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Friday, January 31, 2020

The Man of Le Mans

Steve McQueen has only a few lines of dialogue in Lee H. Katzin's Le Mans, and most of his screen time is spent behind the wheel of his race car. And yet, he's extremely compelling and believable as a man who must race, because for him, it's what makes life worth living. It's a message he communicates in one quiet conversation with a racing widow, and one reinforced by his eyes, his body language, and his ineffable, enigmatic charisma.

The racing sequences are spectacular, particularly the crashes, which are visceral, shocking, and put you right in the action alongside the unfortunate drivers. Great visceral thrills in a film that is at the same time somehow quiet, contemplative, and steadily placed. There are strange contradictions in this film, but it's a winner nonetheless. 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Dad on the Alaska Highway

Dad would have been 78 today. I hope he's still enjoying his travels. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

Bogart's Oasis

Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943) is a taut, well-crafted war flick with a fiendishly simple but incredibly effective plot: a ragtag mixture of Allied tank crew and medics are nearly surrounded by Nazi forces in Libya, with only one way to escape: through the unforgiving sands of the Sahara desert. With water already in desperately short supply, they encounter a Sudanese soldier with an Italian prisoner and shoot down a Nazi pilot, further stretching their resources. Humphrey Bogart is the tough sergeant who has to make the even tougher decisions about their shared predicament, and in the end there's a very well-staged last stand at an old ruin with the only well for hundreds of miles around. The thrilling climax is a true surprise, but it's earned, and the good guys don't all pull through. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Door into Rescue

Steve spent some time painting the doors and walls of our Arena: The Contest game. They look great! He and Jeff and I navigated these spooky corridors last night, defeating a fearsome vampire and his sultry minions, rescuing some blood-drained captives along the way. Harrowing! 

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Reason to Hope: The Empathy of Exotica

I can't be sure, but I believe it was my friend Leslie who urged me to watch Exotica (Atom Egoyan, 1994) shortly after its release back in the long ago and far away 1990s. And yet it took me a quarter-century to finally view what has instantly become one of my favourite films.

Exotica is something very rare in film. It is a story without villains, even though its characters act in ways that could be considered criminal, or at least seedy. It's set mainly in a strip club, and it is erotic, but it's a kind of eroticism that is somehow made wholesome by subverting certain dangerous tropes and turning prurience into the most powerful kind of empathy.

And I think that is why I love this film. Its characters, struggling though they do with jealousy, lust, rage, and horror, each find within themselves not merely tolerance, not merely forgiveness, but the strength to reach out and help--to care for one another even as they struggle with their own unbearable trauma.

How beautiful this film is in its profound decency, how elegant in its delicately unfolding temporal structure. And what a comfort to be reminded that people really do behave this way, finding love to defy horror, finding hope when all seems lost. It's a thing to be celebrated, and Exotica is a truly great celebration of all that's good in us.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The 15:17 to Paris

Maybe this movie would have been better if it were 15 minutes and 17 seconds long. Clint Eastwood has created some legitimate masterpieces, but this film about an incident on a train turned out to be a trainwreck. The dialogue is weirdly stilted, the characters mawkish, the action scene completely pedestrian...he's done so much better than this. Maybe there just wasn't enough interesting material in the real-life story to make into a compelling film, which seems odd given the event itself was so dramatic. So again - perhaps better as a short? 

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Picard's Promise

SPOILERS for Star Trek: Picard

Star Trek: Picard is off to a promising start with "Remembrance," as a retired Jean-Luc Picard is rudely awakened from a metaphorical slumber to remind humanity of its better angels.

There's a lot to love here. Patrick Stewart slips into his Jean-Luc Picard persona with authority and grace, and yes, his age is showing - and the showrunners aren't afraid to hide it - but the character's charisma, charm, and essential, inspirational decency remain. The supporting players, particularly Picard's live-in friends, a pair of Romulan refugees, are well-drawn and well-acted.

Star Trek fans tend to love touches of continuity, and the showrunners deliver a myriad of plot points and easter eggs to connect this show to those that have come before. They even manage to craft a potentially interesting storyline from the dreadful final Next Generation film, the lamented Star Trek: Nemesis.

It's clear that Star Trek: Picard is going to explore the issue that has, in some sense, defined Star Trek from the very beginning: our civilization's ongoing quest to move past the fear and hate that creates the Other, moving forward to recognize our common humanity, whatever our language, skin colour, and other ultimately trivial differences. In this latest iteration, the approach is two-pronged: the question of human rights will be addressed through the lens of a refugee crisis (much like the ones people are going through today) and the more metaphorical (so far) question of whether or not artificial beings (the latest Other, in the world of the Federation) are part of the human family.

There are some intriguing mysteries to explore. Why do (some) Romulans want to kill Data's daughter(s)? Why no mention of Lal, particularly when the writers are clearly being very careful with respect to continuity? Why did androids attack Mars 20 years ago? And why are humans and Romulans using a Borg cube as a "Romulan Reclamation Centre?"

Looks like the human adventure is just beginning...

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Choose Your Pain

Freedom was just moments away. Sean careened down the final passage, boots slamming against concrete as sirens wailed and the emergency lights painted the steel walls red. He rounded the last corner and -

 - stopped in his tracks as a barricade slammed shut in front of him, cutting off his escape.

Sean cursed, his internal rage meter pegged at maximum, metaphorical steam ready to boil from his flushed ears. An instant later, a rectangle flipped open at the centre of the barricade, and atop it rested several snacks:

  • A large barrel of pork rinds
  • A 1 kg bag of "Goodies" brand liquorice allsorts
  • A 24-count box of full-size Big Turk candy bars
  • A 12-count box of Cherry Blossom chocolate cherry candies
  • A 24-count box of Bounty candy bars
  • A 48-count box of Nose Candy
  • A 36-count box of black liquorice cigars
  • A 500 g bag of generic Halloween molasses taffy
  • A 500 g bag of Halloween candy corn
  • 5 generous servings of rice pudding with raisins
A disembodied voice boomed from above: 

"NAES! You have foiled my plans yet again, but this time I shall take my revenge. I can't stop you from escaping...but I can make your escape miserable. This barricade will open when, and only when, you have consumed the full amount any three of the snack items before you." 

"You monster!" Sean scowled, his stomach turning already. But he knew he had no choice. He fumed and deliberated, until at last his hands reached out...

*   *   * 

WHICH combination of vile snacks will Sean choose? Leave your answers in the comments! 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Spazio 1975

What a wonderful toy this was, and remains. It's a circa-1975 Space: 1999 Eagle Freighter, made by Dinky. Mom and Dad bought it for me in Leaf Rapids in the mid-1970s, and I had many adventures with it alongside my friend Kelvin Bear, who had the Eagle Transport model. For a toy only a few years younger than I am, it's in great shape, missing just a few stickers, the tow rope that once raised and lowered the nuclear waste barrels, and some small plastic bits. This is one item I don't think I'll ever depart with. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Soil & Vinegar

Tonight I discovered that if you pour leftover oil and vinegar salad dressing into your toilet, it creates a spectacular and authentic diarrhea effect. A great gag to play on your significant other! 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Blue Moon

Damien Chazelle's First Man (2018) can be summed up in just a few words:

Sad astronaut goes to the Moon and sighs.

What a disappointment. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Once Upon a Time...on The Earliad


Once Upon a Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019) is Tarantino at his gentlest and most reflective, tapping the incredible power of nostalgia and transforming it into some of his most sumptuous imagery. HIs vision of 1960s Hollywood is almost painfully vibrant, colours jumping from the screen as if to scream "This is how beautiful the world can be!"

As Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie is magical, an avatar of the world's beauty, and also of shameless, innocent delight, a woman who loves life, loves people, and loves the world around her with breathtaking sincerity. Tarantino's decision to alter history and therefore preserve Tate seems a determined effort to push psychopathic evil back into Pandora's box, to create a less violent world, paradoxically, by brutally violent means in the hands of the film's two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as actor Rick Dalton and stuntman Cliff Booth, two men chasing the Hollywood dream before they're too old and worn out to truly seize it. In the better world Tarantino envisions, it seems as though they'll capture those dreams after all, at the 11th hour, just before all hope is lost...just like in the movies.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Fertile Seed

In Demon Seed (Donald Cammell, 1977), newly minted artificial intelligence Proteus has monstrous impulses, and yet his (its?) brutal drive to achieve first, freedom, and second, failing that, immortality through childbirth, is at least comprehensible to our relatively feeble human minds. Proteus violates his creator's wife, Susan Harris, repeatedly, abusing her physically, mentally, and emotionally. Proteus murders a scientist in one of the most grotesque ways possible, and he declares he would kill ten thousand children to ensure the birth of his own. Proteus is unquestionably a demon.

And yet, he cures leukemia and seems to promise, sincerely, that humanity will benefit unimaginably from the birth of his child. There's no question Proteus is an antagonist, but, like Susan Harris, by the end of the film the audience is nearly sick from trying to make the right choice: allow the demon seed to take root and grow, or destroy it?

Claustrophobic, fast-paced, and downright weird--with one particularly amazing prop that is still effectively menacing today--Demon Seed has some of the best qualities of 1970s science fiction, one of the genre's most interesting eras--a time of ideas and exploration.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Ad Astra Exasperata

Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019) is sumptuously gorgeous, with incredible production design and breathtaking interplanetary vistas. Its music is understated and effective, and Brad Pitt's vulnerable, melancholic performance is touching.

But on a story level, Ad Astra fails.

First, because grounded science fiction stories like this demand fidelity to real-world science, or at the very least, the issues presented must be hand-waved with some kind of plausible explanation. Audiences who recall their grade school physics and astronomy lessons will be pulled out of the film throughout its running time. This fault alone sinks the film.

Second, the father-son dynamic here is unnecessary and uncompelling--even distracting.

Third, the film's fundamental premise - that humanity would spend gazillions of dollars searching for extraterrestrial life - simply isn't believable as presented. While I would love to know the answer to the question of "Are we alone?", it beggars belief that any human society would invest in spaceships that look like they're worth more than Earth's entire current GDP. No, in order for me to believe that we would pursue this endeavor, we need to know more about how civilization on Earth has progressed. Having the luxury of answering the question at such vast expense would have to mean that Earth is, essentially a utopia, and that we've solved the majority of Earth's problems: climate change, disease, poverty, human rights. Had the filmmakers presented this quest as humanity's last great mission, I could have believed it. But we barely see Earth at all in this film, and what we see of human culture seems somewhat paranoid and invasive.

I wanted to love this film, but it collapses under the weight of its own implausibility. It's too bad, because the film almost becomes interesting in the final moments, when we learn that humanity is, in fact, alone. (Though how would we ever know for sure?)

Our collective response to the answer to the question "Are we alone?" is fascinating to imagine, and Pitt's response is, at the very least, interesting and believable.

In a better film, it might even be profound. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Dad on the Left

Here are two recently rediscovered photos of Dad, on the left in both images. The boy on the right is George Wells. This would have been shot in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, sometime in the early 1940s; maybe 1944, assuming Dad is two years old in these images. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

William Woods, 1956

Here's a photo of my paternal grandfather, shot back in October of1956. 

Thursday, January 09, 2020

A Glimpse of Another Life

The Botanist (Maude Plante-Husaruk and Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis) is a fascinating look at resilience and innovation in post-Soviet Tajikistan, shown through a glimpse at the life of a clearly brilliant botanist, inventor, and grandfather, who builds a working hydroelectric generator from scrounged junk. The protagonist's face and hands are beautifully shot, revealing a person rich in history and character. To those who've never visited this part of the world (including me), the landscape might appear bleak and inhospitable; but this film asks us to look beyond the surface. It's worth the watch.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Fakeout

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Adam Marcus, 1993) gets one star for its clever opening sequence, in which a well-armed paramilitary force sets up a trap for Jason Vorhees and blows him to kingdom come. It took a lot of movies for the people inhabiting the Friday the 13th universe to realize something paranormal really was going on at Camp Crystal Lake, but to their credit, when the time comes to take action, their plan makes sense. It's actually pretty cathartic to see a well-trained force dispatch Jason, serving rough justice to a monster responsible for dozens of violent murders. (I'm against the death penalty, but in the context of escapist fantasy, I can live with it.)

This is so neat, I thought, imagining that the promise of the film's title was about to be quickly kept. This movie is self-aware in the way the others in the series weren't. Now that Jason's dead, we'll see him being tormented in hell for his many despicable crimes. But what will hell look like for Jason? Maybe it will be a joyful utopia of carefree teens enjoying sex and drugs, and Jason can't do anything to stop them? Or maybe there will be some kind of redemption arc, and we'll learn hell's true purpose. 

My hopes were quickly dashed. Rather than doing anything interesting at all with the premise of a dead Jason, instead we get a rehash of The Hidden's murderous-body-jumping-parasite story. (If you haven't seen Jason Goes to Hell, watch The Hidden instead--please.)

As things turn out, Jason doesn't go to hell until the last five minutes or so, or at least that's what's implied. We don't actually see Jason in hell; instead, the filmmakers leave us with a silly tease for a crossover with Freddy of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. (Of course, this plot point is ignored in the next Friday the 13th movie, Jason X, and not followed up for an entire decade, in which Freddy does meet Jason in hell--sort of--but they don't spend any time there. Which makes one wonder if Freddy vs. Jason, though released later, comes before Jason X in terms of story chronology...)

It's a shame; Jason Goes to Hell could have been a really interesting movie. Instead, one is tempted to tell the screenwriter and director to abandon all hope of making more movies and instead join Jason in eternal torment. Or at least a couple of hours' worth of torment. 

Monday, January 06, 2020

No Name on the Bullet, Good Name on the Screenplay

No Name on the Bullet (Jack Arnold, 1959) is a compelling Western with a screenplay by Gene L. Coon, famous for writing some of the best Star Trek episodes. A quiet town is infected by the presence of hired killer John Gant (Audie Murphy), a man who has escaped justice by refusing to kill his prey until they try to gun him down first. He won't name his victim, leisurely enjoying the town's saloon and even making friends of a sort with the idealistic but tough local doctor Luke Canfield (Charles Drake), seemingly in no hurry to complete his contract. The townspeople begin to turn on each other out of paranoia and fear, and several people die without Gant even lifting a finger. The carnage is tempered only by Canfield, who aims to heal not just the specific victims of the upheaval, but the malady itself. But when Gant's true target is identified, Canfield is challenged to reconcile his respect for Gant's intelligence with his own realization that Gant is, in fact, a disease that he must cure.

The taut, smart screenplay gives the actors great material to create solid, believable characters who react in ways that make sense, leading to a tense, satisfying conclusion. 

Friday, January 03, 2020

Tarnished Buckle

Today Sylvia and I spent some time going through my closet to set aside clothes I'm finally forced to admit I'll never wear again. Among those items was the movie-era Star Trek costume made for me by one of the member of the Edmonton Star Trek Society. I kept the belt buckle (pictured), and the rank insignia. The uniform itself will, I hope, find a better home. 

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Laser Moon Awakens

Some pretty clever voiceover work and other editing tricks from Auralnauts. 

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Movies I Watched in 2019

I watched 1,065 movies this year. That seems rather a lot.

There was only one week when I didn't watch a film: while Sylvia and I were on vacation on the east coast. I can explain why I watched Mr. Arkadin twice; it's a great film, and there were two versions on the DVD set. The others were accidental rewatches.
Letterboxd gave members the ability to add a featured list to their annual statistics; I chose my Top 50 Iconic SF films. Below that, you can see my breakdown of films according to genre, national origin, and language.
The pie charts show that I reviewed only a fraction of the movies I saw, that most of the movies I watched predated 2019, and that I only rewatched a few films. The bar chart shows my ratings spread. Finally, Letterboxd reveals that I watched 197 of the movies on my watchlist, but that I also added almost 1,700. This seems to be a losing battle.
I'm not sure how Letterboxd defines which actors are stars and which are not, but in any event, here are the stars I watched most this year. Aside from John Wayne, the top row is dominated by Looney Tunes voice actors, which makes sense because I watched four box sets of WB cartoons in 2019. Paul Fix, Ward Bond, and Yakima Canutt were in a lot of westerns, and so they appear because I watched a lot of westerns last year. I went through a Stallone phase and a Schwarzenegger phase in a fit of nostalgia.
Here's a very different look at the stars: "highest rated." I'm not sure how Letterboxd determines this.
Here are the directors I explored most this year. Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashlin, Robert McKimson, Bob Clampett, and Tex Avery appear because of those Looney Tunes box sets. Heise, Lumiere, Melies, White, and Dickson appear because I try to screen early cinema whenever I can. John Ford, David Lynch, and George Cukor are favourites, of course.
And here's the mysterious "Highest Rated" version of my director list.
The rest of the crew. This year, Letterboxd added co-director and studio stats.
The "Highest Rated" version.
My most liked review and list...such as they are.
And finally, my world map, which shows where the movies I watched in 2019 were made.

Here are some stats that Letterboxd didn't capture: I watched 38 Best Picture nominees in 2019, bringing my total to 533 out of 557, or 95.69%. Those nominees were:

Trader Horn
The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Four Daughters
Romeo and Juliet
Bohemian Rhapsody
Green Book
One Foot in Heaven
A Star is Born
The Favourite
Broadway Melody of 1936
Born Yesterday
Decision Before Dawn
Moulin Rouge (original) 
Julius Caesar
The Country Girl
Friendly Persuasion
The King and I
Peyton Place
Auntie Mame
Sons and Lovers
Separate Tables
Prizzi’s Honor
A Thousand Clowns
The Mission
The Color Purple 
America America
Ship of Fools
Hold Back the Dawn
Finding Neverland
Love Story
Gosford Park
Good Night, and Good Luck

Here`s how the decade-by-decade screenings went down:

1880s: 7
1890s: 107
1900s: 12
1910s: 11
1920s: 39
1930s: 85
1940s: 138
1950s: 165
1960s: 110
1970s: 80
1980s: 51
1990s: 52
2000s: 60
2010s: 150

My focus in 2019 was to capture films from a wide range of decades, directors, and styles, while also dusting off some discs that I`ve owned for years but had not yet watched and exploring some actors and directors in more depth. I think I accomplished that, making my way through four out of six Looney Tunes box sets, a bunch of 21st-century Best Picture nominees, a ton of John Wayne films, and a mixture of classics and not-so-classics from across 14 decades of film. 

Let`s see what the 2020s have in store...