2017-02-21

sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
Another President's Day has gone by (marked with protests, I hear) and [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I have observed our sixth 'Thon together. We did not make the full twenty-four hours of science fiction film this year, but then again we had not planned on having to ditch the marathon for an emergency room. I am very ready for my physical health to start putting itself back together any time soon. For obvious reasons, this will be a shorter review than some previous years.

Neither of us had gotten much sleep the night before, so we did not make it for the traditional noon kickoff of Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953) or even the first feature, which in honor of the marathon's forty-second anniversary was Hammer & Tongs' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005). Fortunately, we got another chance at Sam Rockwell and Alan Rickman with Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest (1999)—we were in fact too late for Alexander's panic attack, but we made it to the balcony just in time to hear Dr. Lazarus swearing to a stricken Thermian that by Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Worvan, he would be avenged, at which point the audience as one correctly erupted in applause. I hadn't seen the film since it was in theaters, which never prevented whole swathes of its dialogue from turning up in my brain at the slightest excuse; I was especially glad to catch any of it on 35 mm, given how much of this year's marathon was digital. It was the rare contemporary movie in its year where I actually recognized more than one member of the cast, mostly thanks to Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, and Tony Shalhoub. I did not realize until the credits rolled that I had spent most of last year seeing earnest, dorky, dolphin-sounding alien leader Mathesar—Enrico Colantoni—as Elias on Person of Interest (2011–16), where he is not even faintly any of the above. I love character actors very much.

It is impossible for me to watch William Alland and Jack Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) now without associating it with Caitlín R. Kiernan's "From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6," to the point where Antonio Moreno levered the fossilized, grasping claw of the Creature's ancestor out of its plaster strata of Devonian shale and I thought Grendelonyx innsmouthensis, but I can remember being in third grade and seeing—not the entire film, I think, because I recognized very little beyond the design of the Gill-man and some underwater footage of him swimming through the silt and weeds of the Black Lagoon, but enough that it went into my head as something haunting and not a little upsetting, accelerated shortly afterward by finding in my elementary school library a lavishly illustrated book about '50's monster movies which summarized the two sequels. I knew already that I felt bad for the monster. I already knew that I wanted gills and retractile claws and webbing between my fingers; I swam open-eyed, underwater in the Atlantic and had to be taught actual human swimming strokes. On that level the movie still resonates with me, even while I'm not actually sure as an adult that it's very good. I love the cosmic opening with its condensing clouds of atmosphere and prehistoric seas; the fossil itself is a great hook, even if it's essentially forgotten once the expedition enters the lagoon; I found it a fascinating touch for 1954 that one of the accumulating villainies of Richard Denning's sleek, competitive, increasingly trigger-happy scientist—the kind who's more concerned with getting his name in the papers than advancing the frontiers of human knowledge, unlike hunky but high-minded Richard Carlson—is the disclosure that he's been taking credit for his female colleague's research while convincing her that she wouldn't even have a job in her field without him. (The audience hissed him for that. Good audience.) The underwater shots of a carefree Julie Adams splashing tantalizingly against the sky while the unseen Gill-man shadows her stroke for stroke so vividly recall the opening shark attack of Jaws (1975) that Spielberg has to have seen this movie. The scene in which the Gill-man mauls and drowns an expedition member foolhardy enough to go after him with a spear gun employs no blood and gets a real predator-prey jolt out of the thrashing braid of bodies half-seen in a churn of bubbles, naked human limbs grappling ineffectually with armoring scales and claws. Just why in the name of Poseidon is the Creature so obsessed with Julie Adams except that the monster carrying off the pretty girl is a trope of horror movies and God forbid that after all the scientific buildup we apply any rationality now? Or, as Rob said succinctly over chicken shawarma at Noor this afternoon, "Tits."

I had not seen Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997) since it was in theaters, either, where it was almost certainly my introduction to all three of its principal actors, although Jude Law was the name I took away with me at the time. I misread the movie's construction of suspense and spent the entire runtime concerned that the hero's 99% fatal heart condition would kill him at some dramatic or ironic moment, including the climactic blastoff into space. On rewatch at least I didn't have that problem, but then I was free to notice how little the film holds up as science fiction. It makes a great parable, but I can't believe a future America premised on eugenics would actually look or behave like Niccol's cool, retro-modern dystopia; I'm not docking it points for the technological minutiae of the all-pervasive DNA-clocking system which Ethan Hawke's Vincent must study and deceive in order to achieve his skyward dream, because nothing dates faster than detailed anticipation of the future, but thanks to the nationwide tidal wave of anti-intellectualism and general irrationality in which we are all living, right now I am much more worried about conceiving in a society that would force me to carry to term a child that would know nothing but incoherent pain in its short life (I'm an Ashkenazi Jew; Tay-Sachs is the first thing I would screen for) than I am about winding up in a world in which the un-engineered are disparagingly known as "faith-births" and "Godchildren," as if religious conviction is the only reason a person doesn't jump wholesale onto the eugenics bandwagon, throwing out potential geniuses left and right just because they might also turn out manic-depressive or asthmatic or obese or bald. The movie treats genetics as an almost inherently evil science, presuming that it's better never to know in advance because any probability would be accepted instantly as written fate. I look at people I know doing disability and autism awareness and I'm not saying we don't have institutional hangovers from people self-servingly misunderstanding Darwin, but I also look at people I know doing IVF and I'm pretty sure they're not the top of that slippery slope to state-encouraged sterilization. About the only place where I agree with Gattaca is its linkage of class and eugenics: while the wealthy can afford top-of-the-line kids with the most designer tweaks, like the back-broken Olympian whose flawless genetic signature Vincent appropriates to sneak him into the exclusive space program where his own applied intelligence and dedication can take him to the stars, Vincent's own working-class parents conceived him hopefully in the back of a Buick Riviera and then, seeing in horror that he turned out short-sighted with a predisposition to attention deficit disorder and a life expectancy in his early thirties, scrimped and saved to upgrade the next pregnancy. (And while I assume it is part of the point of this movie that the protagonist's life-defining "disabilities" still leave him an able-bodied straight white cis man with the looks to pass himself off as a genetically tailored "Valid" and the smarts to teach himself celestial navigation, I still find myself wondering, all right, so what if you're black in this future and you have a learning disability? What if you're brown and autistic? What if you're a woman who isn't Uma Thurman's lanky porcelain blonde? How do you hack this system?) What this really comes down to is that there's a particular strain of science fiction in which science itself is the inevitable enemy of the human heart and I hadn't realized until I saw it again that Gattaca belongs to it. At least I was still impressed by Jude Law.

We had planned to run out for dinner during the first act of George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and then return in time for Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) because it's one of Rob's favorite movies and Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes, 2007) because I had very good ten-year-old memories of its twisty, panicky time-loop co-starring the director as a pleasantly sensible time-machine-inventing scientist, but instead we went to the ER at Mount Auburn where some very nice night staff gave me a nebulizer treatment and the X-ray of my lungs came out clear, of which the doctor had not been confident while listening to my chest and the sounds I made in between the coughing. If medical monitors produce a permanent record that gets stored somewhere in a patient's chart, mine almost certainly looks ridiculous because I got bored and started playing with biofeedback. (It was genuinely reassuring for me to know that I can still hold my breath for two minutes without strain even under lung-straitening circumstances.) I've now got two inhalers which I am supposed to use for the bronchitis and apparently I was sick enough this week that I almost completely forgot to eat; I shouldn't do that again. We got back to the Somerville for the denouement of Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End (2012), which involved cultists in pig masks, a dimension-conquering biological supercomputer and its shock troops of giant spiders, a heroic dog, two slackers, some evidently extra-strength soy sauce, some cutesy-splattery animation, and Clancy Brown being randomly badass in shades, which I kind of assume is just a thing Clancy Brown does. I am a little sorry to have missed earlier portions of the film including Doug Jones as a helpful alien, but the coda in which our two heroic slackers are summoned to save yet another universe and flat-out blow their prophesied calling off may have recapitulated everything I need to know.

The film I really wanted not to miss was Clément Cogitore's Neither Heaven nor Earth (Ni le ciel ni la terre, 2015). I had read positive reviews of it last year when it got a U.S. release and they were all justified: it was the standout of the marathon for me. I liked it so much that I have difficulty describing it. It is and is not a war film, just as it is and is not a horror film, because both of those genre labels raise expectations that the film itself effortlessly frustrates. The plot tracks a squad of French soldiers stationed in the Wakhan in Afghanistan in late 2014; under the command of wiry, blond-bearded Captain Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier, incredible), the small garrison patrols and oversees a small, rocky, scrubby valley on the border of Pakistan, constantly reporting back and forth from their north and south posts. Sometimes they skirmish with the local band of Taliban, so far without apparent casualties on either side; sometimes they interact, in carefully mannered and mutually incomprehensible ways, with the local villagers whose sheep are always straying into their sector. The ISAF is pulling out of Afghanistan, but until that time their high-tech, high-testosterone, bored to fucking tears surveillance routine is unvarying. Check in, check out. Rotate. E-mail your wife. Spar. Check your weapons, break them down, check them again. Light a candle in the tarp-shadowed corner that is the barracks chapel, a black cross spray-painted on a white piece of board; if you think of Crusaders in the desert of eight centuries ago, you aren't the only one feeling those echoes, even if Antarès himself is resolutely non-observant. Whistle for the camp dog and feel a little sad when nobody can find him. Hang up on your wife when you hear the captain coming. Check in. And then one morning two soldiers don't. They don't respond by radio; their relief arriving at the north post finds no one in the little box of cement and tin siding, pin-ups and graffiti on its walls and blankets on the floor. There were civilians seen on the ridge that night, performing some kind of fire ritual—we see it through two kinds of enhanced night vision, green-and-white ghosts in a shimmer of uncertainty. The captain leaps to the same conclusion as the viewer, enemy action, collaboration, these people whose land they have been occupying and whose interests they have been hypothetically protecting have shown their Taliban sympathies at last. But the villagers can demonstrate that it was only a sheep that was burned (they won't explain why, but nobody in the squad cares; it is enough for them to know that the locals observe some form of Islam, so long as it doesn't radicalize them the soldiers are under orders not to interfere) and Antarès despite reviewing all available footage and communications can prove no link between his missing men and any outside influence. He tightens security protocols, sets more cameras up. The soldiers start to get nervous; one dreams repeatedly of his missing comrades asleep in a cave while another panics and wastes a sheep in the dark. A messenger comes on a motorcycle from Kabul, is sent away with pictures of Tek and Delcourt just in case. And another man disappears. Not in the middle of the night, even: broad daylight at the south post while his mate steps outside for a piss. Quickly now, the simple answers begin to recede—the local Taliban come waving a white flag, demanding the French soldiers give back their missing men. Antarès agrees to a cease-fire on the assumption that he'll get his own men traded back, but the truce with "the Sultan" (Hamid Reza Javdan) and his equally gung-ho, equally spooked men stretches uneasily as neither side finds what they were looking for. The messenger's motorcycle turns up in the village, his one-man camp under the fig trees inexplicably deserted. The apparently purposeless iron stake in the center of the valley has a sheep tied up to it, bleating overnight in a circle of white paint. A fourth soldier disappears. If heaven and earth are accounted for, as the title would have it, then the traditional division of the cosmos leaves only hell, but the boy from the village insists that the valley is "Allah's land" where it is forbidden to sleep on the ground or "Allah takes you back." To the squad's translator Khalil (Sâm Mirhosseini), the Sultan's men begin to speak of "the people of the cave," the Quranic Seven Sleepers to whom God granted refuge, dreaming beneath the earth until the unknown time comes for them to awaken: "Some say there were four, some say there were five . . . Some say there were seven men and a dog." Another soldier connects the disappearances to the Christian Rapture, imagining in terror a world from which God is removing his creations, one at a time, in the reverse order from which he created them. And Antarès, the modern scholar-soldier, a young but hardened commander who has famously "never left a man, a body, or even a vehicle behind," finds himself for the first time in his life feverishly, dangerously in need of answers, even as the land itself seems placidly disinclined to provide them. I was reminded of the films of Werner Herzog, especially the ones where Klaus Kinski goes crazy in a hostile landscape; I was reminded of the fiction of Gemma Files. I am pretty sure there is some postcolonial theory in this movie, but there are also arresting, singular images that don't reduce easily to any one reading, like a soldier dancing alone before a techno-blasting stack of amps, his rolling, tightly muscled shoulders showing a pair of eyes tattooed one on each shoulderblade; he looks like a monster himself in that moment, he looks like a drinking cup with apotropaic eyes, he looks like the owl of Lilith's deserts, he looks possessed. It was the right film to show at three in the morning and I am so glad the digital copy consented to show its subtitles, since I might have been able to hack the soldiers' French if I saw it written, but my Persian is not a thing.

I have such mixed feelings about Christian Nicolson's This Giant Papier-Mâché Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy (2016). It is an obvious labor of love, filmed and produced with the assistance of Kickstarter, family, and friends. The initial amusing but finite concept of three regular joes from Auckland mysteriously sucked into a far-future, low-budget world in which not only the clichés but the production values of old-school space opera hold true pivots in the second act into something a lot more metafictionally interesting and then does not quite pay off in the third, even while the inventiveness of the production design remains shameless and delightful, fashioning ray guns out of eggbeaters and pirate ships out of commodes and consoles of futuristic buttons and levers out of everything you could find literally underneath your kitchen sink. The dialogue has the time of its life sending up infodumpy worldbuilding and tin-eared heroic epithets and whoever was managing the color saturation dialed it up and down convincingly for different eras of space opera. The writer-director is one of the stars and he doesn't even give himself the most triumphantly delivered line, which has to do with the reclamation of once-spurned geekery and occasioned foot-stamping audience applause. I even think the script has a handle on the comedic deployment of profanity, which I am kind of a hard sell on unless you're Nick Frost and Simon Pegg (or Boston's own Unreliable Narrator, whose Planet of the Warrior-Bunnies last October gave our household the plummily accented, rhetorically invaluable "What a clusterfuck, eh?"). I'm just not sure that it takes the fullest advantage of its premises and to a degree that left me thinking back on the plot with more yes, but they could have than awesome, they did. In this respect it is doing no worse than many summer blockbusters with orders of magnitude more budget; I just really enjoy seeing tiny homegrown oddities outdo the big studios on every level, not just the creative repurposing of squeegees and forks.

So I know I'm not the target audience for John McTiernan's Predator (1987) because I sat through the first act of lovingly slo-mo South American guerillas being shredded with machine-gun fire or pinwheeled through the air against sheets of rolling orange flame and vine-tangled green hell at the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his elite special forces squad in some kind of action-movie wet-dream do-over of Vietnam ("Makes Cambodia look like Kansas") and when Rob came back from CVS with more seltzer I said, "I have drowned in testosterone." I am not even crazy about the second act in which the commandos are stalked by Kevin Peter Hall's Predator moving like a mirror against the trees, despite the inherent interest of trying to figure out the capabilities and limitations of the hunter-alien from the very little information we have, because the logic of survival horror demands the culling of the herd of characters and I knew Schwarzenegger wasn't going to cop it with his name above the title on the poster and all. I was pleased that the script avoiding killing either of its two main black characters until well after Jesse Ventura's chest had been plasma-exploded. But I did not actually start caring about anything that happened onscreen with more than surface curiosity until the third act dropped straight into the full-bore mythic with Schwarzenegger masked in river mud bending himself a longbow, lighting a torch, and giving voice to a primal scream to alert the Predator to come and get him. Go know. After that I did not watch to see whether the hero would defeat the monster, but how, and what the monster would do about it. I had a general idea of the Predator design from the internet, but had not gathered the amphibious texture of its skin—why should it be mammalian at all—or the intricacy of its mouthparts, which gives it a familiarly doglike look until it unfolds. I was expecting much more explanation at the end than we got. I liked the withholding. I feel I may now wish to try Alien vs. Predator (2004), which both my father and brother enjoyed. They mentioned at the time that it has a black female hero, which I am pretty sure is still rare in genre film or any other kind, really.

I am the target audience for Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer (1991). I have two contradictory memories of discovering the subject material: the timing suggests that I saw the movie first, because I remember seeing it in theaters with my parents, but I also remember purchasing a secondhand copy of Dave Stevens' original comic because the trade paperback had an introduction by Harlan Ellison. In any case, I managed to get enough mental distance between the two versions that I can enjoy the film on its own terms rather than in competition with the comic, which means that I can bask in the performances and the successfully realized retro aesthetic and mostly mind only that the first act is kind of a mess and Jennifer Connelly, though she has many fine qualities which the film duly appreciates, is not Bettie Page. I did not know before this afternoon that Stevens has a brief but memorable cameo as the Nazi rocketeer who blows himself up in the suppressed training film; I keep forgetting that the German propaganda cartoon of rocketmen soaring in black arrows across the Atlantic to bring down the White House in flames and unfurl the Parteiadler in place of the American eagle was directed by Mark Dindal, who has a usually charming and here chilling eye for historical animation styles. I feel it can't merely have been punch-drunk adrenaline that had the audience hollering at every blow of the Nazi-punching climax. I've never seen Billy Campbell as anyone but Cliff Secord, but he has the right hair and the right smile; I have a longstanding fondness for Alan Arkin dating back to The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), but I think he's pretty much perfect as Peevy. Other people I keep forgetting are in this film include Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes ("Congratulations, gentlemen. Thanks to the diligence of the FBI, this particular vacuum cleaner will not fall into the wrong hands"), Paul Sorvino as Eddie Valentine ("I may not make an honest buck, but I'm one hundred percent American—I don't work for no two-bit Nazi"), and Max Grodénchik as the criminal underling Wilmer, which should tell you right there what his chances of surviving this story are going to be. I am not sure I had actually noticed before that William Sanderson plays one of the other stunt pilots at the airfield, which means I have finally seen him as someone other than J.F. Sebastian. I think it is highly likely that The Rocketeer is the first movie in which I saw Timothy Dalton, meaning I may never quite separate him from his Errol Flynn impression. Johnston directs period pieces so well, I wish people would let him do more of it.

And by that point it was nearly eleven in the morning and we had seen a beautiful print of Ron Underwood's Tremors (1990) at the Somerville's noon-to-midnight Halloween marathon four years ago, so we bailed on the DCP and went for lunch at Noor, where we had been planning to eat dinner the previous night before the whole ER situation intervened. It was extremely satisfying. I really like pickled turnips. The cats sang the songs of their disgraceful neglect as soon as we got home, then presented belly for petting and, in the case of Autolycus, tried to stick their faces into my tomato soup some hours later when I made myself dinner on the not-forgetting-to-eat plan. By now it is time for me to remember to go to bed. I am not sure this 'Thon review is all that much shorter than in previous years; it might just be distributed differently. This annual observance brought to you by my stalwart backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Sunday night in the ER at Mount Auburn, I was reading John le Carré's The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016) when I ran into the following passage at the beginning of a chapter about Martin Ritt, Richard Burton, and the filming of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965):

I was a serving diplomat of thirty-two and I had never met movie people before. In childhood, like all boys of my time, I had fallen in love with Deanna Durbin, and rolled in the aisles over the Three Stooges. In wartime cinemas, I had shot down German aeroplanes piloted by Eric Portman, and triumphed over the Gestapo with Leslie Howard. (My father was so persuaded that Portman was a Nazi that he said he should be interned.)

At which point I exclaimed out loud to [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel, because the Deanna Durbin and the Three Stooges could be anything, but the Leslie Howard is Pimpernel Smith (1941) and the Eric Portman is Squadron Leader X (1943) and if le Carré really has a memory of the latter rather than just using it as cultural shorthand, I want to ask him what it was like, because it is famously a lost film.1 It was written by Emeric Pressburger and directed by Lance Comfort and I have wanted to see it ever since I discovered the Archers and Eric Portman simultaneously with A Canterbury Tale (1944). Thanks to the good grace of Olive Films, Pimpernel Smith finally does exist on DVD and Blu-Ray and someday when I have money I will purchase a copy, but as regards Squadron Leader X I've been as much out of luck as the BFI. There's pictures and a summary and a reputation. I don't usually think of movies as one of the things that can be lost with the ceaselessly moving window of living memory, but here we are. I wonder if there's anyone alive who remembers London After Midnight (1927).

1. Portman also plays a Nazi in Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel (1941), but there is no shooting down of a German airplane in that movie; there is a stolen Canadian seaplane, but Portman isn't the guy flying it when it crashes in a lake in Manitoba.
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