Monday, November 12, 2018

Doctor's Lament


One of the oldest, most cliche plot devices, used time and again when the writers are creatively bankrupt, is to throw a pregnant woman into an already-dangerous scenario, making sure that she has a difficult childbirth under difficult conditions, preferably with a lot of screaming and heavy breathing. This ramps up the danger of the overall situation for Our Heroes, helps to prove that they are Good Guys, and in the end, when the danger has passed, it allows the writers to do that deeply hackneyed “New Life in the Face of Death” thing.

This is a plot device so ancient that it looks and moves a lot like Lon Chaney Jr. in full Mummy make-up. It has been done so often that you could throw Rocky Horror-style screenings of it and watch the audience recite the dialogue themselves while throwing toilet paper at the screen. It has been done so often that today, the only legitimate way to use the device is to parody it. 

And in order for it to work, even as parody, on Doctor Who, the writer has to bring a lot more inventiveness to this old chestnut than just switching ‘round the sexes. The scene, after all, is ripe for parody, especially on a fantasy show where all the rules about childbirth as we know them are neatly severed.

Chris Chibnall didn’t see it that way. His one “joke” (for it was played as such) was to establish that this time, the pregnant woman would be an otherwise-ordinary looking guy. Even with obvious complications from the sex reversal, the scene played out doggedly and reverently just as it has played out on on every other garbage TV show hundreds of times before, with every cliche intact.

It pains to use the word “garbage” in this context, but that is what Chris Chibnall is doing to Doctor Who. Despite all the evidence trickling in that this would be a dreadful season (especially including the “cliffhanger” from last year’s Christmas Special, which saw Chibnall exploding the TARDIS for the umpteenth time, and ejecting The Doctor into freefall for at least the third time — yawn), I had high hopes for this series. I was one of those who welcomed Jodie Whittaker with open arms, because I knew that she was capable of giving us a memorable incarnation of The Doctor if the writing was up to scratch.

And there it is. In order for the show to continue, the writing had to be at at least as good and as inventive as the best of what we were used to under showrunner Steven Moffat. But instead of giving us inventive, interesting, engaging scripts, Chibnall has been focusing his efforts on making a clean sweep of the TARDIS, and making sure that it looks a lot more like contemporary London than it ever has. Okay, that’s fine. But where are the stories?

The plots in these early efforts have been thin as canned chicken broth. So episode 2 was a parody of The Amazing Race: Russell T. Davies parodied modern TV in his first series of Doctor Who, and did it better. Episode 3 plunked us down in the middle of the Rosa Parks story — but did so in a trivial, patronizing and sadly over-simplified manner that approached a serious issue with all the depth of a sappy greetings-card. It is FINE to hold opinions and address modern issues, but for gods sake do it in a way that doesn't insult the intelligence of the audience.

Meanwhile, the new monsters Chibnall promised us have been sad rejects from The Terminator and The Muppet Show, while the new “family” of supporting cast onboard the TARDIS have utterly failed to make us love, or even like them. Attention has been paid to their skin color and social background, but no attention whatever has been paid to actually making these characters come to life.

No doubt the showrunners of Doctor Who have been under pressure to make the program Less White. But when Stephen Moffat introduced a black lesbian sidekick for his old white Doctor, he made sure that her character resonated all up and down the whole series and had a deep impact on how it developed and played out. We loved Bill Potts not only because of the qualities Pearl Mackie brought to her, but because Steven Moffatt put real thought into who she was and how her presence would impact the stories.

In no way has Chris Chibnall put that kind of effort into his iteration of the show. He has populated his ugly redesigned TARDIS with supporting characters that are straight off of the shelf, with bland, generic motivations and nothing to distinguish them as individuals. Turn them sideways and they disappear.

Earlier in the year, Chibnall was all over San Diego proclaiming that this would be a great “jumping-on” point for non-fans of the series. Perhaps he was right: no one can accuse him of catering to the show’s existing audience. But he neglected to remember what one of my friends told me; that a perfect jumping-on point is also a perfect jumping-off point. I paid for this series up-front, so I will faithfully watch all the remaining episodes and hope against hope that they will get better, but at this point in the run my heart is sinking into despair. 

—Thorn

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Small Part of my Movie Summer


After two lousy nights in a row, it's probably fair to say that I wouldn't have been able to stay awake for ANYthing... but the sad fact is that Abbott & Costello In The Foreign Legion never stood a chance. After snoring through two of them, I've come to the realization that these later A & C's leave me cold. Lou's cutesy mugging gets tired awfully quickly, and Bud is too aggressive and mean to be of any use as a straight man. In this case, they're working with an idea that was Old Hat even when they made it (Laurel and Hardy did it earlier and better). I can tell you that there's an awful lot of shouting and an awful lot of running around; none of it kept me awake. I fear that I'll never make it through this set, which I bought only for the monster comedies, especially the great A & C Meet Frankenstein.

Lou was just 53 when he died from chronic heart-related issues. According to the DVD notes, he'd been ill for the better part of a year before this picture was made -- and yet the studio persisted in putting him into Big Physical Comedy gags of almost comic-book violence, most of which was obviously performed by a double. This is NOT an effective way to make use of a comedian with his talents, IMHO. Laurel and Hardy were always inventing, but A & C did the same exact stuff in movie after movie after movie, probably not by choice.


After watching The Shape of Water — which at first blush is nothinig more than a remake of Universal’s The Creature Walks Among Us — I could not understand the warm reception it’s received from critics and audiences alike. It seemed to me to echo all the qualities I found in Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth: that is, a marvelous flair for visual fantasy wrapped up in an outer casing of Pure Nastiness, mean-spiritedness and a hard-core love of nasty, sadistic violence. Recently, I had a mental breakthrough about the thing, and now suddenly I "get" it: Water is completely 100 percent a Chick Flick. Note: I do not think this speaks particularly well on The State of Chicks in 2018. Not the least because Fish Man is almost a complete non-entity: he never says a word — which after all, makes him the Perfect Man, right?


Among the other pictures that I have managed to get through this past summer: The Lost City Of Z is... perfectly all right. At least, I didn't fall asleep on it. But it would be better with a more engaging actor in the main role. A great story, though, and beautifully shot.


Technically and visually astonishing, War For The Planet Of The Apes is just An Ape Too Far. I sat through all 140 minutes of the god-damn thing, and I still don't know what the point is. Its soft-headed "good guys vs. bad guys" story and its rampant emotional signaling is anti-ethical to the biting social parody of the original movie series. It turns Planet Of The Apes into a simpering iteration of Finding Nemo. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson enters another in his long line of Sadistic Thug parts. He has the talent to do better, but apparently not the ambition or the brain power. This is what modern cinema has become: the triumph of style over substance, the legacy of Steven Spielberg shameless pandering. Two thumbs down and one big raspberry blown at the screen.


Von Ryan's Express very much wants to be Bridge Over The River Kwai only with Germans in occupied Italy. OK, I'd buy that. Except for one thing: Frank Sinatra is in it. And of course Frankie has to be **THE STAR**, And his method of being the star is to cop an attitude and just be a Completely Arrogant Asshole: which I gather was simply Frankie Playing Himself. Or playing with himself: either applies.


Annie Hall, Rocky and Star Wars all came out within shouting distance of each other, and all became favorites of mine. I never watched a single one of the Rocky sequels, because I could see that they had moved into the territory of pandering to a certain perceived audience. But all these years later, Rocky Balboa works for me in all the ways that The Last Jedi did not. You get the sense of things turning out the way they would in Real Life. You get a character aging with dignity and with his spirit intact. You get the truth that life is not over and the challenges do not end when you pass a certain age: very much unlike what they did to Luke, Han and Leia in that latest godawful Star Wars piece of crap. I had much the same feeling watching Manhattan Murder Mystery recently... it was a delight to see Woody working with Diane Keaton again, and both showing that they still had it well into middle age. So I now think that only middle-aged people should be allowed to make movies about middle aged people, because you can't possibly know what Middle Age is truly about… until you're here.

— Thorn.
www.tarotbyducksoup.com
www.ducksoup.me

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

This Is Then, That Was Now




If the mechanics of Time Travel are ever really discovered, I will lay you odds that they will somehow be connected to music.

This morning an old song that I had not thought of in years came back to me. Carly Simon’s “Forever My Love,” from her album Hotcakes, is a beautiful thing that I used to listen to endlessly back in the days when it was new. I don’t even need to play Carly’s song to hear it complete in my head. That’s how many times I listened to it.

It was so between us
Ain’t no other way
Time has seen us
Faded and gray
What shall I say
That isn’t in the way I act?
That will carry through the years intact?

I hadn’t thought of the song in perhaps more than a decade; but having it materialize again this morning divided my thoughts between worlds that are separated by forty years and uncountable losses. I tried to write a blog post but found it impossible — there were too many tracks to follow, each meandering off into separate directions, with the only real point of connection occurring right at the point where they split, at the point of my memory of Carly’s song.

Perhaps we have access to time travel even now — but time and experience and memory are all so complicated that we get lost. Because when everything is connected, even when you travel in memory there is no way of knowing where you will end up. 

— Thorn.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

REVIEW: AVENGERS INFINITY WAR & OTHERS


With Doctor Strange I began to feel that the Marvel Movie Universe had “jumped the shark” in a way that echoed what happened to their comics line more than thirty years ago; and now Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 proves me right. It has considerably less entertainment value than a second-rate MARVEL TEAM-UP ANNUAL from the early ‘80s, cost about ten billion dollars more to produce, and takes three or four times as long to consume.

The thing that made Thanos such an interesting villain in the comics was that he was In Love: with the female Personification of Death. Literally, he was a moon-eyed Romantic who was killing off large swaths of the universe as an Offering to his Beloved Lady Death. That whole element has been washed clean in this movie, replaced by the thoroughly insipid "daughters with Daddy Issues" trope — this might resonate with teenage girls, but it’s nowhere near as compelling for anyone over the age of sixteen, and does a disservice both to the character, and to the character's creator, Jim Starlin. As my friend Bruce Canwell (editor extraordinaire at The Library of American Comics) pointed out to me, it changes Thanos from a Champion of Death to a Champion of Life, albeit a Life Champion with a twisted way of going about things.

People who never read comics back in the day mocked the medium as being silly and childish, but the fact is that this Marvel Movie Dumbs Down the comics source material in ways that I can neither accept nor forgive. I parted company with Marvel Comics way back in the early eighties because they broke faith with their audience and stopped being Relevant. Now in 2018 I part with the Movie Universe for the same reason.

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Another Big Recent Disappointment was the Netflix-backed sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It just does simply not have the magic of Ang Lee’s original film, and wastes both Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen, two normally dazzling stars who turn in inexplicably lifeless performances here. I was looking forward to this because the original film is a big favorite of mine, and because the source material is so vast as to warrant a whole pantheon of movie adaptations. The new movie isn't egregiously bad: but where the original flies, this one lands like a dead lump of lead.


Traveling back and back down the spiral of time, we find things that are still well worth the viewing. I was ready either to sneer at or fall asleep on The Absent-Minded Professor, having never seen it before… but damn. It may not be Lawrence of Arabia, but there’s just something so pleasing about a perfectly realized and assured movie that accomplishes with flying colors the simple thing that it sets out to do… and this falls confidently into that category. Professor never fails to entertain from start to finish, and although it probably marked the end of his career as a serious actor, Fred MacMurray is top-notch here; smooth, confident, assured… delivering what’s needed in every single shot, bang on target whether the scene is comic or dramatic. If you grew up watching him on My Three Sons, rather than being exposed to his earlier work, you’d never imagine that he was so very proficient as a movie leading man.

The Absent-Minded Professor is a better movie than anything to come out of the Marvel Movie Universe in at least a couple of years now, by a wide margin. Of course it was made while Walt was still in full control over the studio. It reminds us that Walt was a talented showman above all else, who cared about the value of the product that he put out under his name. The Disney Company, the entity that has now existed independently of Walt for more years now than Walt himself ever controlled it, could learn a lot by studying the life and works of the man whose name they bear gracelessly and without dignity.

—Thorn
www.tarotbyducksoup.com
www.ducksoup.me

Monday, July 30, 2018

Art and Craft


Sometimes it may seem that I dislike contemporary cinema on principle, but nothing could be further from the truth. I dislike contemporary cinema in practice, which is a whole different thing and leaves the door open for well-noted exceptions. One of those exceptions is last year’s Maudie, a faith-and-soul-renewing docudrama about folk artist Maud Lewis, who found her way in life while facing challenges that would have defeated most others. No superheroes here, no dragons, no action scenes. Just life and art in 1930’s Canada, photographed beautifully and played with dedication and talent by a cast headed by British actress Sally Hawkins. Ms. Hawkins has qualities of greatness and should be watched. I loved Maudie, the movie and the character, without reserve, and recommend it highly.
D.W. Griffith's masterpiece Intolerance, even when viewed in a smashing HD restoration, is a tough slog today — but then I suspect that it always was. It is three long hours of structural pretentiousness and emotional manipulation (you didn’t think Steven Spielberg invented manipulation, did you?) punctuated by scenes of Babylonian war that are so very spectacular as to remain unsurpassed even today, even by the likes of Peter Jackson. What Griffith invented of film storytelling is not merely impressive, but of paramount importance to film history. Griffith, and especially Intolerance, can not be ignored. But the word for the movie is “ponderous.” Griffith’s theme is much too simplistic to hang an epic upon; he establishes this theme early on and then hammers on it relentlessly for the film’s entire ungodly runtime. No wonder Buster Keaton poked such fun at it with his own The Three Ages. However, there is much in the small details to hold one’s interest (as an example, long-time Laurel and Hardy opponent Walter Long turns up in a prominent role) and enough death, death and more death — some of it pretty gol-danged grisly — to keep even modern audiences awake and alarmed. Undeniably, Intolerance is an important classic; but would anyone, even its most ardent fans, embrace it as one of their favorites? That’s hard to imagine.
I suspect that the reason White Folks have been falling all over themselves to praise Black Panther to the skies has more to do with White Guilt than it has to do with the virtues of the movie. Because, as a movie, it is perfectly OK — it is perfectly serviceable as a superhero fantasy for the bulk of its runtime. It is not, however, the best movie of its kind and not even close. In fact its final third is pretty god damn tedious stuff, and nowhere near as good or as entertaining as the material that precedes it. So the hero has to fight an evil version of himself. *YAWN* Ye gods, but that shit is getting old! They took the name of an interesting and intensely individual villain created by Don MacGregor and stuck it on bland, Tired Old Plot Device that has LONG outlived its welcome. Overall, this chalks up the picture as a disappointment in my book. A smashing first two-thirds does not a classic make. 
— Thorn.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Rump Must Go

I thought Reagan was bad. But at least Reagan was literate and more than literate, he was eloquent with an actor's speaking style. Then Bush the first came along, and he was worse than Reagan, embodying all the Crap Politics without the eloquence. I never imagined things could get worse, until Bush the second came along. Here was all the crap politics, minus the eloquence, COMBINED with the intelligence of a five year old. Somewhere in the middle there was Bill Clinton, and frankly Clinton did not do the Liberal cause any god damn good -- selling middle America down river for the price of a blow job. The only President I have respected since Jimmy Carter was Barack Obama: and look at how history has shit upon him. We now have a Troll Occupant of the White House and let me say this to my Conservative friends: I UNDERSTAND CONSERVATIVE VALUES. I GET IT. BUT YOU HAVE GOT TO FIND SOMEONE ELSE TO REPRESENT YOUR VALUES. Never before has the Presidency of the United States represented So Little To So Few. 45 has all the values of a used car salesman, the soul of a tapeworm, and the literacy of a rock. The only thing 45 cares about or represents is his own ego. 45 makes Ronald Reagan look like Joan of Arc and he frankly makes me Nostalgic for the Reagan days. In case you have not been paying attention, THAT IS NOT A COMPLIMENT.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

(Unfortunately Not) The Last Jedi... and Others


For a long while now, my so-called “reviews” of film and TV have been limited to spontaneous postings on my Facebook page, while those of books have been posted to my Goodreads library. While not full reviews in any sense of the word, occasionally I have typed something in those forums that succeeds in expressing what I felt about the subject. Even rarely, I type something that’s worth salvaging. Here, in no particular order, are some of those mini-reviews, although cleaned up a mite and hopefully improved to a point where someone might find them mildly useful, or suggestive of something, goodness knows what. There’ll be more of this sort of rubbish over the next few weeks.

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In the sharply divided “love it or hate it” camps, which are largely but not exclusively defined by generation, put me down on the “hate” side for STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI.

Wow. Where do I begin to sort out this monumental heap of stinking rubbish?
One has to hand it to director / screenwriter Rian Johnson, for it is No Mean Feat to make JJ Abrams look good by comparison. Perhaps that was why he was chosen to handle this Middle Chapter.

But here’s the thing: I’ve re-watched (or tried to) a bunch of them in recent months, and it has to be said that there have only ever been two good STAR WARS movies, three if you’re generous and count ROGUE ONE. So after all, it’s no surprise to rack up another stinker. What is a little bit surprising is that neither George Lucas nor the new team at Disney ever seem to learn from their mistakes. Especially with the new team, it’s not just that they have no real talent and are incapable of creating anything original: they have no BRAINS and are incapable of even creating a reasonable COPY.

Like much of what has gone before it, THE LAST JEDI is long and ponderous and boring and stupid and a painful waste of time.

I was there for the first STAR WARS. I will always remember its fun, its excitement, and most of all, its light-heartedness. It wasn’t trying to sell you anything, and it never took itself seriously. It was George Lucas’s homage to the great Saturday matinee serials, and nothing more. It was cotton candy. It lifted our hearts with its simplicity and sweetness.

That all changed with RETURN OF THE JEDI. By then, George Lucas had stuck his head so far up Joseph Campbell’s asshole that the only thing he could see was his own ego. He made the fatal mistake of taking himself seriously, and STAR WARS has never been the same since.

The Disney Company have spent millions and millions of dollars to create this zombie simulacrum that looks uncannily like one would expect STAR WARS to look like all these years later — but it has no soul, and worse than that, it has no heart.

As a side note: it’s obvious that Carrie Fisher was a sick woman when she filmed this. She looks fully ten years older than she actually was at the time of her death.

*

One doesn't exactly *enjoy* Ingmar Bergman's SAWDUST AND TINSEL (1953), unless one takes a perverse and sadistic joy in observing the very personal sufferings of Circus Folk. But there's no denying the exquisite beauty in its shabbiness, nor the way that it makes you feel the many levels of humiliation its characters experience. It's my second-favorite Bergman movie, after THE MAGICIAN.

*

It seems churlish to criticize a movie with so noble a cause as its subject, but SUFFRAGETTE wears its purple heart on its sleeve with a fringe of malice and force-fed righteousness. It is well beyond manipulative in the style fostered by Spielberg: not for nothing did they choose Carey Mulligan (whose innate qualities of sympathy made her such a vital part of “Blink,” one of the modern Doctor Who’s finest episodes), to endure in composite form all of the worst things that were collectively endured by the members of the movement. You expect to get the obligatory force-feeding scene and they do not "disappoint," playing it with spectacular ugliness. But it’s hard to trust anything in which all the women are presented as saints and all the men (barring one token character) as sinners. The film’s production design is so evocative as to make a viewer feel they have jumped back in time, but it's squandered by an incompetent director who drowns the picture in herky-jerky close-ups made with a deliberately shaky hand-held camera, trying to force either a sense of urgency or an upset stomach; it’s hard to say which. It's not a movie at all, but a polemic, and a cowardly one at that: for there are signs in place that point towards a much stronger ending that seems to have been sanitized for the sake of leaving the audience "feeling good." If that’s true, SUFFRAGETTE doesn't even have the courage of its own convictions.

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What a marvelous pirate Walter Matthau would have made. Unfortunately, he chose to play one in Roman Polanski’s PIRATES, an insufferable display of one vulgar gross-out joke after another played out on one of the most beautiful set-pieces ever built for a movie. This set-piece is the pirate ship itself: and because it is beautiful Polanski does everything he can to avoid letting us get a good look at the thing, choosing instead to focus on Matthau’s one-legged double stumping around in feces and vomit and ultimately killing a live rat on screen, in close up, by stomping it with his peg leg. This is where I gave up. Sometimes, the nicest thing about movies in digital format is that you can simply throw the bad ones in the trash, where they belong, and purge your computer of their bits and bytes forever and ever.


For many and many a year I have wanted to see Cooper & Shoedsack's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, made in 1933 and shot on the same jungle sets and at the same time as their original classic, KING KONG. But time and movie rights were not kind to this film: for decades, the only available versions were lousy public-domain prints and computer-colored versions. Thank goodness the Mostly Good folks at The Critereon Collection have given it the release it deserves, beautifully restored in high-def and looking as if it could have been filmed yesterday, if only the people and the styles disn’t look so alien to the world we find ourselves stranded in today.

It is a very minor masterpiece, not a horror movie despite some undeniably horrific moments, but a delightful example of film noir that sometimes strays outside the tight boundaries of the genre into plain adventure. Everything about it is pitch-perfect. It is short, exciting, thrilling and frightening. The supposed insights into human nature are not very profound, but the picture accomplishes everything that it sets out to do -- and oh, that Fay Wray!


— Thorn.
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