The ‘Best’ of the Rest — Films I Enjoyed (or Not) in the Movie Theater (Part Two)

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” with Charlize Theron & Tom Hardy

Welcome back! Summer is fast approaching, and that means it’s time for movie-going season. Here’s the continuation of my truncated reviews of first-run movies that over the years yours truly has watched at our local multiplex cinema. The films are discussed in chronological order. Happy reading, everyone!

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Let’s start things off with a bang! This fabulous reboot of the old George Miller-directed Mad Max series (from 1979 to 1985), which featured the young Mel Gibson, makes the recent spate of American-made Marvel Universe and Justice League pictures look like finger painting by comparison. Starring British actor Tom Hardy as the laconic and psychologically-challenged ex-cop Max Rockatansky, the story takes place in a futuristic “society,” if that’s the correct verbiage; a blighted backdrop where some terrible form of global catastrophe has left the planet a barren waste land (or, at least, the section where Max and his cohorts dwell and fight in). Gas (or “guzzoline” as it is called here) is the currency that sets men free and enables them to lord it over their underlings. Women, who happen to be the community’s driving force and all-important keys to survival, are treated as breeders and/or nursemaids by the few who are able to procreate. The look, the feel, and the grime of this No Man’s Land have been recreated to a startling degree. Along with them, the power of the chase, and the use of makeshift automobiles and rough-and-ready trucks (such as the War Rig) of every size and description — which make up the bulk of the community’s transportation system — are part of several incredibly visceral scenes in this stunt-laden spectacular. There are a variety of set pieces, all of them plot driven. Gibson, the original Max, was initially tapped to give life to this sequel of sorts. Thankfully, however, director Miller made the decisive move to go with a younger actor. This is where Hardy’s grim visage and restrained thespian skills come in handy in depicting a character whose steely-eyed determination and spare gestures far outweigh his inability at conveying his profoundest thoughts. A man of action and instinct, Max is the “grin and bear it” type (more like grunt and grumble, as depicted in those early 1930s Popeye cartoons). Everything feels right about this continuation, which is light years removed from the Star Wars franchise, or any of those dreadful The Hobbit movies directed by Peter Jackson. Filmed on the desert terrain of Namibia in Africa, Mad Max: Fury Road is anchored by a seething, pitch-perfect performance from South-African born Charlize Theron as the one-armed Imperator Furiosa (a real spitfire), the real focus of this fire and brimstone road epic. Nicholas Hoult is the frenetic pumped-up Nux, with Hugh Keays-Byrne as the repulsive Immortan Joe, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as the Splendid Angharad, Nathan Jones as the hulking Rictus Erectus, and Riley Keough as Capable. Told in three parts (each with its own distinctive tinge), with brief flashbacks to prior incidents (more like electric-light sparks) that continue to pollute Max’s brain-wave patterns, the visual and coloristic elements in this latest entry in the apocalyptic realm are exhilarating, to say the least. Every aspect of this action-packed adventure flick is splendid and has been placed in more than capable hands (love those Pole Cats) by the visionary Dr. Miller, including the excellent soundtrack and the outstanding music score by Junkie XL. Our favorite weirdo characters: the actor and musician iOTA (real name: Sean Hape) as the fire spouting, electric guitar-playing The Doof Warrior; and the brief bit (accompanied by the “Dies irae” from Verdi’s Requiem) by the so-called Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter). Honorable Mention: The women who comprise the Vulvalini. Do see this in widescreen surround sound (or in a first-class home theater setting). The color range and amount of detail are positively astounding! You can turn the volume off and it would still make sense, it’s that good. Keep alert to the proposed sequel, Mad Max: Furiosa.

Kylo Ren (l.) threatens Finn & Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Ho-hum, another day, another lackluster science-fiction foray into the Star Wars universe! After creator, writer, director, and erstwhile producer George Lucas sold the rights to his money-making franchise to Disney, it seems that creativity and original content went out the door via the star-freighter’s garbage chute — and into the pockets of backers hoping to make a killing (or “chump change” in this instance) with this ponderous excuse for a continuation. This is one long and hopelessly hokey sequel, people. As longtime readers of this blog know, I have been a Star Wars fan since the first film appeared on the horizon (or in our solar system) back in 1977. I was present at every one of the premiere showings on the traditional Memorial Day weekend. I even stood on that endless line (which veered off into the stratosphere) for the initial run of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. You can imagine my disappointment, then, at this less than rousing epic, which is long (oh, soooo long) on special-FX and short on actual substance. A lot of sound and fury, as well as lightsabers and firepower, signifying …. Well, that’s a good point. What does this two-hour-and-fifteen-minute adventure-less thrill ride have to do with Lucas’ space fantasy? And where does one begin to relate the many problems we have with this film’s bogus story line? New characters abound throughout, which is all to the good. And familiar characters make spurious entrances, which is all to the bad. Some old favorites and friends (Han Solo, Chewbacca), and some overly recognizable wisecracks “help,” in a manner of speaking. There’s a little bit of everything for the geek in all of us, including a space-age kitchen sink to play in, and a new robotic android companion (BB-8) to squeak at. One thing I did like, and that was the elevated quality of the starships and cruisers, which have that solid, bulky, tactile-rendered, lived-in feeling from the originals. Indeed, the return of the Millennium Falcon intact was reason enough to cheer about. New cast members Daisy Ridley as Rey (game and lively), Adam Driver as Kylo Ren (brooding), John Boyega as Finn (clueless), Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron (wasted), Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata (dig those crazy goggles), Domhnall Gleeson as the spittle-spewing General Hux, and Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke (in motion-capture mode, just as Lupita was above) give it the old college try, along with a last-minute cameo from Mark Hamill as the bearded Luke Skywalker. Some mad dashing about by Harrison Ford as Han, as well as a badly aged Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, and dozens more, provide some needed spunk. The brief bit by Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth in the Game of Throne series on HBO) as Captain Phasma promises more than it delivers. Truth be told, the old gang does add some flavor and spice but little else that’s nice to the circuitous plot. Ah, yes, the plot. The story takes place 30 years after the incidents that wrapped up Episode VI. It seems there’s another bunch of storm-trooping soldiers in charge, only this time they’re called the First Order (i.e., the bad guys) which rose from the remnants of the deposed Galactic Republic. On the opposite side of the tracks, there’s our correspondingly insignificant Rebellion, unconvincingly labeled the Resistance (the so-named good guys). The dark side of the Force makes a comeback, thanks to the badly damaged mask of the late Darth Vader, which holds a considerable grip on the impressionable Kylo Ren. Hmm, I wonder why ….. Yes, folks, the plot becomes oh-so predictable at this point that there’s no sense going into specifics. The more things change in that long ago and far, far away galaxy, the more they stay the same.

Beetle, Kubo & Monkey of “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Another gorgeously constructed, brilliantly realized stop-motion tale from Laika Studios, the company that brought you Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014). There is exemplary voiceover work by the ubiquitous Charlize Theron, in addition to Art Parkinson (excellent, by the way), Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Matthew McConaughey. A decent score by Dario Marianelli (Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina), who also composed the music for The Boxtrolls, sets the right Oriental tone throughout this extended road and buddy picture. And the novel use of ex-Beatle George Harrison’s song, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” will surely bring a tear to one’s eye. Laika Studios, and especially its director, animator, and CEO Travis Knight, continue to mine the richly rewarding, frame-by-frame field that spotlights the struggles that young people face in life — in particular, the problems that kids encounter in convincing their elders, who should know better, to listen to their counsel and advice (a favorite topic of the above stop-motion features). In practically all of Laika’s movies, relatable characters such as Coraline, Norman, Eggs, and now Kubo continuously confront this challenge, sometimes head-on but most times by blindly stepping up to the challenge and taking charge of the situation. One such child, the 12-year-old Kubo, learns to live by his wits in the adult world and tries to cope with its troubling consequences — most of them not of his choosing and, in this unusual feature, inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, origami, the Shinto religion, and the supernatural (in the form of two wicked aunts and a sinisterly clever grandfather). He meets along the way the representative characters manifested by Monkey (Theron) and Beetle (McConaughey), his steadfast companions on a mission to track down his deceased father’s weapons and armor (as you can tell, there’s a lot of story to glean through). The importance of family and respect for one’s ancestors are stressed, something that Pixar Animation Studios later attempted with the award-winning Coco (2017). Ambitious in the extreme and a little long and murky at times, Kubo and the Two Strings remains an admirable effort at understanding a foreign culture; one that is so different from our own that the film ends up more as an evocative experiment rather than an emotionally cathartic one (which it aims gamely to put over, but ultimately fails). Small children may have difficulty deciphering the finer points that are tossed at them. They are not alone! When the story plays second samisen to the visuals, and when the conversation turns to thoughts of death, family, and (gulp) individual sacrifice, it starts asking an underage audience more questions than they can handle. It may not be the best told fable in the expanding Laika library, but it certainly is their best-looking and best-sounding picture to date. The opening tidal wave sequence alone is worth the investment. In that, Laika is the lone path-breaker in this once-vanishing form of stop-motion entertainment.     

(Clockwise from left): Valerian, Bubble, Commander Filitt & Laureline in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Probably the most ambitious, sumptuously photographed, and seamlessly realized special FX feature of all the above and below entries. A bit lacking in dramatic impact, there is still that goofy kid’s eye-view feel (“Look, Ma, I-made-a-sci-fi-fantasy picture”) to this gargantuan production. At a cost of nearly US $200 million, director, writer, and co-producer Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the most expensive European co-production to date. It’s a bit more than just a Fifth Element retread, Besson’s earlier cult hit, which many critics have compared it to. Based on a French graphic publication from the 1960s, Valérian et Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, this literal comic-book come-to-life adventure film stars Dane DeHaan as Major Valerian, a hotshot space pilot in the Han Solo tradition of maverick gunfighters; and ex-model Cara Delevingne as his co-pilot Sergeant Laureline, a spry no-nonsense police woman and would-be girlfriend to the girl-crazy Valerian. This attractive couple spars in the age-old tradition of The Thin Man series (starring William Powell and Myrna Loy), with barely disguised intimations of the snappy repartee between Han Solo and Princess Leia. We know, from our extensive movie-going experience, that love-hate relationships such as these end up in only one way: the two young people will eventually fall into each other’s arms. Or will they? That’s but one of the many off-center “in jokes” that Besson’s film plays up. The others include state-of-the-art effects and brief star turns by an accomplished cast, which includes Clive Owen as the sullen Commander Filitt, Kris Wu as Sergeant Neza, jazzman Herbie Hancock as the holographic Defense Minister, Ethan Hawke doing his best Dennis Hopper imitation as Jolly the Pimp, Rutger Hauer in an all-too-brief-stint as President of the World State Federation, the voice of John Goodman as the formidable Jabba the Hutt lookalike and sound-alike Igon Siruss (with insinuations of a probable sequel afoot), and the remarkable if limited input of pop-star Rihanna as the shape-shifting alien Bubble. Her exotic dance number has to be seen to be believed! Surely viewers will be reminded of the opera diva Plavalaguna sequence in The Fifth Element. As a matter of fact, there are one-too-many references to that earlier feature, sometimes to the current one’s detriment. Nevertheless, here’s another instance where the opening episode highlighting the seven-foot tall bald-pated race known as Müls (who smack of the blue-skinned Na’vi from James Cameron’s Avatar) offers much promise, specifically when it deals with their planet’s annihilation and the fate of their race. A plethora of related complications and extraneous side characters (for example, the rollicking trio reminiscent of Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie) conflict with the main issue and leads to inevitable exhaustion on the part of the viewer. Likely, the film will play better on downloads and streaming devices, and in 4K or Blu-ray transmissions. Definitely a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, Valerian unfortunately veers off in too many directions at once. It can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be taken seriously (in the manner of Blade Runner 2049 below) or wallow in self-parody. A pity! As with Mad Max: Fury Road, I look forward to a sequel that will flesh out and expand upon the material.

Ryan Gosling as Officer K in one of many fabulous images from “Blade Runner 2049”

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

When I first saw this long anticipated follow-up to Ridley Scott’s visual masterpiece Blade Runner (1982), my initial reaction was, “Man, what a downer! How could the director and visionary of Arrival (see my previous review via the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/the-best-of-the-rest-films-i-enjoyed-or-not-in-the-movie-theater-part-one/) make such a depressingly bleak, snail’s-paced picture as this?” Yes, it’s impressive to look at, but God, does this movie crawl — sometimes on all fours. Looking back at that gut reaction, I realize that Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian filmmaker, had other things on his mind than a mere follow-up to an acknowledged cult classic. In that respect, I give Monsieur Denis the benefit of the doubt. What he and his committed cast and crew members have assembled here is a stand-alone project: their own fantastically sentient world; a visually stunning, intellectually stimulating science-fiction recreation of a future where Replicants (human lookalikes with limited life-spans) do the drudgework (much of it off-world), while Blade Runners (police officers charged with tracking down miscreant Replicants) bring “law and order” to a Hong Kong-like megalopolis populated by emotionless automatons. These are the human characters, mind you. There are multiple references to the earlier film (many of them quite subtle, while others are blatantly overt), as well as tributes to sci-fi sagas of decades past, including intermittent allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both of these genre classics figure prominently in the ethos of Blade Runner 2049. Call it the “new noir,” or a sci-fi crime drama. Actually, it’s a literal police procedural, as Officer K (a relentlessly morose Ryan Gosling) begins the story by terminating a rogue Replicant named Sapper Morton (hulking Dave Bautista). The Replicants harbor a deep, dark secret: that one of their kind has given birth, something no Replicant was thought to be capable of. From this scene-setting prologue, we venture forth into the unimaginable: a futuristic Los Angeles, the city of “angels” (or “devils,” if you will), home of the Wallace Corporation, the business entity that took over for Dr. Eldon Tyrell and the Tyrell Corporation, where the original Replicants were grown and fabricated. The blind eccentric, CEO Niander Wallace (a creepy Jared Leto), has picked up where Tyrell left off. Obsessed with finding the culprit who gave birth, Wallace sends out his private bodyguard Luv (the equally glum Sylvia Hoeks), a supposedly detached Replicant but bubbling with pent-up emotions she can barely keep under control, to find the mysterious offspring of said Replicant. Meanwhile, Officer K has identity issues of his own. In his sparsely-decorated “space-age bachelor pad,” K keeps a holographic companion, the aptly named Joi (Ana de Armas), as sort of an artificially-intelligent girlfriend. Think Spike Jonze’s Her from 2013, but with a comelier shape and come-hither voice and eyes. Superbly photographed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, the murky screenplay is credited to original scenarist Hampton Francher, along with Michael Green. A bewhiskered Harrison Ford returns as former Blade Runner Rick Deckard, and Sean Young, the original Rachael (the one everybody believes has given birth) makes a cameo appearance via motion- and voice-capture technology. The remainder of the cast, to include Robin Wright as Lt. Joshi, Mackenzie Davis as Mariette (who shares a body meld with Joi in one of the film’s most memorable sequences), Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, Lennie James as Mr. Cotton (a makeshift Fagin to a bunch of urchin children), and Edward James Olmos in a neat little clip as Gaff, try to boldly go where no sequel has gone before. They succeed to some extent in delivering an original take on the plot, but that’s about it. Maybe they succeeded too well, for this film is extraordinarily dense, the story needlessly complex and meandering. Still, the sets, the costumes, the incredible holographic images, the soundtrack, and special FX are state-of-the-art miraculous. The overpoweringly loud and blaring music score, however (by veteran composer Hans Zimmer with contributions from Benjamin Wallfish), is much too self-indulgent to make an impact (except on your eardrums). Recommended but with hesitation, due to the high violence quotient and the disappointedly dragged-out-beyond-all-reasonable-limits story line.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) gawks at the “Asset” (Doug Jones) in Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”

The Shape of Water (2017)

Made up for any deficiencies noted in Pacific Rim (see my earlier reviews of this and other movies: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/the-best-of-the-rest-films-i-enjoyed-or-not-in-the-movie-theater-part-one/), Mexican director, producer, and screenwriter Guillermo del Toro’s “comeback” picture The Shape of Water features some of the best emoting on screen this year. A modern-day Beauty and the Beast turned Creature from the Black Lagoon fairy tale, combined with fantastical elements from King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and other similarly themed productions, this film is what future generations may point to as the quintessential Del Toro picture. The color scheme, the use of water, shade and light, the enchanted and quixotic nature of the plot, and of course the “Asset” or Creature itself — played by the underrated mime and actor Doug Jones (Abe Sapien in the Hellboy series) — are too marvelous for words. The Shape of Water has all the essential ingredients of Del Toro’s high-concept mind-set, and can be favorably compared to his earlier output, especially The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (part of Del Toro’s Spanish trilogy which began with Cronos), and even Mimic and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. This one features a fish out of water story. To put it plainly, a highly romanticized account of 1960s Cold War struggles depicting downtrodden working-class stiffs — the unlikely trio of mute cleaning woman Elisa Esposito (sensitive Sally Hawkins), her African American co-worker Zelda Fuller (spunky Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s closeted gay neighbor Giles (Oscar-winner Richard Jenkins) — battling to spare the life of a poor misunderstood sea creature, the amphibious Gill-Man-like “Asset,” against the baser designs of vicious military colonel Strickland (a particularly manic Michael Shannon) and the combined forces of the U.S. Army. This being set during the height of Cold War tensions, the usual suspects are present, including a Russian operative posing as an upright American scientist (the always dependable Michael Stuhlbarg) interested in preserving the “Asset” for his own independent study. Both the scientist and Elisa share the same desire: to learn from this obviously intelligent and responsive creature, who when you get right down to it is more human than the humans who surround and abuse it. Their narratives are told in parallel and supplement the main plot line. As with all such stories, there are multiple viewpoints to ponder and a variety of takeaways to be discussed. For instance, Colonel Strickland is no cardboard cutout villain, but a complicated individual trying to come to terms with this discovery and stymied by the cleaning crew’s lack of cooperation. His own love life with his clueless bimbo-brained spouse Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) is contrasted with the burgeoning love affair between the obviously smitten Elisa and the much more approachable creature, which she and her friends have kidnapped and hidden in Elisa’s bathtub. Now this is where things get a might “weird” and “kinky,” if you know what I mean. But remember, this is a fantasy, with elements of magical realism thrown in that will both delight and infuriate you. In one astonishing episode, Elisa and the “Asset” partake of an elaborate Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance routine. In another, Carmen Miranda is heard singing her trademark “Chica Chica Boom Chic” on the soundtrack. And speaking of the soundtrack, composer Alexandre Desplat has written a deceptively simple score which on first hearing may lull viewers into a state of blissful unawareness. As you can tell, this is both a film and a director enamored of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In combining his love of movies with his passion for the horror genre, Del Toro tries to do the impossible — which is, to make a picture that both die-hard romantics and confirmed horror and sci-fi buffs can look up to and enjoy on multiple levels. Not every critic was entranced by this production, but I can tell you that THIS horror, sci-fi and movie musical fan was thoroughly captivated by the director’s vision.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956): No Sleep for the Weary

Becky (Dana Wynter), Jack (King Donovan), Teddy (Carolyn Jones) & Miles (Kevin McCarthy) are speechless in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

What if you went to bed one night with your significant other and woke up the next morning to find that he or she wasn’t exactly the same.

Oh, they may look like the same individual, all right. They even talk, walk, dress, feel, and act like your beloved spouse or relative. But there’s something totally different about them, something you noticed in their eyes. To coin a phrase from a well-known popular song, they’ve lost that “lovin’ feelin’,” that certain gleam, that emotional spark, that intimate connection to you and to past events that tell you your Uncle Joe or Aunt Sarah isn’t the man or woman you thought they were.

The horror and science-fiction genre is privy to all sorts of “what-if-scenarios” such as these. The films of the 1950s were especially prone to invasion theories, of little green men plotting to take over the universe for reasons known only to them. RKO’s The Thing from Another World (1951) told of one such intruder, an advance scout that turned out to be a monstrous blood-sucking “intellectual carrot” with super-human strength and a will to survive at all costs.

In Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (also 1951), there were no “space invaders” as such but rather an amiable, cultivated emissary from another planet (played by an equally refined British actor). He wasn’t out to destroy humanity (at least, not yet) but to understand it. In case of trouble, however, this emissary relied on an eight-foot-tall robotic companion — an interplanetary armed guard, if you prefer — to ward off the offenders.

Taking this analogy a step or two further, the one-eyed gelatinous beings of Universal-International’s It Came from Outer Space (1953) were neither conquerors nor destroyers but explorers from a highly-evolved civilization that accidentally crash-land on Earth. Despite their loathsome visage, the aliens’ motives are benign in that they need humanity to help repair their damaged spacecraft so they could return to their peaceful mission.

From the same year, Paramount Pictures released The War of the Worlds, an updated version of H.G. Wells’ Victorian-era novel about those proverbial little green men from Mars. The film took the opposite tack, in that sheer firepower and coordinated attacks, along with a brutal frontline assault, would culminate in total victory. Ah, but those annoying creatures never reckoned with the tiniest of God’s creations: the multitudinous germs and bacteria that inhabit every corner of our planet. Where atomic weapons proved futile in repelling the invaders, infectious disease took over and decimated the Martians’ plans for world domination.

But there were subtler, more insidious methods of conquest yet to be explored. For example, what if you could merge the “alien invasion” picture with a more restrained, less blatant approach — in other words, the humans you are trying to take over would never know they were being taken over?

This is the premise for one of the most chilling, most hallucinatory sci-fi features to have come along in many a decade: producer Walter Wanger and director Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, distributed by Allied Artists Pictures.

The story, adapted from Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, involves an alien life form that assumes the innocuous shape of seeds. What’s so terrible about that? Nothing at all, really — until those same outer-space seeds plant themselves in a farmer’s field somewhere in Southern California. From there, the seeds grow into giant pods that slowly and sinisterly take over the minds and bodies of whoever happens to be around. Once the victims fall asleep, the “pod people” complete their transformation and dispose of the original body.

Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) meets up with former lost love, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), early on in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Such a preposterous idea could have easily been turned into a campy, low-budget frolic with schlocky special effects and over-the-top performances. In the hands of the gifted Don Siegel, however, Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a bona-fide classic of the science-fiction/body horror genre.

The setting is a sleepy fictionalized town known as Santa Mira. One of its inhabitants, Dr. Miles Bennell (lantern-jawed Kevin McCarthy), is a general practitioner just returned from a medical convention. His nurse, Sally Withers (Jean Willes), greets him at the train station to convey the news that the town is in the grip of a mass hysteria. Miles’ office is full of patients who demand to see him and only him. Upon further inquiry, Miles is informed that various individuals have reported that the person they live with, or confide in on a regular basis, is not that person.

After a day of this dilemma, the anxious patients have all cancelled their appointments and the crisis (whatever it was) appears to have been averted. Once Miles gets settled in, he reconnects with lost love Becky Driscoll (winsome Dana Wynter), fresh from a trip to Reno for a quickie divorce. Becky calls on Miles in his office to report that her cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine) swears up and down that her dear old Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t Uncle Ira.

A quick stop at Wilma’s place and a talk with Uncle Ira do little to alleviate her concerns. Still, Miles manages to convince the distressed Wilma to see a psychiatrist friend of his, Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates). It’s possible, in Dan’s later clear-eyed appraisal, that the stresses of modern life may have forced the townspeople to escape from reality. Hmm…

While Miles and Becky go off to rekindle their former relationship, they each take notice of peculiar departures from Santa Mira’s normal routine. For instance, that evening the couple goes out to dine at their favorite dance hall and restaurant. But instead of a crowded gathering, the establishment is curiously empty except for the maître d’.

Becky & Miles enjoy a rare moment of repose on the dance floor

Earlier on, Miles and Nurse Sally drive by an abandoned vegetable stand. The month before, “it was the cleanest and busiest stand on the road,” but now it was boarded up and littered with debris.

There are similar lines of dialogue spoken throughout the picture, minor references and random, off-the-cuff observations that elucidate the plot for viewers in subtle, indirect ways. Taken as a whole, when you’ve re-watched the film (as this author has) after so many years of neglect, you begin to notice, as the characters themselves do, that something is terribly out of kilter from the start.

More samples of what we are driving at: Becky Driscoll’s entry into the story via her spur-of-the-moment visit to Miles’ office. She’s been living in England for the past few years. “It’s wonderful to be home again,” she confides to him, but quickly adds, “I’ve been away so long …. I feel almost like a stranger in my own country.” She’s not joking.

Then there’s little Jimmy Grimaldi, who thinks his mother isn’t really his mother. Miles gives him a sedative, a pill to drive away the demons from his young mind. “Open your mouth. Shut your eyes,” he orders. “In the words of the poet … I’ll give you something to make you wise.” Make him “wise”? Not exactly, but certainly more complacent — a metaphor for what will happen in time to the town’s population as a whole.

Nurse Sally (Jean Willes) holds on to little Jimmy Grimaldi, who takes his medicine from Dr. Bennell

At roughly 80 minutes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a taut little film, with nary a wasted moment or superfluous occurrence anywhere. Everything is held together (and remains that way) thanks to a tidy screenplay by veteran mystery and film-noir writer Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, The Big Steal). There are noticeable noir strictures to be noted and followed, including the perfunctory narration (by Kevin McCarthy), the ominous black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of Ellsworth Fredericks), the crisply-edited footage (Robert S. Eisen), and the creepy musical score (by Carmen Dragon).

And true to the genre itself, Miles and Becky tease each other good-naturedly with quips and innuendos about the ups and downs of marriage and divorce. They also reminisce about being back together:

“I wish you didn’t have to go home for dinner,” Miles states emphatically.

“I don’t,” Becky counters. “Dad’s eating out with a friend.”

“I could pick you up at seven,” Miles hints to her.

“Well … It’s summer, and the moon is full. ‘I know a bank …’”

“… ‘Where the wild thyme grows’,” Miles completes the phrase, and then adds, “You haven’t changed a bit.”

Not yet she hasn’t.

That line about “the moon is full” is an obvious allusion to werewolves, who convert to vicious fiends once the moon is out and bright. It’s a none-too-subtle clue of the horror to come, except there are no rapacious night creatures, only deadly dull, emotionless carbon copies of former loved ones.

The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters

Miles and Becky meet up with Dan Kauffman, the resident analyst, who comments on the epidemic of mass hysteria that has taken hold of Santa Mira. He’s got a full plate on his hands, and just as many explanations for what’s been happening around town. Kauffman is that person of stature who appears in all these science-fiction flicks of the Fifties, the one individual whose sole function is to explain to the audience what the heck is going on.

Hardly satisfied with Dan’s rationale, Miles takes Becky home. It is evening and the lights are out. In silhouette, Becky muses on the strangeness of what’s been occurring to the citizens of her hometown.

“Let’s hope we don’t catch it,” Miles jokes in response. In mock serious tones, he discloses, “I’d hate to wake up some morning and find out you weren’t you.” Prophetic words, indeed!

Towards the end, Becky and Miles are treated as fugitives from justice (another film-noir conceit) in their attempts to get away from the encroaching mob of pod people out to prevent the couple from alerting the outside world to their presence. Panic, paranoia, and suspicion cloud Miles’ judgment, as they do Becky’s and their friends, Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy Belicec (Carolyn Jones). No one can be trusted: it’s neighbor against neighbor, and relative against relative, until eventually the entirety of Santa Mira has been taken over by alien pods.

One of the scariest sequences occurs in Jack’s home, where he and wife Teddy, along with Miles and Becky, witness the pods’ literal transformation into lifelike replicas of (gasp!) themselves. It’s a genuinely unsettling moment: before their eyes, the lineless facial features and bubbling torsos begin to take shape. Destroying the bodies with a pitchfork and setting the corpses on fire, Miles tries to alert the FBI of the danger, but is thwarted when he realizes the phone offices have been usurped by the pod people, as have the police department and everywhere else. The friends flee for their lives but vow to meet up again in town.

The “developing” seedpod turns into Dr. Miles Bennell

Escaping to his medical office (a place that’s supposed to cure people of whatever it is that ails them), Miles and Becky hide out there temporarily, awaiting Jack’s return. They go down a long and narrow corridor, which heightens the feeling of claustrophobia. The walls are closing in around them — and fast. Prior to this, their attempt to enlist Sally in their cause backfires when Miles sees her take one of the seedpods up to her baby’s bedroom. The chase is on, as the police issue an all-points-bulletin to apprehend and detain the couple.

A comparable scene takes place near the end, where Becky and Miles are seeking shelter in a cave near the outskirts of town. They hide from their pursuers in an old mineshaft, placing wooden floorboards on top as they squish inside an empty hole in the ground. It’s tantamount to a gravesite, of being in one’s coffin or burial plot. While the mob runs over them, completely unmindful of where they’re hiding, the lovers cower just below the pursuers’ feet. It’s a real nail-biter of a sequence.

We, the viewer, can feel their unease, since the camera has followed the couple inside that dark, damp hole. But it only provides a temporary shelter. The sense of eeriness about this episode is elevated tenfold by the skewed camera angle and the intensity of the mob’s footsteps. When they’re finally alone, they leave the hole. Miles and Becky have either risen to new life as purposeless ciphers or reached the end of the line. Which is it?

Hints as to what’s in store for our heroes abound throughout the story. When later cousin Wilma encounters Miles in the street, she tells him she no longer needs a shrink. “I woke up this morning, and everything was all right.” She goes back inside her store and flips the sign on the door from “Open” to “Closed” — permanently, I’d venture to say. There’ll be no more need for work. No more ambition, no more striving to better oneself. No practicing of one’s profession, and no call for personal fulfillment. Existence is its own reward, and the pursuit of happiness can be stricken from our vocabulary.

The walls start to close in on the romantic couple as Miles & Becky leave his office

Released in the 2.00:1 aspect ratio (in this instance, called Superscope), Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally conceived by director Siegel to be in the standard 1.33:1 ratio. But the distributor, Allied Artists, insisted on the wider screen size, possibly to attract movie viewers used to CinemaScope, VistaVision, and other such formats.

Allied Artists also requested that Siegel provide an expository prologue and epilogue to the production. Both Siegel and producer Wanger argued in favor of keeping things the way they were, with nothing bookending the completed film. However, they lost the argument and a quickie prologue and epilogue were added. These were set inside a hospital emergency ward, where a supposedly “insane” Miles Bennell is confronted by the attending physician (Richard Deacon) and the hospital’s skeptical shrink (Whit Bissell). Consequently, the tale is told in flashback from here on.

Miles tells his story to two disbelieving doctors (Richard Deacon & Whit Bissell)

Either way you slice it, the film works on many levels — with or without those appended sequences. While there is no “happy ending” as such, most viewers come away with the hopeful conclusion that maybe — just maybe — the invasion can be foiled. And that somehow, the long-suffering Miles will at last be vindicated.

The long-held notion that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a cautionary tale against Communist encroachment, i.e. the so-called Red Scare menace, has not always held up over time. Sure, the U.S. had undergone years of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, along with the ensuing Communist witch hunts, and accusatory fingers pointed at the movie industry. Once the McCarthy hearings had blown over, however, the dust settled to reveal that Siegel had not explicitly set out to capture those sentiments in his film, at least not overtly.

While not part of the director’s original concept, the themes of conformity and uniformity in 1950s North American life can be viewed as relevant to the main issue. Nowadays, diversity and multiculturalism are the “buzz words” that tend to dominate the conversation, although you would never know it by our highly-charged and exceedingly politicized atmosphere. That the film has resonance for our day is proof enough of its status as a timeless classic.

Here are some things to look for on your next viewing of this archetypal sci-fi flick: pay close attention to the shadows and darkness that slowly engulf the town of Santa Mira; make note of the studied calmness of the so-called pod people; take notice as well of background noises in Miles’ basement and elsewhere; and look quickly for Charlie, the meter reader, played by future film director Sam Peckinpah in a bit part.

More importantly, make yourself aware that the closer Miles and Becky get to one another as a loving couple, the farther apart they will seem relative to their “inhuman” counterparts. As at the beginning of the drama, everything appears to be normal and humdrum; people continue about their business except when those delivery trucks ride into town to deliver more seedpods to all comers. Observe for yourself how quickly they disseminate the pods to every town and village within the Los Angeles vicinity, and within a relatively short time. That’s chaos theory in action!

Remember, too, Miles’ look of utter despair — his expression of absolute shock and bewilderment at the realization that his beloved is now one of “them.” His earlier warning about waking up one day to find that Becky is no longer Becky comes back to haunt him in one of those rare cinematic moments of discovery, an indelible scene that’s sure to send shivers down your spine. There is nothing left for poor Miles to do but run away, right out onto the highway, to inform others of the nightmare that awaits them in sleepy Santa Mira.

Miles’ look of shock and awe in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

When last we see him, Miles stands in the middle of oncoming traffic, spouting the words of a crazed mystic, a male Cassandra that nobody listens to: “You fools! You’re in danger! Can’t you see? They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next …”

This is straight out of the school of nihilistic thought. Aren’t you glad you were warned?

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘It Came from Outer Space’ (1953): Strangers in a Strange Land

The discovery of the alien craft in It Came from Outer Space (Universal, 1953)

The discovery of the alien craft in It Came from Outer Space (Universal, 1953)

An imaginary Arizona locale and desert town is the eerie setting for science-fiction author Ray Bradbury’s story of alien visitors from another world who, on their mission to a different part of the galaxy, accidentally crash land on planet Earth.

Writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson), a recent resident of the aptly named Sand Rock, is sharing a cozy, romantic evening with local girl Ellen Fields (beautiful Barbara Rush), a grade-school teacher by profession. Suddenly, the couple witnesses a fiery meteor (or something close to it) streak across the nighttime sky.

Wasting no time, the curious pair drives out to the nearby crash site. As Putnam approaches what he believes to be a spacecraft of some kind, an unexpected landslide buries the contents within — but not before he (and the viewer, ostensibly) get a glimpse of what lies inside.

Hideous and horrible, the aliens are not your garden variety space invaders, but are instead intelligent and, it is later learned, benign beings with expansive minds and souls of their own. Unfortunately, they also have single bulbous eyes, amorphous, gelatinous bodies and the ability to assume the identity and appearance of the local populace.

Ellen (Barbara Rush) & John Putnam (Richard Carlson) through the looking glass

Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) & John Putnam (Richard Carlson) peer through the looking glass, or telescope in this case

Even worse, not everyone shares Putnam’s interest and curiosity about the alien visitors, especially after several of the town’s citizens mysteriously disappear and the only hardware store in sight is robbed of its electrical supplies. Hmm …? What could those pesky aliens want with electrical supplies? Maybe, repair their damaged ship? Or get going with their interrupted mission?

Fear and paranoia soon grip the dusty abode, which is patrolled by chain-smoking Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake). An old boyfriend of Ellen’s, Matt is overly protective of her and skeptical of Putnam’s crackpot theories about aliens. He’s not too keen on strangers either, benign or otherwise.

“Why don’t they come out into the open?” Matt asks Putnam.

“Because they don’t trust us,” Putnam replies. “Because what we don’t understand we want to destroy.”

“I kill only what tries to kill me,” Matt fires back.

Putnam tries to talk some sense into the highly strung lawman. He points to an approaching arachnid. “That spider. Why are you afraid of it? Because it has eight legs? Because its mouth moves from side to side instead of up and down? If it came at you, what would you do?”

“This,” as the sheriff crushes the spider under his boot. Point taken, point made!

Despite this seeming setback, Putnam is able to convince Matt to give him and the alien visitors more time to repair their ship. The aliens eventually release their captives and, returning to their original disgusting forms, leave the Earth in the same manner in which they approached, spewing forth a fiery trail in the sky.

Alien spacecraft from It Came from Outer Space

Alien spacecraft crashes to the Earth in It Came from Outer Space (1953)

A true classic of the genre, It Came from Outer Space tries to live down that egregious title and live up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the few soberly-minded and intelligently conceived sci-fi flicks of the 1950s.

Originally filmed in the 3-D process (though always shown flat in its television screenings), It Came from Outer Space was Universal-International’s first foray into the science-fiction field. In fact, the 3-D effects are rather subdued and less “in-your-face” than other examples from the period. For pure shock value, a creepy film score (credited to Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, and Herman Stein) penetrates the soundtrack whenever the aliens are caught looming about. You may remember this theme from the old Saturday night Creature Features showcase from the 1960s and ’70s.

One of the unfortunate aspects of this and other similar releases at the time was the studio’s bowing to Fifties convention, whereby the men are given the decisive, upright role as defenders of the realm — true movers and shakers, for good or for bad (see Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World).

This attitude relegated most of the women’s parts to pure window dressing or easily excitable observers. The scene in which Barbara Rush, as Ellen, answers the doorbell and screams her fool head off as she spots a boy decked out in a space invader’s outfit (with toy ray-gun in hand), is a good example of old-fashioned female hysterics.

Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) screams for her life in It Came from Outer Space

Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) screams for her life in It Came from Outer Space

Curiously, in another scene, the behavior of a sobbing Mrs. Frank Daylon (Virginia Mullen), the wife of one of the missing telephone linemen, contrasts sharply with that of the other missing lineman’s floozy girlfriend, Jane Dean (Kathleen Hughes). While Mrs. Daylon expresses spousal concern that Frank (Joe Sawyer) had skipped his meal and hasn’t been “himself” of late, Jane is more flippant about Frank’s partner, George (Russell Johnson): “His landlady told me he skipped dinner. That ain’t like George, not with his appetite.”

I’ll bet!

At 81 minutes, the film is compact and concise. The special effects (done via mirrors, split-screens, double exposures, swirling mists, and such) are state-of-the-art, for the era. And despite the description of the scene with Ellen, the acting is relatively low key. Subtlety and nuance, an inescapable feeling of being watched, and an uneasy atmosphere of impending dread are underscored in the thoughtfully developed dialogue, courtesy of screenwriter Harry Essex. The black-and-white cinematography (by Clifford Stine) stresses the silvery noir elements. The picture was partially filmed on location in the surrounding Mojave Desert area of California, which lent a good deal of authenticity.

Poster art for It Came from Outer Space, in 3-D

Poster art for It Came from Outer Space, in incredible 3-D

The movie also boosted the career of veteran documentary-maker and director Jack Arnold. Arnold went on to lend credibility to the burgeoning sci-fi arena with his subsequent outings, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), with Carlson again in the lead, Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula (both from 1955 and both starring John Agar), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), a classic among classics, and the underrated The Space Children (1958).

In many ways, It Came from Outer Space is as rich and timely today as it ever was. Its lessons about reaching out to those in need, who may be as different from us as night is from day; to extend a helping hand and grasp the thing we’re most repelled by — by learning to overcome our basest fears and instinct for survival, while trying to understand the abnormal ways of others — continue to fascinate as well as entertain.

As the bulbous creatures fly off into the night, Putnam looks back at them in wonder and awe: “It wasn’t the right time for us to meet,” he contemplates solemnly. “But there’ll be other nights, other stars to watch. They’ll be back.”

Indeed they will — and quite a different message from the earlier The Thing, where audiences were issued a dire warning to keep watching the skies for trouble, or the one delivered by the cultivated Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, about our bringing violence to other planets: “The Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.”

We need only examine another “alien invasion” feature in French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated Arrival (2016), which starred Amy Adams in a glowing performance as a linguist charged with translating an indecipherable alien language that could save the world from unintended destruction.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951): A Message for Mankind

Klaatau (Michael Rennie: "We come in peace and with goodwill" in The Day the Earth Stood Still

Klaatau (Michael Rennie) speaks: “We come in peace and with goodwill,” in The Day the Earth Stood Still

The eerie sound of the theremin (two of them, in fact) begins this early fifties feature. The instruments are accompanied by two groaning Hammond organs and bass-pedal notes in the lower strings. Next, the brass section takes over with a muffled fanfare, suspiciously reminiscent of the opening theme to Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968.

The sensation we get is of being taken for a ride through the vast regions of space. Slowly approaching what appears to be the Earth, the soundtrack starts to fade away, leaving behind a staccato accompaniment for piano. The music now follows the trajectory of a mysterious craft hurtling itself toward our atmosphere at tremendous speed.

All the while, the spacecraft is being tracked by military intelligence and radar. Foreign countries are also monitoring the ship’s progress, as its final destination is revealed: the city of Washington, D.C., capital of the United States of America — the bedrock of freedom and democracy in a troubled world.

Almost immediately, newspapers and radio and television commentators from around the globe broadcast the event in cautious but barely controlled concern for what this might mean. One radio personality boasts of the lovely spring weather amid the burgeoning tourist season.

Klaatu's ship circles over Washington, D.C.

Klaatu’s spaceship circles over Washington, D.C.

Without warning, the brightly lit form of the spacecraft hovers into view. It flies directly above the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and the castle-like structures of the Smithsonian Institution. This startles the gathering crowd who follows the ship as it lands softly on a grassy lawn.

Army and military personnel, as well as tanks, jeeps, guns, and soldiers, have been dispatched to the scene. They assemble and surround the craft in nervous anticipation of what is to come. After a few tense moments, a walkway juts out from the body of the craft. An invisible door slides opens and out pops what looks like a male figure in silvery spacesuit and bubble helmet.

The visitor is an alien emissary from space who has come to Earth bearing only peace and goodwill. His sign of friendship and understanding, however, are taken for aggression when he draws what may be a weapon from inside his suit. An anxious soldier opens fire, hitting the helpless visitor in the shoulder, who instantly falls to the ground. The other soldiers approach the wounded visitor reticently, but just as suddenly Gort, a metallic eight-foot tall robot, comes into view. The soldiers and crowd are aghast at this incredible sight. The robot’s visor slowly opens and a powerful, laser-like beam is thrust upon the military’s tanks and weapons, immediately disintegrating them.

The giant robot Gort (Lock Martin)

The giant robot Gort (Lock Martin) aims his light beam at the military

Struggling to take control of the situation, the visitor halts the onslaught with a few carefully chosen words to the gigantic being. Recovering from the fall, he rises to his feet and retrieves the damaged “weapon.” The visitor then tells an uncomprehending soldier that it was a gift for the U.S. president. “With it, he could have studied life on the other planets.” So much for friendly greetings!

He also brings with him a dire warning which he intends to deliver at a proposed mass meeting of Earth’s leaders. But his intentions are misunderstood by a paranoid society unwilling to listen or to compromise. Impatient with the usual authority figures, including the president’s cynical secretary Mr. Harley, the gentlemanly alien named Klaatu escapes Walter Reade Hospital and his Washington, D.C., confines to learn for himself what makes these mysterious Earth creatures tick.

Michael Rennie is the cultivated, intellectually superior (and veddy British) Klaatu. He’s joined by sympathetic office worker Patricia Neal as Helen Benson — not exactly a love interest, but someone to play off of; Billy Gray (before his Father Knows Best period) as her inquisitive son Bobby; and soon-to-be popular sci-fi staple Hugh Marlowe (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) as Tom Stevens, who later fingers the alien for capture by the U.S. Army (darn those pesky diamonds!).

Mr. Carpenter (Rennie) & Bobby (Billy Gray) at Arlington National Cemetery

Mr. Carpenter (Rennie) & Bobby (Billy Gray) at Arlington National Cemetery

This is science fiction film noir at its finest, and one of the very best of its kind. Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still became an instant movie classic upon its release, which, despite the Cold War origins, has not aged a single day since its premiere.

Compare this flick to RKO’s The Thing from Another World, also from 1951, which took a more skeptical view of science by giving the “grunts” the last word. Here, military might bows to sheer brainpower in the person of the seemingly benign Klaatu. The central section has Klaatu rendering the Earth helpless by literally stopping it dead in its tracks — everyone and everything, that is, except planes in flight and ships at sea, along with hospitals, emergency wards, and the like.

The film gathers strength when Klaatu, after calling upon the friendly but eccentric Professor Barnhardt (the “smartest man in the world,” according to young Bobby), becomes a hunted fugitive. Gunned down while trying to make his escape, Klaatu charges Helen Benson with the survival of mankind. The fate of the world rests on her remembering three words: Klaatu barada nikto.

Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) speaks the immortal line: "Klaatu barada nikto"

Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) speaks the immortal line: “Klaatu barada nikto”

Veteran character actor Sam Jaffe plays the scholarly Professor Barnhardt in a proto-Einstein hairdo. His initial meeting with the alien, as well as Klaatu’s growing (but unrealized) friendship with Mrs. Benson and especially her son Bobby, are the movie’s closest encounters. However, jealousy and suspicion permeate the ethos where Mrs. Benson’s self-centered boyfriend Tom is concerned. Tom is representative of humankind as a whole, i.e., always in a hurry to move on and get ahead, but failing to look at the damage being done to those who fall behind. Sadly, this movie’s tenets are as true today as they were over six decades ago.

Others in the cast include Frank Conroy as Mr. Harley, Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee in the Andy of Mayberry series), Olan Soulé, Carleton Young, Fay Roope, Freeman Luske, and real-life news personalities Elmer Davis, Drew Pearson, and H.V. Kaltenborn. The role of the menacing robot Gort (a truly awesome creation) is played by seven-foot-four-inch Lock Martin, who was an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He had to wear two different metallic costumes, one for the front view and one for the back, due to a conspicuous, non-photogenic zipper running down the length of each costume.

Former movie editor Robert Wise directed in clinical, almost documentary-style fashion, while film composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) provided the spare music score. As indicated above, his and fellow colleagues Miklos Rozsa and Dimitri Tiomkin’s use of the theremin gained widespread exposure for this exotic-sounding instrument.

Keep alert to the many Christian and allegorical references spread throughout the script — for example, Klaatu’s untimely death and miraculous “resurrection” near the end, and his earthly alias (“Mr. Carpenter,” get it?). The original short story, “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates, was considerably altered for this movie adaptation, which is credited to screenwriter Edmund H. North (Flamingo Road, Young Man with a Horn).

The basic plot was semi-reworked for the excellent 1999 animated picture The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird and released by Warner Bros. Do stay away from the hopelessly inept 2008 Keanu Reeves/Scott Derrikson remake, or face obliteration! Late in his career, Michael Rennie made a well-received 1966 comeback in the two-part “The Keeper” episode for the Irwin Allen-created Lost in Space. Prior to that, Rennie starred as Harry Lime in the Anglo-American series The Third Man (1959-1965).

The film dares to ask: What is man’s place in the universe? And how can his destructive nature be contained? At this stage in our development, Klaatu’s apocryphal sendoff is worth repeating: “Should you extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. We will be waiting for your answer.”

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Godfather, Part II’ (1974) — The Dark Dream Lives On: A Tale of Two Men

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II (Paramount Pictures)

At three hours and twenty minutes, The Godfather, Part II is almost as long as David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, but not nearly as funny. Taking his cue from the financial juggernaut the first film went on to become, director Francis Ford Coppola decided that a sequel to Paramount’s tremendously successful The Godfather should be more of “a companion piece,” with flashbacks to the early life of young Vito Corleone and fast-forwards to the new/old godfather, i.e., his son Michael.

As a consequence, Coppola’s triumphant continuation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather saga is more than just excessive padding: it looks backward in time to the story of the orphaned Vito Andolini, who flees a violence ridden Sicily and a blood feud with the local Mafia don to come to New York City at the turn of the century. The boy Vito winds up on Ellis Island, where his surname is changed to Corleone by the immigration officers. He grows up in poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and eventually settles down with a pretty Sicilian girl in order to have a family of his own.

During one of several flashback sequences, which comprise three-quarters of an hour of the movie’s total length, we learn how Vito faces down the dreaded Don Fanucci (played in oily fashion by the formidable Gaston Moschin) so as to take control of his life and neighborhood. It’s at this crucial point in the drama that Vito (as well as the viewer) realizes he is able to carry out Fanucci’s murder in methodical, calculatedly cold-blooded fashion. The hood’s death solidifies Vito’s standing in the community as a person to be feared, which ultimately leads to his becoming a “respected” member of underworld society.

We then flash forward to the dawn of a new don, Michael Corleone (an intensely driven Al Pacino, never better), and his round-the-clock efforts to salvage his family’s Nevada holdings from the clutches of a soft-spoken yet ruthless gangster named Hyman Roth (Actor’s Studio co-founder Lee Strasberg in his movie debut, and one of Pacino’s early mentors), who has one of the picture’s best remembered lines: “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel.” At the same time, Michael has to simultaneously confront the possibility of a traitor in his midst, as well as deal with his failed marriage to perpetually skeptical wife Kay (the returning Diane Keaton).

Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) & Michael: "We're bigger than US Steel"

Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) & Michael Corleone: “We’re bigger than US Steel”

Every scene is a comment on, and a ruminative reflection of, comparable ones to be found in The Godfather. Take, for instance, the opening first communion ceremony for Michael’s son Anthony, juxtaposed against sister Connie’s wedding in Part I — in the first film, the family has come together, whereas in Part II they are splitting apart; or how about the botched strangling of Frankie Pentangeli inside the Rosato brothers’ bar, as compared to Luca Brasi’s death by choking in the presence of Sollozzo and Bruno Tattaglia’s similar establishment.

We could go on and on, but the point has been made: this is one of Hollywood’s most provocative and, you’ll pardon the expression, best executed modern gangster epics. Among the difficulties the main characters encounter in Part II are outright lies, blatant betrayals, family treachery, duplicity and double- and triple-crossings, with enough chokings, drownings, stabbings, and garrotings to fill ten crime novels! In the end, the godfather is left alone in the garden, with nothing to do but contemplate his desultory lifestyle and lost dreams.

There is spellbinding direction by Coppola which never flags, not even for a moment. High production values are maintained from the first feature, thanks to returning production designer Dean Tavoularis, art director Angelo Graham, costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, and expert sound montage and re-recording by Walter Murch. In addition, the hiring of a supremely talented cast of actors make Part II that rarity of movie sequels — damned if it isn’t better than the original, in spite of more than a few lapses in narrative logic (what’s the story with those Rosato brothers, anyway?).

And speaking of casting, the sequel spotlights a gallery of richly detailed performances, in particular one by the dour Robert Duvall as world weary consigliere Tom Hagen, struggling to understand Michael’s secretive ways; Talia Shire (Francis Coppola’s sister in real life) as Michael’s baby sister Connie, who makes a spectacle of herself with new boyfriend Merle Johnson (the real name of actor Troy Donahue, as Merle) at her nephew Anthony’s first communion; John Cazale (suave, in a black mustache and tux) as older brother Fredo and his shady dealings with Roth’s Sicilian “messenger boy,” Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese), receiving the kiss of death from Michael for his troubles; and the stoic Robert De Niro, excellent as young Vito Corleone, who copied Marlon Brando’s mannerisms and hoarse vocalization, while picking up an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the process (and, no, unlike Brando he did not turn Oscar down).

Don Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro)

Don Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in The Godfather Part II

Others offering huge support include playwright-turned-actor Michael V. Gazzo (A Hatful of Rain) in a standout performance as old-timer Frankie Pentangeli, whose demise in a Roman-style bathtub is just one of many so-called highlights. Gazzo’s role was “invented” by the screenwriters due to the producers dropping Richard Castellano from the film — his salary demands simply couldn’t be met and proved more of a hindrance than a benefit. Instead, we have Irish-Italian actor B. Kirby Jr. (City Slickers, Good Morning Vietnam) as a slimmed-down version of the youthful Pete Clemenza, along with G.D. Spradlin as the garrulous Senator Geary (who gets his comeuppance for badmouthing Michael’s “family”), Richard Bright returning as Al Neri, Joe Spinell as Willy Cicci, and Morgana King, Leopoldo Trieste, Amerigo Tot, Fay Spain, Abe Vigoda, Gianni Russo, James Caan, the incomparable Harry Dean Stanton as an FBI man, Danny Aiello as Tony Rosato, and Peter Donat as Senator Questadt.

Veteran director Roger Corman puts in another of his patented “guest shots” as a member of the investigating committee looking into Michael’s Cosa Nostra connections. Gordon Willis’ dark-hued photography is back, along with Nino Rota’s lush score, supplemented in part by Carmine Coppola, the director’s father, who incorporated a delightfully quaint Neapolitan light opera, Senza Mamma, into the sonic mix. This being a Coppola family gathering, the score for this little divertissement was written by (you guessed it) the director’s maternal grandfather, Francesco Pennino.

The entire Senza Mamma sequence involves a 30-something Vito Corleone enjoying a rare night on the town with best friend Genco Abbandando (Frank Sivero). They are seen watching a performance, in authentic Neapolitan dialect, of a local melodrama in a crowded theater. The part of the singer, who holds a pistol to his forehead threatening to shoot himself at the news of his mother’s passing, was sung and acted by tenor Livio Giorgi. As a footnote to this scene, the backstage manager was interpreted by none other than Metropolitan Opera basso Ezio Flagello.

A five-star family affair all the way, to be certain. Would we lie to you?

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Godfather, Part I’ (1972) — The Dark of Side of the American Dream

Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) speaks to Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto)

Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) speaks to Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) in The Godfather, Part I

“I believe in America,” an unseen voice exclaims. After which, a dull, amber-colored light illuminates the person speaking: a man with a comb-over in his mid-50s, dressed in a black tuxedo and winged collar. The camera now begins to pull back — slowly and deliberately — matching the cadences of the man’s speech. The speaker resumes his story. “America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion.”

While he is speaking, the camera continues to spend an inordinate amount of time studying the man’s features: his dark eyes, his pursed lips, his foreign accent, his distressed tone, and his obvious discomfort at having to beg for a favor from the dreaded Don Vito Corleone. The man telling his tale of woe is the sorrowful undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), who informs Don Corleone of how his beloved daughter was attacked and nearly raped by two young men, one of whom was her boyfriend. “She resisted. She kept her honor,” he exclaims, his eyes glowing with pride, but, as Bonasera then reveals, “they beat her like an animal.” He starts to weep.

Seconds later, with the camera pulling back, the blurred, shadowy form of a figure is seen at left. The figure signals with his right hand for one of the listeners in the room to provide the undertaker with some refreshment. Continuing to pull back, the camera now shows Bonasera in his chair growing smaller and smaller before our eyes, while the figure at left starts to take shape behind a desk, looming larger and larger in comparison.

And so begins one of the most influential Hollywood films of the seventies, with the cautiously chosen words of the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera making a desperate plea for justice in Don Corleone’s inner sanctum. This scene, so memorable in its outcome and so carefully constructed and paced by the actors and crew, sets the stage for what is to come. It broadcasts the undisputed fact of the godfather’s hold on men, only to see that hold slip away and deteriorate with the unraveling his realm by others.

Francis Ford Coppola’s directing career took off like a rocket as a result of this film’s unprecedented popularity and success. It made him and Paramount Pictures a bigger fortune than either of them could ever have imagined. Mario Puzo’s pulp novel The Godfather – not exactly high art or intellectually challenging as great literature – came to passionate life in Coppola’s now-classic depiction of the Sicilian-American underworld (we know what he meant, even though the word “Mafia” is never uttered).

Sonny (James Caan), Don Corleone (Brando), Michael (Al Pacino) & Fredo (John Cazale)

Sonny (James Caan), Don Corleone (Brando), Michael (Al Pacino) & Fredo (John Cazale)

Postwar America is the setting for this violent tale of Don Corleone, the godfather of the title, who lords it over his crime syndicate as one of the heads of the five New York “families.” Gambling, prostitution, murder incorporated, judges in their hip pockets, and nefarious bribery schemes are the syndicate’s life blood. The men who work for this syndicate are bound to each other by their adherence to a code of honor. But incredibly, the godfather refuses to dabble in illegal drugs, which makes Don Corleone out to be a beggar among thieves. His unequivocal stand against dope dealing lands him and his family in hot water with the opposing forces longing to take over his territory. And honor to a code, as we learn in the end, can both be adhered to or not.

Played by the legendary method-actor Marlon Brando, the Don is power personified: a lift of his hand, a cock of the head, a mere whisper into someone’s ear, and his slightest whim is dutifully obeyed and carried out, especially by head enforcer Luca Brasi (former wrestler Lenny Montana). Both are giants among mortals, or so they are meant to appear. But it’s all an illusion, wiped away by the necessities of their chosen profession.

Brando won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar (he refused it, however, sending in his place an actress posing as a Native American) for his subtle, tour de force performance as Don Corleone, even though he’s relegated to what is essentially a supporting role. For a film that concerns itself with such disreputable types as hoods and gangsters, Brando is still able to find the human element in many a situation. For instance, his playful handling of grandson Anthony in the garden scene late in the picture, where he places an orange peel into his mouth and musses his hair up like a scarecrow to frighten the little boy with a monstrous visage, only to comfort the crying child a split second later.

Equally deserving of mention is Al Pacino (note the fire in his eyes as he talks) as youngest son Michael. It’s been said that Francis Coppola’s film is about the dark side of the American dream, and there are many examples throughout where this dictum has been carried out with startling efficiency (e.g., the decapitated horse’s head, the bullet through Moe Green’s eye). While true enough in practice, the real crux of the drama (with a screenplay by Coppola and author Puzo) is the unquestioned loyalty and devotion Michael feels towards his father, despite Michael’s distaste for dad’s “work.” Michael proves his love by taking over the family business after Don Corleone is seriously injured in a botched assassination attempt — perpetrated by the shifty-eyed Virgil Sollozzo (a cagey Al Lettieri) — and after hot-headed brother Sonny (James Caan, equally hot-tempered) is gunned down at a Long Island toll booth.

Michael (Al Pacino) listens to his father (Marlon Brando)

Michael (Al Pacino) listens to his father (Marlon Brando)

So many quotable lines (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Leave the gun, take the cannolis,” and “Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking”), so many individualized portraits (i.e., Clemenza, Tessio, the Tattaglias, Apollonia, Don Tommasino, Fabrizio), it’s one of those pictures that demands repeated viewings as well as our undivided attention. No matter how many times you’ve seen The Godfather, there are always fresh insights to be savored, over and over again: the opening trumpet solo — mournful, longing, full of untold regret; right-hand man and ex-cop, Al Neri (Richard Bright), closing the door on Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton); Brando’s tearful breakdown (“Look how they massacred my boy”) upon viewing the dead Sonny’s shattered features at Bonasera’s funeral parlor; that ironic, masterfully orchestrated finale whereby Michael all-but wipes the slate clean of his father’s foes while standing stoically as godfather to his sister Connie’s child; and many more.

With a fine ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall as the family consigliere Tom Hagen, Talia Shire (Coppola’s real-life sister) as Connie, John Cazale as Michael’s older brother Fredo, Richard Castellano as the fat Pete Clemenza, Abe Vigoda (Fish in Barney Miller) as Tessio, Alex Rocco as Moe Green, and John Marley, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, Al Martino, Morgana King, Gianni Russo, Vito Scotti, Simonetta Stefanelli, Angelo Infanti as Fabrizio, and Gabriele Torrei (uncredited) as Enzo the nervous baker. The striking cinematography is by the late Gordon Willis, with incredibly detailed production designs by Dean Tavoularis, and of course that instantly recognizable film theme by Nino Rota.

Wedding scene from The Godfather, Part I (INTERFOTO / GRAZIANERI)

Wedding scene from The Godfather, Part I (INTERFOTO / GRAZIANERI)

Speaking of film scores, there are two romantic ballads featured in the picture: one, the pop song “I Have But One Heart,” sung by Al Martino at Connie’s wedding, was originally published in 1945 and recorded by Vic Damone, with music written by Johnny Farrow and lyrics by Marty Symes; the other number, the so-labeled “Love Theme from The Godfather” — more familiarly known as “Speak Softly Love” — was composed by Nino Rota, with lyrics by Larry Kusik. Given an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score of 1973, Rota was disqualified from competition when it was learned that “Speak Softly Love” was previously used by him for a 1958 movie called Fortunella.

Need we say more?

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Chinatown’ (1974) — What Happens to Nosey Fellows

Jake (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown

Jake (Jack Nicholson) chatting with Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown

In the same year that Paramount was touting The Godfather, Part II as a Best Picture Oscar contender, the studio was cognizant enough of its potential to release Polish-born director Roman Polanski’s brilliant crime drama, Chinatown (1974). With a masterful, Academy Award-winning screenplay by writer Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Shampoo), superb art direction by W. Stewart Campbell (The Right Stuff), and finely detailed production values (Robert Evans is credited as the producer), it took the cinema world by storm. Movie critics fell over themselves with high praise for the venture.

And no wonder: that one-word title alone is enough to tell the tawdry tale of a well-to-do — and well-heeled — private gumshoe named J.J. Gittes (Jake to his “friends”), smartly played by Jack Nicholson (in a star-making role), and his seemingly innocuous involvement with Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, easily his equal), the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer for the Los Angeles Water and Power Department.

After a series of red herrings and blind alley-ways, Jake unwittingly stumbles onto a deadly game of cover-up by underhanded city officials, snot-nosed (and violent) gangster types, trigger-happy country folk, and wise-cracking police officers, all of whom know a whole lot more than they’re letting on about the dirty dealings over at Water and Power.

Gittes talking to Noah Cross (John Huston)

Jake Gittes talking to Noah Cross (John Huston)

As the fabulously wealthy Noah Cross casually informs Mr. Gittes, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.” Truer words were never spoken. Cross is played by a smarmy but outlandishly entertaining John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo), who is outstanding in a secondary role. Nicholson looks simply smashing in his immaculately tailored suits, wide-brimmed hats, and silk bathrobe (the film’s costume designs were by Anthea Sylbert, an Oscar nominee).

And so is that snazzy roadster, too, but the fashionable getups and period vehicles are all for show. Indeed, that’s the dirty little secret of Chinatown: despite the obvious finery and ostentatious trappings of the rich and famous, the filth begins to pile up fast — to be honest, a little too fast for poor Jake to keep up with. After one too many revelations, the most startling of which will catch most viewers off guard, his carefully calculated world comes crashing down around him. Jake finds himself at sea in a hum-zinger of an ending, a tragic denouement of monumental (as well as Oedipal) proportions.

With their masks lifted and the dirty laundry left hanging on the line for all to see, the characters are revealed as the bizarre grotesques they’ve now become. It’s nihilism writ large, as it were.

Most impressive are the camera angles, which happen to be the work of cinematographer John A. Alonzo (Scarface), who took his cues from Polanski and shot from behind and over Jake’s shoulder. The feeling we get is of being dragged against one’s will into his unseemly realm, to see for ourselves what Jake is about to discover and, hopefully, unravel. We’re accomplices — maybe even voyeurs — witnessing the complete disintegration of everything Mr. “Gits” (as Cross calls him) holds dear.

Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown

Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown

Everything about this classy feature, however, is top drawer, including the dynamite cast. Best of all is Nicholson’s Jake, a fellow too smart to get caught with his pants down, but too dumb to prevent it from happening. Dunaway is so gorgeous to look at, and her arguments so compelling and strong, that we’re immediately taken in by her conviction — a true femme fatale in every sense of the term, but to her own detriment. Her ultimate fate is hinted at, in one of the many superbly engineered and handled scenes, midway through the drama.

Perry Lopez brings just the right touch of sarcasm mixed with disdain to his role as the harried police inspector Lt. Escobar — always one step ahead of his quarry, but wisely taking two steps back to reflect upon the situation at hand. Another major character is the physical locations themselves, which contribute mightily to the overall sense that something’s not right in this part of town (the film was mostly shot in and around the San Francisco Bay area).

Also featuring John Hillerman, Richard Bakalyan, Roy Jensen, Bruce Glover, sweaty Burt Young (Rocky) as Curly, and James Hong, Beulah Quo, Nandu Hinds as Jake’s secretary Sophie, young Diane Ladd as the mystery girl, and Joe Mantell as Jake’s partner Walsh, who gets to deliver the last word and closing “benediction” on the story’s outcome:

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Polanksi appears briefly as the nasty little hood that slices Nicholson’s nose with a knife. As he goes about his distasteful business, Polanski utters another memorable line: “You are a very nosey fellow, kitty cat. You know what happens to nosey fellows?” OUCH! We do, indeed.

The Hood with the Knife (Roman Polanski)

The Little Hood with the Knife (Roman Polanski)

The excellent and spare score is by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, a gem of a composition that perfectly encapsulates this feature’s melancholy noir aspects. The film was cleverly recycled as the basis for Gore Verbinski’s animated feature Rango (2011), which includes a hilariously sinister takeoff on the Noah Cross character as voiced by Ned Beatty.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes