Film

Starman: a pedictable, trope-laden space alien slog

Working my way through my 10-DVD set of 80s movies, I decided to take a look at Starman.  All I knew about it was that Jeff Bridges was in it.  For those who don't know, he was one of the leaden men of that era, popping up in all manner of films, from Tron to Against All Odds

Anyway, I realized that Karen Allen was also in the film, and she was pretty much the archetypal Cute Girl Next Door of that era.  Alas, she doesn't really get to play to her type, and much of the film she's either lost in depression or struggling to control her mortal terror.  It's not a good look for her.

The plot is of course that Jeff Bridges is a space alien who comes to earth and assumes the form of Allen's recently departed husband.  Naturally there are language issues, cultural issues and all the other aspects of the Fish Out of Water trope that make it worth watching.  In this case, of course, we have to believe that a creature of pure energy and capable of god-like healing and destruction is completely clueless about basic social interaction because humans are weird or something.

Bridges' facial expressions, jerky motions and oddly-inflected voice are impressive, though.  It's a very different role for him, but he does it well.  The problem is that the story is weak sauce, since we've seen the "advanced race comes to earth and the government tries to kill/dissect it" several other times.

One element that really bugged me was the portrayal of the "common" humans the pair encounter.  These are terrible, completely unbelievable tropes.

For example, a pair of cops are given instructions merely to hang back and let "the feds" handle a situation, but they try to engineer an incident so they can get "their share of the headlines."

Yes, you have that right: they're going to try to create a confrontation rather than hang back because they somehow think this will result in favorable media coverage.  Sure.

Another truly awful portrayal is of a hunter who ties a dead doe to the front fender of his car without gutting it and - having done so - goes into a diner for a bite to eat.  You know, so the meat can get good an rancid or something.

A movie like this depends on the 'slice of life' scenes being good enough to carry you through the sci-fi elements and when you get served up garbage like this, the whole enterprise falls flat.

I'd rather watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which at least has a decent soundtrack.


White Nights: Another amazing 80s movie I somehow overlooked

Last week I got out yet another of the Big Box O' DVDs and this time it was 1985's White Nights.  I remember when the movie came out because I was an avid radio listener.

Funny to think of how common it was for movies to include hit pop tunes in their soundtrack.  Say You, Say Me and Separate Lives both got heavy airplay, though I wasn't sure how they related to the movie.

Anyhow, White Nights is an incredible film, one that has aged very well.  The physicality of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines is amazing.

That's something we've lost.  Time was, the expectation of a movie with dancing in it was that it would be not just professional but exemplary.  It didn't matter who was dancing, the key was that it was original and authentic.

All that's gone away.  The current age uses special effects and camera tricks for all of his physicality and this is one reason why today's movies feel so hollow.  They look gorgeous, but they have no soul, no animating spirit.

When you watch one of the dance sequences in White Nights, you're seeing a level of dedication that simply isn't valued any more. 

Dancing aside, the storyline is also timely, a necessary reminder of a time when half of the world was locked down under the Communist heel.  The Soviet Union offered free health care and guaranteed income, but only in exchange for absolute obedience.  It was not surprising that so many free spirits like Baryshnikov were compelled to flee.

There are few movies that I watch once and immediately want to rewatch.  This is one of them, and I'm looking forward to gaining a deeper appreciation for it.

 

 


Geek Guns ain't dead yet

While I don't normally do "link posts" to my work over at Bleedingfool.com, some of my readers might be interested to know that I added a new installment to the Geek Guns series, this one centering on Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum (Smith and Wesson Model 29).

The feature ran for 23 straight weeks before I took a break, and while I don't have a follow-up series planned, I will continue to add new installments as the opportunities present themselves.

The primary challenge is of course access to iconic weapons.  For example, I'd love to do a feature on the Colonial Marine weapons from Aliens, but I don't know anyone with a Thompson submachinegun (which is what those were).  I guess I need to hang out with a wealthier crowd.

 


The spiritual desolation of The Big Chill

It's weird to say it, but I'm spending a lot of time these days catching up on movies that came out when I was younger that I never got around to seeing.  In large part this is because the cheapest way to buy movies that I did see - and want to see again - is as part of a DVD collection.

So it was that I finally got around to seeing The Big Chill, which came out when I was 10.  A slice-of-life ensemble cast film about the approach of middle age and the loss of youthful idealism would have made little impression on me, so it's just as well that I skipped it.  Besides, 1983 was the year Return of the Jedi came out and that pretty much held my attention.

This is the kind of movie Hollywood used to make fairly often but it is now beyond the movie industry's creative capacity.  For one thing, there aren't sufficient actors to carry the parts.  When the film came out, Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Meg Tilly still had their greatest work before them, but their talent was mature.

The plot line is pretty simple: a group of college friends stage an unplanned reunion when one of their number commits suicide.  It is now more than a decade since they were bright, young things living at a co-op at the University of Michigan and over the course of a long weekend they confront the challenges and disappointments the years have brought them.

It's basically a Boomer "coming of middle age" story, and as well all know, Boomers assumed that they were the first people in world history to have issues with getting older.

To some extent, however, that was true.  Previous generations valued maturity, responsibility and above all tradition.  The Boomers threw all of that away, instead mocking tradition, lauding youth over experience and placing personal freedom (by which they meant short-term pleasure) over responsibility.  The Big Chill is their first realization that things aren't working out the way they planned.

The story is based on events and characters writer/director Lawrence Kasdan encountered during his time at Michigan.  As a Michigan State grad, I have to admit I bristled a bit when I realized these were all Wolverine alumni, but as the film progressed I was entirely satisfied to see U-M grads portrayed as a bunch of self-centered, drug-using, adulterous whiners.

Kasdan of course had already written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and would go on to pen a few more hit films in that decade, but he hasn't had much success since.  He put his name on both the disappointing Episode VII as well as the unwatchable Solo movie, so his best days are clearly behind him.

Still, there's no denying that The Big Chill is an excellent film.  The acting is first rate and the while the characters are less than admirable, they absolutely feel real.  I can personally attest that Ann Arbor produces vast numbers of people such as these.

That actually counts for a lot.  Today's writing emphasizes specialness if not perfection, and heroes (particularly women) are super-strong, super-smart and know neither doubt nor regret.  This makes personal stories impossible to tell.

Talking with some of my friends, I can't think of any comparable movie that has come out in the last 20 years.  For one thing, who would play the parts?  Hollywood is entirely populated by super-hero actors in skinny jeans leavened with overweight minority women who supply moral authority. 

No one in The Big Chill is remotely like that.   One of the friends is a TV star, another a reporter for People magazine.  The rest are typical professionals -  doctor, lawyer, business owner.  The standout is William Hurt's character, who is a Vietnam veteran who (in a nod to Hemingway) was rendered impotent by a war wound and therefore cannot consummate a relationship.  Rounding out the cast is Meg Tilly's Chloe, the younger, sex kitten girlfriend of Alex, whose death brought them all together.

Alex is only briefly glimpsed, a corpse being prepared for the funeral service.  He was played by Kevin Costner in flashback, but these scenes were cut and have never since been released.  Kasdan decided it was better to leave Alex entirely to the cast's recollections, and he was right.

By universal acclaim, Alex was the most gifted of the lot, described as a brilliant physicist who nevertheless abandoned a career in science and worked menial jobs, hopping from place to place.  He finally landed with Kline and Close (the married couple of the group), who supported his latest endeavor up to the moment of his suicide.  Alex also carried on an affair with Close, but this was supposedly resolved and in the past, which of course it wasn't.

Thus, we have a complex web of relationships that need to be worked out as well as existential problems that are all played out over a weekend.  It's a fall weekend, and being Michigan grads, the movie takes time out for them to watch the Michigan-Michigan State game, which is a marvelous detail to include.

Another nice touch is to borrow from George Lucas in American Graffiti and use a soundtrack comprised entirely of vintage music.  By watching the characters' reactions, one gets a sense that they too are going back in time and recalling their fading youth.

It is an excellent film, but for all of the funny and tragic moments, there is a profound void in its structure, and that is its total lack of any kind of religious faith.  I do not think this was by design, rather it was simply a reflection of the world Kasdan experienced in college and subsequently lived in when he made the movie.

There are a couple of nods to faith, such as the funeral and a brief appearance of a crucifix, but it's otherwise absent, both in action and words.   Alex's funeral is at a local Baptist church, but no one goes to the Sunday service.  These are very much secular Hippies turned Yuppies.  They have their degrees, their jobs, marriages, children, houses and yet they feel hollow.  All that they thought they would do has vanished and what they have left is material comfort and spiritual desolation.

Just as Game of Thrones is an unintended apologetic for Christian culture, so The Big Chill is a cautionary tale for life without faith.  None of the marriages portrayed in this film are stable.  The great Boomer gift of no-fault divorce looms large, and adultery is explicitly described as a morally neutral act, to be condemned or condoned only by the conditions in which it takes place.

It would be interesting to extrapolate what happens to those families in the succeeding decades and the knowledge of the world we have now makes the film all the more poignant - and damning.

Normally, I'd condemn this movie as being something very similar to Carly Simon's early work, but there is something about it that transcends my moral outrage.  Instead, I feel nothing but sympathy for the broken, half-formed people portrayed in this story.

 

 

 

 

 


The unified Battlestar Galactica compilation post

For a while it seemed that every other post over at Bleedingfool.com involved Battlestar Galactica, specifically its terrible "reboot."

In fact, I've pulled it apart in so many different ways, I think it would be useful to have a handy place to reference the collection, so here we are.

These are the ones at Bleedingfool.com:

Yes, Battlestar Galactica (2004) was the First Punitive Remake

Battlestar Galactica’s Reboot was the forerunner of SJW Hollywood

Battlestar Galactica ’78: The Original Space Western

At the time I was also in a habit of doing posts linking to stories when they posted and adding some addition commentary here at Chateau Lloyd, so here are those links:

My Battlestar Galactica piece is up

Battlestar Galactica revisited

 

 


The faith of Babylon 5

Over at Bleedingfool.com I've got an article up celebrating that lost gem of the 1990s, Babylon 5.

One of my challenges in writing it was keeping my admiration for the show in check, because there is so much about the show to like.

I watched the entire run when it was on live TV of course, and subsequently got the DVDs and binge-watched it twice more.  I'm thinking I might be due for another viewing.

One thing I touched on that's germane to my current Spirit World kick is the degree to which all of the characters on the show not only have some form of religion, but this actually directs their actions.

That's not very common these days as politics have replaced religion.  It's worth mentioning that none of the Star Trek versions ever bothered with a ship's chaplain.  Oh, they had empaths and therapists, but no one regularly participated in prayer services.  When it was shown, faith was always individual.

Babylon 5, by contrast, highlighted how even aliens had a belief system that touched on the supernatural.  It is considered a universal feature of sentient life.

Whether one looks at the near-Islamic Narn, Dionysian Centuri or mystic Minbari, religion was a core part of the group's identity and how each character expressed that was a key part of their personality.

Another element that stands out is that the humans are portrayed as every bit as reverent as the aliens.  This also cuts against the grain.  The classic rule in Hollywood is that only non-Christian cultures have sincere religious faith; Christians are either hypocrites or raving lunatics (often both).

Babylon 5 doesn't do that and as the years go by, I appreciate it more and more.


Ghost hunting, psychics and spiritual warfare

Years ago (back when we had cable/dish service), my wife loved to watch those "reality shows" on ghosts.

I use the scare quotes because the shows were heavily edited, using spooky music, jump cuts and emphasizing reaction shots over actual footage.  Essentially, they were Scooby Doo in reverse, trying to assure the innkeeper that yes, your property does have ghosts so they can including it in their promotional materials.

At the time, I considered it nothing more than a low-rent TV version of The Blair Witch Project, but now I wonder if they were onto something.

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti - the titular exorcise in Diary of an American Exorcist - notes that these shows may be bogus, but they are based on the uncomfortable truth that the spirit realm is real.  He does not discount the existence of ghosts but says that what the low-light cameras and thermal lenses are likely tracking are demons, not the restless dead.

Similarly, the shows about psychics who can put people in touch with dead relatives are also powered not by a benign connection, but an infernal one.

As Father Rossetti notes, demons lie whenever it suits them.  It's perfectly consistent with them to tell someone what they want to hear to undermine Christian faith.  After all, if you can communicate with the dead, why bother praying or going to church?

There's also the secular angle - the notion of using technology to pierce the veil between the seen and unseen worlds.  It acknowledges the spirit realm, but remains faithful to the "science is real" religion by pretending that tools and curiosity can explain the secrets of the universe.

Assuming the hunters are in fact uncovering real phenomena, one wonders if the "work" ever follows them home.


The surprise ending

Arguably the greatest challenge to contemporary writers is coming up with a way to make an ending both surprising and plausible.

Game of Thrones failed spectacularly in this respect, and Star Wars did the same.  I think the first big whiff was The Matrix, but plenty of shows start with a bang and end with a whimper.

Of course, sometimes life imitates art, and while this blog generally avoids the pointless churn of political commentary, certainly the last chapter of American involvement in Afghanistan was entirely unexpected.

On the other hand, historians tend to look at wars as wholly contained narratives.  War was declared on this date and ended on the other date, and anything beyond those bookends is beyond the scope of most conventional books.

Sometimes one has to look outside those confines, because in real life, the end of one story necessarily leads to another.  The characters change, the plot lines switch around, but the tale never ends.

J.R.R. Tolkien brought this up in Lord of the Rings, at one point having Sam Gamgee reflect that the stories told of the Elder Days in the Last Homely House had continued down to the present day and that he and Frodo were part of the same plot line that ran back to Beren and Luthien.

And so it is.  As Tolkien also noted in his timeless work, victories and defeats are at best transitory.   Time passes and new challenges emerge.

What is surprising to people at the time will likely seem a foregone conclusion to future generations.

All one can do in such circumstances is do what any solid character would do: muddle through and carry on as best as possible.  It may not be satisfying drama, but then again the story isn't finished and in real life, the actors rarely get to see the final result of their effort.

 

 


Comparing The Year of Living Dangerously with The Killing Fields

I've fallen out of the habit of cross-posting my articles from bleedingfool.com, but I think it's necessary in this case because what I wrote about The Year of Living Dangerously goes to the heart of what I didn't like about The Killing Fields.

I'm going to assume by now that you've checked out the article and move on with my critique of The Killing Fields.   The films are of course quite similar, being about the spread of Communism in Asia during the Cold War.

In fact, they films bookend Vietnam, with The Year of Living Dangerously taking place in 1965 while The Killing Fields begins in 1973.

Both center around Western journalists striving to get the truth out to the larger public.  However, the portrayal of them is profoundly different.

The journalists in Indonesia are, as I've noted, a bunch of heavy-drinking perverts.  They may be good at their craft, but they are hardly role models.

By contrast, Cambodia's press establishment is remarkably noble and altruistic, particularly Sam Waterston's Sam Schanberg.  The only hint of criticism he gets his how failed to ensure the safety of his translator/friend Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor, who is amazing) and reaped the benefits of the subsequent publicity.

In fact, while approving of the subject matter, I found the presentation of The Killing Fields to be heavily at odds with the facts.  I get that by 1984, there was still a lot of Nixon hate out there, but it's obvious that the production team has let it completely cloud their judgement.  Late in the film Schanberg admits that the Khmer Rouge were worse than he thought, but then tries to blame Nixon for radicalizing them!

Uh, no.  Every single time Communists take control of a country they kill off huge numbers of people. (In Spain, they couldn't even wait until they won the civil war.)

The Khmer Rouge were just really good at it.  The notion that the Communists would have been peaceful and inclusive if only those pesky Americans weren't there is nonsense on stilts.

It;s possible that his answer isn't an attempt to preach but instead shows how far removed from reality his thought process has become.  I suppose there's also implied criticism in how Schanberg sits in his comfy chair talking about mailing photos while his dear friend eats lizards and climbs over corpses.

Even understanding the difficulty of the logistics at the time, I can't wonder why Schanberg didn't go to the refugee camps and write about them personally, maybe mount a vigil for his friend there rather than rage-watching Nixon administration footage while listening to his high-fidelity stereo.

The most tone-deaf moment in the film is when Schanberg is reunited with Pran and the production team plays of all things John Lennon's "Imagine."  Seriously?!

The Khmer Rouge was the embodiment of everything in the song!   They denied God, wiped out family ties and literally made everyone live for the day, every day.  The fact that their "brotherhood of man" was a nightmare only illustrates the inevitable outcome of nihilistic fantasies.

My resulting rage stroke almost wrecked the movie for me.

I will re-watch The Killing Fields at some point, looking for greater detail.  Also, the dialog wasn't very clear in places, so I'm sure I missed things.

Even so, The Year of Living Dangerously is a much better film.  The characters are more fully developed and the moral questions are presented with greater skill and complexity.  The Killing Fields gets very preachy at times, which it doesn't need to be.  The story speaks for itself, we don't need Waterston's sermonizing to make the point for us.

 

 

 


The Long Riders: an 80s western that tries for historical accuracy:

When I was going up, it was taken for granted that people watched re-runs of The Lone Ranger and long-running shows like Bonanza or Gunsmoke in syndication.

Those shows - along with the collected works of John Wayne - were unjustly regarded as corny, flag-waving middlebrow entertainment.  The cultural elites had already begun to decide that the heroes of American history were a lot less heroic.

Still, there was a lingering bias in favor of American values, and so the westerns of the 80s created what one might call a more balanced picture - admitting the flaws but still admiring the virtues of the Old West.

The Long Riders is interesting because it presents a less than flattering portrait of the James Gang (and the associated sub-gangs) and also because it uses brothers to play brothers.  The Carradines, Keaches, Quaids and Guests are well represented.  I'll said this: it makes it easier to tell which characters are related.

The film itself is a combination of iconoclasm and residual tropes, with the latter chiefly coming from revolvers with endless amounts of ammunition.

Still, it does a good job of showing the complex motivations of outlaws, which did in fact include pure greed.  I particularly enjoyed the heavily armed funeral service for one of the outlaws' younger brothers.  The minister rightly noted that the government was just as capable of breaking the law as anyone else.  Some things never change.

I'm not sure I would regard it is as something I'd like to see again, but it was a satisfactory way to spend an evening.