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them! (gordon douglas, 1954)

All of those giant bug movies from the 50s tend to run together in my mind, so I have to tip my hat to my wife. She never wants to watch them when I find one, but she jumped right on Them!, because “it’s good”. (She proceeded to mimic the sound of the giant ants.)

What makes Them! better than the others (Tarantula, The Black Scorpion, The Deadly Mantis, Earth vs. The Spider)? It takes itself seriously, but not too much. The budget is decent, if not extravagant. Everyone gave their best effort. The serious angle comes from the movie being more like a detective story than a monster movie (some have even labeled it film noir). Director Gordon Douglas was a journeyman whose career went all the way back to Our Gang shorts, one of which won an Oscar. He made movies in every genre, many of them low-budget affairs. He even directed an Elvis movie (Follow That Dream, a reasonably decent effort). Douglas was efficient, and in Them! made a solid movie that didn’t draw attention to it’s low budget. That budget kept being reduced ... it was going to be in 3-D, then it wasn’t, it was going to be in color, then it wasn’t. But it remained a Warner Brothers production, even if it wasn’t quite an A-picture.

One area that impressed me was the absence of stock footage. There are perhaps fewer scenes of the military building up its arsenal ... mostly just Army vehicles driving around. But stock footage in these cheap movies is always distracting, and Them! avoids that problem.

As for effort, well, it’s hard to say. I wasn’t on the set. But the cast is decent. Edmund Gwenn, who plays the scientist who knows everything, apparently was suffering from extreme arthritis, but he never missed a take when the cameras rolled. The male leads were the personification of solid: James Whitmore and James Arness. Even Joan Weldon, in the stock thankless role of the scientist’s daughter, is good. She commands her own authority as a scientist, and is believable in the role.

As for the special effects, which won Them! an Oscar nomination (it lost to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), they are, like the movie as a whole, sufficient without being great. The giant ants are almost always seen in shade or darkness, which removes much of the obvious artifice. The sound my wife remembered so well came from recordings of tree frogs.

Those of us who grew up watching these movies on TV when we were kids recall very well the beginning of the movie, where a little girl, in shock, wanders alone in the desert. She doesn’t speak until the movie is well underway, and in doing so, she gives us the title: “THEM!” she screams. It’s an effective bit of restraint, which is how I’d describe the movie. It has its giant bugs, but it uses restraint effectively. Rating a movie like this is a bit difficult ... no one is saying Them! is as good as, say, On the Waterfront, which won a lot of Oscars that same year. But compared to the giant bug movies, Them! is a colossus. And it’s a must-see for fans of Starship Troopers. 8/10.

ip man 2 (wilson yip, 2010)

Sequel to Ip Man (duh) ... since the series is “based on fact”, this sequel has a slightly different emphasis. In the first movie, which took place in the 1930s, the enemy was the Japanese. Ip Man 2 comes after WWII ... Ip Man moves to Hong Kong, and the enemy becomes the British occupiers. In both movies, Donnie Yen shows the greatness of the Wing Chun fighting style, and the greatness of the Chinese over everyone else.

Matt Prigge pointed out that the plot is similar to Rocky IV, with Chinese substitutes for Rocky and Apollo Creed, and a British sub for Ivan Drago. Mostly this just means the movie works ... the plot is time-tested! It also means there aren’t many surprises to be found, which means Ip Man 2 relies more on its fight scenes than anything else.

Which is just fine, since the fight scenes are excellent. The immortal Sammo Hung is in charge, as he was for the first film. This time, he also has a part in the film, so we get to watch Sammo in action. He’s not in his prime ... before the film was made, he had heart surgery, he was 58 years old, and he got his face smashed during one fight scene. But he is still Sammo, and his choreography hasn’t lost a step. Donnie Yen is great, as always, although he, too, is getting on in years. It’s a joy to see him after his less-active role in Rogue One. Darren Shahlavi is properly scary as the British pugilist who fights Ip Man in the final scene.

By the time of that final fight, Wilson Yip has fired up a pretty intense anti-British atmosphere. The first part of the film deals with the differences between the various schools of martial arts, but gradually a theme of pride in Chinese culture rises to the top, and when that happens, the British start twirling their proverbial mustaches.

You don’t watch Ip Man 2 for the depth of character or the original plot. You’ve seen it before. But the combination of Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung always delivers. 7/10.

film fatales #24: fat girl (catherine breillat, 2001)

This is my first Breillat film, and so any comparisons I make between this and her other films is limited to what I have read. I can’t simply ignore what I already know, but it seems mostly irrelevant except as it relates to the one movie I have seen.

Fat Girl is very much an in-your-face film. Breillat’s willingness to show sexual acts in a straightforward way makes them different from other films that are more intentionally erotic. There is, however, nothing ordinary about the ways the characters in Fat Girl use sexuality as expressions of their personalities, and the emotional impact of sexual acts is intense in realistic ways most films shy away from.

The three main characters are two sisters, one, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), 15 years old and conventionally pretty, and one, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), 13 years old and the titular girl, whose prettiness comes from within, along with a college boy, Fernando, who meets the sisters during holiday. All of the characters are complicated, and Breillat is mostly uninterested in applying simple labels to them. The boy uses every trick at his disposal to get Elena to have sex with him, and we see his insincerity, but Breillat isn’t trying to vilify him. If anything, she’s vilifying men in general, for Fernando is presented more as a thoughtless and careless man than as someone with personally bad motives. Elena sees through him, but willfully denies what she sees because she thinks she wants what he is offering. It’s as if she knows in advance that he will break her heart (and more), but thinks of it as a necessary part of growing into womanhood. Anaïs, meanwhile, stands in for us, watching, mistrusting Fernando ... she’s smarter than her older sister, and doesn’t have the emotional attachment to Fernando that leads to trouble for Elena. Breillat shoots two key sex scenes between Elena and Fernando by focusing on Anaïs, who is in the room “sleeping”. When we experience Elena’s hurt, that experience is channeled through Anaïs.

The relationship between the two sisters is the best thing about Fat Girl. They snipe at each other, they know the right places to stick the knife, but they are also emotionally inseparable. They are the only people with whom they can be real.

Fat Girl has a shocking ending that I thought was senseless. In retrospect, after hearing Breillat talk about her film, I think I understand the way the ending puts the final point on the differences between the two girls, but I still believe it comes out of nowhere. The final line of the movie is powerful, but getting there is perhaps the closest the film comes to exploitation. #218 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

music friday: plastic bertrand

On this date in 1954, Roger Jouret was born in Brussels. According to Wikipedia, where much of this information can be found, Jouret was already in a band when he was nine years old (they covered Rolling Stones songs). When he got older, he studied music theory and then, influenced by punk, he joined a band called Hubble Bubble. The timing is questionable ... while they released their first album in 1978, they formed in 1974-5, which seems a bit early to have been influenced by punk.

Hubble Bubble broke up, and the band’s manager introduced Jouret to Lou Deprijck, a singer and producer who had some minor success in the mid-70s. Deprijck had recorded two sides of a single with a studio band ... both tracks were written by Yvan Lacomblez. It took only two hours to record both tracks.

Jouret, now going by the name Plastic Bertrand, is said to have looked more like a punk than Deprijck, so the tracks was released as a single under the name Plastic Bertrand. The hit side was called “Ça plane pour moi”, and it was, and is, one of the stupidest songs ever recorded, with nonsense lyrics, mostly in French. (This was not a completely new idea. Elton John, at the peak of his popularity in the mid-70s, stuck a song on 1974’s Caribou, “Solar Prestige a Gammon”, with nonsense lyrics that he happily sang with just as much feeling as he usually put into Bernie Taupin’s material.)

Stupid, yes. Catchy, very much so. In fact, when you hear it, no matter how much you think you hate it, you are caught up in it. It made Plastic Bertrand something of a star, and several albums were released under his name.

Here is the hit version:

No one at the time knew that the singer on this, and all of those first albums, was not Roger Jouret but rather Lou Deprijck. In fact, it took until 2010 before the truth came out, after voice analysis revealed Deprijck’s role.

There are many cover versions. One early one isn’t really a cover ... Alan Ward, under the name Elton Motello, recorded “Jet Boy Jet Girl” with English lyrics that were not a direct translation (to say the least), but the backing track was exactly the same as the “original”:

Here is Sonic Youth’s version:

Finally, here is Lou Deprijck, in a video from 2010 ... I don’t know when the track was recorded:

by request: in the heart of the sea (ron howard, 2015)

In the best of all worlds, I would be able to set aside preconceptions when encountering a new movie. I am not usually up to the task, though, and seeing Ron Howard’s name on a movie leads to certain expectations. It won’t suck, it won’t be great, it will be inoffensive but probably entertaining enough, and I won’t care about it after it’s over.

A couple of times, Howard has surprised me, although even then it’s more a case of “like” than “love”. (My favorites are Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon.) In the Heart of the Sea has a modicum of ambition, with some big action sequences. But it has a framing device which doesn’t work, and while it’s based on a non-fiction book, I sense it is “based on a true story” the way most such movies are, i.e. it plays fast and loose with the true story when necessary.

The central story of In the Heart of the Sea is the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in the early 19th century. The primary culprit behind the sinking is a white whale so big it is legendary. I found the special effects hit or miss, but the whale is pretty impressive, even if it often looks like the actors are working in front of a screen. The framing device is drawn from the fact that Herman Melville supposedly found inspiration for Moby-Dick in the story of the Essex.

A movie that stuck with the whaling action would have been a bit mundane, but it would have entertained, and it would have been over in 100 minutes, tops. But the frame adds another twenty minutes, and it’s silly. Herman Melville comes to interview the last remaining survivor of the Essex, in order to get information for the novel he is writing (yep, Moby-Dick). The survivor tells the story, and Melville dutifully writes it all down. These scenes interrupt the rest of the movie, which is bad enough. But the real crime is the suggestion that arguably the greatest novel in American literature grew out of interview notes. There is no feel for what Melville brought to the story.

And while Melville fills his novel with symbolism, Howard’s movie is by the numbers. It works on the level of a simple adventure story, but there is no hint of anything deeper.

Which is often the case with Ron Howard movies. He is a real professional, almost incapable of turning out a bad movie. (OK, Backdraft was pretty bad.) But I rarely see any inspiration behind his work. 6/10.

hello, kitty

I’ve got no answer for this question. I did a brief search for studies on the subject, but they seemed inconclusive (i.e., they were over my head).

The subject is the expression of emotion via voice, more specifically the expression of a general state of, if not happiness, then at least contentment. It comes to mind when listening to old-time radio dramas. We, the listener, must rely on our imagination to picture what is happening, but that’s a bit simplistic. We’re relying on the music, the dialogue, the sound effects, everything that enters our imagination.

Gunsmoke was arguably the greatest of all radio dramas. Certainly it was the best Western. I’m speaking only of the radio version, because I’m concerned with the use of the voice to suggest emotion, and the television version adds visual information that taints what I’m trying to figure out.

One reason Gunsmoke was a great show was that William Conrad played the lead, Marshal Matt Dillon. I’m tossing out a lot of superlatives, here, but Conrad was one of the greatest of all radio actors. He wasn’t asked to play Dillon on TV ... as became clear when he later starred in shows like Cannon and Jake and the Fatman, Conrad didn’t exactly look like an imposing lawman. (James Arness, 6’7” tall, did look imposing, and he made a fine Marshal.) But as a voice actor, Conrad was at the top of many people’s lists. (He served as the narrator for countless TV series over the years.)

Conrad could sound like a serious badass. When Marshal Dillon got pissed, Conrad’s acting anger grabbed the listener through the radio speaker. He was also excellent at conveying the wary life of a lawman, as he would say at the beginning of each episode, “I'm that man, Matt Dillon, United States Marshal -- the first man they look for and the last they want to meet. It's a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful . . . and a little lonely.”

But even Matt Dillon would occasionally find a brief moment or two to relax, even to enjoy life for a bit. Usually, this came when he greeted Miss Kitty, the “saloon hostess” in Dodge City. Conrad’s voice would convey that happiness.

And that’s my question. How the hell did Conrad do it?

I could ask this about any voice actor, of course. I don’t have any problem understanding the way an actor could convey anger, or fear, or similar emotions. But somehow, when Matt said something as simple as “Hello, Kitty”, you know he’s smiling. And I don’t know how we can tell.

Here’s an episode from 1955. If you just want to hear an example of the above, listen to the first couple of minutes, through the conversation between Matt and Kitty. The way Conrad slides a chuckle into his line reading is easy enough to grasp. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the way he already sounds happy when he says “Hello, Kitty”.

no phone

Back in 1970-71, my brother and I lived in a little apartment in Capitola, California. We didn’t have a phone, and of course, this was long before the days of cell phones. So no one could call us, and if we wanted to make a call, we walked down the street to a motel that had a pay phone in its parking lot.

Now, Robin and I have several phones. There’s her phone, and my phone. She has a couple of work phones. We have two phones we don’t use (one we have never used).

Thursday, my phone quit charging. Friday, I took it to the shop and was told the charging mechanics inside were broken, and that I’d need a replacement, which was covered by the insurance our son always convinces us to get. Friday night, I did a web chat, after which I was told a new phone (not exact, but equivalent) would be on its way that day, with an ETA of Monday.

Within half an hour, I got an email telling me my replacement phone was on backorder, and there would be a 3-7 day delay before they sent my phone.

So, no phone. I have a tablet, and I have that leftover from the dinosaur era, a big-ass desktop computer (on which I am typing this post). But no phone. No text messages while I am out and about. No camera for quick pix. No Google Maps telling me where to go, step by step.

I am bereft.

music friday: 1967

On February 17 of 1967, three bands started a three-night stand at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. February 17 was a month after the Human Be-In, and came just a few months before the “Summer of Love”.

Opening was the Canned Heat Blues Band, later shortened to Canned Heat. They were a couple of months from recording what would be their first album release. They appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer, and at Woodstock two years later. The band’s “classic” lineup was 4/5 full when they played the Fillmore (a new drummer arrived late in the year). Here they are at Monterey Pop:

For another taste of Canned Heat from their second album, check out “Fried Hockey Boogie”.

Next up was The Mothers, who I believe by that point had changed their name to The Mothers of Invention. Their first album, Freak Out!, came out in the summer of 1966. From the start, they were different from pretty much anything you’d heard before. It’s hard to hear the Mothers now, after decades of experiencing Frank Zappa ... his later work colors his beginnings. But he certainly seemed to come out of nowhere at the time. Listen to the first track from their first album, “Hungry Freaks, Daddy”.

The headline act was starting their second week at the Fillmore, having headlined the week before (Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker filled out the bill). The Blues Project were an East Coast band with two albums under their belts ... although it wasn’t apparent in February of ‘67, they were falling apart ... they, too, played Monterey, but one key member, the legendary Al Kooper, had already left the band. (Kooper deserves a post of his own, or you can read one of his memoirs ... he is Rock and Roll Royalty if for no other reason than that he played organ on “Like a Rolling Stone”.)

I’m not sure what people would make of The Blues Project now. Their recorded legacy is quite slim. The debut, Live at the Cafe Au Go Go, had only one original song alongside covers by everyone from Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry to Donovan. The follow-up, Projections, was their best, with Kooper and others contributing songs. But after Kooper left, a third album was rushed out that included outtakes, live tracks, and studio tracks with audience overdubs.

Here is perhaps their most famous track, “Flute Thing”, at Monterey (Kooper wrote it, but he’s not with the band ... he was in Monterey, though, you can see him at the end of this video, at 9:53):

If I made a list now that included Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Canned Heat, and The Blues Project, I’d guess The Blues Project would be the least well-known. But they headlined over those other acts for a week and a half at the Fillmore.

Here’s the poster for the show, done by Wes Wilson:

fillmore 2-17-67

oscar run: hail, caesar! (ethan and joel coen, 2016)

It’s time to get over my belief that I don’t care for the Coen Brothers. I keep telling myself this, because I don’t think The Big Lebowski is the greatest film ever made, because I didn’t like Miller’s Crossing, because ... hell, I forget all the reasons. But Hail, Caesar! is the fifth movie by the brothers that I’ve given at least an 8/10 rating. So clearly I like a lot of their work.

I don’t know why Hail, Caesar! appealed to me, for it had some of the same things I usually complain about with the Coens. They preen over the notion that they know more than we do, and too often their movies turn into “spot the reference”. But there was some real love for movies here, almost resembling joy, and when that occurs, I’m glad the writer/directors are smart. Unless you have seen as many movies as the Coens, you won’t come close to getting every reference here, but I think you can enjoy the movie even if you don’t spot a single one.

Because Hail, Caesar! takes place at a movie studio, there is a legitimate reason for showing different kinds of movies being made. The dance number, “No Dames!”, is a particular delight, with Channing Tatum showing off his dance moves in a role that “resembles” Gene Kelly. (There is a lot of “resembling” going on ... Tilda Swinton plays twin columnists that are some odd combination of Hedda Hopper, Ann Landers, and Dear Abby, Scarlett Johansson “is” Esther Williams, and George Clooney is ... well, he’s a blend of too many to count, Charlton Heston is probably closest.) The plot is less important than it seems. Manohla Dargis gets it right when she says the film “at times brings to mind one of those old plot-free film revues that featured a grab bag of studio talent performing in strung-together musical, comic, and dramatic scenes.”

Just in case you’re missing the kitchen sink, they also toss in a bunch of screenwriters who turn to Communism (the film takes place in the early-50s). They brag about how they sneak lefty propaganda into their films, and their mentor is “Professor Marcuse” who “is” Herbert Marcuse. At the beginning of the movie, Clooney is in costume for a film, Hail, Caesar!, that looks a lot like Ben-Hur. He is kidnapped by the writers, and later returns to the studio, where he shoots the final scene of the Hail, Caesar! in the movie Hail, Caesar! At which point you realize Clooney has been wearing his Roman costume the whole movie.

Hail, Caesar! is amiable and moves along with ease. I have yet to see a Coens film that matched Fargo, but Hail, Caesar! is one of their better ones. Oh, and it’s Oscar nomination is for Production Design.

they shoot pictures, don't they: 2017

The 2017 version of the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time has arrived.

Site master Bill Georgaris, who does this as a labor of love, details several changes to the methodology used to compile the list. Honestly, I don’t understand them, but I trust that Bill has a reasonable system, and it is fun to follow those 1000 films (and try in vain to see them all). He notes that the changes result is realignment, rather than a complete overturning of the past. One result is that more recent films have a better chance of improving their position on the list. (At one point a few years ago, he added a Top 250 films of the 21st century list, because too many movies were left out of the more tradition-bound original list. Since then, he has expanded that list to also include 1000 films. I wonder how these changes will affect the relationship between the two lists.)

You can read much of this information on the site, but to summarize the highlights ...

The top ten films are the same, but in slightly different order:

1. Citizen Kane (1)
2. Vertigo (2)
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (3)
4. The Rules of the Game (5)
5. Tokyo Story (4)
6. (7)
7. The Godfather (6)
8. Sunrise (8)
9. The Searchers (10)
10. The Seven Samurai (9)

The biggest leap since last year was by Brokeback Mountain, which went from #718 to #323. The highest first-timer was Hunger, at #726. The biggest fall was Ashes of Time, which went from #686 to off the list.

Over on the I Check Movies site, I find that I have seen 624 of the top 1000 movies (actually 1012 due to multiple-part works). This puts me at #687 on the list of ICM users who have submitted their viewing history to the site. Here are the top 10 ranked films on the TSPDT list that I haven’t seen ... call this the “Goals for 2017” list:

#29: The Mirror

#59: Stalker

#71: Journey to Italy

#76: Pickpocket

#83: Gertrud

#101: Satantango

#102: The Mother and the Whore

#109: Once Upon a Time in America

#113: Letter from an Unknown Woman

#117: Hiroshima mon amour