so much time.

A word on George and Ringo. The two, who probably remained the closest of the four after the not-so-amicable split, were being interviewed in the late 80s around the time of George's exceptional album Cloud Nine, which features Ringo, was released. The interviewer asked the two if there were groups or types of people that were attracted to each of the four. According to Ringo, he got the mothers and the children; Paul got the tweenies; John got the academic, intellectual types; and George got the mystics. Conan O'Brien once asked Ringo why children love him so much. His answer was succinct and immediate: "I'm lovable." As for the mystics, that rings true in this film, as George's first appearance is a mysterious one and of course features the sitar. (For the record, there's nothing "intellectual" about John's appearance here, though like the animated Beatles TV series but not in real life, he's sort of the de facto leader, and there's nothing in Yellow Submarine that really would suggest tweenies being glued to Paul.)

The interior of the submarine is remarkably elaborate and just as unrealistic and fantastical as anything in Pepperland. Gadgets and gizmos abound. One way or another, though, they're on their way, as we get to see gorgeous fish and hear the four sing "All Together Now." There are a number of their greatest hits included in the film, chiefly "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "Nowhere Man," "All You Need Is Love," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and "When I'm 64," which are mixed with songs heard for the first time like "Hey Bulldog," "It's All Too Much," and "All Together Now," all of which are a joy to hear. "Only a Northern Song," a Harrison creation, features the most innovative animation, though the song itself is one of the more forgettable. Amidst all this, the characters in their submarine see another ship just like theirs, right before they suddenly turn old, white hair spreading furiously without warning. Just when things can't get any trippier, a furry, fluffy, Jar Jar Binks-esque character shows up named Jeremy Hillary Boob, a rhyming physicist, biologist, and dentist, among other things. "A boob for all seasons," George says.

Suffice it to say, this is probably the closest I will ever know what it's like dropping acid.

This movie may not have as long-lasting a legacy as the Beatles' music itself, but that's mainly a comment on how high the bar is in relation to their music. Yellow Submarine is largely credited with helping to make animation be perceived as a serious art form. Beyond that, there are obvious influences as far as Terry Gilliam's work with Monty Python and the French animated film Fantastic Planet. And there's little doubt that most children, even these days, would be mesmerized by the animation, especially during sequences like "Nowhere Man" or the dizzy Sea of Holes, a scene unlike anything ever produced in pictures. Some adults, though, might be overwhelmed or possibly disinterested (or might suffer from a headache). Still, what a wonderful way to introduce young children to the Beatles, especially the last few moments of the movie.

In honor of the upcoming Ringo Starr album, here is a list of the Beatles' best songs in their post-Beatles careers. (For my list of the greatest Beatles songs, click here.)

100. King of Broken Hearts (Ringo)
99. Marwa Blues (George)
98. Junior's Farm (Paul)
97. Cleanup Time (John)
96. The No No Song (Ringo)
95. We're On the Road Again (Ringo)
94. Weight of the World (Ringo)
93. Oh My My (Ringo)
92. Whatever Gets You Thru the Night (John)
91. Apple Scruffs (George)
90. Hi, Hi, Hi (Paul)
89. Helen Wheels (Paul)
88. Deliver Your Children (Paul)
87. Shanghai Surprise (George)
86. Sue Me, Sue You Blues (George)
85. Beaucoups of Blue (Ringo)
84. (It's All Da Da Down To) Goodnight Vienna (Ringo)
83. Dream Away (George)
82. Woman (John)
81. The Back Seat of My Car (Paul)
80. Sunshine Life for Me (Ringo)
79. Wanderlust (Paul)
78. Easy For Me (Ringo)
77. I'd Have You Anytime (George)
76. That's What It Takes (George)
75. Mrs. Vanderbilt (Paul)
74. When We Was Fab (George)
73. No More Lonely Nights (Paul)
72. Got My Mind Set On Your (George)
71. Working Class Hero (John)
70. Bangladesh (George)
69. Coming Up (Paul)
68. Listen To What the Man Said (Paul)
67. Jet (Paul)
66. That's the Way It Goes (George)
65. You (George)
64. End of the Line (George)
63. Every Night (Paul)
62. Who Can See It (George)
61. Try Some Buy Some (George)
60. Beautiful Night (Paul)
59. Stand by Me (John)
58. Back Off Boogaloo (Ringo)
57. Let Em In (Paul)
56. Living in the Material World (George)
55. Early 1970 (Ringo)
54. Oh Woman Oh Why (Paul)
53. Hold On (John)
52. Smile Away (Paul)
51. With a Little Luck (Paul)
50. Cloud Nine (George)
49. Beware of Darkness (George)
48. All Those Years Ago (George)
47. Eat at Home (Paul)
46. How? (John)
45. Let Me Roll It (Paul)
44. Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five (Paul)
43. Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll) (George)
42. Monkberry Moon Delight (Paul)
41. The Devil's Radio (George)
40. Ding Dong Ding Dong (George)
39. Mull of Kintyre (Paul)
38. Instant Karma (John)
37. Crippled Inside (John)
36. Walk With You (Ringo)
35. My Valentine (Paul)
34. Oh My Love (John)
33. Love (John)
32. Only You (And You Alone) (Ringo)
31. Live and Let Die (Paul)
30. All Things Must Pass (George)
29. If Not For You (George)
28. Behind That Locked Door (George)
27. I'm the Greatest (Ringo)
26. Handle With Care (George)
25. I Dig Love (George)
24. (Just Like) Starting Over (John)
23. Mother (John)
22. Too Many People (Paul)
21. #9 Dream (John)
20. Cheer Down (George)
19. Awaiting On You All (George)
18. You're Sixteen (Ringo)
17. Give Me Love (Give Me Peace) (George)
16. Watching the Wheels Go Round (John)
15. Jealous Guy (John)
14. Mind Games (John)
13. Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (Paul)
12. Beautiful Boy (John)
11. Band On the Run (Paul)
10. Maybe I'm Amazed (Paul)
9. Isn't It a Pity (George)
8. It Don't Come Easy (Ringo)
7. Give Peace a Chance (John)
6. Wah-Wah (George)
5. Photograph (Ringo)
4. What Is Life (George)
3. Happy X-Mas (War Is Over) (John)
2. My Sweet Lord (George)
1. Imagine (John)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien: Covenant

"The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant that I made with their forefathers. Therefore, this is what Jehovah says, 'Here I am bringing on them a calamity that they will not be able to escape. When they call for help, I will not listen to them."

Alien: Covenant, the sixth (or eighth if you include the Alien vs. Predator movies) in this multi-decade science fiction/horror franchise, is a step in the right direction but one that sparks a debate as to whether or not director Ridley Scott and his team should continue making these movies. Scott, whose second film was Alien, a legendary science fiction film, returns here again as director. He left the series after directing the first one in 1979, allowing James Cameron to take over with Aliens in 1986. Others followed, far less successfully than Scott and Cameron. The series was rebooted, sort of, in 2012 with Prometheus with Scott returning as director. Scott and his writers put a cast of characters in the same universe as the malicious xenomorph aliens, but those creatures basically did not appear. Instead, we got a series of enigmas and interesting theories on the genesis of humans. Alien: Covenant is part Alien, part Prometheus, and while we get the familiar structure of scientists being picked off one by one, we also get, for better or worse, a further exploration of those large themes.

If you didn't watch the short prologue, you should. It will be a basic reminder of what happened in the previous film. In case you missed it, a quick reminder: The survivors of the Prometheus in 2093 (Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace, and the android David, played by Michael Fassbender) decide to go find the "engineers", the mysterious alien species that may have created humans (and incidentally tried to kill them).

More than ten years later, a crew of colonists aboard a ship called the Covenant is on a journey towards a new home planet years far away from Earth. The ship is anchored by a newer android type named Walter (also played by Fassbender). Walter has a number of improvements from David, the most obvious being that he thinks less for himself. This is beneficial for a variety of reasons explained in the film. But the crew are awakened by a deadly neutrino burst. Picking up the pieces, they discover a sort of distress signal not far off their path. Their captain (Billy Crudup) decides to lead the crew there (for some reason). The planet they find is so Earth-like that they apparently don't need helmets (more astronaut stupidity), and they explore an eerily quiet land. Ghoulish Pompeii-like casts of some kind of being are everywhere, as is danger, and it's all downhill from there.

Many seem annoyed that Scott has chosen the Alien franchise to explore these large concepts. I don't mind. Half-way through, not long after they land and things start going badly, the film switches fairly suddenly from an Alien movie to a Prometheus sequel, and while this probably will irritate most viewers (particularly those who didn't like Prometheus), from there the two are neatly tied together. The themes are there, for sure, and some of them quite obvious: "Covenant" is a religious term regarding the Biblical ark; here, just as the animals before them, the ship carries couples two by two to a new world. Some themes are a little less obvious. For instance, Walter points out that David has made a mistake in his quoting Ozymandias, and that the real author was Percy Shelly, who many believe co-authored Frankenstein with Mary Shelly. And the subtitle of Frankenstein is (wait for it)...The Modern Prometheus. Watch the film, see what kind of power David has and uses and wants to use, consider both Frankenstein and Ozymandias and the themes involved, and have more fun with the allegories.

But if you do want chest (and back) bursting, scenes of gore galore, and fright, Alien: Covenant delivers. It does not possess that prudence and tension employed in the first one, which was a much more contained and limited movie that ended up paying off beautifully. But still, this is a better looking movie than Prometheus, and one that is far less frustrating. The characters, though, are some of the least interesting in the series. The lead, Katherine Waterston, is not given much to do, and the other female actors (namely Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, and Callie Hernandez) scream a lot and heighten the film's tension, but that's about it. Billy Crudup does provide a somewhat intriguing character as the ship's new captain, who is not truly suited for his unexpected assignment. His leadership skills are questionable, and he's learning on the job. Damian Bichir does a mostly good job as another crew member, but the one who is really remarkable is Danny McBride, who has made a successful career as a funnyman. Here he's all serious and is perhaps the most impressive addition.

And yet the most enjoyable to watch, yet again, is Michael Fassbender, a true treasure of cinema. Whereas Sigourney Weaver was the star of the first four films, here Fassbender is the driver of this part of the franchise. He gets the dual task of playing Walter and David, and of course they come face to face, brother to brother. The flute scene, which starts with David teaching Walter how to play a wooden flute, is remarkably tense and entertaining, dripping with homoerotic hints at incest. (David has one line in particular that is truly eyebrow-raising.) David sees himself as the king of kings, and while I think this franchise (along with many that are overstaying their welcome) is growing a bit dull, I also look forward to seeing if humans deteriorate because of his nefariousness.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Nobody Did It Better

Roger Moore, who passed away five days ago, did it better than just about everyone else. In terms of James Bond, his most famous role, he was the only one of the six who understood the farcical, fictitious, facetious nature of the character. Spies, frankly, don't look like James Bond, they don't dress like James Bond, and they don't drive extravagant cars like Bond does. I certainly doubt they introduce themselves like he does, regardless of which order they put their name in.

Thus, Moore's Bond was more humorous than Sean Connery's, certainly more than Timothy Dalton's or Daniel Craig's. It would be hard to image practically any of the others floating around in space like he did in Moonraker in the era of late 1970s sci-fi, or dressed like a clown in Octopussy. But this is what helped set him apart, and this is why to many he was the best. After six seasons of the successful series The Saint, Moore would go on to eventually tie Connery with the most appearances as Bond (a total of seven). They ranged from pretty darn good (The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only) to mediocre or slightly substandard (Moonraker, Octopussy, A View to a Kill), to the bad (Live and Let Die) and awful (The Man With the Golden Gun). They all, for the most part, have a humorous bent, particularly when Moore finally appeared to stop doing a version of Connery's Bond and just come up with a new persona. His was far gentler; his Bond may have been as horny as the others were, but at least he didn't rape a woman (like Connery's Bond did in Goldfinger). (Yet for whatever reason, 53 percent of women rated Connery the best.)

Was he my favorite? I try to avoid "ranking" the Bonds. They all brought their own unique talents to the role, a role and franchise that unfortunately are growing tiresome. Roger Moore's, though, was probably the first or second that I remember seeing and recognizing as James Bond, and that is one reason why I liked him so much. Despite my inclination to avoid ranking them, as the iconic song from The Spy Who Loved Me goes, perhaps nobody did it better.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Death on the Nile

"The Nile, forever new and old,
Among the living and the dead,
Its mighty, mystic stream has rolled."
-Henry Wadsworth Longfe

Death on the Nile features an opening in the English countryside as if this were Downton Abbey (the film even features Maggie Smith), but soon we are introduced to a treasure trove of spoiled opulent British people all aboard a cruise in Egypt, where the rest of this murder-mystery tale will take place.

Film reviews are supposed to limit the use of personal anecdotes, yet I must write that this is one of the earliest films I have a memory of watching, and this reminiscence is what drew me to seek out the movie and watch it as an adult. I first viewed it when I was a young child with my grandmother. (She probably liked it more than I did then or do now.) I can only remember two scenes, and they both feature Angela Lansburgy, who appears here as a novelist with a ripe fondness for full-bodied vocabulary. She gets most of the notes right initially but soon goes over the top, hyperbolically flailing about and complaining that her drink has "lost its croc." It might be oddly ironic that the worst performance of the woman who would go on to be Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote is in this murder-mystery film.

Aside from her, though, Bette Davis and Smith are especially enjoyable to watch. Davis joyfully orders around Smith, who despises what she has to put up with. Mia Farrow's portrayal of a sinister and nefarious woman out for revenge is almost as good as her performance in Rosemary's Baby. Jack Warden sort of has a German accent as a quack who brags about using Armadillo urine as a remedy. Many actors have played Agatha Christie's famous detective, and this time it's Peter Ustinov. "Luck," he says, "I leave to the others." His portrayal is a good one, more subtle than the performance of the same character by Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express.

Everybody, as expected, has a motive for the murder that takes place on the cruise down the Nile, and yet they all, expectedly, deny it. "Everyone around here was her enemy," we are told. Poirot deals out a plethora of hypotheticals in the whodunit scenes, which only happen an hour into the film. From there, there's a variety of scenes featuring Poirot and his new partner, Colonel Race (David Niven), as they put together the pieces of the puzzle, and it's mostly good fun. But when he finally reveals what had happened ("We have pwoved it! Pwoved it" he shouts), it feels like a disappointment.

As a matter of fact, unfortunately the whole movie feels dull compared to Murder on the Orient Express, another Agotha Critie novel adaptation released only several years before, and especially so compared to Clue, an Christie-esque whodunit that is more elementary but certainly more fun. Other than a rather tense scene involving a cobra, this movie has no croc.