Tag Archives: movies

Old movie review: ‘Passport to Suez’

Ever since I started spending my days at home, I’ve been exploring television options (when I’m not listening to talk radio). There were a couple different choices on free broadcast TV for old westerns, but I’ve begun to exhaust those over the past year. Now, having recently acquired a new Blu-Ray player (the old one died; they seem to have the life expectancy of goldfish), I’ve begun exploring the possibilities of that device. One thing I can do with it is stream Amazon Prime video. Last night I tried out an old movie in a series I knew mostly by reputation – Passport to Suez, a Lone Wolf movie starring Warren William.

Warren William had an intriguing career. He looks and sounds like an Englishman, but was actually born in the small town of Aitkin, Minnesota. One’s immediate impression when he comes on screen is, “This can’t be the hero. He’s too old.” He does indeed look old, but nevertheless he is the star. Like Basil Rathbone, he was known as a screen villain, but had a successful run as a movie detective – Michael Lanyard, “The Lone Wolf.” (This 1943 movie would be his last appearance in the role. He would die in 1948, aged 53.) The Lone Wolf character was similar to the Saint – a reformed thief now operating as a private detective. The character was created by American writer Louis Joseph Vance in 1914. Though English, Michael Lanyard (it is clearly explained) is now a patriotic American citizen.

The Lone Wolf does not noticeably live up to his nickname. He is staying in a Cairo hotel with his constant companion, his valet Jamison (Eric Blore), and immediately gets flowers sent by the hotel’s owner, his old buddy Johnny Booth (a young Sheldon Leonard playing a sort of Rick Blaine without the secret sorrow). A driver named Fritz (a youthful Lloyd Bridges showing off a not-bad English accent) comes to take them to visit the head of British intelligence in the city, but Fritz is actually a Nazi agent. He delivers them to a German spymaster, who threatens them to help him but is bluffing – he knows Lanyard will try to double-cross him, and he’s planning on that.

It all gets complicated (and implausible). Actress Ann Savage is there as the Dangerous Dame, and a series of Middle Eastern sinister types worthy of “Algiers” (one of my favorite movies) pop in and out, often through an odd tiled wall in Johnny’s office, equipped with a secret door. (It seems as if anybody can wander in; I’d have it nailed shut if I were him.) But all in all, Passport to Suez was a pleasant entertainment, atmospheric and streaked with interesting shadows. I liked it.

My only real quibble is the final action sequence, which involves Lanyard in a borrowed plane, firing a machine gun at a car driven by fleeing Nazis. This is supposed to be Egypt, but the landscape looks like the American Midwest. I mean, there’s plenty of desert not far from Los Angeles. Couldn’t they have shot there? (I expect the answer is, “We were using stock footage.”)

Still, a fun flick. I think I’ll watch another.

Viking deeds

Here’s a famous scene from the 1958 film The Vikings, where Kirk Douglas runs on top of the oars along the side of his ship.

I wonder how many people know that this scene was pulled directly from a passage in Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla. Snorri writes of King Olaf Trygvesson:

King Olaf was in all bodily accomplishments the foremost of all the men in Norway of whom we are told. He was stronger and more agile than anyone else…. One of these is that he climbed the Smalsarhorn and fastened his shield on the top of the mountain; and another that he helped down one of his followers who had before him climbed the mountain, and now could get neither up nor down…. King Olaf could walk along the oars outside the Serpent [his ship] while his men rowed. He could juggle with three daggers, with one always up in the air, and he always caught them by the hilt. He wielded his sword equally well with either hand, and hurled two spears at the same time.

You may have noted that Kirk Douglas did not quite match Snorri’s account of Olaf, as he had the men hold the oars horizontal and rigid while he ran, while Olaf (reportedly) did it while they were rowing. I’m pretty sure that latter thing is impossible, though, and what we see in the movie seems more likely.

Kirk Douglas turned 102 years old last December. Whenever I see a picture of him today, I think of this scene, in which he seems the epitome of physicality and masculine vigor.

And I’m not getting any younger myself.

Don’t Rely on Movies for History

The star of the upcoming biopic on Tolkien, Nicholas Hoult, said he loves what he has learned about the great author’s rich knowledge of history and language. His character demonstrates an early love of language in the film by talking to the woman who would become his wife about a word he felt should mean far more than it does. Entertainment Weekly states, “The give-and-take of their blossoming romance is founded on language, and in such ways, Tolkien makes a case for why the mind of The Lord of the Rings author was as fascinating as his fantasy epics.”

I gather that scene or anything like it actually never happened, which is one reason the Tolkien estate said they would not support or endorse the movie and did not authorize or participate in its production.

Tolkien historian John Garth said theirs is a good plan, because biographical movies like this usually make up things. He told The Guardian, “As a biographer, I expect I’ll be busy correcting new misconceptions arising from the movie. I hope that anyone who enjoys the film and is interested in Tolkien’s formative years will pick up a reliable biography.”

Translator’s notes

Oslo, where I work. OK, remotely. But this is how it looks while I’m working. Photo credit:
Håkon von Hirsch@hakonvh

Sorry about not posting yesterday. That will happen from time to time, under the new regime. My schedule is not my own.

Last week I got zero assignments. Null, as we say in Norwegian. In the resulting vacuum, I went a little nuts. I developed a sudden mania I’d never had before – I went out to lunch every day, sometimes to restaurants I’d never visited. I felt I needed to discover my options, up my dining game a little. It passed, thank goodness. I ain’t made of money.

Yesterday a job came in – and, not surprisingly, it was a big one with a tight deadline. I always get a little nervous when I take one of those on, because I’m still uncertain of my powers. I live in terror of not meeting a deadline – causing my boss to fail to deliver on a contract, bringing the whole business down in ignominy. In fact, I’m better than I think, and I don’t generally have much trouble. I got this job done before I expected to.

And today, another job and another tight deadline. But I finished the first draft before supper, and I’ll give it a polish this evening and send it off, so they’ll have it in Oslo when business starts tomorrow. No sweat.

But I did sweat, a little. I’m a worrier.

General observations on the Norwegian film industry from my perspective: I’d say 60 to 80% of my work is on scripts concerning spunky single mothers trying to make it in a man’s world. (Even the one I can tell you about, Atlantic Crossing, is about a woman raising her children alone – though she’s a princess without many career worries.) That scenario appears to be what they think people want to watch just now. I suppose it indicates that the bulk of the audience, both for movies and TV, is women. Which is probably true. But is it cause or effect?

Not to say that these scripts are heavy with radical feminism or man-hatred. They’re generally pretty good in that regard. It just seems that the production companies want to see stories through women’s eyes.

Godzilla 3: Dream of a Deadly Death

Today I watched Godzilla: The Planet Eater, the third part of the impressively animated Netflix series released last year. Whereas the second part was largely a UPS van stuffed with technobabble, this story swapped that out for a cathedral stuffed with religiobabble. I thought this part might have a slower build, because the characters must have exhausted themselves by this point, but having to listen to the priest of the deadly death for at least forty-five minutes was boring.

Viewers would be excused for thinking this was a screed against religion as a whole. Words are said to that effect, but the religion in question is the cult of the void, the enlightened understanding that nothing is everything, death is peace, and all struggle should be assisted into oblivion preferably by a physician or qualified government agent.

No, this story seems to come from the root of Godzilla mythology. Those nuclear bombs we made, all that E=MC2 stuff (written clearly on a chalkboard during one of the priest’s expositions), brought judgment on our heads. Godzilla rose from the earth because our civilization was too advanced, but he was only phase one. Ghidorah the Golden Demise is phase two.

I may not be smart enough to run with this, but this series may be an effectively illustration against atheism. Godzilla embodies the earth fighting for itself. Ghidorah is a nihilistic void. Mankind has only its own wits to use and cannot keep up. All of the talk here of gods and salvation only makes a kind of sense because of the echoes of actual sense found in the Bible and other major religions. Many atheists understand this implicitly. What they call the nonsense of Christianity is more of an argument against what they think God may actually be, an actual creator who has every right to hold his creation accountable for their actions. Far better to paint priests and believers as a death cult.

But Christians (and Jews, Muslims, and some others) aren’t the ones arguing for death in our civilization. We’re the ones saying the weapons of war must be used wisely. Nuking a city must be a last resort, because we want everyone to live in peace.

But nuclear bombs have been dropped. Maybe the idea of a god-like monster rising up to lay down the smack on our hubris appeals to some who have no knowledge of a far greater, far more terrifying judge.

‘The Vikings on Film,’ by Kevin J. Harty

You know this film has a reputation of being a very bloody film, lots of blood, lots of fighting, and it’s just not true; there is in fact no blood shown in this picture except in this one shot where Kirk has his hand up holding the hawk and you see a small stream of blood trickling down between his fingers … but everybody talks about how bloody it was because of the impression you get. (Director Richard Fleischer on the 1958 film, “The Vikings.”)

The world of Viking reenactment is not without its controversies. I’ve seen many a dispute over subjects like acceptable levels of authenticity, whether heathenism should be compulsory, or the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone.

But one subject that almost always yields agreement is Viking movies.

We hate them all.

Some of them we hate fondly, and we enjoy watching them even as we scoff at them.

Some we consider insults to our intelligence.

But we pretty generally agree that we’re still waiting to see a good one.

So I was curious to read Kevin J. Harty’s collection of critical essays, The Vikings on Film.

My verdict: Not as enlightening as I hoped, and way too much Film Studies jargon.

There was a certain degree of the sort of thing I wanted most – stories about how the various films came to be, and evaluations of how they worked – or didn’t. As I should have expected, there were numerous critical lamentations over the levels of “problematic” masculinity in the stories.

I was surprised by some of the evaluations. The reviewer who writes on “The 13th Warrior,” doesn’t think it works very well. I think it works quite well as a story – it’s the costumes and armor that appall me. Another reviewer thought “Outlander” (the Sci-Fi version of Beowulf with Jim Caviezel) was generally successful – not my impression at all.

And some movies, like “Beowulf and Grendel” (which I hated, but which had good costumes), are barely touched on.

I didn’t read all the reviews, because they concerned movies I haven’t seen, or that don’t interest me – such as the animated “Asterix and the Vikings.”

All in all, I didn’t regret reading The Vikings on Film, but I wasn’t much enlightened by it either.

Christian Movies are less art, more propaganda

Jared Wilson says Christian movies have gotten better in the last few years but still aren’t good stories.

Christian movies are more akin to propaganda than art, because they begin with wanting to communicate some Christian theme — the power of prayer, the power of believing, the power of something — and then the story is crafted around that message. This is true even when the story is something based on a real-life incident.

They also take place in a world of Christian sentimentalism, in which cliches sound compelling even to harsh critics. He make five points in all, bringing it down to this fundamental question: “What if there isn’t a way to make the gospel sound cool?”

Now I’m going to do what Jared says I can’t do, which is point to an exception, but considering how he’s defined the subject, Paul Harrill’s first film, Something, Anything, may not qualify as a Christian movie. It is a Christian story–quiet, poignant, and untidy. We saw it in 2016 and thought it was wonderful. Read more and view the trailer through the link.

Two New Animated Godzilla Movies

I never watched the original Godzilla from 1954 in Japanese or 1956 in American English, but I think I did see one of those early films, one with Mothra or Rodan maybe. What I remember is a Godzilla that acted more like the savior of Tokyo and all Japanese children, not the embodiment of retribution against human hubris as he is today. He was more like the giant robots I played with as a kid. (Does anyone remember the robotic Shogun warriors? I had Raideen. Hey, there’s Godzilla with the warriors in a commercial.)

In this decade, the Godzilla franchise has turned back to the themes of the original movie. The King of Monsters was originally a symbol for the atomic bomb. Though they kill him at the end of the first movie, we are told another beast just like him could emerge if nuclear weapons testing continues. We were the horror we unleashed on the world, something as destructive as a giant radioactive dinosaur! There’s an argument in the 1954 movie about releasing the research done to create the weapon that kills the monster. “Bombs versus bombs, missiles versus missiles, and now a new superweapon to throw upon us all! As a scientist – no, as a human being – I can’t allow [the release of the research] to happen!”

In the new stories, the nuclear threat has been blended with pollution and all threats to the environment in summing up the reason Godzilla exists, and the anime movies I mean to review here (two parts of a trilogy) don’t try to offer a cogent reason for the monster’s existence, only hints and statements quickly abandoned to the action.

The Earth after Godzilla
The Earth after Godzilla in Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters begins with the human race on an interstellar ark searching for a new place to live. We quickly learn Captain Haruo Sakaki is the angry radical of the group who believes the leaders are cold-hearted and aimless. He’s also the one who hateses Godzilla the mostest, my precious! After a tragedy with a landing party, leadership concludes it’s been roughly 10,000 years since they left Earth (time having shifted due to their spacecraft’s warp drive). Surely Godzilla is dead and Earth can receive them again.

With little development in the story, we learn humanity has been joined by two alien peoples, both of whom lost their planets to monsters like Godzilla. One group, the Exif, is primarily represented by the priest Metphies. He calls on the others to seek a vague god figure and harmony while also encouraging Haruo to pursue his passion to destroy Godzilla (If you believe in yourself, kid, you too can kill a really big monster). The other group appear to be all logical warriors, the Bilusaludo. This group was on earth trying to build the Mechagodzilla counter-weapon before the King of Monsters smote them with his unyielding wrath.

Continue reading Two New Animated Godzilla Movies

Is Gotham Worth Saving?

Steven Greydanus talks Dark Knight and other superhero movies.

The dialogue between God and Abraham, in which Abraham pleads for the city, is echoed most directly in Batman Begins. “Like Constantinople or Rome before it,” intones Liam Neeson’s Ducard, later to be revealed as Ra’s al Ghul himself, Gotham “has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving. … Gotham must be destroyed.”

Bruce tries, like Abraham, to negotiate: “Gotham isn’t beyond saving. Give me more time. There are good people here.”

But the battle for the city doesn’t actually end.

What’s a Movie Critic to Do?

The stars of the new heist release Ocean’s 8 (are the estates of Frank, Dean, and the boys still making money on this?) aren’t wild about critical reaction to their film.

Cate Blanchett said, “A studio can support a film and it’s the invisible faces on the internet, and often male reviewers, who can view it through a prism of misunderstanding.” I gather that means they don’t like it because they don’t get it because they’re men. Sandra Bullock followed up, “It would be nice if reviewers reflected who the film is for, like children should review children’s films, not a 60-year-old man. I guess his opinion would be kind of skewed.”

And if children were the driving forces behind children’s movies, it wouldn’t be long before all we’d have is Axe Cop. May I remind our studio audience that Milne first wrote Winnie the Pooh when he was 44 years old?

But the stars are talking about critics, not producers or directors, on which point Alissa Wilkinson replies to say critics aren’t being paid to support films. They are paid to write essays (sometimes works of art in themselves) about the movies they watch. With many reviews of one movie, you’ll want a diversity of perspectives, because that makes for better reading and understanding in general.

In short, a good critic develops a large capacity for imagination. They can’t know what it would be like to see the movie as someone other than themselves. But the good critic tries very hard to put themselves in those shoes anyhow, especially when they detect that the movies’ target audience will be someone other than themselves.

That’s very different than saying a movie wasn’t meant for you, so we don’t want your professional review possibly prevent our target audience from watching what we made. As Wilkinson points out, most studios want to attract a wide audience in order to make money on a single film. Discounting someone’s opinion because he’s not the right type of person doesn’t help.

Film review: ‘The King’s Choice’

The King's Choice

Fair warning: I’ll probably be reviewing a few more Scandinavian movies and TV shows than usual in the future. Or not; maybe I’ll get tired of them. Since I’ve become (peripherally) associated with the Norwegian film industry, I figure I ought to have some familiarity with the field.

The film The King’s Choice, released in 2016, is probably the most acclaimed recent movie out of Norway. It is not one of those that “my” company worked on, but I decided to see it, so I’d be able to discuss it at all those industry cocktail parties I expect I’ll be invited to soon.

The film concerns Norway’s King Haakon VII (played by a Danish actor, Jesper Christensen. This makes sense, as King Haakon began life as a Danish prince. I was delighted to find that I could identify his Danish accent when he spoke). When he became king of Norway in 1905, he changed his name to Haakon and his son Alexander’s to Olav, because those were the names of the last two kings of the old royal line in the 14th Century. Thus, he symbolically picked up the dynasty where it had broken off – and by and large the Norwegians loved him for it (except for a few stubborn republicans).

At the beginning of the movie, it’s 1940, and Haakon is an arthritic old man with a purely ceremonial job, mostly occupied with playing with his grandchildren. But word comes suddenly that the Germans have invaded, and he, his family, and the government flee northward, sometimes under enemy fire, beginning what will come to be a long exile. Eventually he will be approached individually by the German ambassador, and faced with a very hard decision. Continue reading Film review: ‘The King’s Choice’

Netflix’s ‘Bright’

Watch a trailer for the new Netflix movie Bright and you’ll see exactly what the movie is, a buddy cop story within an urban fantasy world. As such it stands up well, but, boy, I wish they had shown restraint in the usual content areas.

Jakoby the Orc, LAPD

Will Smith is veteran cop Daryl Ward who has been given rookie cop Nick Jakoby, played by Joel Edgerton, as a diversity hire to meet Los Angeles’s political requirements. Jacoby is an orc. As he described it, his people chose the wrong side long ago and have been paying for it ever since. In a couple conversations, we hear of the nine races who were brought together 2,000 years ago to defeat the dark lord. Now some bad elves want to bring him back, so naturally that’s not going to fly.

The essence of the story is Ward coming to terms with his bigotry against Jakoby and Jakoby persevering through that and everything else without losing hope. That part is painfully realistic.  Everyone on the force hates him despite his eagerness to please them and be a good cop. They refuse to believe he will remain loyal to his partner or the force at large when pressured by other orcs.

It’s a straight-up buddy cop story with pervasive and understated fantasy elements. From what I can tell, it follows the pattern set by many similar movies. Perhaps that’s the mindset that gave us 200 f-words for this 117 minute movie (I’m guessing, not counting). When the big bad guys show up, our heroes make a run through a strip club and the bloodshed skyrockets.

So I can’t recommend Bright, even though I like the concept and the big idea. But if you want to see this and have not watched the trailer, I recommend skipping it. It doesn’t spoil the story, but it does take the edge off of all the most dramatic moments.

We Loved Your Story; Write Another Just Like It

Danny Rubin, who gave us the wonderful movie Groundhog Day, thought he’d found his place in Hollywood after that film’s success. Everyone wanted to talk to him, and they all wanted him to do the same thing he’d done before. S. I. Rosenbaum interviewed him for Vulture.

He kept writing scripts for his own ideas, and he kept selling them, pretty steadily, over the years — to Universal, to Amblin, to Castle Rock, to Miramax. But none of them were produced, and even when one of them spent some time being developed, Rubin would often be booted off the project. He wrote a movie about a woman; they asked if it could be about a man. He wrote a silent film; they asked if it could have dialogue. “People weren’t responding to my stuff by making movies out of it,” he says. “They were optioning it, but then there were the same arguments over and over: They were trying to make a movie I said I was expressly not interested in making.”

The man behind Groundhog Day has proven Hollywood is stuck in a loop of its own making. (via Prufrock News)

Silence: A Difficult, Important Film

John Murdock talks about beautiful, but problematic the movie Silence is. It isn’t a success story. The power of believing doesn’t end the war. It ends on a note that will need explanation for many viewers.

In an age of ISIS brutality, its themes are sadly relevant today, and it opens a window on a period in church history of which too few are aware. It is not a perfect picture, but those who proclaim it a masterpiece have reason to do so.

New ‘Viking’ trailer

I’m weary of the world tonight. Can’t think of anything to write that I wouldn’t regret tomorrow.

So here’s the latest trailer for the new Russian Viking movie. My reenactor friends complain that the costumes aren’t accurate, but in my view they look punctilious compared to the costumes on the History Channel.

The latest news I’ve seen says international rights have been sold, but there’s been no announcement of a US release date.