Categories
British Drama Romance Science Fiction / Fantasy

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) | BFI

Many film buffs love to rank order films in best ever lists, straining and debating to argue which is #4 versus #3 or #7. I do not put myself through that agony, but am comfortable with more fungible judgments. In that spirit, I am quite sure than any creditable list of the ten best ever British films would somewhere include A Matter of Life and Death.

As World War II was winding down, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were firmly established as cinematic superstars after turning out one gem after another (including my recommendations 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). The UK Government, recognizing that the two most important things in the world are love and Anglo-American relations, approached The Archers (as the team styled themselves) about making a movie that would diffuse tensions between American and British people. The Archers might have accomplished this with a simple story of international romance, but they went well beyond that modest ambition to create one of the most original and beloved works in cinema history.

The film opens with the camera taking the viewer through the cosmos accompanied with lyrical, wry, narration, setting up a damn-near perfect opening scene down on earth. Piloting a shattered, burning, Lancaster bomber trying to return to England, lone survivor Peter Carter (David Niven) calls out desperately on the radio and reaches a lovely, loving American WAAF named June (An achingly endearing Kim Hunter). Peter has heroically told his crew to bail out without revealing that his own parachute is destroyed. He’s going to die and just wants to say goodbye to someone and to life. Their connection emotionally overwhelms Peter and June (and the audience), and they are spiritually a couple for a precious moment before Peter, not wanting to burn alive, leaps to his death.

Criterion Collection Celebrates Powell & Pressburger's A Matter of Life and  Death | TV/Streaming | Roger Ebert

Or does he? Peter’s assigned heavenly “conductor” (a funny, flamboyant, Marius Goring) misses the lucky Englishman in the heavy fog! Having miraculously survives what seemed certain death, he meets June in person, to their mutual joy. But the lovers face a grave challenge when heaven seeks to correct the procedural irregularity. Peter demands a right to trial for his life, where he is represented by a kindly physician (that charmer Roger Livesey) against an American prosecutor (Raymond Massey, effectively menacing) who has a deep distaste for John Bull (Understandable in a man who was shot to death by Redcoats 175 years ago).

The Archer’s utterly original story is just one virtue of the script, which also includes fulfilling moments of romance, friendship, humor, and meaning. This is combined with gorgeous set design and Jack Cardiff’s unforgettable cinematography. The scenes on earth are a riot of Technicolor, and the scenes in heaven were shot in uncolored Technicolor, producing a stylized look reminiscent of the best of German expressionism.

Michael Powell's A Matter of Life and Death (1946): Criterion Blu-ray  review | Cagey Films

David Niven was not, by his own admission, a great actor, but he was an infinitely charming movie star. He nobly derailed a successful movie career to defend his country during the war; this mega-hit restored his stardom in one go after his years of military service. In the starring role, he’s effective enough and he’s surrounded by a sparkling cast in top form, many of whom were Powell and Pressburger favorites. They sell the fantasy elements credibly while giving the story the emotional weight it deserves.

This whole movie must have sounded utterly crazy in the pitch meeting. Cinema was moving towards the dark, realistic, themes of film noir, and this is an uplifting, heart-warming, fantasy. The otherworldly sets could have been a visual disaster, a mechanical impossibility, or unintentionally farcical. But the magnificence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is inseparable from their artistic risk taking. They never played it safe and never repeated themselves. It is precisely because they made the seemingly impossible possible over and over that masters like Martin Scorsese recognize them as fellow giants. A Matter of Life and Death was Powell’s favorite of his films and it’s easy to see why he was proud of this piece of pure cinematic magic.

p.s. The American distributor was so scared that a film with “death” in the title wouldn’t attract war-weary moviegoers, that the US title was changed to “Stairway to Heaven”.

Categories
Action/Adventure Science Fiction / Fantasy

WarGames

Matthew Broderick in WarGames (1983)

In 1983, tensions between the US and The Soviet Union were high, and fear of nuclear war was in the air. Meanwhile, American life was being changed by the rise of the personal computer, with nerds of all ages in the vanguard. Director John Badham weaves these two strands together with excellent results in WarGames.

Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ clever script centers on teenager David Lightman (Matthew Broderick). David is an archetype: Someone who underachieves in all areas except that for which he has a genius, namely computers, video games, and electronics. Out of nerdly mischief and a desire to impress a girl from school (Ally Sheedy), David hacks into a computer system that he thinks is run by a software company, and starts playing a game called “Global Thermonuclear War”. But unbeknownst to David, he’s actually penetrated a computer system built by a different order of geek within the U.S. military (Dabney Coleman and John Wood) which has the autonomy to launch nuclear weapons. Adventure, suspense, and a useful lesson in game theory ensue.

WarGames (1983) Classic Movie Review 139 -

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: This film is as 1980s as it gets. 80s hair, 80s computers, 80s video games, 80s nuclear fears, and Ally Sheedy too. Although “powerful” computers with modems into which you plug your rotary telephone handset may provoke some chuckles today, the story is as relevant as ever and maybe, with the rise of artificial intelligence, even moreso. And if you lived through this time, 1980s-ness of everything in WarGames may be an appealing exercise in nostalgia for the era.

The key to this film’s success is Matthew Broderick, in a performance that showcased why he would soon become a star. Despite the extraordinary proceedings around him, Broderick consistently makes David into an utterly believable teenager, with the jumble of ideas, emotions, and capacities that are common at that age. He has particularly good byplay with Shakespearean actor John Wood, who plays a computer scientist who has lost his son and his hope for humanity, and achieves a measure of restoration on both fronts from David.

The plot developments could have been credibility-straining, but the script is smart enough and Badham is skilled enough to sell everything to the audience. The film is particularly good at giving the audience just enough of a technical explanation to make plot points credible without ever turning into impenetrable nerdspeak. Some of the adult authority figure characters are a bit cartoonish, reflecting I assume the studio aiming for a teenaged audience. That said, I enjoyed re-watching WarGames in mid-life as much as I did when I was an adolescent. This film is superb entertainment, including its nail-biting and satisfying conclusion.

p.s. Look fast for Maury Chaykin as one of Broderick’s circle of turbonerds.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir Science Fiction / Fantasy

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 Version)

BLACK HOLE REVIEWS: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) - creepy,  paranoid, body horror

When I recommend multiple adaptations of the same story, I typically package them as double or triple features. But in this case, the remake of a classic film I have recommended is so well-made and so distinctly its own work of art that I grant it an essay of its own: the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Like the 1956 classic original, Philip Kaufman’s remake is based on Jack Finney’s popular novel The Body Snatchers, in which seed pods from another planet drift to earth and begin replacing humanity with soulless replicas. But Kaufman added his own twist, which was to move the story from a California backwater to modern day San Francisco, a city he knows very well. In doing so, he preserved the suspense and chills of the original story while also getting to show off the gorgeous City by the Bay while also gently parodying some of its self-consciously hip and alternative residents.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Movie Review on MHM

Our likable and believable heroes this time around are Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as dedicated public health department employees (Back when such people could afford lovely homes in San Francisco). W.D. Richter’s screenplay wisely never explains if they once were lovers, but the actors convey the romantic undertone of their relationship, even though she is, awkwardly, living with a guy who doesn’t quite seem to be himself lately.

There’s always a character in paranoia films who explains to the anxious protagonist why nothing is really amiss, it’s all in your head, and why not lie down and get some rest? Here that part is a San Francisco archetype, a psychological growth-touting guru, played perfectly by Leonard Nimoy. If you are going to be typecast, Spock is a fabulous role to have, but Nimoy didn’t get as much chance as he deserved to try other things.

As for the extraterrestrial nasties, kudos to the special effects and makeup teams for creating some unnerving aliens with gut churning reproductive habits. One wonders if the makers of the Alien films were inspired by this movie’s parasitic menaces. Combined with terrific pacing (something lacking in some of Kaufman’s other movies), the heroes’ battle to resist the invaders is edge of your seat stuff.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Another thing I cherish about this movie is that while it’s mainly in the sci-fi/horror genre, it has noir elements and cinematographer Michael Chapman shot it as such. As has been shown in many classic noirs, San Francisco was made for shadowy lighting, unusual camera angles, and lonely compositions, all of which Chapman artfully employs here.

Last but certainly not least, this film breaks away from its classic predecessor in many respects, but at the same time stays reverent to it. Most notably, both the star (Kevin McCarthy) and director (Don Siegel) of the 1956 version have cameo roles that are both fun and scary. Put it all together and you have in my opinion both the best movie in Kaufman’s impressive ouevre and one of Hollywood’s freshest remakes ever.

p.s. Look fast in the opening scenes for a creepy looking priest on a swing played by Robert Duvall! As Kaufman tells it, he thought every horror movie should have priest in it so he asked his friend Duvall to do the wordless cameo.

Categories
Action/Adventure Science Fiction / Fantasy

War of the Worlds **Double “Feature”**

Did the 1938 Radio Broadcast of 'War of the Worlds' Cause a Nationwide  Panic?

I often recommend multiple movie adaptations of the same story (e.g., The Lodger, Dracula, The Hands of Orlac) for the enjoyment and education that comes from comparing how the same material has been filmed by different artists in different eras. H.G. Well’s classic novel War of the Worlds presents an opportunity to make a different type of comparison, namely between strong adaptations in two different media: radio and film.

I’ll begin by recommending the 1938 radio adaptation (click here to listen). To the extent people have heard of it at all, they know it as the show that allegedly drove America into a national panic about invading Martians (in truth, very few people actually listened to the broadcast). What it ought to be remembered for is its high level of artistic achievement.

Too Much Johnson Is Never Enough Orson: The 'Lost Film' of Orson Welles |  lokke heiss

The radio play was performed by the Mercury Theater troupe founded by two wildly talented people: Orson Welles and John Houseman. Howard Koch, who later became justly famous as the co-scripter of Casablanca, gets the credit for brilliantly adapting H.G. Wells’ novel to radio in a fashion that took advantage of everything the medium and the Mercury Theater company could do. The novel’s rather lengthy set-up chapters and some of its clunky plot development (i.e., having the narrator run into someone who provides crucial information) were a function of the book being told through the eyes of a single narrator. In contrast, staged as a fake news broadcast with scattered, breathless, reports coming in as the Martians wreak havoc, the radio play grips the audience by the lapels immediately, giving a range of details from different geographic locations in an utterly realistic fashion.

Radio also of course opens up opportunities to accentuate the power of sound — the screams and footfalls of panicked crowds, the horrible, metallic, unscrewing of the Martian cylinders, and the terrifying zzzaaapppp of those heat rays! It’s high craftmanship that still leaves us the fun of imagining how it all looked

Last, but not least, what an explosion of talent this troupe of actors represented! Not just the big names, but also people like Ray Collins, Dan Seymour, Kenny Delmar, and Frank Readick. They are all masterful at creating characters with voice alone, each of whom seems like a real human being responding to out of this world events. Some New York theater fans were disappointed when talented, stage-trained actors they admired began transferring to new, middle brow, media like radio and film, but the upside was that the whole country and indeed the whole world got to enjoy the dramatic gifts and skills of companies like the Mercury Theater.

Orson Welles - War Of The Worlds (1969, Gatefold, Vinyl) | Discogs

I loved listening to radio play as a kid (the image here is of the record album of it my parents owned) and it’s just as suspenseful and exciting for me today. The radio adaptation of War of the Worlds is in the public domain so you can give it a listen anytime.

The most widely known cinematic version of the same story is probably the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise mega-buck 2005 adaptation. But the sci-fi magic that duo summoned in the superb Minority Report was nowhere in evidence in their dreary, weirdly lifeless, take on H.G. Wells. You’d be far better off revisiting the work of another talented pair of frequent collaborators, producer George Pal and Director Byron Haskin, who made a groundbreaking version of War of the Worlds in 1953.

Tuesday Movie: The War of the Worlds (1953) - DeKalb County Convention and  Visitors Bureau

Barré Lyndon, like Orson Welles, took creative license with the original material to create a story telling style that worked well in a new medium. The film opens with two set up narrations, the longer of which, by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, is coupled with an imaginative tour of the planets in our solar system (at least as understood long ago). We then get straight into the action, with the crash landing of a mysterious meteor near an all-American small town (this time, in California). The townspeople are curious, the aliens are aggressive, the military is helpless, but luckily a sturdy Gene Barry as the heroic scientist and a believable Ann Robinson as his love interest and fellow crusader against Martians, are on the job. The quick-moving plot has many parallels with the original work, with the addition of some religious themes that likely played well in the 1950s America.

In addition to the exciting story, what wowed audiences about this movie were the trend-setting, Oscar-winning, special effects. Force fields, laser guns, exploding landmarks, devastated cities, and creepy Martians are among the sights on which to feast your eyes and ears. Of course modern computer-created effects are slicker, but for 1953, this was gobsmacking stuff that showed what movie magic could add to a Victorian English novel.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Science Fiction / Fantasy

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 Version)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers | film by Siegel [1956] | Britannica

For political paranoia, it’s hard to top a movie that is at once a sci-fi chiller, a B-movie classic, and an utterly unnerving destruction of any ability you may have to trust the people around you. It’s the legendary original adaptation of Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Made for peanuts in 1956, the film tells the story of a seemingly peaceful small California town where nothing ever happens. In the only starring role of his career, Kevin McCarthy plays town doctor Miles Bennell, who begins encountering a number of patients claiming that their loved ones are no longer who they used to be. They look exactly the same, but something’s not quite right about them. Dr. Bennell offers these worriers the standard reassurances about learning to relax, getting enough shut eye etc. It seems to work at first. The people who were once complaining soon become every bit as pleasant and vacant-looking as the loved ones they were so recently fretting over. Indeed, it is amazing how much better people feel when they just…go…to…sleep.

As strange events compound, Dr. Bennell and the woman he loves (Dana Wynter) realize that a sinister force is rapidly taking over the community and it’s almost impossible to tell who is afflicted and who is not. When they discover the extraterrestrial source of the change in the townspeople, they realize that their own lives are in danger and that it will be hard to convince anyone in the wider world that what they have seen is more than a figment of their imaginations.

My Name is Julia Ross (recommended here) is often cited as the prototype of a fine film made on a low budget; this B-movie is another sterling example of cinematic brilliance on the cheap. The only real expenses of consequence were the then ground breaking special effects. The town in which the movie was filmed — Sierra Madre — was used in its natural form; there are no fancy sets. Director Don Siegel went on to significant cinematic fame but the cast are unknowns and character actors who stayed unknowns and character actors. Producer Walter Wenger was an established figure in Hollywood, but his career was almost over when he made this movie. But none of that matters: This is grade A entertainment, loaded with suspense, shocks, and solid performances.

The meaning of the story has been much debated over the years. Some have seen it as a parable about the dangers of Communist infiltration. Others see it as a warning about conformity in the era of McCarthy. I never met Jack Finney, but I know some of his close friends and members of his family. When asked, they describe him as a New Deal liberal and no one’s Red baiter. They don’t think he wrote the story as political allegory but simply as a good story.

You can certainly enjoy this nail-biter as Finney thought of it. But it will also resonate with you emotionally if you’ve been in a situation where you felt that everyone but you was in on a joke you hadn’t been told or where you felt persecuted for being different. The most disturbing thing about the film is how banal and pleasant the enemies are. Like the worst of the world’s villains, they don’t see themselves as evil. Rather, they think they are doing everyone else a favor by bringing them under their tent.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers deserves its reputation as a classic film. Don’t miss it!

p.s. Carolyn Jones who has the second female lead part here, went on to play Morticia on television’s The Addams Family.

p.p.s. The studio suits tacked on a more upbeat “epilogue” when the film was released, but it’s thankfully gone from most modern prints.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Romance Science Fiction / Fantasy

Excalibur

As a filmmaker, John Boorman really goes for it. He has an idiosyncratic perspective on the diverse material he films, and carries it to the limit. Sometimes this has led to abject disaster (e.g., the incomprehensible, pretentious and unintentionally risible Zardoz). But more often than not Boorman’s courage as a filmmaker has resulted in fresh, exciting cinema, such as Point Blank, one of the very best films I have recommended on this site. 1981’s Excalibur is almost as strong and every bit as original as that classic.

Excalibur re-tells the hoary tale of King Arthur, his wizard/mentor Merlin, his knights of the round table and his tragic love triangle with Guinevere and Lancelot. Boorman keeps roughly to the classic Malory version of the story, but tells it in his own inimitable way, with bloody battles, plenty of sex, and even at times a bit of camp (some of the over-the-top moments may have drawn a few chuckles that Boorman didn’t intend). Excalibur illustrates beautifully how a talented artist can breathe new life into familiar material.

The most memorable character in the film is Merlin, played with gusto by Nicol Williamson, who gives the most eccentric portrayal of an Arthurian Wizard since John Cleese essayed Tim the Enchanter. His Merlin is a cranky, cryptic, wise and powerful oddball who alternates between helping his human charges (First Uther Pendragon and then his son Arthur) and upbraiding them for their frailties. The film develops his rivalry/romance with Morgana le Fay more than has any other Arthurian adaptation, which was a wise move given that the ageless and subtle actress Helen Mirren is on hand to play the enchantress who longs for King Arthur’s downfall.

Excalibur Movie Review

The production values are spectacular and the battle scenes feel real. Rather than people leaping around in plate mail whilst nimbly fencing with longswords, the combat is often slow and clunky. Indeed, the actors visibly strain under the weight of their weapons and armor. Also to admire: Future superstars (Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson) giving solid performances as knights. Cherie Lunghi and Nicholas Gray also register as the doomed lovers Guinevere and Lancelot, and it’s a shame their film careers didn’t take off after this movie was made.

Ultimately of course, this is Boorman’s movie, and whether it captivates you or not depends directly on whether you are willing to travel along with him as he develops his personal vision of Le Morte d’Arthur. Most viewers will find that while there are a few bumps on that journey, it’s an immensely rewarding trip with one of Britain’s great filmmakers.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Science Fiction / Fantasy

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Movie Eyeing a Fall Start

In my recommendation of Treasure Island, I described how and why Disney started making live-action family films after the war. One of the studio’s greatest films of this period is a dramatic, well-mounted adaptation of Jules Verne’s steampunk classic: 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The story opens with sailing vessels being destroyed in the South Seas by a mysterious underwater creature. Is it a kraken, a dragon or something else? At the behest of the U.S. government, a Parisian professor (Paul Lukas), his faithful assistant (Peter Lorre) and a free-spirited sailor (Kirk Douglas) join a military expedition to either find the monster or prove it doesn’t exist. In a fatal confrontation, their ship encounters disaster, which brings them face to face with Captain Nemo (James Mason), his devoted crew, and his extraordinary “submarine boat”.

James Mason as Capt. Nemo | Leagues under the sea, Movie stars ...

Mason, as the tortured, destructive yet also sympathetic Nemo is in top form, adding weight to proceedings that might otherwise have been comic bookish. Lukas, as the brilliant scientist who is both Nemo’s prisoner and his nagging conscience, is an effective foil for Mason. Lorre isn’t given a huge amount to do, but he makes the most of it by being more vulnerable and afraid that the other central players, thereby giving the audience someone with whom to identify.

The special effects were trend setting at the time and still hold up pretty well today, as does the knockout set design on the submarine. It’s particularly hard to forget Nemo playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the organ as the Nautilus glides through the ocean deep. Also adding to the striking look of the film is Peter Ellenshaw, who as in Treasure Island does magnificent matte work (the crowded shipyard at the beginning and the Island of Volcania at the end are flawless).

The film has two weaknesses. The first is Kirk Douglas’ endless mugging and preening. I don’t know if Director Richard Fleischer couldn’t control his star’s legendary desire for attention or gave him bad direction, but it gets old pretty quickly. The second is that like many films of the period (e.g., King Solomon’s Mines), this one includes “nature photography” moments that would have dazzled audiences at the time but are pretty slow stuff for a generation that has the web, television and a thousand episodes of Jacques Costeau at its fingertips.

But neither of those flaws stops this from being outstanding family entertainment with exciting action scenes, a strong story, eye-catching visuals and moments of real emotion. It’s great fun for you and the kids on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

I close this recommendation with a must-view clips for film-buffs. The truly spectacular fight with the giant squid in the film version released to theaters was not the first one that was shot. Here is the inferior original, the “Sunset Squid Sequence”.

Categories
Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense Science Fiction / Fantasy

Night Slaves and The Screaming Woman **Double Feature**

ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK COLLECTION" - 18 DVDS - COMPLETE UNCUT - TV ...

I generally don’t recommend made-for-TV movies because they generally aren’t worth watching (With some exceptions, such as Stephen King’s It). But there was a quality series of such films in the 1970s known as the “ABC Movie of the Week”. It gave audiences memorable moments such as Karen Black being stalked by an evil doll in Trilogy of Terror, Elizabeth Montgomery doing some ruthless ax work au naturale in The Legend of Lizzie Borden and Dennis Weaver battling a mysterious truck driver on a lonely road in Duel (An early Spielberg triumph).

I recommend two lesser known but still solid Twilight Zone-esque entries in this series of television movies: Night Slaves and The Screaming Woman.

Night Slaves is based on a novel by Jerry Sohl, a veteran TV writer for Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Outer Limits, among others (including the original Star Trek). Familiar plot elements from those worthy programs are all here: A mysterious isolated location, strange experiences, and a central character who can’t tell if he has stumbled across something bizarre and sinister or in fact is losing his mind.

James Franciscus and Lee Grant play Clay and Marjorie Howard, a toothsome married couple who are taking a vacation from the big city in order to help them recover from a recent trauma. Clay was in a terrible auto accident in which he suffered a head injury and two other people were killed. The Howards chance upon a sleepy little town and take a room for the night. But ’round midnight, Clay wakes up to see all the townspeople gathering in a trance-like state and then leaving town. He looks for Marjorie and finds that she too has become a glassy-eyed zombie. He receives cryptic clues about what is happening from an alluring stranger (Tisha Sterling) but she disappears before he can demand a full explanation. When Clay awakens the next morning, the town is apparently back to normal and everyone thinks his head injury has caused him to hallucinate the events he reports having witnessed. Is he going crazy, or is the town in the grip of some malevolent force of which its people are unaware?

The story unfolds slowly enough to be suspenseful without ever dragging — indeed like all the movies in the ABC series the whole thing runs only about 70 minutes. The actors are all believable and, as in a good Outer Limits episode, the resolution is clever and satisfying.

With made-for-TV flicks, I keep to my “B-movie standard” for cinematic releases, i.e., I don’t expect such movies to be more than they reasonably can be and frankly dislike it when they try. For that reason, the “TV elements” of Night Slaves don’t bother me, e.g., the set is clearly a studio back lot used in a million oaters, the reflected camera lights are visible in the store windows on one of the night shots, and there are some static one camera set ups that would have been replaced with more captivating cinematography if this were a big budget product for the big screen. If you can’t accept those sorts of things, don’t bother with this one. But if you can appreciate a solid TV movie as such, Night Slaves is quality entertainment.

An even better film along similar lines is The Screaming Woman, starring Olivia De Haviland in a role that you could consider a follow-up to The Snake Pit. She plays a wealthy woman named Laura Wynant who has just returned from the sanitarium after a mental breakdown. As she walks the grounds near the remnants of a bulldozed old smokehouse, she thinks she hears a woman calling for help from underneath the ground. As with Night Slaves, The Screaming Woman is based on a terrific writer’s (Ray Bradbury) story that depends on a character convincing other people that what has been witnessed is not an insane fantasy.

It’s pleasant as always to watch Joseph Cotten work (He plays Laura’s attorney) and the visuals of the screaming woman are effectively eerie. And the direction, by the accomplished Jack Smight, gets the most from the script and the actors. Again, it’s a TV movie, but it’s a fine TV movie indeed.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Science Fiction / Fantasy

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Graffiti messages tend to be clichéd, obscene or vapid, but once every few years I get a smile on my face when I see “Klaatu barada nikto!” scrawled on some random bit of fence or wall. It’s a critical line in Robert Wise’s 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In a decade when countless movies showed the good people of Earth being threatened by evil aliens (e.g., Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, The War of the Worlds) Edmund H. North’s subtle, intelligent screenplay inverted the usual premise. In this case, a flying saucer lands in Washington DC and disgorges a literate, moral, peace-loving and thoughtful alien (Michael Rennie, in his finest hour) who spends most of his movie under siege by petty, violent and backward Earthlings.

The alien, Klaatu, hopes to persuade humanity to renounce war and atomic weaponry, but mankind isn’t ready to agree (This is wistfully conveyed to Klaatu early in the film by Frank Conroy, in an uncredited, quietly powerful performance as an advisor to The POTUS). After an initial brutish encounter with the military, Klaatu escapes and decides he must learn more about humanity if he is going to save it. He adopts the name of Carpenter (ahem) and moves to a rooming house run by a widow and her boy (Patricia Neal and Billy Gray, who are believable and appealing). The two of them give Klaatu’s hope for humanity, leading him to confide in them about his true nature and mission.

The ingenious premise of the script allows this film to be as much social comment as science fiction. As the alien visitor watches human beings interact, tours the graves of Arlington Cemetery and reflects on our greatest president’s words at the Lincoln Memorial, we see ourselves through his sadder and wiser eyes, with profound emotional effect.

The special effects are solid for the period, with the Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced flying saucer being a particular highlight. Yet the effects don’t overwhelm the story or acting as they often have in more recent zillion dollar CGI-laden sci-fi films. Bernard Herrman’s score is also appropriate to the visuals and themes of the movie. All of this is a credit to Robert Wise’s ability to maintain tone throughout a film. To a number of film buffs, Robert Wise is the hack who destroyed The Magnificent Ambersons, a company man who did whatever project he was assigned but had no artistic vision of his own. If you hold to that negative view of Wise, you really should watch this movie, observe how well it is constructed, see how consistently excellent are the performances, and note how efficiently and effectively the story is told. Wise won Oscars for other films, but in my opinion this movie best demonstrates his considerable skills as a film maker.

Here is the cleverly crafted trailer to this masterpiece of science fiction:

p.s. for trivia fans. There are two scientific errors in the script and they both appear on the same scene. Klaatu, whose ship we see approaching our solar system from far away during the opening credits, tells the POTUS’ advisor that he is from another part of the galaxy that is 250 million miles away (oops!) and that he knows how to talk like a contemporary American because he has been monitoring Earth’s radio programs on his own planet (double oops!).

Categories
Action/Adventure Romance Science Fiction / Fantasy

Superman

The undeniable wonder of Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman can be summed up in one word: Reverence. For decades, comic book fans were dismayed by movie and TV adaptations of the heroic stories with which they grew up. Producers and writers seemed to feel that the material couldn’t stand up on its own. Rather, it had to be made campy (Holy Evil Menace Batman!) or have asinine new characters added or adopt an ironic or juvenile tone. What Donner and Producers Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler understood is that the reason untold millions of people around the world love Superman is that it’s a thrilling story with an inspiring central character. In short, it didn’t need some Hollywood type to change it, it needed someone to take it seriously on its own terms and produce it with a real budget and good actors. The result is a superb movie without which many subsequent, highly entertaining comic book hero films (e.g., Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man) would be unthinkable.

The filmmakers’ respect for the source material is evident in the very first frame, during which a little girl reads some lines from Action Comics #1 (Superman’s 1938 debut) as the velvet curtains of an old style theater open. The camera then glides past the Daily Planet building into outer space, where the audience is treated to a whooshing credit sequence and John Williams’ thrilling, majestic score. This sequence doesn’t typically get discussed when critics debate the best film openings, which I view as rank snobbery: It’s transcendent.

The Superman story is then lovingly told, from his origins on the doomed planet Krypton, to his escape to Earth and his Midwest Americana childhood with Ma and Pa Kent (Love these scenes: old pros Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter ease comfortably into the roles of the Kent parents and newcomer Jeff East nicely conveys what it would be like to combine adolescent awkwardness and emotional pangs with budding superpowers). Then of course, Superman moves to Metropolis to work under the guise of a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet, sweetly romances Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, a good choice for the part) and battles the villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, having and being a good time, while also being appropriately callous).

Superman Movie Review | Movie Reviews Simbasible

The most unforgettable set piece is Lois Lane’s helicopter disaster, which triggers Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) first appearance. But the romantic scenes and the closing sequence during a massive, Luthor-induced earthquake, are also welcome crowd pleasers.

Though Superman is an uncynical hero who believes in truth, justice and the American Way, and has been sent to Earth from the heavens by his father to save humanity (ahem), this is far from a self-serious film. I still remember vividly the explosion of laughter in the theater when Reeve looks at a modern phone “booth” when he needs to change into costume for the first time. The rapid-fire scenes with Jackie Cooper (as Editor Perry White) and the team at the Daily Planet are also a great deal of fun, almost a bit of Front Page-style screwball comedy interspersed with the overall adventure story. Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty get some laughs as Luthor’s half-witted assistants. Look fast also for an amusing cameo by Donner as a guy on the street who isn’t sure he believes a man can fly.

Geoffrey Unsworth works miracles combining special effects and live action shots on this film as well as its sequel, Superman II, which was filmed at the same time and is dedicated to his memory (For other film recommendations featuring this gifted cinematographer, see my prior film recommendations here and here). Unsworth’s contribution is one of many reasons why Superman is not just an outstanding movie adaptation of a comic book; it’s a outstanding movie, full stop.

As a closing note, Superman was unquestionably the defining film of Christopher Reeve’s career, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine the movie without him. He passed away in 2004, even more of an inspiration in life than he was as the Man of Steel.