Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Red Tails (2012)

 

 

RED TAILS is a big-budget rendition of the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen, the 332nd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American pilot squad in our country’s history, a fact that means everything. Remember that the seeds of the Civil Rights movement were still en years away, and desegregation was not even officially a word. The Tuskegee Airmen weren’t just a noble concept; they were all-the-way heroic. So named because they were trained in Tuskegee, AL, these pilots were the result of twenty years of advocacy by, among others, African-Americans who were barred from service in the first World War. Before they could fly combat missions (a sore spot the movie details), the 332nd flew bomber escort missions, acting as midair bodyguards for the white pilots on actual combat missions. When they were finally sent to fly on their own, they excelled. They shot down German jets and destroyed German trains, trucks, boats, barges, destroyers, and military factories. A couple hundred of the almost one-thousand of them didn’t survive the war. The unit was awarded a long list of Flying Crosses, Bronze Stars, and Purple Hearts. They were called “Red Tails” due to the distinctive crimson paint on the tail section of their planes.

 

Tuskegee_airman_poster

 

Despite an interest in the great true story behind RED TAILS, I failed to see it when it was released theatrically in January of last year. 2012 was a crowded time for movies, but beyond that, this particular movie arrived to positively toxic word of mouth. I still wanted to see the movie, but I didn’t rush. Now, if you watch RED TAILS and poke around online for reviews, you will see something very clearly: The movie is not jump-out-of-your-seat-and-tell-everybody great, but nor is it remotely as bad as its reviews, which are generally venomous and nasty.

 

The reason is that most reviewers didn’t review the movie RED TAILS. They reviewed its producer, George Lucas. I’m sure I have been guilty in the past of looking beyond a movie to write about other things besides the actual movie in front of me, so I can’t condemn the practice, but it was a widespread and noticeable mania in this case. RED TAILS is the passion project of George Lucas, who talked for years in interviews of getting it made. His reasons are his reasons. Maybe his reasons are only that it’s a great story. That didn’t matter to most critics. They wanted to write about STAR WARS.

 

Older critics blame George Lucas’ STAR WARS and Steven Spielberg’s JAWS for the glut of offal that followed, the thirty years of summertime blockbuster bombast made by less-talented fans and craven capitalists. Younger critics, particularly those hailing from my generation, feel burned by George Lucas. He made some movies when we were young that we loved (three STAR WARS and three INDIANA JONES‘s), and then he made some follow-ups (three STAR WARS and one INDIANA JONES) that we did not love. That we kind of hated. “The new STAR WARS movies suck,” most of us have said. “George Lucas ruined my childhood,” the drama queens among us have said. Now, as for me, I haven’t gone back to revisit the newer STAR WARS movies since I first saw them, but nor have I gone back to the originals in over a decade. George Lucas didn’t ruin my childhood. He made some super-imaginative movies that I loved as a kid, but as a result of my changing tastes, haven’t felt a need to obsessively revisit, the way many of my peer group do. Apparently I’m coming at this from a slightly different place than many people my age. Ain’t no grudge being born on these shoulders. I’m not going to hold STAR WARS against RED TAILS.

 

Also, George Lucas didn’t direct RED TAILS. But here’s what he did do:

 

  • Hired African-American writers to sculpt the story. John Ridley, original writer of THREE KINGS, did the first drafts, and Aaron McGruder (THE BOONDOCKS) worked on it afterwards.

 

  • Hired a young African-American director, Anthony Hemingway, to helm the project.

 

  • Hired a huge, talented, predominantly black cast, anchored by the more famous Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. but primarily spotlighting terrific up-and-comers such as Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Leslie Odom Jr., and Michael B. Jordan.

 

  • Hired an African-American composer, Terence Blanchard, the best in the business regardless of race, over the more obvious Lucasfilm choice, John Williams.

 

  • Hired the now-departed Lee A. Archer Jr., original Tuskegee flying ace, as technical consultant.

 

  • Supported the project with all of the filmmaking resources he has amassed over the years, including having the legendary editor Ben Burtt contribute to the film and having Industrial Light & Magic do the effects.

 

  • Hired the legendary Joe Kubert to draw that killer poster up at the head of this post.

 

  • Covered the $58 million budget out of his own money. That’s not including $35 million he paid for distribution.

 

  • Made the press rounds to promote the film on the basis of his own celebrity, despite the fact that he was bound to take a metric ton of shit from all the legions of angry STAR WARS nerds along the way.

 

  • He didn’t have to do any of these things, by the way. He could have waited for the rest of Hollywood to put this story up on a big screen. (That would have been a long wait.)

 

Now, those are only the facts, son. I’m hardly a George Lucas apologist. I like good movies as much as you do. And so I’m not able to argue that the finished product can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best World War II filmmaking, not even those made by Lucas’s pal Spielberg. RED TAILS isn’t as viscerally involving as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and it isn’t as layered or affecting as BAND OF BROTHERS. It’s somewhat superficial, leaning back on firmly-established cliches when you’d like to see some real fire, some rage. I mean, these guys are fighting the Nazis. I’m the guy who thinks INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS didn’t go far enough. Judge me however you see fit, but: It’s as satisfying for me to watch black guys shooting down Nazis as it is to watch Jews doing the same. I love watching Nazis get killed onscreen. It’s one of the best things about movies. The violence in this movie is somewhat sanitized, certainly removed, not impassioned. Maybe that’s more healthy, but it’s also the less bloody, less emotionally-invested approach — with all the work I did to back away from STAR WARS earlier, it’s still a fair comparison to liken the best moments of RED TAILS to the part of RETURN OF THE JEDI where Lando Calrissian blows up the Death Star.

 

Still, is that the worst thing? RED TAILS is all broad strokes. It’s corny. It has some very likable actors saying some very purple dialogue that isn’t eminently quotable on its own. It’s got some cheesy romance. It’s got real production value in the sets and the costuming. It has state-of-the-art effects, its dogfight scenes being its most tangible and thrilling moments by a wide margin. Its score is all pomp and circumstance and yet stirring all the same.

 

Holy shit, I feel like I’m describing the original STAR WARS.

 

Here’s a question: Don’t little black kids have the same right to have a STAR WARS as little white kids do? Isn’t it a decent thing that George Lucas at least tried?

 

RED TAILS isn’t a great movie. You can find a more detailed accounting of why that is in the reviews by Wesley Morris and the late Roger Ebert. They give you the honest take-away. RED TAILS is most enjoyable when it’s about the planes, not the people. And that’s a let-down. This story deserves to be made into a great movie. Still, it’s hardly awful or a waste of your time. It isn’t an embarassment. It’s way, way better than all three prequels. It’s a diverting rendition of an important story that deserves telling, on the widest screen possible. Lee Archer should be way more famous than Yoda or Boba Fett. If watching RED TAILS makes little kids — black or white — look up his name, it’s a success for that alone.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

Red Tails (2012)

Red Tails (2012)

Red Tails (2012)

 

MEN IN WAR (1957)

 

MEN IN WAR is a 1957 film directed by Anthony Mann, from a script by Philip Yordan which was adapted from a novel by someone named Van Van Praag (awesome).  Even though the majority of movies of the era were being shot in Technicolor, MEN IN WAR is in black and white.  I wonder if that was a budgetary issue, an aesthetic decision, or something else.  I’d be projecting, as I haven’t been able to dig up an answer to that question just yet, but there is something to the idea that black and white is a more fitting format for this story.  It’s less Hollywood-idyllic, and more stark and unforgiving.  There’s redemption in it, but not in a sweeping, overstated way.  It’s an unabashed tribute to the American military, but an appropriately business-like one.  The score by Elmer Bernstein is typically right on-point to the movie’s aims.  It’s lovely and effective music, and outside of the title song (whose lyrics are a little too on-the-nose to ever play by today’s standards), it’s as relevant still as the rest of the movie is.

 

 

 

MEN IN WAR stars Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray, two of the most underrated movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s, and two of my all-time favorites.  Ryan is the dark figure with the world-weary eyes and fighter’s frame who is best known by today’s audiences, if at all, from his small role in THE DIRTY DOZEN.   His career was much longer and more distinguished than that, as described by this tribute that I wrote in honor of the man and ten of his greatest movies.

Ray, for his part, is possibly even less well-remembered today, although the reasons why are hard to understand.  (It may have something to do with the apparently sad later years.)  At his peak, Ray had an appealing, gravel-gargling voice and an every-day tough-guy manner that are enormously charismatic.  I can’t help but think of Michael Chiklis when I think of Aldo Ray, although Quentin Tarantino thought of Brad Pitt.  (Pitt’s character in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Aldo Raine, is a direct tribute to this iconoclastic actor.)  Ray also didn’t have the broadest filmography, having not appeared in as many memorable films as he probably deserved to have.  Remind me to write up a nifty film noir called NIGHTFALL that Aldo Ray starred in, the same year as MEN IN WAR.   Generally Ray played scrappy tough guys, outsiders with big mouths and big attitudes.  That’s what he plays here.

 

 

 

MEN IN WAR takes place on a very specific date: September 6th 1950.   It takes place during the Korean War, which is interesting, because in 1957 that wasn’t too far in the past.  Just as historically interesting, both Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray served during World War II, Ray having seen action in Japan.  One has to imagine that this added to the naturalistic performances that this movie displays, something of a hallmark of Anthony Mann’s films.

 

MEN IN WAR (1957)

 

Ryan plays a beleaguered lieutenant, Benson, whose forces have been diminished and separated from any communication with the rest of the American presence in Korea.  He needs to get his men to safety, and they’re already beginning to fall apart.  Vic Morrow (now best known as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s dad) makes a strong impression as a shell-shocked young soldier.  So does James Edwards as Sergeant Killan, a kind-hearted African-American G.I. who is a friend to Morrow’s character and, unfortunately, due to cinematic conventions, doomed.  The scene where Killan stops in a clearing to decorate his helmet with the wildflowers he finds, ending as it does with his silent murder by encroaching commandos, is one of the movie’s most striking images.

 

 

Aldo Ray enters the movie in a Jeep, carrying his commanding officer alongside him, even though the colonel has been rendered mute by minefire and, presumably, having witnessed too much carnage.  Ray’s character identifies himself only as Montana, a rambunctious and headstrong G.I. who is fed up with battle and only cares to get his colonel to safety.  Ryan’s character wants to requisition the Jeep, and Montana’s services, in order to press on with his diminished forces.  Ray’s character, even out-ranked as he is, resists every step of the way.  The movie centers around the conflict between the two men.

 

 

It’s a vivid conflict, and it’s profoundly effective, enacted as it is by two such charismatic actors.  The appeal of Ryan and Ray is very different, but equally potent.  Ryan, so often a convincing heavy but in this case allowed to play the kind of role here that his obvious real-life decency fits like a glove, is a quieter, sterner kind of a good guy.  Ray is the more quintessentially American character, brash and arrogant — although you also see his point.  The main question of the movie is about what is the right thing to do in the chaos of war, to look out for self or to fight as part of the unit, even if the latter seems hopeless.  It’s not exactly as if Montana is being selfish — he seems to care about his Colonel as much as, if not more than, himself.  But ultimately, as pro-military as this movie is, Montana must come to understand and embrace Benson’s all-for-one ethos.  That the movie brings us, the audience, to see things the same way, and to appreciate the very real heroism of the men who fight our battles for us overseas, is why it is still a captivating piece of work today, and obviously still just as relevant.  There can be no doubt that Steven Spielberg saw this movie before making SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  MEN IN WAR is a little more ambiguous than that much more recent film, but it is just as effective at approximating the senses and textures of battle — an amazing feat, for a movie fifty years old.

 

Today being Memorial Day, if you’re looking for an appropriate movie to mark the occasion and spark reflection, let me please recommend this one.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

MEN IN WAR (1957)

The Professionals (1966)

THE PROFESSIONALS is a politically-charged white-men-in-Mexico Western that starts out bombastic and boistrous and maintains that stance throughout.  The opening vignettes introduce the four lead characters in their most characteristic arenas.  Rico Fardan, the reserved, pragmatic, always-prepared leader, is shown testing out a new machine gun that you know full well you’ll eventually see him use, due to the fact he’s played by Lee Marvin.  Hans Ehrengard, the frontier-era horse whisperer, is shown punching the shit out of an animal abuser.  That’s quintessential Robert Ryan, doomed decency and temperamental violence often in the same character.  Jacob Sharp, the archer, is  bringing a live captive into town for sentencing.  As played by Woody Strode, he’s a proto-DJANGO [UNCHAINED-style], a calmly-effective bounty hunter in an unfriendly time for guys who look like him.  And Bill Dolworth, the devilish explosives expert, is first introduced in bed with a woman who we quickly find out is another man’s wife, because the guy is about to walk in the door and Dolworth is pulling on his longjohns and diving out the window.  Burt Lancaster, one of the greatest Hollywood leading men ever, could play noir and he could play arthouse drama, but here he’s the comic relief and the leading man all in one.

Lee + Burt

Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode.  That is kind of an all-star super-team of old-school movie tough guys.  If I have to bring up THE A-TEAM to get some of you youngsters to go watch this lesser-acknowledged classic, then that’s what I’m going to do.  It’s clear where that popular 1980s action template came from — the grizzled and grey veteran soldier, the horndog ladies’ man, and the two other guys who handle all the transportation.  Four guys with their own individual and shared histories take on a dirty job no one else is able or ready to handle.

The Professionals (1966)

In THE PROFESSIONALS, these four rough riders are hired by big-business tycoon Ralph Bellamy — you know him best from a weirdly similar role in TRADING PLACES — to rescue his young wife from a marauding revolutionary who has taken her south of the border.  Bellamy perenially played a lovelorn shnook but here he’s an intriguingly nastier sort of character.  In the great Hollywood tradition of casting great stars in ethnically incongruous roles, Jack Palance plays the revolutionary, “Jesus Raza,” and the Tunisian-by-way-of-Italy bombshell Claudia Cardinale plays the Mexican-born “Maria,” an old flame of Raza’s, as it turns out.  If you’ve read my page before you already know how I feel about Claudia Cardinale. Or you could just look at a picture:

The Professionals (1966)

THE PROFESSIONALS is a great big-screen action classic, three-times Oscar-nominated, with some fascinating sociopolitical subtext.  Writer-director Richard Brooks (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, IN COLD BLOOD) adapted Frank O’Rourke’s novel for screen with the legendary Conrad Hall (COOL HAND LUKE, BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, FAT CITY, AMERICAN BEAUTY) believably and beautifully shooting California for Mexico.  The movie works just fine on the level of supreme entertainment, but if you read Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation, as I did when I was lucky enough to learn from him as an undergraduate, it becomes apparent that THE PROFESSIONALS is reflective of the era during which it was made.  The Professionals are comparable to the American Green Berets, an elite military-trained fighting force, who are sent into a foreign nation for dubious reasons and in the course of their adventure they become disillusioned with their mission.  Very potent stuff, but it’s buried under a rollicking mainstream Western facade.  The subtext is there if you want to think about it, but you can also just sit back and enjoy.

The Professionals (1966 film)

Since I’m a huge Robert Ryan fan, I do wish he had a little more shine in the movie.  According to some interviews on the Blu-Ray, Ryan wasn’t well during filming, which could explain it.  (I’m also a Woody Strode fan but unfortunately Woody Strode being underused in a film is somewhat more routine occurrence.)  Ryan and Strode, as the horse wrangler and the team scout, are really playing strong support to the buddy-movie pairing of Marvin and Lancaster, the gunman and the dynamite setter.  Ryan does play an interesting contrast to his frequent noir antihero persona, though.  This is one of his most thoroughly decent roles – Ryan’s horse expert is tender and protective of every horse the group encounters.  He’s one of those guys who seems to care more about animals than people, and who can blame him, in a movie where one species is clearly more consistently trustworthy than the other.  Many of this movie’s heroes have abandoned ideals for commerce when it begins.  What makes the movie ultimately so thrilling and rewarding, then, even more than the banter and the gunfights, is to watch them rediscover actual virtue.  That these Professionals end up refusing a hefty payday for the right reasons and manage to stick it to a corporate fatcat in the process is arguably even more satisfying today than in 1966.  Besides, who can resist the following exchange:

“You BASTARD!”

“Yes sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you sir, you’re a self-made man.”

THE PROFESSIONALS showed tonight at 92Y Tribeca but I didn’t get this piece up in time.  So:

Call me a bastard on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

The Professionals (1966 film)

The Professionals (1966)

The Professionals (1966)

 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

 

 

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962, d. John Ford) is essential.  It’s essential as a work of storytelling art.  It’s essential as cinematic text.  It’s an essential piece of the careers of its stars, and of that of its director.

 

Stewart,  Ford and Wayne

 

This film came towards the end of John Ford’s directing career, and it’s the second-to-last he made with John Wayne. (DONOVAN’S REEF, a lark, was their final collaboration.)  This one has incredible symbolic power.  Without getting into a more fraught conversation about offscreen politics, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are two of the stars in cinema history who most clearly represent America.  Wayne was the pioneering, swaggering, boistrous side of America, and Stewart represented a more relatable, emotional, idealistic, and valiant side.  THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is where these two visions of America collide, and where they diverge.

 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance PUNCH

 

This movie arrived at what was almost exactly the midpoint of American cinema.  It’s an explosive elegy for the great films of the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s.  From here, the 1960s dawned, and America changed.  The genius of this film is how it is about all of these things even while providing a terrific story.  The way that the film is bookended by scenes that take place in the character’s old age certainly confirms the historical reading of the film, but it’s certainly also possible to enjoy the film as a purely commercial old-school Western.

 

Wayne + Stewart

 

Stewart plays a lawyer whose Arrival in a frontier town called Shinbone begins with a brutal assault by the guy in the title, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin!).  He’s rescued by the Wayne character, the only man around who isn’t afeared of Liberty Valance.  What follows is nothing less than a battle between civilization and frontier justice.   Wayne wants to deal with the outlaw gang in the most effective way, while Stewart argues for the more democratic solution.  On top of that, both Wayne and Stewart are in love with the same girl (Vera Miles, best known to younger generations for her role in PSYCHO).  This movie has an incredible cast, including Ford stock players such as John Qualen and Andy Devine, and Woody Strode and Edmond O’Brien on the side of goodness and decency, and Strother Martin and Lee Motherfucking Van Cleef on the side of lawlessness and nasty-actin’.

 

 

And then there’s Lee Marvin, patron saint of shitkickers, who from this role graduated to leading-man parts.  He played heels and heavies for years before playing this, quite possibly the nastiest of them all (although he’s pretty fucking ugly in THE BIG HEAT).  Lee being Lee, he continued to play bad men, but they were a more likable breed.  This was arguably his last straight-up villainous role.  After this definitive bad-guy, there was no way to deny that Lee was not on the iconic level of a John Wayne, rather than playing support to him, which is why their next movie, DONOVAN’S REEF, literally isn’t much more than a series of epic slugfests between the two of them.

 

Van Cleef, Marvin, Stewart, Wayne

 

This movie is necessary in every way.  It’s a virtual textbook of masculinity, it’s a profound statement on history and mortality, and it represents some of the best work of all of its bold-faced participants.  Fail to see it and fail to have your opinions on film taken seriously.

Stare me down on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

Liberty

 

Lee Drankin

 

Woody

 

 

AGE OF THE DRAGONS (2011)

I can’t speak for every dude who writes about movies on the internet, but as for me, it’s not like I don’t have any options at all as to how to spend my free time. Sure, I fit the stereotype of single and brainy, but I also bring plenty to the dating pool. I’m generally considered to be sweet, thoughtful, loyal, and giving. Most people find me funny. I’m certainly presentable, even considered outright attractive from some angles. I’m currently regularly-employed and employable. I’m terrific with kids and I’ll make a great father one day. Animals also love me (though not always cats). The ladies reading this may be asking, What’s the downside?

Well ladies, the answer may be that I’m addicted to movies. Addicted. Big-time. I don’t know why, but I can’t go more than a day without one. And there’s only so many times you can watch GOODFELLAS or PULP FICTION or BOOGIE NIGHTS or whatever finite number of acceptable classics that normal guys my age watch, before you start sniffing around the outskirts of what’s out there in the great beyond, movie-wise. Sometimes that search can result in a great discovery, and most other times it doesn’t.

When I saw a preview somewhere for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, I knew I was in trouble. Somebody made a version of MOBY DICK starring PREDATOR 2‘s Danny Glover as Melville’s Captain Ahab, in the relentless and dangerous pursuit, not of a great white whale, no, but instead, of a great white dragon.

Aw hell.

I’m gonna have to watch that.

RIGGS!

MOBY DICK is often cited as The Great American Novel. Every author is out there trying to write one, but Herman Melville did it almost two hundred years ago. The book is its own Great White Whale. It has influenced countless writers and their works, been adapted to film multiple times, and has many obvious and less obvious descendents in movies such as JAWS and ALIENS. MOBY DICK is so many things — a historical document detailing the whaling industry of its era, a lierary allegory, a character study of obsession and madness, a rousing adventure tale… It’s really good! You should read it.

For a book of more than six hundred pages, the main plot of MOBY DICK is perfectly simple: A young sailor named Ishmael and his friend Queequeg, an intimidating foreigner, get a job on a whaling ship called the Pequod. They meet the first, second, and third mates on the ship — Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, respectively — but it’s a while before they meet the ship’s captain. When he arrives, he basically takes over the book. Ahab is a vengeful Quaker (which is an oxymoron, for the record) out to destroy the white whale who, in an earlier encounter, scarred him and took his leg. The only question is how many of the crew members will survive his deranged quest.

I love this story — it kind of has an elemental appeal to me at my center. It’s based on a true story! I love stories about sea monsters. As a kid my family took summer vacations to some of the areas described in the book. I grew up obsessed with the whale at the Museum Of Natural History in New York. And technically I’m half Quaker, so I even get that part of it. All of this is a run-up to say that I have more than a passing familiarity with the source material for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, which is why I found it to be even more of a bizarre anomaly than I figured it was going to be.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is so remarkably bizarre precisely because of its fidelity to MOBY DICK. There is no question that the people who made AGE OF THE DRAGONS have read MOBY DICK, which is both what makes it strangely admirable and what makes it so weird. Let’s look at some of the similarities and the differences.

Well, besides, the obvious.

MOBY DICK.

MOBY DICK is about a large angry whale.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is about a fire-breathing dragon.

In AGE OF THE DRAGONS, the action is shifted from sea to land. The dragons can fly, but the men who hunt for them travel on land. (Sky-boats would have been a little too crazy. Duh.) Still, their choice of vehicle is in fact a boat.

Boat.

The boat does have wheels, so I guess that makes sense, and the terrain they cover is generally coated with blankets of snow, so technically the boat is travelling over expanses of water, but again, let’s not mince words here: This is fucking weird. I mean, if you want to get all film school on it, you could possibly attribute the snow boat to being an extended reference both obliquely and literally to Werner Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO, another story of mad obsession, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fucking snow boat in a dragon-hunting movie.

Not only that, but the winter is apparently one of the utmost extremes, so you know what that means….

Ahab Snow Ninja

!!!SNOW NINJAS!!!

Snow Ninjas.

At every moment where I got anywhere near taking this movie seriously, somebody would show up dressed like a snow ninja and I’d have to chuckle. Which is totally fine. There isn’t anything at all wrong, from where I’m sitting, with a movie about dragon-fighting snow ninjas. But if you’re going to make a movie like that, you ought to have a sense of humor, and AGE OF THE DRAGONS is played for straights. It’s pretty dour and grim, missing the fact that Herman Melville had a satirical eye, having penned lines for MOBY DICK like “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

But I guess the makers of AGE OF THE DRAGONS figured, if they were going to take the sense of humor out of MOBY DICK, they’d better put something else in, and what they settled on was — you guessed it — a pretty girl. Her name is Rachel, which, despite there being no character like her in MOBY DICK, actually does mean something in reference to the novel. (I think the Rachel is the name of one of the boats.) Here the character is Ahab’s daughter, who he took in after her family was killed by dragons. Ishmael takes a shine to her, I guess because she’s a better bunkmate than Queequeg, which Ahab doesn’t like but what did he think was gonna happen, really. The actress doesn’t resemble Danny Glover much, which I guess is a virtue because let’s face it, she’s only really in the movie for stuff like this:

Girl.

Outside of Danny Glover, there’s no one in this movie you’ve heard of before, except for Vinnie Jones. My British friends know Vinnie Jones from his soccer — sorry: football — career, and my American friends know him from SMOKIN’ ACES 2, X-MEN 3, and GARFIELD: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES. He plays Stubb in this movie, but not for long. A dragon breathes on him and he turns into a pile of dust. Sorry if that’s a spoiler. I don’t think anything like that happened in the Melville text, but I guess they only had Vinnie Jones budgeted for a couple days on this shoot. It doesn’t feel like an organic storytelling decision, is what I’m implying.

Vinnie.

Anyway the main reason I wanted to see this movie was to see Danny Glover acting weird and talking a lot about dragons, and in this respect I did not walk away disappointed. Basically Danny Glover hates dragons because when he was a young Danny Glover, he and his sister were walking through the woods and a dragon showed up. The dragon turned his sister into a pile of ashes like it did to Vinnie Jones, and it also burned Danny Glover up pretty bad, to the point where he can’t go out in direct sunlight. On one hand that’s a bummer, but on the other hand….

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

As I was watching this movie, which has a lot of dull parts — really too many, for a movie that has dragons and Danny Glover dressed like a G.I. Joe character — I gave a lot of thought to Danny Glover, who is an actor I have a ton of affection for, but who has been really under-served by the movies, I think. He’s definitely a guy who has “important actor” status, but who hasn’t been in as many great things as he should or maybe could be.

Danny Glover High Points:

ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (Clint)

WITNESS (a rare villainous turn)

THE COLOR PURPLE (probably, I haven’t seen it)

LETHAL WEAPON (obviously)

A RAISIN IN THE SUN (Bill Duke version)

LONESOME DOVE

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER

THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS (funniest part of the movie)

DREAMGIRLS

Personally, I liked SILVERADO, PREDATOR 2, PURE LUCK, and BE KIND REWIND also, but I don’t know if those roles necessarily go on the highlight reel. (PURE LUCK is pretty bad, actually, but it’s a Martin Short movie, so.)

I guess the point I’m making is, for such a prestigious actor, there sure are a ton of movies like OPERATION DUMBO DROP, GONE FISHIN’, LETHAL WEAPON 4, and SAW, on that resume, which also includes an unfair amount of shitty TV shows. Of course Danny Glover has been in some great stuff, but not enough. He needs some Fincher or Mann or Spike or Spielberg in his future. I mean, of course I enjoyed seeing him like this —

Riggs!

— but there aren’t too many of me. I’m a guy who will spend this much time thinking about a version of MOBY DICK that has dragons: Through me does not necessarily pass the road towards Oscars and widespread critical acclaim. And even with that said, I’d probably rather see a sincere version of MOBY DICK than a silly one which I can only watch in the middle of the night when there’s no female presence around to stop me. There’s no reason why Danny Glover couldn’t be given a movie where he can play Captain Ahab for real. He shouldn’t be stuck playing some weird groaning Gollum-esque character lurching around in a cave in Utah at computer-animated dragons.

Seriously, you should see the part when he fights the great white dragon at the end and gets his leg caught in the harpoon — if only for a textbook definition of anti-climax. I mean, I haven’t said much about the effects of the movie: The production value is actually rather good — I liked the sets and the costumes and even a couple of the scenes of the dragons. The actors all take it as seriously as they’re asked to, and the music by J Bateman (either Jason or Justine, I’m not sure which) is better than average for a movie of this type.

But the movie’s pace is slack and all the good dragon bits all happen early on — it’s like the production blew their dragon wad early, and like a bad lover with no follow-through, skimped on the effects in the final scenes. Even Danny Glover turns into computer animation, a cluster of pixels being dragged away on the tail of a fake monster. If it wasn’t enough that he was asked to overact through the entire movie, he doesn’t even get to leave it with any dignity.

So AGE OF THE DRAGONS, sadly, probably not a thing I can recommend. But at least I learned a thing or two about myself.

I learned that all you have to do is say the word “dragons” and I will watch your movie. It’s a foolproof method of advertising. Everyone and their grandma use more common sales pitches such as “boobs” “monkeys” and “explosions” to lure me in, but not everyone promises “dragons” and that brings my eyes over, every time.

The other thing I learned is that if I had any brains at all, I would have just watched JAWS for the 57th time. So maybe strike “brainy” from that list of datable qualities I listed up top in reference to myself.

@jonnyabomb

“They broke in on me, and found me doing an unholy thing.” — Im-Ho-Tep, THE MUMMY.

THE MUMMY arrived a year after the one-two punch of Universal’s DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, both in 1931.  It’s a fascinating case, because while it is a major departure from those two films, it also couldn’t exist without them.  THE MUMMY has both nothing and everything to do with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN.

DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN were such massive successes for Universal that the studio started looking around for other intellectual properties to turn into the next great horror character.  DRACULA had come from the legendary 1897 novel by Bram Stoker, and FRANKENSTEIN had been the great creation of Mary Shelley in 1818.  Universal had seen prior success with 1923’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, which was not technically a horror movie but is still to this day a terrific entertainment with a great Lon Chaney performance, and with 1925’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which is most definitely a horror movie and also has a great Lon Chaney performance, but realistically, The Phantom is probably considered by most to be a distant second-stringer behind Frank, Drac, and Im-Ho-Tep.

The inspiration for 1932’s THE MUMMY, unlike all of Universal’s major horror hits up until that time, came not from literature but from actual human history.  Ten years earlier, in 1922, the landmark discovery of the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen was a national sensation, as big a story to Americans then as Kanye dating Kim is to Americans now.  Inspired by the King Tut finding, Universal’s story department (primarily Richard Shayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam) came up with the basic concept from which John Balderston wrote the final script.  Balderston reportedly contributed to the scripts of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN also, and THE MUMMY shares not only a writer with those films, but also a cinematographer and a supporting cast (DRACULA) and of course a star (FRANKENSTEIN).

Karl Freund is not generally considered an auteur director, the way DRACULA‘s Tod Browning and FRANKENSTEIN‘s James Whale are, but he’s earned his place at the horror round table.  Freund was the cinematographer on DRACULA, and he reportedly took over the director’s chair for scenes where Browning’s alcohol troubles disrupted filming.  Freund as a director may not have had the same creativity and affinity for the bizarre that Browning and Whale did, but his acuity with making dark horror scenes stylish as a cameraman is certainly a boon to THE MUMMY.  Still, the twin shadows of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN loom large over THE MUMMY.

THE MUMMY begins with a melancholy orchestral cue that sounds awfully familiar.  I couldn’t place it until I looked it up:  It’s from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  If that doesn’t ring a bell, try this one on for size:  It’s the main credits music used in DRACULA.  Then, after a title card gives a little pseudo-history on the ancient pharaoh Im-Ho-Tep (sic), the story begins.  An archaeological expedition unearths Im-Ho-Tep’s tomb and opens the sarcophagus, revealing this fantastic make-up design by the legendary Jack Pierce:

If Jack Pierce’s masterpiece was the make-up design for FRANKENSTEIN, his work in THE MUMMY must surely be a close second.  It’s as thoughtful as the design on the earlier film — though it’s obviously not a strictly realistic take on what a millenium-old mummified human being would look like, it’s a fitting approximation of how most people would imagine one.  It’s a figure from our imagination, come alive.  It’s a truly striking image.  But it can’t have been fun for poor Boris Karloff to slog on every day, so the movie doesn’t linger on this visage of The Mummy for long.

As the story goes, one of the more headstrong adventurers, against the warnings of Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan, who played Van Helsing in DRACULA), reads aloud an incantation from the ‘Scroll Of Thoth’ that brings Im-Ho-Tep lumbering back to life.  The Mummy strolls out of the sarcophagus, then shuffles his way out the door.  The sight of the impossible drives the archaeologist mad, and he begins cackling wildly, maniacally, as The Mummy escapes.  It’s an over-the-top capstone to the scene, but one that fits in neatly with both director Karl Freund’s background in German Expressionism and the example of the madman Renfield in DRACULA.

When Im-Ho-Tep re-enters the movie, he’s amped down the Mummy look considerably (perhaps as a concession to Mr. Karloff, who after all was as big a star in 1932 as Channing Tatum is in 2012).  Im-Ho-Tep is now cutting a more dapper figure, clad in fine robes and a fez and introducing himself as “Ardeth Bey”, which does makes me think a little bit of how Mos Def is now going by the name “Yasiin Bey“.  That’s just how my mind works.  Anyhow, Ardeth Bey is much more eloquent than the initial Mummy from the first scene, and the more civilized incarnation of the character gives Karloff the chance to show what he can do with a line like “With your pardon, I dislike to be touched. An Eastern prejudice.”  He’s a far better actor, in my opinion, than he gets credit for being.  The thing is, Ardeth Bey is a man on a mission, and don’t let his fancy diction fool you, he’s not the greatest guy.  Or maybe you can tell just by looking at him.

Honestly, doesn’t he look a bit like Tommy Lee Jones on that HOPE SPRINGS poster?

Mummy Lee Jones.

Since every Tommy Lee Jones needs his Meryl Streep, Im-Ho-Tep searches the entirety of Cairo for his immortal beloved, Ankh-Es-Un-Amon.  He finds her at a party, in the person of Helen (Zita Johann), who is also being wooed by Frank (Paul Rudd look-alike David Manners, who played Harker in DRACULA).  Frank is the son of one of the archaeologists who exhumed Im-Ho-Tep, and he and Dr. Muller become rightly convinced not only that Ardeth Bey is the returned Im-Ho-Tep, but also that he is after Helen.  If this is starting to sound a little dry, that’s appropriate because that’s how it plays.  For whatever reason, THE MUMMY lags more than its predecessors (and more than its several sequels).  There is a lot of exposition, a lot of scenes of people hunched over scrolls, and not all of it compelling.

There are a few highlights, though.  There’s the delightfully over-wrought line, highlighted in the classic trailer, where Ardeth Bey lays out his intentions to Helen, “I shall awaken memories of love and crime and death.”  There’s the still-disturbing scene, a flashback to ancient Egypt, where Im-Ho-Tep is captured and wrapped in bandages and buried alive — it’s not shocking by today’s standards, but if you stop to give some thought to how that process might actually feel, you might be able to approximate how frightful such a scene might have been in 1932.

And there’s “The Nubian”, a memorable if somewhat problematic character who is a servant to one of the archaeologists but is compelled by Ardeth Bey to do his bidding.  (Like Count Dracula, Im-Ho-Tep has hypnotic abilities.)  The Nubian is played by Noble Johnson, a black actor of an unforgettable countenance who was also seen in 1932’s THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (from the team who would next make KING KONG.)  Unfortunately, this was long before Hollywood movies figured out how to showcase black actors in any remotely flattering way.  So The Nubian is a very physical character, no pushover, but a plot device, a prop, a type, not in any other way delineated.  It’s arguably refreshing to have a splash of color in an early horror movie, a genre that is otherwise very very Caucasian, but that may not be saying much.

But back to the story.  In the end, Frank, Dr. Muller, and Helen confront Im-Ho-Tep, and since Frank and Dr. Muller are powerless to stop Im-Ho-Tep, it falls to Helen to remember her past life as Ankh-Es-En-Amon and invoke the god Isis to destroy Im-Ho-Tep.  (If the movie doesn’t have much for the black character to do, at least the lone female character is the one with the hero moment.)  A statue of Isis raises an arm and shoots light at Im-Ho-Tep, who starts aging rapidly — you get to see his skeleton! — before completely disintegrating (off-camera).

And that’s THE MUMMY.  Karl Freund only directed a few more movies before returning to his post as cameraman on movies like 1948’s KEY LARGO.  The only major player to return to the character was Jack Pierce.  While he did return to playing Frankenstein’s Monster (in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), Karloff never did reprise the role of The Mummy.  The character would return in several unofficial sequels, with Lon Chaney Jr. eventually taking over the role.  Beyond the Mummy pictures of the 1930s and 1940s, however, the character accumulated in popularity and became a Halloween-time standard.  THE MUMMY, taken as a film on its own, may not quite be as timeless as some of the other Universal horror pictures, but the work of Freund, Karloff, Pierce, and their collaborators ensured that The Mummy would become as iconic a figure as Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monsters and his Bride, the Wolfman, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon.  He’s a pantheon character, as eerily lovable and oddly romantic as any of them.

@jonnyabomb

 

 

Waltz With Bashir is an astonishing piece of work – it’s a dreamy reconstruction of one man’s recollection of his experiences in the Israeli military during the Lebanon War in the early 1980s.  The director, Ari Folman, wrote for the original Israeli incarnation of the TV show “In Treatment” and that background in pop psychology shows – this is a searching and introspective story.  It’s not entirely fictional, but it’s certainly not a documentary either.  The harsh world in wartime and the realm of dreams swirl together and co-mingle.

Necessarily then, Waltz With Bashir is an animated movie.  The choice is crucial to the movie’s effect:  It’s colorful and mesmerizing and upsetting.  It is NOT rotoscoped.  All of the animation is meticulously choreographed and depicted, under the art direction of David Polonsky with contributions from, among others, two artists whose work I adore, the brothers Tomer Hanuka and Asaf Hanuka.  (If you’ve picked up a newspaper or a magazine in the past decade, you know their work.)  On a visual basis alone, Waltz With Bashir is a necessity.  Combined with the emotionally conflicted and self-exploratory storytelling method which Folman employs, Waltz With Bashir is a film unlike any other.  It’s not an exaggeration to pronounce that I have very rarely seen a medium so well matched to its message.

I can’t exactly say that I loved this movie – it left me feeling more than a little anguished and sad.  But it is very clearly a work of cinematic art that has made some valuable observations about the real world, and as such, I sincerely recommend that it be seen by as many people as possible as soon as possible.  See it with your deepest friend.

@jonnyabomb