Time again for mini-reviews. As is my current habit, I paired each newly viewed flick with an older one to make double-features.
Are You Here (2013) – This is billed as a comedy, but, despite the presence of Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Poehler, unless the viewer has a peculiar sense of humor it isn’t. This mis-billing may account somewhat for the dismal rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But only somewhat. It is not a particularly upbeat film. Ben is well meaning, idealistic, and generous, but he also has serious mental health issues and lives on the margins of society. His childhood friend Steve is modestly successful as a Maryland TV weatherman, but he is a pothead Peter Pan whose most serious romantic relationships are with the prostitutes he hires. Ben’s estranged father dies and leaves him a valuable farm in Lancaster PA; this distresses Ben’s hard-headed sister Terry who thinks (with some justice) Ben is incompetent to handle an inheritance. Complicating matters at the farm is Ben’s stepmother Angela, a hippie-ish woman younger than he is. Steve in his shallow pothead way tries to be supportive of Ben while taking a fancy to Angela. All of them clash, but from those clashes they painfully learn to appreciate life as it is – Ben with the help of medication – even if it is less than they would like it to be. It’s not a terrible message. Too bad it isn’t in a better movie.
Network (1976) – This film is so much a part of the culture that it scarcely needs a summary, but the final line is a pretty fair one: "This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings." Howard Beale is a newscaster who goes bonkers on the air, but the viewers like what he has to say. Ratings soar, so the network goes with the flow and lines up other outrageous shows. When Beale’s populist message undoes a deal important to the conglomerate that owns the network, however, the CEO gives Beale a lesson on why his ideas are passé in a world administered by global business. Beale buys it and begins to spread the new message. Narrator: “It was a perfectly admissible argument that Howard Beale advanced in the days that followed. It was, however, also a very depressing one. Nobody particularly cared to hear his life was utterly valueless.” Ratings slip, so executives arrange for Beale to be killed on the air by members of one of their other reality shows. Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Peter Finch all give great performances.
** ** ** **
Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – Tom Cruise is still doing action movies, and doing pretty well with them as often as not. In this high budget scifi film a hive-like alien race has invaded earth. The central coordinating alien entity, called the Omega, is able to reset time by a day if things go badly in the invasion, which makes the aliens very hard to defeat. By accident this ability is transferred to a cowardly soldier named Cage (Tom Cruise). The catch: he has to die to reset time. As he relives the day of combat over and over, getting killed time and time again, he gains skills and, more importantly, character. He also gains an affection for Rita (Emily Blunt) who has a reason to believe him. Will his increasing ability and knowledge about the aliens enable him and Rita to take out the Omega? Well, that question is answered (where else?) in the final reel. Thumbs up.
Rogue Moon (1960) – OK, I’m cheating. This isn’t a movie. It’s a novel by Algis Budrys. But it kept coming to mind while watching Edge of Tomorrow, so I include it here. A large alien artifact has been found on the moon. It contains a labyrinth that must be traversed in a particular way to be survivable. But how do you learn the way? How do you learn from your mistakes if the first mistake kills you? An earth scientist has developed a matter transmitter something like what we see in Star Trek, but it can transmit two copies as easily as one. The plan is to transmit one copy of a person to a sensory deprivation tank and the other to the moon; it had been discovered that a sensorially deprived copy maintains a psychic connection with the copy on the moon and experiences all that one does – the deprived one is unaware he isn’t on the moon. So, the same person can be retransmitted (and get killed in the labyrinth) time and again until he works his way through. The problem is finding someone who won’t be driven insane by experiencing the repeated slayings. Fortunately, there is a thrill-seeking adventurer named Barker with a sociopathic girlfriend named Claire. Barker is the right man for the job. Even he is shaken by his repeated deaths, but they prove to be just what he needs. He is the way he is because of dark issues of his own, but, in conquering the labyrinth, he satisfies his death wish and emerges a better man – actually two better men. One stays on the moon so as not to complicate things on earth.
** ** ** **
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Though nowhere mentioned in the movie, the reference, of course, is to Thomas Paine’s The Crisis: “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Though a duck out of water with his Greatest Generation values in the 21st century, the Cap answers the call of duty as we expect him to do. SHIELD, for which Captain America works, supposedly consists of the good guys, but it has been infiltrated by Hydra – and why not? Where else would power-hungry evil-doers set their sights? The power of SHIELD to defend the earth is also the power to oppress it. While publicly re-branded as a villain, the Captain with help from Black Widow and others must take down SHIELD and face off against his old friend Bucky. Underlying the plot is the notion that all authority is by nature…well, authoritarian. As Marvel superhero movies go, this one is pretty good.
The Green Hornet (1940) – This can be found as a 13-part serial and as a 1990 feature length movie recut from the last six episodes. Both work. Britt Reid, the Lone Ranger’s nephew, along with Korean martial arts expert Kato fight organized crime by posing as criminals. By day Reid is a playboy editor of a major newspaper. When in the mood for WW2-era fictional heroes, why not go for an original instead of a reboot? Great fun.
Black Beauty, Green Hornet's ride (Lincoln Zephyr)
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The Maze Runner (2014) – With the success of The Hunger Games it is unsurprising that other post-apocalyptic films based on YA novels would be funded by the studios. In this one a pleasant glade is surrounded by a seemingly impenetrable maze of walls; the maze is patrolled by deadly beasts called Grievers. Delivered by a box into the glade at a rate of one per month are young men who have lost their memory. The result is not Lord of the Flies savagery; the boys establish order, which some are more rigidly inclined to maintain than others. Something about Thomas, the last of the boys to arrive, is different though. Then the box delivers a girl Teresa. (Readers of the novel series know that there is a Site B that is all girls with one boy, but Site B plays no role in this film.) Whether the glade is intended as a metaphor for the real world of clueless people confined by complex barriers put in place by a hidden and cruel elite with unfathomable motives is for the viewer to decide. Thomas has dreams about life before the glade and they include Teresa. He eventually remembers that all this is a test of some kind. He thinks he knows a way through the maze, so, defying the rules of the glade dwellers, he leads those willing to follow him into it. As you might expect, this ends in a set-up for the sequel due in theaters next year. Upshot: it’s no Hunger Games, but it is passably entertaining.
Games (1967) – Katherine Ross and James Caan are a wealthy young New York couple with way too much time and money on their hands. They play intricate and scary pranks on company and each other for amusement. The arrival of a psychic (Simone Signoret) raises the intensity of play to a new level – including murder. This is a good little thriller and is marvelously 1960s.
** ** ** **
Life after Beth (2014) – Zombie movies are a staple of the horror genre. Few of them interest me, so my only hopes for this one lay with the appealingly off-beat actress Aubrey Plaza. Those hopes were partway (yet only partway) met. Zach and Beth (Aubrey) have a troubled relationship, which only makes Zach’s grief worse when she dies from a snake bite; too much was left unsaid and unresolved. Beth digs herself out of her grave and returns home, but she has memory problems and unusual strength. Zach – at first thinking her supposed death was a hoax or some awful mistake – begins to doubt she is really alive. Then other deceased people start showing up in town. Somehow, in a way not made fully clear, the events have something to do with the unfinished business of Zach and Beth. This is a comedy, strangely enough, but more dark than broad. I don’t recommend going out of one’s way to see it, but when looking for a new movie to watch during Halloween week, one could do worse than this.
Night of the Comet (1984) – This film is one of the basics of 80s teen movies. A comet passes near the earth and humans exposed to its emanations are desiccated right down to crystalline dust. Only those who were surrounded by steel (in most cases by accident, as in the back of semi-trailer) are spared. Those with partial exposure are doomed but pass through a phase of being flesh-eating zombies. When survivors Katherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, and Robert Beltran go on the air at a still functioning radio station, they attract the attention of a team who had predicted the catastrophe and taken cover. Uh-oh, the team made a stupid mistake that gave them a little (but still too much) exposure. Their plans for a cure make them as dangerous to the survivors as the zombies are. This is a fun campy flick that doesn’t try to be anything more. It doesn’t need to be more.
Life After Beth Clip