Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Time Machine (1960)

The Time Machine (George Pal, 1960) We are all time-travelers, really, moving forward into the future one second at a time, for that is the natural order of things. The trouble comes when we want a little more speed...or go back, which is unnatural and out of order. Perhaps there is a core-wisdom to not want to live in the past or skip ahead to our future. But, folks have been writing time-travel stories since the Mahabharata (if we're to believe Wikipedia) because wouldn't it be nice to go back in time to meet this person, or to right a wrong, or because just now you thought of the perfect come-back you wish you had then.

It is speculated that time slows down, relatively, the closer you get to the speed of light (299,792,458 meters per second—it's just not a good idea; it's the law) or, more recently conceived, to a massive gravity source—say, a black hole. And there is speculation that by going faster than the speed of light, one could out-race time and catch up with it (as if it was a single-stream device, like a TIVO). Anyway, it worked (or will work) on "Star Trek."* 

Either way, back, or forth, it seems it takes a lot of effort and energy for so little time.

It's all theory, though. Tick-tick-tick is the speed of things. At least for now.
In George Pal's version of the H.G. Wells novel, the time is January 5th, 1900. H. George Wells (Rod Taylor) stumbles (just in time) into the pre-arranged meeting with his friends and acquaintances, David Filby (Alan Young), Dr. Philip Hillyer (Sebastian Cabot), Anthony Bridewell (Tom Helmore), and Walter Kemp (the ubiquitous Whit Bissell), and he looks bruised and bedraggled. He has a story to tell them about how he got that way—over his last few hours—and it has a lot to do with their meeting the week before—one that ended with much scoffing and condescension about George's crazy ideas. 
At that meeting (as he reminds them), he posited the invention of a machine to cross "the fourth dimension"—time. He showed them a model, which—at the press of a switch—disappeared, and explaining to his gob-smacked and uncomprehending friends who wondered where it went that it was not a question of "where" it went but "when." The little model is still there, in that room, it's just in another time—where they are not. Philosophically, George is concerned that, with the Boer War going on and strife everywhere, that the answers to man's struggles must be in the future and he intends to see.
To a man, they are practical...and skeptical. His ideas and skills would be better put to helping the war effort, but George cannot be dissuaded. Fearing for his mind, Filby encourages George to see in the New Year with his family, but Wells refuses but assures his friend that he won't walk beyond his door that night. And, indeed, he won't. George decides to do that thing that all visionaries should be wary of—experimenting on oneself—and tests his full-size version of his time machine to travel, tentatively, into the future. He stops in 1917 and things have changed a bit—he monitors changes in fashion from a mannequin in a shop window across the street. Taking a tentative look outside, he runs into a person he thinks is Filby—but it's actually his son. Filby is dead and buried, and his son has just returned from The Great War. That doesn't auger well for Wells' dream of a better world, so he presses on.

A second trial takes him past WWII, where his time machine feels the effects of the blitz and he sees his rural town become surrounded by skyscrapers. Stopping in 1966, he's just "in time" to witness a nuclear bombardment that he only manages to escape with his machine. Volcanic activity leaves him sealed in a cave and he punches forward through time until erosion has taken its time and he can see daylight again. He stops at  October 12, 802701. And the world has changed considerably.
Oh, there's oxygen, conveniently—the nuclear winter and volcanic activity seems to have subsided and formed a livable atmosphere after 802,000 years. The Earth that he encounters is verdant, lush, and judging from the life-forms  appears to be in Malibu by way of Logan's Run.** Everybody is in their early 20's, are model-proportioned, and have sun-bleached blond hair (they're also extremely passive preferring to hang out by the river, and if someone falls in and is in danger of drowning, nobody helps—perhaps they're federal employees!)
But, these aren't the only bipeds roaming about in the 803rd century, merely the ones who see the light of day. Life has bifurcated to include another life-form that lives underground in a subterranean power-plant of tunnels and caves. These are the Morlocks, who prey—and feast—upon the youngsters (who should be called "Veal," but are, instead, called the "Eloi," who are beckoned to the underground chambers by a summons from a pyramid-like structure resembling a temple.
George is aghast at this, and by the Eloi's compliance; when a herd of Eloi is beckoned (including a comely Eloi he has become besotted with (played by Yvette Mimieux), he invades the Morlock Masonic and goes all "Spartacus" on them, inspiring a revolt against the Morlocks and saving the Eloi to return to a life of..."whatever" (that's exactly what they seem to be returning to...a life of "what-everrr") Despite his feelings for "Weena"—as he calls her—he decides to power up his time-machine and return to his present time...for a time, anyway.
It's a good little adaptation of the Wells book, full of fine antiquated period detail and adolescent thrills—if you're not thinking about it too much—which is a mark of the films of George Pal, ever-concerned with the whiz-bang image (effects are usually done in brisk stop-motion sequences) and, if there's a message, best to leave it immersed in sub-text or the basic DNA of the source. And Rod Taylor fit the bill for the type of just-charismatic-enough-for-the-budget star. Taylor hailed from Australia—adept enough that you'd never know it from the expert lack of accent (you could swear he was Canadian!), filtered down by years of stage, film and television work (this was his first starring role)—and makes a fine adventurer to identify with.

The film was remade in 2002 with Guy Pearce, and Nicholas Meyer made an excellent "cousin" film, Time After Time, in 1979. We'll be looking at the latter...some time.
Now, a final note about time-travel: don't dress lightly. 

The trouble with the depictions that we've seen is that they're a bit myopic—at least according to professional physics buzz-kill Dr. Neil Degrass Tyson. All time machines we've seen have been neatly rooted to the ground (at least, The Time Machine acknowledged that the very surroundings that it existed on would change over time). But, even as we're moving through time, so is the Earth. So is the Universe. 

But let's simplify it. In the same way that a plane has to aim for the spot its destination will be at the time of arrival, you also have to do on a more cosmic scale. The Earth travels in its orbit around the sun at 29.78 km/s. So, that means if we wanted to travel, let's say, a day in the future, we should take a rocket to the point where the Earth would be in 24 hours, which would be 1,598,784 miles down the ecliptic. Say we did travel 24 hours in time; without compensating for the constant movement of the Universe, we would end our time-journey with the Earth "'way over there", and we'd be gasping for air before our lungs would explode...because we'd be in space.

Always wear a space-suit when time travelling, kids (and take PLENTY of oxygen) because you may know WHEN you'll show up, but you might not know WHERE.
"Missed it by that much..."

* Michael Crichton's "Timeline" proposed a simpler, more catastrophic solution to time-travel; it can't exist. "Time" doesn't flow as is the conception of pre-quantum time-travel stories—"Time doesn't pass; we pass" says a tech in it—and that what has been more romantically termed "time travel" is actually space-travel to another dimension in the multi-verse that has branched off. One could "travel" to those alternative branches by atomizing the human body and, upon reaching that dimension, reconstructing the physical form from its genetic map. Sounds really, really complicated, but, again, it worked "so well" on "Star Trek." 
Transporter accident as imagined by the late, great Mort Drucker
* I didn't know this until I was doing some research on Pal, but he was trying to get a "Logan's Run" adaptation as early as 1968.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Don't Make a Scene: Fargo

The Story: I'm doing a lot of complaining these days. It's a symptom of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Everything seems to be pissing me off and I'm starting to think (despite the quietly overwhelming evidence otherwise) that people are plain stupid, drivers are incompetent, governments have their collective heads up their asses, and that the only worst government than representative democracy would be one in which people actually DID have control. Given the systemic racism in the troop-culture of police departments, I'd be firmly in the "Defund the Police" camp, if it wasn't for the fact that I live near Seattle. Recently, a bunch of protesters grabbed a couple city-blocks, dis-invited any police presence, set up their own "Security Force" and proceeded to show just how incompetent and cocked up people doing it on their own could be. Think that "Black Lives Matter" to the police? Didn't matter to the "Security Force," either. And they had no names, no badge numbers, no body-cam's, no accountability. People got hurt, raped, and a couple teenagers murdered (both black and it matters) by said "Security Force" and no one can be held accountable. Wouldn't let the police in to investigate. And when they did, the crime scenes (and they were crime scenes) were so compromised, no one could find anything useful to follow up. And everybody up there has been as quiet as Money, Mississippi was after Emmett Till got killed. How liberal of them. How progressive (that was sarcasm).

It did inspire Seattle's police chief to come in and tell the protesters they couldn't play at taking care of themselves any more as they weren't any good at it. So much for "CHAZ"...or "CHOP." They should have called it "CHUMP."

As you see, I've been complaining a lot. 

And it's been in the form of Fargo's Marge Gustafson. "I don't think much of your COVID-19 reporting to the White House instead of the CDC, there." "I don't agree 100% with your protesting tactics there..." "I don't agree 100% with your bald-faced lies there, Mr. President." "I don't think much of your Press Secretary either, but the hair is nice..." "I don't think much of your bean advertisement there, you or your Barbie-kid." "I don't think much of your 'Security Farce' there, CHUMP..." "I don't think much of your bone-headed conspiracy theory there, former Facebook-friend..." "I don't think much of your sending jack-booted thugs in unmarked vans into Portland there, DHS." "I don't think much of seeing your ugly mug without a mask there, fellah..."

Things like that. Seems to soften it a bit. The alternative would be to fire up the wood-chipper. I wonder if N95's come with a muffler-option?

The Set-Up: While an extortion-kidnapping plot goes on in Brainerd, some collateral damage has been inflicted. During a routine traffic stop, a state trooper is killed and the scene witnessed by passing motorists, who are also killed by the hired kidnappers. Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) goes out to investigate and is driving back with officer Lou (Bruce Bohne)


Marge is driving; Lou sits next to her.  
MARGE You look in his citation book? 
LOU Yah. 
He looks at his notebook. 
LOU Last vehicle he wrote in was a tan Ciera at 2:18 am. Under plate number he put DLR. 
LOU I figure they stopped him... 
LOU ...and shot him before he could finish filling out the tag number. - 
MARGE Uh-huh. - 
LOU So... 
LOU I got the state lookin' for a Ciera with a tag startin' DLR. They don't got no match yet. 
MARGE  I'm not sure that I agree with you 100% on your police work there, Lou. - 
LOU Yah? - 
MARGE Yah. I think that vehicle there probably had dealer plates.
LOU Oh. 
Lou gazes out the window, thinking.
LOU  Jeez. 
MARGE Yah. Say, Lou... 
MARGE Ya hear the one about the guy who couldn't afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J2L 4685? 
LOU Yah, that's a good one.


Words by Joel and Ethan Coen

Pictures by Roger Deakins and Joel Coen

Fargo is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from M-G-M Home Entertainment, Warner Home Entertainment, Fox Home Entertainment, Shout Factory and who ever else is distributing M-G-M these days.

It's complicated.


Saturday, July 25, 2020

The Expendables (2010)

Written at the time of the film's can tell because it mentions Arnold Schwarzenegger having a political career...before we'd all heard of "Maid-gate."

Do I have to mention Saturday is "Take Out the Trash" Day?

"The Most Appropriately Titled Movie of the Year!!"

The Answer to Where All the hGH in Hollywood Went

First, to be fair, one does not walk into a movie like The Expendables to judge the line-readings. It's a good thing, as the only performance worth a damn is Mickey Rourke's beautifully played monologue in the middle of the movie, which stands out like an ice-swan at a spam-carving contest.  Everybody else, it's a crap-shoot (emphasis before the dash).

"Crap-Shoot" might have been a better title for the movie, as it's equal parts both. The latest in a series of 2010 "Dirty Dozen" knock-offs (after The Losers and The A-Team), this one takes its appeal in gathering so many testosteroasted hams, all of whom have seen better days. The main stars are Sylvester Stallone (who directed), Jet Li, and Jason Statham, with extended cameos from the rest of the cast (why, there's even a brief, unnecessary "Planet Hollywood" board meeting between Stallone, Bruce Willis, and the non-acting Gubernator of Kullyfarnyah, Mr. Schwarzenegger*—who seems to have forgotten how to act, along with all his campaign promises). The only stand-outs are the vascularity on the prominently displayed biceps, not that anyone would look good barking the inane juvenilia contained in the script.  
Okay, so let's forget "art," for a moment, and lower the squat bar to "execution" (*sigh*  "if only..."). The action scenes (supervised by 2nd Unit Director Terry Leonard, who has done good work in the past) are sloppy, jam-edited for intensity, and often laughable (I lost count of how many times they pulled the never-believable "guy-holds-a-knife-handle-to-his-throat-like-somebody-just-threw-it-at-him" trick), and that applies to whether the "E's" are fighting the bad guys, or amongst themselvesThese guys can hold a gun—and maybe not blink when firing one, I didn't notice—grunt when they're hit, and simulate rough-necking (except for "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who A) can't act, and B) broke Stallone's neck during a choke-hold), but anything else is far more taxing—like, you know, keeping an accent, or even a consistent personality, throughout the proceedings.
But, there are the numerous neck-twists, blood-spurts, and even the occasional spaghettification of an extra every few minutes, but one wonders why some of these guys, who made their reputations on better product in the 80's, would decide to come out of retirement (or exile) to appear in such a worthless piece of trash. There's a lot of Human Growth Hormone under the skin of these guys (Stallone, particularly, is starting to look like Robert Evans!), but any other growth—well, they haven't made a pill for that. After all, the phrase isn't "Better acting through chemistry." As it is, this film feels lame, and aged—like Wild Hogs with evisceration. 
* Stallone must have promised to wash their windows, or something. The novelty of seeing Schwarzenegger back on anything but a political stage has been heavily promoted in the ads, but he's there for four minutes, tops—hardly enough to get in shape for.  I'm sure there's SOME-one out there, outside of a day-care or the Democratic Party, that's been hoping for Schwarzenegger's screen return, but I think that may be a side-effect of extensive steroid use. 
2020 Hindsight Addition: There was a link to Arnold's Governor page under the "Kullyfarnia" but when I checked on it, it took me to a "This Page Has Moved" place-holder. Boy Howdy.

I wrapped up the review with this: "The Expendables" is a Waste of Time, Money and an army of Ballistic Gel Dummies!

The thing has generated a few sequels, though. Something to be said for that.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Cowboys & Aliens

Written at the time o' the film's release...

"This Galaxy Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us"
"Just My Ray-Gun, Pony and Me..."

Good idea, this. Two genres that have been around as long as there've been movies* and have served the same purpose—taking a theme that might be controversial if played in modern street-clothes, but dress it in rawhide or spandex and it takes some of the "edge" off. You'd think the two would go together as well as Zero-G and sawdust, but there have been already some tentative steps in anti-gravity cowboy boots: There have been westerns with a touch of fantasy—The Valley of Gwangi—and Sci-Fi with a western foundation (Outland was High Noon in space suits) but the two haven't really been combined as equal parts as in Cowboys & Aliens (the ampersand is required).
Loosely based on its comic source, it starts in familiar territory—a desert landscape, ancient river-beds long-since dried up and now sun-blasted bluffs and scrub.  Suddenly, a Man With No Name (Daniel Craig) lurches up into frame, sun-burned, bootless, bloodied with a wound in his side.**  He has no memory of who he is, where he is or why he's there (at one point a townie asks him "What DO you know?" "English" is the laconic reply). One odd thing—a thick manacle from wrist to forearm on his left armSmashing it with a rock would work with hand-cuffs, but this thing won't budge. He's set upon by riff-raff that he dispatches in a whirlwind of flying fists and gun-fire. So much for outfitting.  With newly acquired boots, shirt, vest and hat, he climbs on top of a pilfered horse and rides to a nearby town...with a loyal dog in tow. All the elements are in place.
A stranger in town (and everywhere, one assumes), he gets noticed and in trouble—mussing up the son (Paul Dano, really good) of the requisite town rich-guy-fascist (Harrison Ford, low and husky), and getting landed in the hoosegow by Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine, whose Daddy appeared as a gambler in the granddaddy of Westerns, John Ford's Stagecoach). That's sounding like Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, but about the time Ford's Colonel Dolarhyde (nice name for a rancher) arrives with some hired rough-necks to spring his boy, new arrivals appear in town—blue lights in the sky, which turn into flying ships—they recall fighter-jets in the daylightthat start blowing things up and (in a neat touch) lasso people and yanking them into the skyThe attack sets off The Stranger's fancy bracelet, which starts to "queep," pops up a sight, and knocks one of the ships out of the sky.

Suddenly, The Stranger gets a lot more interesting.
Because the invaders have been nicely particular about who they took—Dolarhyde's son, the Sheriff, the wife of the town's doc/bar-keep (Sam Rockwell, not used well enough, sadly), a posse is formed to find the kidnapees and at this point the movie turns decidedly conventional. It should. It's The Searchers, which begat Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And along the way, the posse manages to accumulate allies in a criminal gang, a tribe of Apaches (who are polite enough not to mention that "an invasion by strange aliens with weapons to take our resources" sounds vaguely familiar), and, for all I know, The Outlaw Josey Wales—who also accumulated an unlikely army that turned into family.  This is useful, because for the big battles with the Invaders, there needs to be a large number of red-shirts and red-bandanas to eliminate, so we don't lose the strays that make up the posse, which include a dog, the Sheriff's grand-son (Noah Ringer), and as Clancy Brown's Preacher (gotta have one of those, too) grouses, "We gotta dog and a kid, we might as well have a woman, too"   
That woman is Olivia Wilde, who spends most of the movie looking enigmatically sultry, while doing things that make you go "eh?" throughout the movie, beyond just the fact that as Craig gets more and more beat-up, her make-up never gets smudged. As welcome as Wilde's presence is in all this testosterone, her character is the most problematic, running inconsistently throughout the film—she's either "capable" or she isn't, and ultimately you realize that she's just a "device" that gets the screenwriters (a squad of them including the two that wrote Star Trek and the "Transformers" films—as opposed to the two who wrote the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies) out of trouble. Mention should also be made of Adam Beach, who keeps getting better every movie, and Craig who does "the Eastwood thang" real good. Director Favreau (he of Iron Man fame, his chief skill seems to be impeccable casting), manages to direct it absolutely straight, with just enough of a hitch in the standard cliches to make things interesting, rather than well-trod.
Nothing is made of the irony of these new aliens making life difficult for "the natives," save for some terse nods of collaboration between members of the extended posse. That doesn't sadden me too much as most movies these days seem to want to beat you over the head with their "message," in case you don't get it. But, in so doing, Cowboys & Aliens manages to fulfill both the Western and Sci-Fi genre's abilities to put things in unique perspectives to throw a light onto our world. 

As I said, good idea.  A bit fun, too.

But, only a bit.

* As in The Great Train Robbery (1903) and A Trip to the Moon (1902). 

** It's not too unlike the beginning of Silverado where Paden (Kevin Kline) is found by Emmett (Scott Glenn), alone in the desert, robbed of everything but his skivvies.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

All About Cooking Beans with All About Eve

A slight side-road today.

NPR (the U.S.'s public radio network) had a story about a slight discrepancy during the pandemic. During the initial crush of panic-consumerism, there was a lot of buying (besides toilet paper, providing an education in supply chain deficiencies), there was also a run on flour, yeast and beans. One would expect a lot of kitchen activity going on.

Evidence suggests that everybody is baking. Just how much sourdough bread can a nation make? A cursory glance of Instagram and Facebook will tell you.

But, not a lot of people are cooking beans. Perhaps it's the quantity of them when you buy in bulk and people can't anticipate planning a few days in advance anymore (what day is it?). Maybe sourdough bread is less daunting, a short term solution and not a multi-day commitment.

Anyway, NPR noticed this and did a report and included a handy tip: when cooking a pot of beans, boil them for 15 minutes, turn the heat down and start watching All About Eve.

At the point when Margo Channing utters her immortal line
MARGO Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night.

—you should add salt (appropriately).

At the point when she's in the car (getting cheaply sentimental) and says "Funny business, a woman's career" then it's best to get up and check to see if the beans are done—you don't want to hear that schlocky "a woman needs a man" speech, anyway.

After all, ya got a pot of beans so the world is yours.