Film

Death Wish and putting the toothpaste back in the tube

Last week I watched the original Death Wish, which is currently streaming on Amazon.  I may do a bigger write-up on it for Bleedingfool.com, but one of my big takeaways from the film is that it was uniquely suited to a specific time and place.  While it may still have applicability in other settings, it cannot have the same impact.

This is because many of the questions the film raises about public order and personal vengeance have to a certain extent been answered since 1974.

People may speak of a "Great Reset" but it's devilishly difficult to get toothpaste back into the tube.

In a sense, it's like watching the original Red Dawn: that particular possible future is now impossible.  The Soviet Union is gone.  Perhaps the US will fall under some other form of foreign domination, but it won't be led by the Warsaw Pact.

People of every political persuasion are susceptible to appeals for a lost "golden age," and pushing policies that will get there, but there is no going back.  Any push "forward to the past" has to acknowledge the changes in societal composition, moral values, and public expectations.

Back to Death Wish, one of the most interesting aspects of it was how much it cut against the cultural/political grain of the time.  Hollywood was overwhelmingly liberal even in 1974.  The studio system was in ruins and the Golden Age stars were fading into retirement or the grave. 

Even so, there was a surprising diversity of voices seeking to spur discussion.  I doubt such a strident film could be made today.


Geek Guns at Bleedingfool.com

Over the past couple of months I've been doing a new feature at Bleedingfood.com on firearms featured in various pop culture media like comics, movies and television.

Unlike the Internet Movie Firearms Database, I also provide a review of the firearm in question - what it's like to shoot as well as how much they run for people who want one of their own.

This post will be my ongoing archive of those articles and updated as they appear.

Geek Guns Part I: Han Solo’s Blaster

Geek Guns Part 2: El Mariachi’s Twin Ruger KP90s in Desperado

Geek Guns Part 3: The Desert Eagle

Geek Guns Part 4: Deckard’s Blaster from Blade Runner

Geek Guns Part 5: Hellboy’s Hand Cannon

Geek Guns Part 6: Sean Connery’s Guns – Walther PPK, Webley-Fosbery

Geek Guns Part 7: Battlestar Galactica’s Beretta CX4 Storm

Geek Guns Part 8: Army of Darkness – Ash’s Double-Barreled “Boomstick”

Geek Guns Part 9: “Welcome to the Party Pal!” John McClane’s Beretta 92F

Geek Guns Part 10: The Rollerball “Incinerator”

 

 

 


The Foreshadowing of Amazon's "All or Nothing: Michigan Wolverines"

While I'm not the college football obsessive I used to be, I do find it a welcome respite from the increasingly dark news that surrounds us.

This week's news that the University of Michigan had fired one of its assistant coaches caused me to go back and watch Amazon Prime's documentary on the Wolverine football team from 2017.

Their All or Nothing series follows a sports team through the course of a season.   To date, the only college football team to be featured was U of M, though several professional football teams have been filmed.

While 2017 isn't that long ago, in the COVID era it already seems a lost world of packed stadiums and casual dining out.  I'm a Michigan State grad, so I disdain the Wolverines, but the images of fall football in the Good Old Days were painfully tantalizing.

In any event, I found it interesting and recommend it to anyone who watches the sport.  For those who know Michigan Football, the show provides a lot of context to the current controversy in Ann Arbor.  The astute viewer will note how many coaching assistants are no longer there, part of the chronic instability that has marked Head Coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure.

One of the major 'plot lines' of the season was the rotation among starting quarterbacks.  It's easy to look up, but I won't give any spoilers since even knowing how things turned out, I forgot the exact way things happened and found it gripping drama.

What I wish to emphasize is that beyond the disappointments of that fateful year, a series of other disappointments were waiting.  The show focuses on the then-current three quarterbacks, but in the background are others who will also in good time leave the program as well.  The season was not unique in that respect.

The University of Michigan demanded to have the final cut of the series, so the finished product is officially endorsed.  I find it fascinating to see how perceptions differ.  What one person thinks makes them look good may come across as completely obnoxious to everyone else.  That is certainly the case here.

Here are two examples of that.

The first is that during the games, the film crew was able to catch audio from featured players on the field.  This allows the audience to hear the taunts and bragging they hurled at opposing players.  I think this is supposed to humanize them, or make us enjoy their swagger, but I found that it made them less sympathetic.  Taunting a lesser opponent is cruel.  Taunting one who ultimately beats you is poetic justice.  Neither is a good look, but for whatever reason, Michigan Football wants people to see this.

The other item was the fundamental darkness of Jim Harbaugh's mind and his mentality.  He seems to be following the Darth Vader Dark Side school of motivation.  From his first pep talk in Episode 1, Harbaugh emphasizes using anger and rage to fuel excellence.  His white board diagrams and quotes are all about channeling hate.

One white board in the final episode has "addition by subtraction' prominently featured, which he's definitely followed in years since.

Coaches often resort to shouting and hyperbole to obtain motivation, but is "changing anxiety to aggression" really good life advice?

Having watched the show, I now have a better understanding of what's happening within Michigan's troubled football program.  It may come as a surprise to some, but I also developed sympathy for the players and fans.  Conversely, the show also confirmed that my dislike of both is not merely a rivalry, but rooted in their attitude and actions.


Heart of Darkness vs Apocalypse Now

As part of my revisiting the works of Joseph Conrad, last week I read Heart of Darkness, which stands somewhat apart from the rest of his tales.

Based on Conrad's experiences as a river boat captain in the Belgian Congo, it takes the reader on a physical but also spiritual journey in to the center of what was once called The Dark Continent.

It's structure is unique.  While Conrad once again uses Marlow as the first-person narrator, in this work he is both a participant but also an observer.  That is to say the centerpiece of the drama is the attempt to retrieve a mysterious ivory trader named Kurtz and Marlow's role is simply to repair a damaged steamboat which is then used to reach Kurtz's remote trading post.

Conrad's musings on human nature and the ease with which 'civilized' people can revert to savagery of the worst kind made it an instant literary classic.

Apocalypse Now is very loosely based on Conrad's story, with the setting changed from colonial Africa to Vietnam.  This is not as ludicrous as it seems, and roughly the first half of the movie does a good job of drawing parallels between the breakdown of discipline and morality the farther one gets from organized institutions.

The problem is that near the midpoint, Coppola loses the plot and starts a meandering tale packed with lame tropes highlighted by inexplicably stupid behavior on the part of the characters.

I'm by no means the first person to observe this, and I'm sure lots of people have pointed out that it would not be difficult to recut the film to bring it into line with Conrad's story - and also provide a more satisfying ending.  As it stands, the film builds up energy until instead of a climax, it just sort of grinds to a halt and everyone goes home.

For a fleeting instant I thought of writing the alternate ending out, basically giving the film the Man of Destiny series treatment, but the definitive take has already been written - by Joseph Conrad.

To my knowledge, this is a story that has yet to be fully realized as a movie.  There was a TNT attempt some years back that was abjectly awful.  Go look it up if you want, I'm not even going to link to it.

Heart of Darkness is a significant work and also something of a litmus test because it's a great example of how people can value a story enough to make a movie while missing the whole point of the thing.

See also: the hideous movie disfigurement of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.  Ironically, the craptastic adaptation of a cynical book about Hollywood is altogether appropriate.


The difference between a movie and a genre movie

The other night I watched You Only Live Twice and followed it with For Your Eyes Only - sort of an oddball Bond-fest.

What struck me is that the former had already embraced the "Bond genre" while the latter differed from it considerably (which is why it is the best Roger Moore Bond film).

This reminded me of my occasional rants about Star Wars and how it's transitioned from a superb space fantasy epic to just another genre, replete with its own conventions, in-jokes and so on.

The thing is, genre movies are often diminished - they're judged on being faithful to the genre rather than simply being good in their own right.

To put it another way, it's a rare thing when a genre breaks out beyond its core audience.

For example, everyone agrees that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is by far the best film in the series, but does it make sense to anyone who doesn't know anything about the genre?  I don't think so.

This brings me back to the Bond films.  Originally they were just spy stories based on some racy books (which I keep meaning to read but haven't yet).

The whole conventional format of the title sequence, ritual visit with M and then Q to get gear - none of that was a given.  The early films are a little jarring in that sense.

By Goldfinger, however, the pattern was set.  It was reinforced in Thunderball and by You Only Live Twice the concrete had hardened.  Indeed, that's what struck me about You Only Live Twice - the series was already descending into something approaching parody.

The opening of For Your Eyes Only was also pretty bad, but the way the wheelchair bound Blofeld was dispatched was almost like a purification, as if the producers were saying "Okay, you're kind of expecting this stupidity, so let's get the yucks out of the way so we can be serious."

It's very different from the other Bond films - no supercar, no bunch of gadgets to be discarded, just Bond following a trail.  There are Bond girls of course, but the movie has some fun by having Bond put off by the young sex kitten and preferring the jaded countess, who is more his style.

Bond himself is also more serious and the tension more personal.  I'm not saying it's great drama, but it's quite different from the cartoonish exploits of Moore's earlier films.

At any rate, I see the same thing happening to Star Wars.  The prequels had a chance to broaden the story and fill in its gaps, but instead they simply recited the same tropes, providing Jedi-worshipping fan service and little else.  The sequels were even worse, and will age about as well as the AMC-sponsored car chase in The Man with the Golden Gun.

They'll be part of a growing list of films, but each one will be diluting the original formula.  The best of the lot will still be hemmed in by the need for potential viewers to know the back story in order to make any sense.


Gallipoli: Putting 1917 to shame

Having watched the disappointing 1917, I noticed that Gallipoli was free to view on Amazon, so I took a gander.

I'd seen it long ago on video, and one of my hobbies these days is re-watching old war movies in light of my own military service and the changing times.

It's held up rather well, and goes through the traditional storyline of introducing characters before they begin military service and then chronicling the way military life changes them.

This is an early Mel Gibson movie, when he was still playing Australians (so much so that I thought he was one for many years). 

While the plot meanders, that works because the narrative is based on capturing the feel of adventure the ANZACs experienced when they went off to war for the Mother Country.  They were literally going to the other side of the world.

I cannot overlook that the movie shows its typical anti-British bias, something that would later become a Gibson trope.  No matter how or why, he has to slur the English in the most crude ways possible.  I wasn't at all surprised that man who can nurse such an irrational, all-consuming hate for one ethnic group, would also have it in for the Jews. 

The core tension of the film is ironically the same as that in 1917: a doomed attack is about to start and only a timely message passed by runner can stop it.  Unlike in 1917, the setup is at least plausible: the setting is the beach head at Gallipoli, where Allies forces clung tenaciously to exposed positions.

Trench warfare was new, the soil was rocky, the Turks held the high ground and tangled communications are therefore a lot more likely here than in the well-dug, well-maintained trenches shown in 1917, which positively bristle with telephone lines.

The weakest point is that Gallipoli embraces the standard trope that World War I troops mindlessly stood up and got shot again and again, even though they knew it was certain death.

In fact, people back then weren't any more stupid or suicidal than they are today.  Faced with crippling fire, they'd simply refuse to move.  This might cause a "flap" but so be it.

The reason why battles like the Somme had such horrific losses was that troops were caught out in the open with nowhere to go.  Both sides figured out that trick early on - you let the enemy advance almost to the wire and then pin them in a lethal crossfire.  If your trench is being covered by fire, you try to suppress it with fire of your own from elsewhere.

To put it another way: officers cared about their troops.  The generals pushed forward attacks based on faulty information, and in every case believed that while they were being bled white, the enemy was getting it far worse.

In any event, Gallipoli works as a war movie and while it has some tropes, it's much better than 1917,


1917: An evocative, attractive failure of a movie

When 1917 came out, I figured that I would hate it because it would be chock full of historical inaccuracies.  This is a particular bugbear of mine, and my family knows full well that asking me to watch a "war movie" is asking for trouble.

I typically pick nits as if they were precious pearls, relishing each one as I find it.

In the case of 1917, the look and feel of the film is spot-on.  Sam Mendes (or his consultants) did a great job, but in fact it's assumed that British filmmakers can knock it out of the park regarding the Great War.

The problem with the film is that its premise is stupid and its execution deeply flawed.

But other than that it's pretty to look at and has some nice scenes with cool music.

Okay, let's look at the premise.  The film centers around the need for a pair of British troops to convey urgent orders from headquarters to stop a doomed attack.  Fair enough.  A similar plot device was used in the much, much better Gallipoli nigh on 30 years ago.

The difference is that for some inexplicable reason, the messengers must cross enemy territory to convey this message to friendly troops on the other side of a salient.

To anyone who knows anything about World War I, normal command arrangements or basic logic, this is nonsense on stilts.  The "Second Devons" who need the message are not cut off or surrounded, they're simply on the other side of a wide patch of (formerly) German controlled territory. 

The problem can literally be solved with a phone call.

What's that?  The phone lines have been cut?  Well gosh, then have a messenger run down a friendly trench from the higher HQ telling them not to attack.

You see, contra the myth that the trenches were permanent, long-term dwellings of troops ala the 4077th in M*A*S*H (I mean the TV show, not the movie), in fact there was constant movement within the lines.  A battalion would rotate in, spend a couple of weeks on patrol, covering the front, and leave when new troops arrived.

Whole divisions rotated back and forth, up and down the front in this manner, and all the while the troops needed food, ammunition, water, blankets, etc.  To be sure, a heavy bombardment might wreck the connecting trenches and leave the front line troops temporarily cut off, but both sides would immediately strive to restore their lines of communication (which is why these trenches were called "communications trenches").

Thus Colin Firth didn't need to send two messengers across enemy territory to stop a useless attack, he simply could have his staff pick up the Fuller Phone and tell Benedict Cumberbatch not to attack.  If he was being a jerk, he'd order him back to the rear.

If the phone line was cut, it would be quickly repaired (this being a high priority thing) and in the meantime, messengers would stream forward with the latest crates of food, ammunition and water.

I hate to belabor the point here, but it is a seriously stupid premise, like one of those horror movies where the entire film would end if any of the characters had a room temperature IQ.

Okay, the premise is dumb, but what of the execution?

Mendes made a big deal of making the film look like it was one continuous take.  For some things, I think that could work, but it fails utterly here.  Perhaps it's because its a trench system, but it feels a lot like watching someone play Call of Duty: The Somme or something.  The effort to keep the action going, makes it feel contrived and labored, and even with the wildly improbable events, Mendes still had to do a fade to black and skip ahead.

I'm going to avoid the temptation to give specific spoilers, but will simply note that Flanders - where the film takes place - is not noted for the quality of its white-water rafting.

In fact, Belgium - being a flat, swampy country - has crap for waterfalls.  I actually looked it up.

This is like having a character scramble to the top of the 10,000-foot mountains of central Ohio.

Anyway, if you don't know anything about World War I, Belgian geography, or how the military actually works, you might enjoy the movie.  I didn't find it painfully stupid, but I'm not in a hurry to ever watch it again - unless I'm drunk and making fun of it.

 


Behind the curve on Bleeding Fool

The publication of Long Live Death left me a bit distracted, so I forgot to link to my two latest posts over at Bleeding Fool.

Those who remember my fondness for North and South will be amused to see that I've broached the topic over there - albeit in a shorter, funnier format.

Going back almost a month ago, I did a fun nostalgic romp on Zardoz.  Embrace the strangeness while you still can!

Apologies to anyone who missed out, now you can catch up!