Movies

The Best Space Film Ever Done

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed my rants about the movie Gravity (which my head insists on calling Graffiti for some reason) a while back. I didn’t like the film, but that’s not unusual with me and current Hollywood films. However, it then won the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation and I wondered if I had watched a completely different film than everyone else. Because really? A film whose only merit is its visual effects is considered an outstanding dramatic presentation? Weak story, no-dimensional characters, and a Perils of Pauline ending that is just a joke are apparently amazing cinema nowadays. You even have someone like James Cameron saying “I think it’s the best space film ever done…” Continue reading

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Roger Corman – Accidental Feminist

So, I’ve been pondering the Bechdel Test lately. You know the Bechdel Test, correct? Like it says in that link there, it’s a set of rules created by Alison Bechdel (and Liz Wallace) to determine gender bias in a film. Those rules?

1. The film has to have at least two [named] women in it,
2. who talk to each other,
3. about something other than a man. (Not limited to romantic relationships, for example two sisters talking about their father doesn’t pass)

Passing this test doesn’t make your film good, necessarily. And some really great films have failed the test. It’s there to point out whether a film (good or bad) has interesting women in it who interact with each other. Continue reading

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Russell Johnson – RIP

I’ve always had a thing for Russell Johnson. As a kid, of course, I knew him as the professor. Continue reading

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Monday Afternoon Music

Off to a late start today. I blame the lack of heat at the dayjob. Just came on about half an hour ago. Finally got to take my parka off.

At least the Arctic blast hadn’t come in yet? It was 47 here this morning. Now it’s 31 and set to get much colder still.

Joy.

Continue reading

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The State of Things

We’re supposed to get 3-5 inches of snow tonight. I’m not excited about this.

Yeah, I know. I live in Vermont and it’s December. Just not in the mood.

Writing’s going well, though.

  • Submitted a story last week. Fingers crossed on that one.
  • Revised “Mind Over Murder” and the editor’s pleased. Apparently she’ll have news on the anthology in a couple weeks. Hopefully, it’ll be stuff I can share with you.
  • Getting ready to submit another story that I’ve been rewriting. I have a spreadsheet of possible places to submit to. Alpha Reader thinks I should use the dartboard method. Seems as good as any right now.
  • Speaking of Alpha Reader, he has all the scenes I’ve written for The Travelers since August (41,000 words worth). While he’s reading those, I’m going back and outlining the thing. Um, yes, after the fact. Better late than never? It’s already proving useful as I’m finding scenes that aren’t necessary and others that need fleshing out.

Oh, and I have a movie to recommend to you. The Rabbi’s Cat! This is a film adaptation of Joann Sfar’s graphic novels The Rabbi’s Cat and The Rabbi’s Cat 2. Really delightful. The artwork and animation are great. The story and the characters are super fun, it has a good message, and the star of the show has me wanting a talking cat in a bad way.

the-rabbis-cat-post-9

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Monday Morning Music

Look at my blue eyes, look at my brown hair, look at my color. What color do you see?” he demand [sic] to know. “My mother was 100 per cent white,” Jeffries said, his blue eyes glinting in the New York sun. “My father is Portuguese, Spanish, American Indian, and Negro. How in the hell can I identify myself as one race or another?” – Herb Jeffries

So, it’s Memorial Day here in the U.S. I’m enjoying a long weekend that still has another day after this to go. Long weekends are lovely.

I was thinking that, for today’s music video, I’d go with something related to my novella “To The Edges,” which Crossed Genres published this past Friday. The protagonist, Zed Bleakstead, is a fan of cowboy movies, including some really old ones, even though most of the heroes in those films are all men and all White. At one point in the story, though, she sits down to watch (and fall asleep to) a film called Bronze Buckaroo. The film’s from 1939 and is one of the first westerns in the sound era to star an all-Black cast. Herb Jeffries (credited as Herbert Jeffrey) plays the lead. You can watch the whole thing on Youtube, if you like. It’s an interesting bit of history as well as being a silly, old cowboy movie. And have there been all-Black westerns since then? I know, in my research, just finding westerns with people of color as protagonists was a disappointing task.*

What does that have to do with music, you ask? Well, Herb Jeffries didn’t just play a cowboy, he was a singing cowboy with a beautiful voice.  And he’s an interesting person (still alive at this writing–he’s 99) who I want to learn more about. Louis Armstrong discovered him performing in Detroit and suggested he try his luck in Chicago. When he was asked for his background by a prospective employer, Jeffries stated he was “a creole from New Orleans,” choosing to pass as a person of color instead of as a white man, which he could easily have done.

Interesting choice. When he performed, he darkened his skin further. Which is, well, it’s hard not to think “blackface” and wrinkle my nose, but the thing is, he lived as a Black man offstage when American apartheid was in full swing, and he could have done otherwise.

“In those days, my driving force was being a hero to children who didn’t have any heroes to identify with,” Jeffries says.  “I felt that dark-skinned children could identify with me and, in “The Bronze Buckaroo,”  they could have a hero.  Many people don’t realize (to this very day) that in the Old West, one out of every three cowboys was a Black… and there were many Mexican cowboys, too.” —herbjeffries.com

Jeffries succeeded in becoming a hero to a lot of people. Herbie Hancock‘s parents named their son after him, for example. But then, when he married Tempest Storm in 1959, he labeled himself White on the marriage certificate. Jet magazine asked Jeffries about that, which is where the quote at the beginning of this post comes from.

Identity and race are complex things, especially during periods of time when the folks with the most power would prefer that they weren’t.

Hm, has there ever been a time when that wasn’t/isn’t the case? I don’t know.

But I do know that, after he was done playing a singing cowboy, Herb Jeffries went on to sing with Duke Ellington‘s orchestra. Yes, indeedy. Here he is singing his hit “Flamingo.”

And here’s a clip from Bronze Buckaroo with Jeffries and the Four Tones singing “Got the Payday Blues.” Pardon the skipping, please; it’s the best I could find. Beats the hell out of Roy Rogers, though, doesn’t he?

___________

*I didn’t discover this site until after “To The Edges” was done.

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I’m an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider.

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed anything on this blog, although I did post my tiny review of Anne River Siddons’ Burnt Mountain over on Goodreads the other day. Today, though, I want to write over here and talk about movies.

The Descent, to be specific. Watched this night before last and mostly enjoyed it. It was only in the last third of the film that things went amiss for me.

So, The Descent is a British film that came out in 2005. Written and directed by Neil Marshall, it tells the tale of six women going on a spelunking adventure: Juno ((Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone).

descent1

The first five women are old friends reuniting after not having seen each other for a year (and after the death of Sarah’s husband and daughter in a car accident); Holly (the woman on the far left above) is Juno’s new friend (Lover? Perhaps. Although I misheard her when she said “I’m a sports fuck like Juno.” I thought she said “I’m sport-fucking Juno,” which amused me. But who knows.).

After a night of drunken revelry and reminiscing in a remote cabin in the Appalachians, Juno leads the group on a driving expedition to the cave they’re going to explore. As Juno leaves one of the vehicles, she throws the cave book in the glove compartment instead of bringing it with her: our first clue that she is perhaps not to be trusted. The group rappels into the cave–a beautiful scene–and begins their underground hike.

Little tiny spelunker in really big cave entrance. The last time you won't feel claustrophobic in this flick.

A little, tiny spelunker in the really big cave entrance. This is the last time you won’t feel claustrophobic in this flick.

Since the only way out is through, the women head deeper into the cave looking for the exit on the other side. But is there another exit? The audience, and the other women, soon find out that Juno wasn’t honest about where she was leading her friends. Instead of going to the caverns originally planned, she’s taken them to a cave system no one has explored before. And no one knows where they are.

Juno: It hasn’t got a name. It’s a new system. I wanted us all to discover it! No one’s ever been down here before.

Of course, everyone thinks Juno’s out of her goddamned mind, but there’s nothing to else to do but keep going. Things go to hell pretty quickly, as Juno’s little ego trip takes them places all of them would have been happy to miss.

Like I said, I mostly like The Descent. It’s definitely a good take on the let’s-all-go-to-the-country-and-get-eaten trope of horror tales. I really love the casting twist of everyone being women, and there’s not a stereotypical bimbo among them. They’re all capable women who know how to do shit, and I didn’t miss the sexual politics that invariably come with a mixed group (or, goddess forfend, a group with one token woman) in movies. If anyone knows of a horror film that includes a mixed group that isn’t horribly stereotypical, please comment. I’d love to know about it.

Anyway, Marshall does an excellent job making the viewer feel the caving experience, at least this viewer. I’m not normally a claustrophobic person, but the dark, narrow passageways that make up most of the film’s journey had me taking much more shallow breaths than I usually do. It actually felt like my body was trying to squeeze itself tighter, so I’d fit, too. Tension: Marshall knows how to do it. He’s knows how to push my buttons, anyway.

Never. Going. Caving. Ever.

But then we get to the third act.

*******INCOMING SPOILERS*******

The first two-thirds of The Descent is a creepy exploration of the characters’ psychology and skills. They’re capable women, leading one to believe that they might just be able to save themselves. Instead of continuing along that path, however, Marshall decides to throw monsters at them and the rest of the film turns into a not-nearly-as-interesting gorefest.

The monsters are humanoid. To me, they look like a cross between the fluke man from The X-Files and the ubervamps from Buffy.

Flukeman  +   ubervamp = descent monster

They’re blind, carnivorous, vicious creatures, and our protagonists are hard-pressed to deal with them. Fortunately, the cave people’s hearing is conveniently spotty and they have no sense of smell. Otherwise, they could have taken the women out in five minutes flat, and where’s the fun in that?

To combat the sketchy monsters, Juno and Sarah spontaneously develop slayer powers, so it would seem. Their fighting skills are a little hard to believe. Adrenaline can certainly give you strength and speed, but this is the first time the film gives any indication that Juno, in particular, is a weapons expert. It all looks cool, but it doesn’t fly for me.

And then there’s the Lembas Incident1. Juno kills two cave people and is then surprised when Beth approaches her and kills her, too, accidentally impaling her through the throat with her pickaxe. Juno freaks out and abandons her, something she’s known to do (and I would have liked to have had more time exploring that instead of sitting through the monster parade).

victim Descent_Juno_kills_Beth

Apparently, you can get stabbed in the throat like this, live for hours, and still talk once you’re found. Who knew?

The cave people grab Beth and drag her back to their lair, where they’ve also dragged Holly and where Sarah eventually finds her amid a pile of corpses in varying states of decomposition. She tells Sarah that Juno attacked her on purpose and can’t be trusted.

Because we needed that conflict added to the mix for some reason, didn’t we? Come on, Marshall.

See, I would have been perfectly content if we hadn’t heard from the miracle woman who should have died instantly with a blade through her spine and throat. Up until the cave people arrived, things had been relatively realistic. My disbelief was comfortably suspended, but this was completely unnecessary and stupid.

Juno deserves the axe Sarah hits her with later for getting her friends into this mess in the first place. The movie didn’t need to add Beth’s impossible remarks as justification.

*******Spoilers Done. Carry On.*******

But your mileage may vary, and you may be more tolerant of loose ends in your storytelling. So, check The Descent out. Even if the kind of things I talk about above bug you, you still might want to investigate The Descent. Like I said at the beginning of this review, it’s mostly pretty good.

I don’t think I’ll be seeing the sequel, though. That’s just pushing it.

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1. “Lembas Incident” is what I call a point in a film that doesn’t serve either the story or the plot and is only there to create unnecessary conflict and fake drama. Taken from the scene in The Return of the King where Gollum sets Sam and Frodo against each other with lembas crumbs. One of the many grumbly points of that film for me. So many grumbly points…

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Outsiders #3: The Man with No Name

Ages ago, back in 2012, I started a series of posts concerning outsiders in fiction. It’s a topic that continues to interest me, so today, I’m back at it. This time, my thoughts are about a character created by Clint Eastwood back in the 1960s.

Okay, just to be clear, I’m not going to be talking about Clint Eastwood as himself.

old clint eastwood talking to a chair

Anti-hero to the bitter end, eh, Clint?

That guy up there being an ass, or possibly a paid mole (and if he is, awesome, and pardon my calling him an ass), is not the subject of discussion today.

I want to talk about this guy. The Man with No Name.

Clint Eastwood - Man with No Name

Or the Man with Three Names, Just Not a Regular One, unless you count Joe as a regular name, which we’re not. Otherwise, it would screw up the whole Man with No Name thing.

I’ve been tinkering with this post for the bulk of January now. Our hero is indeed an outsider in all three films. No question there. But a hero? Not so much, except for in the first movie. The more I’ve thought about it1, the more I’ve concluded that the Man with No Name doesn’t really fit my definition of outsider hero, except for–like I said–in the first film in the trilogy. In the other two, he is far more mercenary and out for his own interests throughout, the complete anti-hero: relatively good in The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly and in the case of For a Few Dollars More, a complete dick.

Here’s that Outsider hero definition again:

A person who isn’t part of the society that he or she finds him/herself in, but saves the day or has an influence in how people change their way of thinking.

Do I still have a post worth writing then? Well, let me ramble on a while and we’ll see what we end up with.

As mentioned above, the Man with No Name appears in three films: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966). These films are considered a very loose trilogy. There is even some argument as to whether Eastwood is playing the same character in all three. I like to think he is, so we’re going with that. I also tend to watch the movies out-of-order when I watch them all together.

See, it makes sense to me that the story in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly actually happens before A Fistful of Dollars. It’s the serape, you understand. TMwNN (aka Blondie) takes it off a dying soldier in TGtB&tU and is wearing it in AFoD. (Apparently, Leone owned a time machine.) For a Few Dollars More then becomes the third film.

So, what kind of story do we get when we look at the films in that order?

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: This is probably my favorite of the three films. Eli Wallach (Ugly), Lee Van Cleef (Bad), and Eastwood (Good) are pretty much perfect in their roles as three gunslingers on the hunt for a fortune in gold. TGtB&tU is a film about relativism. Is Blondie really that “good?” Well, no, but compared with Tuco the outlaw and Angel Eyes the hitman, he is. Just don’t push him on the topic.

Another point in favor of this being the first film of the three is that it takes place during the U.S. Civil War, and the other two take place afterward. It also doesn’t strike me as farfetched that Blondie is Confederate soldier gone AWOL. Even before he disguises himself as a dirty Reb’, he’s wearing grey. I’m not completely convinced, but it’s a possibility I like to fiddle with.

All of these films, including TGtB&tU, benefited from Sergio Leone borrowing heavily from Akira Kurosawa. Eastwood’s back-to-the-camera entrance in TGtB&tU models Mifune in–well–nearly every film he was in. The cinematography in all three films is inspired by Kurosawa who was himself inspired by John Ford and American westerns of the 1930s. It’s a lineage of influences that I find fascinating. When Kurosawa was making his samurai films he was really making westerns, and when Leone made his westerns, he was really making samurai films that were really westerns. Neat.

Triangle composition: both directors loved this.

Triangle composition: both directors dug this.

I love that shot above. It’s the famous 3-gun standoff that rounds out TGtB&tU. All three characters give up opportunities to kill the others so they can get to this point, Angel Eyes in particular. It’s as if gunslinging were an art, and proving you’re the best involves a little showmanship (something Roland Deschain would agree with, I think, even with his lack of imagination).

Speaking of Roland, Stephen King borrowed a lot from this film for his own masterpiece, The Dark Tower. TMwNN, himself, obviously. Tuco tracking Blondie reminds me a lot of Roland following the Man in Black across the desert, as well. (Angel Eyes is even referred to as the Man in Black) Also, little details like Blondie cleaning his gun and Tuco being so careful about his weapons that he builds a custom gun out of parts in a gun shop. Roland was very particular about his guns, too. The interweaving of influences never stops.

gun cleaning

Blondie in the midst of gun cleaning. Notice the way he lines up his bullets. Gun hygiene is kind of an OCD thing, it would seem.

Our next film, A Fistful of Dollars, is a direct steal of Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo that starred Toshirō Mifune as an unnamed rōnin (that would be Outsider #1); Sergio Leone’s film company (Jolly Films) didn’t play nice and secure the rights before filming so Kurosawa and his film company Toho sued them, delaying the film’s release in the U.S. until 1967.2 (It almost was the second film!)

But that plagiarism doesn’t make A Fistful of Dollars a bad movie. Far from it. This film is iconic for more than the Kurosawa script. The storyline is pretty much the same (almost shot-for-shot in some cases): an unknown gunslinger hits a lonely desert town and discovers he can make some money playing two rival gangs against each other. Along the way, he rescues a woman from one of the gang leaders, is beaten for his efforts, and comes back to take down all the bad guys .

Once again, the cinematography is achingly good.

Like this shot, for example.

Like this shot, for example.

The music’s pretty good, too. Although Morricone’s theme for this film makes me giggle more than in the other two Leone films. Whick-it-wang!

It’s tempting to compare and contrast this film with Yojimbo, but that’s not really my point. They’re both good. I prefer the original, but that’s mainly because I prefer Mifune to Eastwood. Also, there’s no one in Fistful to compare with Tatsuya Nakadai.

crazy man who doesn’t care that the town is burning down; look at those eyes

ramon-rojo

Gian Maria Volonté: a fine actor for AFoD, but just not as cool as Nakadai; too much bronzer for one thing

TMwNN (called “Joe” by the coffin maker) is a very cynical/realistic man. He’s taciturn and restrained, and yet, when he sees Marisol’s son kicked by her kidnapper/rapist, it sticks with him. There’s more to him than just being a cold-blooded killer.

Marisol: Why are you doing this for us?
Joe: Because I knew someone like you once and there was no one there to help.

This response along with his remark that he “never found home that great” makes me wonder a lot about him. Was the woman like Marisol actually his mom or sister? A lover? Who knows?

Volonté shows up again in the third of this set, For a Few Dollars More. He plays El Indio, another overly bronzed villain whom bounty hunters TMwNN (known as “Manco” now) and Mortimer (Lee van Cleef) are chasing. Manco is after him solely for the bounty money. Mortimer wants El Indio because… dun dun dun… it’s personal.

Again we have another film–the other side of the cookie sandwich I’ve made with TGtB&tU on one side and AFoD in the middle–where TMwNN is not a hero. It’s almost as if what happened to him in AFoD when he tried to be a good guy was so traumatic, he decided to not do that anymore.

When the bad guys in AFoD beat him up, they crushed one of his hands, forcing him to re-learn to shoot with the other. In FaFFM, he still favors the original injured hand, only using it for shooting, and protecting it otherwise (manco means “one-armed” in Spanish). Makes sense to me that his hand wouldn’t be the only thing he’d be protecting after that.

But I still find him in this, and FaFFM in general, to be less interesting than in the other two films. The story’s weaker. Also, the film is padded with so many staring contests that I always end up yelling at the screen after a while. “Just start shooting already!”

But we do get the original 3-man stand-off, sort of.

600full-for-a-few-dollars-more-screenshot

more an isosceles triangle this time instead of an equilateral, but still cool.

I also like the weird, little, gremlin prophet guy who hates trains and the preamble that starts things off.

Where life had no value,
Death sometimes,
had its price.
That is why the
bounty killers appeared.

Just wish it were half an hour shorter.

Well, I ended up rambling on plenty, didn’t I? And where did that lead us?

Outsider, yes or no?
The Man with No Name certainly is. He’s a stranger everywhere he goes. He’s the wind, baby.

Is he a hero?
Depends on the movie. In Fistful of Dollars, he definitely is, rescuing Marisol from her imprisonment and sending her on the road with her husband and their son. He even gives them money. We also get a bit of a reason why Joe is being helpful, something that Sanjuro keeps to himself in Yojimbo.

Joe is also a hero because he defeats both crime gangs, freeing the town. Again, like Yojimbo, his motives aren’t clean and pure, but the results are for the good.

Manco and Blondie, though? The anti-hero trope is strong with both of them. Mercenary, sadistic, and just plain mean, TMwNN is not a good guy in either of the remaining films. Even if the title of one says he is.

Does this guy change anyone’s way of thinking?
Meh, not really. Perhaps in a let’s-not-do-that-again kind of way, but in general, no. I don’t really see anyone in any of these films changing the way they live their lives because of our gunslinger. Except, perhaps, for Marisol and her family.

Why is he cool?
He’s Clint Eastwood in a serape! One of the best movie icons of cool, even after fifty years, and I’m not going to argue with that.

Would you argue with him? Don't say anything mean about his mule either, if I were you.

Would you argue with him? I thought not. Don’t laugh at his mule either, if I were you.

Even if all he does now is talk to empty chairs.

_____________________________
1. Yes, this is the kind of stuff I spend a lot of my time thinking about.
2. Just a note: Toho doesn’t fool around. Godzilla is still under copyright and they will sue your ass if you use him (or his roar) for your own devious purposes.

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Outsiders #2: Dorothy Gale

A little less obscure this time around. While no one knows the bodyguard‘s real name (at least in the first two films), everyone knows this girl’s name. Although does her last name come to mind as easily as her first? Probably not, given that the Wicked Witch of the West only writes Surrender Dorothy in the sky, not Surrender Dorothy Gale.

Surrender Dorothy written in the sky

Continue reading

Categories: Fangirling, Movies, Outsiders, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Outsiders #1: The Bodyguard

Okay. It’s been almost a month since I posted about how I want to write about outsiders. I have to admit that this is SOP around here.

It’s always been easy for me to get excited about an idea and what I could do with it, and yet, not so easy to follow through.

But I’m trying. I submitted another short story last month and have written two more chapters for 2082. I get points for that, eh?

Anyway, in the last 20-some days, I’ve been thinking about what to write in this first outsider post: doing research, gathering info, watching way too many film clips on Youtube.

But enough of that! It’s time to actually write about one of these people and why I think he’s cool. Continue reading

Categories: Fangirling, Movies, Outsiders, Works in Progress | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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