> Film Review - Political theory and practice

Blog home

Film Review

The hypothesis of this feature film is intriguing. What should a reasonable person in authority do with a bona fide flying saucer?

Hangar 18 cover.jpg

The DVD cover.

There it is, without a doubt an alien spacecraft, come to Earth in what seems to have been an accident. It struck a communication satellite just put into orbit and landed hard in the remote west Texas desert in a controlled descent. The craft is inert with no signs of life. Now what?

From that intriguing start there follows a slow descent into clichés.

Step one is to take possession of the object.

H 17 saucer.jpg Much bigger inside than outside is this Tardis.

The Air Force just happens to have a base nearby and in the middle of the night a the airmen dig it out and uses a crane to put it on a truck taking it to the eponymous hangar, a facility devoted to serving NASA space shuttles. Hush, hush, hardly, hardly. It is thus well equipped for such a call-out. So far, so convenient.

What had happened? A NASA space shuttle was deploying a satellite and the saucer appeared in a blur and hit the satellite just as it was released. Two of the shuttle astronauts saw it all and have the telemetry to prove it. Ah huh.

NASA in the person of Darren McGavin, who breathes purpose, intelligence, and energy into his role, wants to know what happened, since nothing untoward appeared on the ground instruments.

H 17 McGavin.jpg


The Air Force base commander recognises this as an unprecedented situation out of his pay grade so he does what he was trained to do and bucks it up the line.

Now one might think extraterrestrial contact is big enough news to get the attention of the President, but no he is busy tweeting, instead the message goes to the chief of staff, played with the casual arrogance of a master by Robert Vaughn, who briefs the unseen President.

What to do?

The Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff argues for segmented and contained revelation starting with American Nobel Prize winning physical scientists sworn to secrecy and flown to Hangar 18 and allowed to see for themselves, and then to help in comprehending what the thing is, how works, where it came from, what to do with it. There are a myriad of questions. Why is it there? Why did it crash? What are the intentions of the occupants? Starting with, how do we get into it?

But no, Vaughn fears premature leaks with consequent panic. The fewer who know anything the better to allow time for proper decisions. The first time it is said that seems reasonable.

Hmm. It is certainly true that swearing scientist to secrecy will not work. It is equally certain a panic would ensue.

It is also easy to believe that saying to the world ‘We have a flying saucer’ will invite national and global ridicule that photos, videos, and testimony will not dispel and, worse, it will unleash every one of the millions of nut cases around the world to The End of Days. Alternative facts will abound. I thought of the apocalyptic scenes in ‘Contact’ (1997). I thought of Ann Coulter, and preferred The
End of Days.

Yes, but…

Vaughn’s desire to suppress the news is explained by a looming presidential election within two weeks, so that is the efficient cause (per Aristotle) of Vaughn’s effort to keep the secret. Ever since ‘Bullit’ (1968) Vaughn has specialised in these oily political operators.

Oh hum. There is always an excuse, if an excuse is needed, see Jean-Paul Sartre on inauthentic choice. Which is the bigger deal here? Alien contact or the electoral college? Current incumbent excepted, I would like to think any occupant of the Oval Office would see the priority here. Not so the screenwriter.

We never see the President, and the suspicion grew in my mind that Vaughn was playing a lone hand and not briefing the POTUS who would then have perfect deniability because he does not know a thing. Ronald Reagan in good conscience could always convincingly claim complete ignorance. What was harder to believe was that Vaughn did not go to Texas and see for himself. Too jaded to bother, I guess. In DC aliens are commonplace, after all.

Once the craft is secured the second step is to discredit all those who saw it, starting with the shuttle astronauts. Again the general dissents but is overruled on the ground that later when the story can be told in full they were be exonerated. Later never comes for underlngs.

The telemetry from the shuttle is altered. Video is edited in a flash. Voila! No saucer. In addition the farmers who saw it must be rendered harmless, suborned by alcohol and a rumour campaign. Sounds like Scooter's work. Of the grunts who dug it up, the base personnel, and the technicians who edited the data, not a word. Sworn to secrecy?

From now on we have an update on the Roswell fable. An inept government cover-up ensues of necessity involving very few conspirators who thunder and blunder about leaving a body count. After several accidental deaths and one murder, even the scheming Vaughn pauses.

Then, being an ideas man, he has an idea straight out of US foreign policy. Get all the witnesses together in Hangar 18, and blow it up. Problem solved.

H 18 Vaughn.jpg The ideas man is having an idea. Kaboom, it is.

With genius like that it is easy to see why he is chief of staff. This decision is made by Vaughn alone and one lackey. Evidently the general has been cut out of the loop for being too fussy.

The problem now, it is clear, has become the guilt of the conspirators more than the saucer itself: Goal displacement once again prevails in public administration.

In fact, the only witnesses gathered are the astronauts and dozens of NASA scientists working on the saucer.

H 18 scientists.jpg

The witnesses about to be obliterated by the ideas man.

The Air Force grunts who dug it up are not there nor the technicians who edited the telemetry, nor are the two farmers who saw it fall and watched the digging from afar. The screen writer erased them I guess because no one will believe them anyway. No one but the ‘National Inquirer’ and ‘Faux News.’ (One imagines how Faux News would work Hillary Clinton in the frame.)

Meanwhile, the NASA scientists enter the saucer and find two dead humanoids killed by a gas leak (precipitated by the collision with the satellite) and that led to the crash-landing of the saucer which is otherwise sound. They also fathom the onboard IOS computer system and the alien language to learn much about these saucerites. Talk about a fast study! Thereafter it is straight from the playbook of Erich von Däniken. Stupid and boring.

When watching the film I read a few reviews, including Vincent Canby in ‘The New York Times’ who was so….[what is the right word] disdainful, I wanted to defend the movie. The tone of Canby’s review is personal irritation that he, reviewer for ‘THE NEW YORK TIMES’ had to review it, but that is hardly the fault of the film-makers. Complain to the assignments manager and in the meanwhile act like a professional and ‘Do your job’ as they say at Foxboro.

The set up reminded me of Stephen Coonts's ‘Saucer’ (2002) which I liked for its mile-a-minute ride. The conundrum of what to do with evidence of alien life also called to mind ‘My Favorite Martian’ but not for long.

This is a B picture par excellence. According to those who say they know, it was rushed out in fifteen days to get into the market ahead of George Pal’s bigger budget, aspiring A picture. ‘Destination Moon’ on which I comment elsewhere on this blog. There was a buzz of anticipation for this latter film and the effort here was to ride on that free publicity.

Flight Mars poster.jpg Spot the Martians in this lobby poster.

It is a melodrama in which the science is displaced by the fiction from the start. The science of space flight is an E-Z boy recliner with some grimaces on takeoff. These intrepid spacemen head for the Moon, and then take a hard right for Mars. So that is how solar navigation works. Please note that the top dog of the mission smokes his pipe while flying the M. A. R. S. to Mars. The mission is called M. A. R. S. for reasons that escaped me. (A lot did because I watched a poor quality print with skips in it and Portuguese subtitles. It’s what I could get at the time.)

Fl;ight Mars poster 2.jpg The latest launch gear.

Why they want to go to M. A. R. S. did not get through to me. Perhaps. because it is T.H.E.R.E.!

They make a hard landing on Mars, though even that seems odd because the Red Planet (in every other sci-fi movie) is white with snow. No idea why. Yes, it is the North Pole of Mars. Maybe it was too dangerous in 1951 to have anything to do with Reds even on Mars. Did I mention science? They emerge from their battered craft in bomber jackets with surgical face masks for the Martian environment shod in war surplus boots soon to be sent to Korea. Oh boy. This seems to have been a come-as-you-are space flight.

That gets even stranger when they encounter the Martians who wear proper-looking and very familiar space suits. (These were borrowed from the Pal production, as were most of the other props.) Let’s get this straight. The aliens from distant Earth are wearing jackets and the local Martians are in spacesuits. Figure that one out.

To spice it all up this crew includes a journalist who is brazen, loud, nosy, and affable. There is also ‘a lady scientist.’ Cringe. Her presence, first in the crew, and later on Mars occasions some truly embarrassing dialogue for which the author was paid. For a start the journalist cannot fathom that a woman could be a scientist, and if by some anomaly in the universe she is, then she is no longer a woman. He makes sure to tell her this a couple of times. This man has charm, and knows it. It gets worse.

She is spared overt sexual harassment by the silent production code of 1950s films, but there is a love quadrangle later that I found as confusing as the participants did.

The crew also includes some geriatrics who were passed fit for bomber jackets. They wax philosophical at times.

On snowy Mars they encounter those real(er) space suits encasing Martians who welcome them with a handshake and a hot meal. Everything seems to be hunky dory. The Martian chief in a red cape to make Zorro envious is that sci-fi stalwart Morris Ankrum, who should have a star on Hollywood boulevard for the most aliens played.

Morris and cape.jpg

Ankrum, per Wikipedia, did a law degree at USC and à la Perry Mason dabbled in amateur theatrics as preparation to be a trial lawyer and liked that better than trial-lawyering. He has an uncanny resemblance, including the voice. to a boyhood friend of mine, and so I always think of Larry when I see him.

Mars may be a bit out of the way, but it is not behind the times. The Martians have monitored Earth radio and television broadcasts since they began so well that they all drive on the left, play baseball, and speak English, which makes eavesdropping a lot easier than it might otherwise have been. After dinner everyone sets to work repairing the spaceship. Maybe it was called M. A. R. S.

The love triangle gets a fourth with one of the Martians (no anatomical details were supplied), Marguerite Chapman, who by the way got top billing on the lobby posters although she does not appear until half-way through. The lady scientist is delighted to learn that Martian technology has automated both the preparation of dinner and the washing up, so she does not have to do it. She loves Mars for its kitchen. This lady scientist, however, shows no interest in how that technology works. Indeed she contributes nothing to the ersatz science and technology while on Mars. Don't blame her, she is written that way.

The Martian women sport surprisingly micro mini skirts in garish CineColors that anticipate the bad taste of Sixties by more than a decade. These get-ups also have ballistic bras and Everest should pads.

Micro skirt.jpg Martian fashion.

The Martian men DO NOT wear flared trousers, so we have something for which to be grateful. But they do sport fey little cloches for hats.

The ingenuity that went into these costume appurtenances has sapped the Martians of the technical capacity to build two-way radios or spaceships. While they can receive everything broadcast on Earth (in English - what will they make of 'Gilligan's Island'?) they cannot transmit. Still less can they build spaceships. What losers!

Warning! Here comes the melodrama. The fossil fuel Martians need for their underground cities (why are there so many moles in sci-fi?) is running out. They had their own Tony Abbot telling them that re-newable energy was unnecessary. Now what, Tony? Morris hatches a desperate and dastardly plan to let the Earthlings complete repairs, and make the ship spaceworthy, then top them, and replicate the ship into an armada to invade Earth, conquer it, and take over a habitable world. He thinks big for his KPI. No wonder he is top dog. See ‘Invaders from Mars’ (1953) where the stalwart Morris, now an Earthling, is to be found with some others from this cast dealing with the consequences of that scheme. What goes around, comes around, Morris.

For those who doubt Tony Abbott’s Martian duel citizenship, take a close look at those ears.

The naive Earthlings press on, but then get a tip off; plot and counter-plot is played out in a static set. B-o-r-i-n-g.

Walter Mirisch produced this lemon, but lived it down to become a big-time Hollywood mogul. He moguled on into his Nineties.

One of the first and best flying saucer movies, but without a flying saucer in sight. Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush star with a very able supporting cast. Jack Arnold keeps the pace moving.

It Came form oUtspace poster.jpg It was made in 3D when that was the fashion for creature features.

The film is dominated not by the leads nor the alien(s) but by the Sonora Desert around Sand Rock, Arizona, replicated in a studio. The screen play and the director make full use of it.

Mojave.jpg The desert created on a soundstage.

There is the starry sky of desert at night. In the early morning comes whispering wind in the telephone wires along an empty highway. In the Death Valley heat of the day prevails an eerie silence of a sun bleached desert. The long shadows of dusk make Joshua Trees seem alive. It is itself an alien environment that serves as a surrogate for the alien(s). (In the same way the Arctic does in 'The Thing from Another World' [1951].)

Richard is an amateur astronomer and with his best girl, Barbara, see a gigantic nocturnal meteor fall nearby and investigate. Whoa! He clambers down into sizzling hole and sees a craft. but before Babs can have a look rocks fall on top of it and conceal it. Was the fall of rock an accident or a contrivance? He does not know.

Will she, the science school teacher, take his word for it, or not?

This is the first of several instances where Richard has to convince another. He does so by persistent reason, evidence, and argument, and he succeeds first with Babs, and later with Sheriff Drake. How rare it was in a Sy Fy thriller to see sceptics brought around by argument and evidence. What it usually takes to change their minds is a god-awful slavering alien as in ‘Killer Klowns from the GOP.’ Not so here. Personal credibility, circumstantial evidence, the accumulation of oddities, and more reach the tipping point.

Richard Carlson is perfectly cast and plays the reserved and introspective intellectual right down to the elbow patches on his Harris tweed sports coat. Later he was busy leading three lives.

At the climax Barbara Rush, blank and expressionless in an inexplicable posh evening gown fit for a royal reception and a flowing scarf, is ethereal on the ridge. She says nothing but nothing is sometimes a lot, Cordelia.

Babs 2.jpg Dressed for dinner with the aliens.

In this regalia she and Richard have a showdown that still surprised me when I watched it again recently on Daily Motion. This is a teaser, more below.

Earlier the telephone repairmen, Joe Sawyer and Russell Johnson, get some of the best lines and moments on camera. Again that is a rarity in the genre for supporting actors to get this much screen time and importance. These two working stiffs respect the desert, and even see poetry in it.

Linemen.jpg The stiffs at work.

Sawyer, the older man, does a memorable turn as a zombie, his face so cold and dead… [Words fall me.]

Joe zombied.jpg Zombied.

Russell is good too but not quite as otherworldly as Joe. Yes, this Russell was later the professor with Gilligan. [Those poor people!] Sawyer served his time later in ‘Rin Tin Tin.’

The alien(s) get up to some mischief and Richard Carlson is on the case and in time slowly convinces others to cooperate, though of course the carrion of the press mock him at every turn. He discovers that an alien ship has crashed and is being repaired in order to leave. To make those repairs it has zombies Joe and Russell and others to work on the ship. Once the repairs are complete, they will leave. Promise. Promise. Promise. Is this Yalta again? Will the Reds leave Eastern Europe after things are righted? Ha! The Sherrif knows his Paul Harvey and does not believe a word of such promises.

Will egghead Richard fall for that line? Is he a fellow traveller? Or will he be a real man and give in to xenophobic hysteria and blast the damn thing!

This is the Cold War moment. Will Richard go all weak and liberal and let the alien(s) complete the business, or will he get all macho and call out the nuclear posse? Which will it be? A shoot out or a truce? Or something in between.

Again a rarity in the genre at the time even to pose such a question, let alone the way it works out.
Spoiler coming. Richard convinces the posse that an accommodation with the alien Reds is best for one and all, and it is. Once the ship has a new muffler, off it goes, first releasing all the zombies.

When Richard follows Babs off the ridge he is in for several surprises. First she tries to lure him to his death. Some squeeze she is. When that fails, she fires her phaser (where did she stash that phaser in that form fitting gown, the fraternity brothers asked) at him and, zig-zag, it cuts into the rock behind him, while he fumbles for the gun in his pocket; he has fumbled for it before, and he....yes, he shoots her dead. Huh! Because he realises she has been zombied, too, and this is not the real her but an avatar used by the aliens.

This is where the logic breaks down. Clunk. It seems that for the aliens to use a person's avatar they have to take physical possession of the body. They create avatars of Joe and Russell to do the shopping and keep their real bodies on alien ice in the cave. See? They have done the same with some others and the avatars are all busy working on the space ship when Richard, fresh from killing avatar Babs rushes in on them. So far so good....

But first, why would aliens need human labor in the first place. Yes, to go into town to buy and steal copper wire, but to work on the ship? Is this a design flaw, that the aliens cannot work on their own ship but need human hands to do that? How low was that bidder.

The human avatars are working under the supervision of.... [wait for it] an avatar of Richard himself with whom he proceeds to negotiate. But, they have his avatar, having earlier cleared his closet of clothes, though no one knows why all his clothes were needed for one scene, but not his body! See? No, neither do I.

But at least two of the aliens have been killed. The avatar Joe was shot by the sheriff's posse at a roadblock and incinerated, and Richard plugged Babs with his fumble shooter. No fuss is made over these collateral KIAs by the aliens.

The sheriff holds off when the real bodies are released in a show of good faith while Richard and himself take a tearful farewell.

Kind of surprising that HUAC did not come red-baiting after the makers of this film, as it did after so many others for so little because a headline is a headline.

Is it an alien or aliens, singular or plural? It is never quite clear. Sometimes there is a subjective camera from the alien point of view, watching the repairmen, or others, through a clouded (vaselined) lens. So simple and so effective. There was a production argument about whether to show the alien. The marketing department won that argument. It wanted a creature to feature on the posters and in the trailers. Something for the women to scream at. Though in fact that never happens in the film, it featured in the advertising. There are lies, damned lies, tweets, and advertising.

In the early 1950s enthusiasm for creature features, Sy Fy got a boost. Ray Bradbury, who later became one of the deans of Sy Fy, was hired to write story for film. He did it in five weeks and turned in a hundred page story. All the ideas are there, but it was not a screen play.

It was turned into a script by a hack who broke up the monologues into dialogues, blocked the content out into scenes, and re-arranged it into set-ups. Then the director went through it and cut much text to be replaced by camera shots, gestures, close-ups, stage directions, and tracking shots. The the producers reorganised it into a shooting schedule to economise on sets, costumes, extras, camera time, and so on. The hundred pages shrank.

In Bradbury’s story the alien is singular and never seen. What is the old adage? Leave the creature unseen and let the reader’s imagination fill it in. But that was too subtle for the creature feature market. Indeed, rubber masks and suits of the creature features were awash at the time and to be competitive in that market segment, there had to be a visual.

It rates a mediocre 6.6 on the IMDB; that puts it level with some of the excrescence of Adam Sandler.

A movie made for the drive-in market, written, produced, and directed by Leonard Katzmann who has a lot to explain. The IMDB score is 3.8/10. With that in mind…. Some 1960s role modelling kills any nostalgia for those days.

In the distant future year 2000 the Space Probe Taurus is launched, though the probe is called Hope One. The crew members say repeatedly that their destination is Tyrus. Watch and listen but Taurus never puts in an appearance. That slip is characteristic of the standard of this waste of celluloid.

Probe gat.jpg Notice the gat in hand. Wanna shake? Ready to shoot.

The crew of four strap into the La-Z-Boy recliners and blast off beyond the solar system. Note: beyond the solar system. Got it? Good, on that more in a moment.

There in deep space they come upon another space ship drifting by. They hail it but no one is picking up the phone. OK, they suit up, and the suits look pretty good (credit the wardrobe department) and float over where they force the door, saying it was not locked. Ah huh, burglars aways say that. Then they enter the engine room and start checking the instruments. Whoops! An alien appears in a rubber suit to protect those delicate instruments. After some mutual staring, the rubber alien refuses the handshake the unwelcome and intruding Hope captain offers, who then promptly shoots the alien with the .45 he was packing into deep space. Bam! So much for first contact. Shake or else!

Wait! It gets worse. They decide to blow up the alien ship. Whatever for? To hide the body of their victim? No, but because gravity will pull it to Earth where it will crash and hurt someone. This from beyond the solar system, remember? Deep space, get it?

Are there any more aliens on board? Are there other alien crew out and about in their rubber suits yet to return to the ship. No one knows. No one checks. No one cares. Boom!

The Probe is called the United States Probe. Not Earth probe, but United States Probe. It fits US foreign policy, bam and boom.

There is more to come. Through no fault of their own they do land on a habitable planet, where they promptly kill the first inhabitant they meet. Consistent anyway. Thereafter they congratulate themselves on finding a habitable world. It will be habitable as soon as all the indigenous inhabitants are murdered. Think Australia. Hence the 'nullius' in the alternative title above.

There is no irony in any of these events. Not hint of it. The acting is leaden. The story, well, what story. The special effects are rubber. Could be I am making it sound better than it is. This'll cork it: Roger Corman made better movies! Thought I would never say that of anything.

The crew of four includes a woman, much to the annoyance of the captain who wants chaps. Bet no one expected that! But she got the job because she is a light weight. Literally. She weighs less than a male scientist. Is this clever or what? (Or what.) The two younger crew men hit on her and she finally relents. The rejected suitor, sacrifices himself to extricate the ship from another blunder. Role modelling, indeed. THE END. Amen.

In the second to last scene we learn that the probe is a desperate effort to find a place to relocate the population of the Earth or is it the United States, for reasons not theretofore mentioned or further explained though i suspected it was the aftermath of a GOP majority. Maybe as the end neared someone thought to justify the mayhem earlier in the film. Hmm. Not likely. Probably filmed that last scene first, a common practice, and then just forgot about it. Something I have tried to do myself.

No one ever watched the last feature at a drive-in, anyway. Wisdom in that, as well as hormones.

Leonard_Katzman.jpg Leonard Katzmann much later.

Thirty years later Katzmann directed more than sixty episodes of ‘Dallas.’ Atonement in that punishing duty?

It has also been released as ‘Timeslip,’ which reveals the plot. It is a low budget science fiction film.

Atomic Man poster.jpgTime slip.jpg

The acting is fine and the direction is crisp in the film noir manner of the era. (It was cheaper to film in low light and so many B movies were noir primarily for this financial reason.) The story is another matter. The science is silly. The villains do their best with underwritten parts. For a thriller there is a lack of urgency.

It was a ’quota quickie’ and that explains its schizophrenia about whether it is American or British. All the cast are British except for the two leads, Gene Nelson and Faith Domergue, but all speak of dollars, not pounds. Newspaper reporter Nelson fastens onto the mystery man pulled from the river who bears an uncanny resemblance to a nuclear scientist splitting atoms at a top top secret installation down the road. Connect the dots.

The secret work is no secret to Nelson who barges in and around with insufferable audacity that only works in movies. Ditto he has no trouble getting into the hospital ward guarded by the police where the victim is lying in a stupor.

Nelson and Domergue are a good team, she being a newspaper photographer.

Dom and Nel.jpg The team at work.

He is the action man and she does the thinking. Sporting a noir trench coat, she figures out the problem and takes several initiatives, unlike the female lead in many films of the era. But she is also stereotypical enough to wait in the car while Nelson does man-stuff, i.e., yelling at people. Don't blame him, he did not write it.

More interesting than anything in the movie is the public policy of the ‘quota quickie’ in post war Great Britain. Westminster legislated that 25% of all cinema screenings be British made. This was not in the interest of stimulating the British film industry which at the time was working at full capacity. No. The purpose was to reduce the importation of American films by crowding them out of the theatres so that the earrings of imported films would not taken out of the country. Subtle, huh? There was no prohibition on American films, but a squeeze on cinema proprietors to discourage showing them.

However, because the British film industry was already at capacity, many studios subcontracted the films needed to meet that 25% quota to all comers, like the legendary Danziger brothers (who could knock of the unforgettable ‘Devil Girl from Mars’ in ten days), and to American shell companies set up in London in response to this opportunity. These American companies in turn put a few American touches in the films so that they could be shown in the States in the bottom half of a program or a drive-in triple feature. (Those were the days.) The touches might be leads like Nelson and Domergue, references to dollars, or mid-Atlantic accents from Brits.

This practice of subcontracting undermined the purpose of the policy yet complied with it and yet all the same channeled the money into American companies, actors, and writers.

Nelson started as a dancer but three years in the army in World War II ended the dancing days. In movies he played opposite Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day, and Virginia Mayo early in his career but as their stars ascended his did not. Who knows why. In this film he is energetic, times his lines exactly, and knows where to look, as they say behind the camera. Television offered him a second bite of the apple and there he turned to directing and made quite a career of that.

Domergue, once a protege of Howard Hughes, played a scientist in a number of B sci-fi pics like ‘This Island Earth’ (1955), which is a keeper. There is pathos here because plastic surgery figures heavily in the plot of ‘The Atomic Man’ and she herself had extensive plastic surgery as a young woman when a car crash sent her through a windscreen.

The story is by Charles Eric Maine, who also did the screen play; he was a science fiction writer with little interest in and no knowledge of science. It shows.

C E Maine.jpg

He was really a detective writer who used science fiction conventions to set up his stories, and viewed against those expectations this film is worth more than the 5.4 rating on the IMDB. This film is not science fiction. The action turns around a nuclear research laboratory and that is it. He has a long list of titles ascribed to science fiction.

For those who thought ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’ (1980) was rock bottom, try this offering.

Starship Invastion.jpg

Leading the cast are Christopher Lee and Robert Vaughn. Quality right? Wrong!

The acting is Easter Island stone faces. Lips not moving. Not moving?

The aliens are telepathic; ergo their lips are sealed. Most of the film shows expressionless actors staring at each other with a voiceover for the dialogue. Exciting stuff, not. This has to be the dumbest production decision ever made, well, apart from casting Tom Cruise in anything. Christopher Lee as the chief villain imitates a department store window mannequin in a black onesie with a hood over wires on his head to make him look even stranger than usual. That works. He looks constipated.

Lee in uniform.jpg Here is Christopher Lee lips sealed ordering the destruction of the human population of Earth. Ho hum.

Even in the midst of a CGI spaceship battle the extras move like mannequins. An alien commander yells to his only underling, ‘Quick, shields up!’ The underling moves like he is underwater to the console, only to discover it has been sabotaged. That is quick? By the way, was this minion the one who failed to do the pre-flight check? After corporate downsizing, the alien is reduced to one underling. No backup.

Vaughn as a UFO scientist has a few lines which he manfully utters, but mostly the aliens read his thoughts. (I could read them, too, namely ‘Get me out of here! I am going to fire my agent!’) The UFOs whiz around, crash onto highways, are sighted by crowds of airforce personnel in a flyover, land in front the Toronto telephone exchange to steal some vital — as if! — computer equipment (1970s telephone routers, evidently picking up a few things for ET to use in calling home), and crash into the tower of the Bank of Montreal (which relocated to the safety of Toronto when the PQ won an election, and now this), while the authorities and media use alternative facts to deny the existence of UFOs. Faux News strikes again. That part is credible.

The one interesting idea in the screenplay is mentioned and then dropped. Early in the going Christopher Lee examines human DNA and concludes that his own race is the offspring of ancient Earthlings. Huh? How did that happen? But Lee puts aside such girly question and...villain that he is, does not hesitate for a moment to order the planetary extermination of his forbears. That intriguing idea was never mentioned again. It is treated in an episode of ‘Captain Future’ (1948) with far more energy and wit.

The Internet Movie Data Base offers a plot summary, which I do not have the will to do so myself. Yes there is a plot of sorts. The rating there of 4.0 seems high, though, as always, some liked it. That 4 is an average; some of the scorers gave it an 8 or so to balance my 1. (A '0' cannot be cast. i know; I've tried.) Think about that. The only explanation of this celluloid muddle is the tax credits the Ontario government once offered foreign film companies when it laboured under the delusion it was going to create Onty-wood on the Mississauga. This cheap production was subsidised by Ontario taxpayers. Hence some of the supporting actors, like Vaughn’s screen wife, speak with the Ottawa Valley accent.

Another overblown and undercooked science fiction film with a sizeable budget is this entry: ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’ (1980), a CGI vehicle for John-Boy Walton, and little else.

Battle Beyond Stars poster.jpg

The set-up is intriguing and there are some imaginative elements along with some major talents in supporting roles, but it is decidedly underdone. It transposes ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954) directed by Akira Kurosawa to outer space via ‘The Magnificent Seven’ directed by John Sturges (1960). Though not credited the word on the web sites is that Roget Corman directed ‘Battle Beyond the Stars.’ That alone would explain why it is so lifeless, listless, and down right lazy. Kurosawa and Sturges could direct a script from the telephone book and make it interesting, not so Corman who could make ‘The Fall of House of Usher boring.’ Not could, did.

The imaginative element was mostly in the creature-features, always a speciality of Corman. There are several but the one that caught my eye was the multiple Nestor who got the only zinger in the dialogue — ‘We always carry a spare.’ In the context it gives chuckle. And the spare comes in handy. (There is pun there for the cognoscenti.)

Nesstor.jpg Nestor(s)

And Nestor got the only really science fiction element in this shoot ‘em space western with the moving arm. But two moments in 1hr and 44m is too little.

The major talents are Robert Vaughn and John Saxon, both of whom play their parts with deadly earnestness, and George Peppard, who quite obviously wanted to be elsewhere, and should have been. Vaughn reprises his role from the 1960 ‘The Magnificent Seven’ as a world weary, no, galaxy weary, phaser-slinger, though what his particular talents are as a murderer for hire receive no explanation, nor is there any character development apart from his clenched jaw, and ennui filled sighs.

Vaughan jaw.jpg Vaughn and jaw.

In contrast, John Saxon is a wonderful one-armed galactic villain! He is steely and focussed enough to burn through steel, as if this role were his chance at the stardom that eluded Carmine Orrico.

Saxon mean.jpg Saxon scowling.

He does not drool nor scratch, but otherwise he has all the mannerisms of a major league Hollywood villain. He shouts at underlings, describes them as idiots, delights in torturing helpless victims, indulges his senses, devises impossible key performance indicators, cuts budgets, wait, he starting to sound like someone for whom I once worked.

A final confrontation between Saxon and Vaughn might have added up to something.

As it is, the crescendo, and I do mean crescendo because it is loud, of the movie is a twenty minute plus CGI shoot out that goes on and on, and on. (I did the crossword while the CGIs duked and nuked it out.) Peppard, Vaughn, and the Valkyrie, and finally Saxon get killed. At that point the film lost all interest for me, while the ever prepubescent John-Boy waxed on.

Did I mention the Valkyrie? No? What an omission!

VAlkyrie.jpg Spot the Valkyrie!

She has to be seen to be believed. Roger Corman can do some things right and she is one of them. Sybil Danning, need I say more, the queen of B-movie babes who started her career, I do not joke, with ‘The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried.’ Lucky Siegfried.

The mystery is how Roger Corman got such talents to work for him as Vaughn, Peppard, Saxon, and, this time let us not forget, Danning. These players are way above his usual payroll. John-Boy must have had some influence.

A pair of micro-budget parodies of big budget science fiction movies that offer more diversion than most of the films they mimic. Indeed while composing these bons mots I (tried) to watch 'Saturn 3' (1980) with Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel. It has a big cast, all that hair from Farrah Fawcett, and a big budget and set designs beyond the pale. It is pretentious and portentous. Now if it just had a story, a sense of humour, a purpose....something. I flicked away after twenty minutes. That the screen play was by Martin Amis probably explains all of that. (I tried reading one of his novels year ago, and it felt good when I stopped.) While enduring it I found a review from the doyen of reviewers, Roger Ebert, who mercilessly caned it. Amen, Brother Roger.

The ‘Space Invaders’ are the Z-team from a Martian armada bound for Alpha Centura. This hapless crew mis-read the map (upside down) and missed the fleet rendezvous (awoke too late) and is roaming around (lost in space) trying to catchup, meanwhile exhausting the fuel. Think of those laggards with the Spanish Armada in 1588 who stormed ashore in Norway to… I was told once that the genetic inheritance from these dimwits explains both the swarthy genes and the stupidity of some Norwegians. It was Swede who passed the word on this.

Spaced Invaders poster.jpg

While tooling around in the flying saucer the spaced-out invaders intercept a broadcast of Orson Wells’s ‘War of the Worlds.’ It being Halloween a local radio station is airing an old recording for the occasion. These dolts from space lock on to that signal and land in…Hicksville Illinois, blasters drawn and ready for a fight. It is Halloween so one and all are decked out as the weird and wonderful; ergo they fit right in. What if the Martians invaded and no one noticed? They did. They didn't. Just as well because a dolt forgot to charge the blasters.

Moreover, the townsfolk are in an expansive mood because an off-ramp from the I-80 has been built which will bring untold tourist wealth to this dying farm town when motorists fill one tank and empty another. (Think about it, Mortimer.) A few odd little guys in strange costumes are most welcome.

The cast of small town inhabitants is marvellous. The wannabe dumb blonde who cannot quite conceal her superior intelligence but irony is not something much noticed. The shy gas pump jockey pines for her but she’s out of his league so he studies advanced physics journals between horn honks for service from the town bullies. The jostling among the local magnates to take credit for the off-ramp goes on in costume. Then there is Royal Dano, instantly recognisable and whose memorable name is never remembered, as a cantankerous farmer who is about to lose his farm to a slimy small-time, small-town developer.

Dano conference.jpg Dano in conference with the Xers.

Vainly trying to keep order in this mix — the farmer has a shotgun or two and the developer has a bulldozer — is the lantern-jawed sheriff whose ten-year old daughter really likes the costumes of the Martians. Upon discovering they are not costumes, she says, ’They’re not bad. just stupid.’ Very.

Sapced invaders the F team.jpg The Z-Team.

Delightful mayhem ensues. The off-ramp is offed. The developer loses his shirt and much else. The dizzy blonde figures it out. The gas pump jockey discovers the inner he-man. The angry farmer has the means to put things right. (Think silos.) With his help the Spaced Invaders might be able to catch-up with the Martian Amanda, or at least get to Norway and enrich the gene pool.


‘Dark Star’ started as a student project by John Carpenter who went on to bigger but not always better things.

It is refreshing change of pace from so many portentous and pretentious A and B science fiction films about the meaning of life or the end of the world. Oh hum.

Dark Satr poster.jpg

This entry is strictly working class. Five grunts who share a disheveled and no doubt odiferous dorm room on a space scow go about their business obliterating planets with smart, and talkative, bombs. They are galactic garbage men clearing up the detritus. That the planets may or may not be inhabited is of no interest to them. The planets are in the way of West-Connex and have to be demolished to create a space route. Sydneysiders know all about this mega road project which is consuming whole suburbs in its path. It is the local version of Boston’s Big Dig and has been in the offing even longer than that behemoth.

Cinephiles will think of the later ‘Quark’ (1977), but Quark was not working class. A garbage scow yes, but piloted by the well-spoken, highly educated, very clean, and aspirational Richard Benjamin who hopes for a promotion and a better assignment. None of that fits ‘Dark Star.’ This crew has topped out with Dark Star. Their career and life trajectories are down, not up.

On board Dark Star an industrial accident has killed the captain but head office demands that the remaining crew press on, though the faults on the ship multiply, even as their budget is cut-and-cut again. Situation normal.

To relieve some of the boredom one member of the crew has a pet. Which tickles. Even in elevator shafts. Has to be seen.

Meanwhile, systems on the ship malfunction, but appeals to head office for permission to put in for repairs are denied. Off camera I imagined the suits in the boardroom suppose the ship, Dark Star, is beyond repair and that these working stiffs are expendable. The crew members are contractors, so there will be no payout to beneficiaries. Mangers managing.

Indeed most of the events can be explained from the McKinsey management manual, though it is well before the Age of Managers Managing. Shiver! That would make a slasher movie.

It all finally comes to a head …. There is a Silver Surfer at end. Intriguing that.

Apart from the gung-ho talking bombs, and the tickler, another high point is the sound track, most of it written and some of it performed by John Carpenter before he turned his hand to slasher movies with which he made a killing.

Dark Star bomb.jpg One of the smart (-mouthed) bombs.

Roget Ebert liked it and that is all I needed to know.

A low-key science fiction movie about, oh um, the end of the world. The set-up is interesting, but it limps in the middle and reaches a puzzling conclusion.

27Day Poster.jpg A misleading lobby poster. There are no zapping flying saucers chasing Valerie French in a bathing suit.

Gene Barry with his experience in outwitting Martians from the red planet at the height of the Cold War in ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1953) is here, sporting a RAF moustache that looks so fake that we knew it would have to go and it did. Arnold Moss as the alien is so effortlessly grave that … [on him more at the end].

Five individuals from around the world - Chinese, Russian, American, Brit, and Dutch - are plucked from their routine and plonked into plastic chairs in a bland conference room looking very modernistic though not modern. There is nothing special about them, one a villager, another a sentry, a press hack, a sunbather, and a scientist. With gender diversity the Chinese and the Brit are women. The Dutch scientist is in fact visiting the United States, so that gives Uncle Sam two.

After having proven to the gathering that they are on a spaceship, Arnold Moss presents the dilemma. His planet is doomed and the population must relocate. These are planetary asylum seekers. The Third Rock will do nicely, but being pacifists, they cannot conquer though it is evident that their technology is far superior. Even big Gort seems a clumsy relic against Moss’s magic.

27 DAy.jpg You have the power! (An early iPhone advertisement?)

Apparently, neither can they negotiate. Instead Arnie will give each of the five a weapon (the size of an iPhone) that cam destroy their enemies. Note, it destroys only persons and not material. It works by thought control. If these weapons are not used by the end of the 27th day, the aliens will look elsewhere for suitable real estate and leave Earth alone, and the weapons will become useless. The explanation of the weapons is as detailed and as incomprehensible as McKinsey-speak but it covered every contingency the screenwriters could imagine, however, there is no manual for those who were not paying attention.

Knowing Earth history, it seems the aliens assume that some or all of the weapons will be used, and in effect that will depopulate the planet for their immigration. Rather like the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War stopping short of Paris, leaving the French there to murder each other and to save ammunition. Cynical. But then look at the news today.

During the briefing, Gene Barry gets the phone number of the English woman, clad in a bathing suit because she was plucked from the beach (hence the poster above), and then ‘Hey, presto!’ they are right back where they came from. She promptly throws her device into the sea, telephones Gene, and flies to LAX. She certainly has initiative and tenacity.

The Chinese woman, who says not a word and has no close-up, commits suicide. This seems to be in reaction to the massacre of her village which was underway when she was alien-napped. The cadre were practicing on the helots, they way they do.

The Soviet sentry is dumbfounded and keeps his mouth shut.

The Dutch scientist is on his way to a conference in New York City to which he now travels. Thus three possessors of this doomsday weapon and two of the devices are Stateside.

Sitting tight is not an option, because ….. Spoiler.

Because alien Arnold Moss goes on the air around the world on every radio and television channel, he is more of media hog than the Twit in Chief. He tells everyone about the weapons and names the five who possess them. Cover blown! He had not told the five that he was going to rat them out like that!

The Feds latch onto the Dutchman as he lands at La Guardia.

Barry, having peeled off that moustache, thus disguised he grabs the Brit bit at LAX before the Forces of Order spot her, and together they head off to a hideout he just happens to know. (Probably cased it when dealing with those pesky Martians earlier.)

Pause for thought. Five randomly picked individuals have a doomsday weapon in their pockets. What will they do with them? That is one interesting proposition. Some will see parallels with the New Testament; I did.

Individual choice is quickly compromised by the public broadcast of their names. The Soviet grunt is arrested, suborned, tortured, but remains silent for a time. His motivation is left a blank. In the end, rather than see the weapon used he commits suicide by throwing himself out of an upper story window.

Barry and his girl puzzle over what to do in their hideout. The Dutchman, like the Soviet, keeps the secret…for a time. Though he is pressured relentlessly by the CIA operatives, but none of his inquisitors brought a waterboard.

The second interesting proposition concerns how others react. That an alien is at work becomes accepted by authorities and the public at large. The five individuals are then seen in the ensuing panic to be agents of the alien with Rush Limbaugh-like hysteria laid on. Imagine that! A man bearing a resemblance to Barry, remember that mo, is murdered by a mob. Add Faux News to that equation and the lynchings would be general.

Barry’s idea is to sit out the twenty-seven days, and by some miracle he and his squeeze seem to have enough provisions in the two bottomless grocery store paper bags they have to survive for the duration (of the film) undetected. Until….

Yes, the Soviet grunt finally cracks and the weapon is now available to the USSR, which promptly proclaims it to blackmail the USA to pull out of Europe and Asia. Uncle Sam complies.

This turn of events brings patriot Barry and Valerie out of hiding in the hour of need. The Western Alliance of the American Barry, the Brit bit, an the Dutch professor stall but time is running out. The Russkies know that the weapon will lapse at the end the twenty-seventh day so if it is to be used then it must be before then. To prevent a retaliation from the weapon(s) in the USA, the best time to use is just before expiration. The Cold War context weighs heavily throughout.

Meanwhile, Barry and company test the iPhone weapon app and it does indeed work. Ergo the compliance noted above.

But the professor has a trick or two up his academic gown. When Moss handed over the devices he said it has ‘the power of life and death.’ Significant that? He did not say ‘life or death.’ This egghead applies himself to re-programming the devices with his big brain so as to kill only ‘the enemies of freedom.’ Wow!

We all have candidates for that hit list. Think of whom Ayn Rand would put on that list. Try not to think of Rush Limbaugh. Try harder!

Ayn Rand.jpg Ayn Rand

As the clock ticks and the Soviets prepare to activate the weapon app, the professor does his stuff and … that is it. ‘The enemies of freedom’ die! How easy was that! Lots of Russkies pile up in the streets.

In the aftermath at the United Nations there is an expansive spirit of unity of those who made the cut and Barry suggests offering the aliens some help. Maybe they could inhabit the parts of the Earth that are uninhabitable. The Antarctic is mentioned. New Jersey near the Kardashians seems logical? Some nice real estate in the Gobi Desert can be had for a price. This message is broadcast, and on the eighth ring Arnold Moss answers and rather than accept the offer instead welcomes the Earth into the community of 30,000 worlds! Whoa!

Huh? Was this some kind of fraternity initiation? That seemed to be the conclusion invited by Moss's last remarks. Such a test for admission is a common theme in sci-fi but here it is explained no further.

The film drags in the middle with Barry and the Brit in the hideout listening to the radio. The minutes seemed like hours to them and to me, too. The whole exercise would have been much better in a half-hour Twilight Zone or Science Fiction Theatre episode.

A few notes. Two suicides. The voluntary production code that dominated Hollywood at the time forbade suicides in word or deed. Yet there are two here. The Chinese woman early on and the Soviet soldier near the end. Perhaps because they were both commies, they were better dead than red.

Both the women endowed with the weapon reject it. The Chinese throws it on the fire burning the remains of the village before committing Chinese-kari and the Brit throws it into the sea before flying to Hollywood, well, LA. Lesson? Never trust a woman with a weapon of mass destruction.

Moss 27.jpg Arnold Moss (1910-1989)

Moss appeared in ‘The Conscience of the King’ in ‘Star Trek: TOS’ as Karidian the executioner. With his aristocratic bearing, perfect diction, and melliferous baritone voice he always dominated any scene. Something (else) William Shatner complained about. Moss was Phi Beta Kappa with a Columbia PhD who constructed crossword puzzles for the ‘New York Times’ while waiting on sets.

This film rates a miserable and miserly 5.9 from 660 votes on the IMDB. That puts in the company of some Roger Corman’s creations.  Democracy, so overrated, as Plato said.

This is a thoughtful science fiction film about racism and bigotry in a post-apocalyptic world.  It starts with 92% mortality in a nuclear war, the origin of which is unknown, after which the survivors have created ever more elaborate and human-like robots. The robots are programmed to serve the best interest of humanity! Always tricky that, just ask anyone in politics. (Only journalists know all the answers.)

Humaoids cover.jpg A lobby poster

The robots are necessary but they have to stay in their place! Evidently some Republicans survived — no holocaust is ever perfect — and those who most want to restrict the robots are members of the Order of Flesh and Blood, i.e., code for the GOP. Indeedy. These Luddites accept the work the robots do so long as they look and act like mechanical contrivances and stay in their distant and inferior place. Jack Haley as the Tin Man in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is their idea of a good robot.

However, the robots themselves realise that such Tin Men are inefficient. They are technically inefficient, clumsy of movement, slow afoot, so they improve themselves with each new iteration. (The make-up is good on this.) The more important way in which they are inefficient is that there are social and psychological barriers between them and human co-workers. Some humans refuse to work with these talking machines.

The robots face the facts: the long term effects of the massive radiation unleashed in the forty minute war has doomed the capacity for human reproduction. The birth rate is falling at an increasing rate.

Humanoids confer.jpg The robots confer on their Key Performance Indicators.

For the Flesh and Blooders the answer is simple, ahem, as always, to get rid of those damn robots. Period. Their service makes us soft! Rid of them, humanity would fend for itself and grow stronger again, scientific evidence be damned! Ayn Rand should get credit for this part of the script. In her world the will power of rugged individuals could triumph over any old facts.

The Flesh and Blooders wear party hats and harass those who support and use robots. (On the hats, read below.) They skulk around robot recharging stations. Among themselves, the robots call the charging stations temples and refer to the master computer with admirable and anticipatory political correctness as the Mother/Father or Father/Mother. As it turns out, there is a point to this mumbo-jumbo.

Humanity is dying out and the robots will have to put a stop to it. And they do!

The drama is played out with two principle characters (Don Megowan and Erica Elliott).  The irony is that the Luddite leader, vociferous and violent, is himself an undercover humanoid!  But wait there's more. His squeeze is also one of THEM!  The explanation of all of that is ingenious and thought-provoking.

It is all talk and no action against cardboard sets spray painted in primary colours.   It seemed more like a play than a movie, but the talk is interesting and I paid attention. A rarity that. That there is no action, that the women are fully clothed, and that it is complicated talk must together explain the democratic rating. The Maestro of 'Dark Corners of this Sick World' Robin Bales, no democrat he, also shreds it for the inertia and the inconsistencies in the story, while admitting that it is full of ideas. The alleged inconsistency is that it starts out about the downtrodden robots and then shifts to the future of humanity. Get with it Robin! It is a segue. Stories develop.

By the way, he, too. suspected theatrical origins but evidently found no confirmation, an inference since he left the point hanging. Just the sort of omission he derides in the films he reviews with his razor tongue.

Don Megowan, large of size, chiselled of chin, deep of voice, dark of hair, was a stalwart in television westerns for years, while Erica Elliot quit with this role, she also started with it, as did the director Don Doolittle whose coda was a nice touch.

Doolittle Dr.png Dr Doolittle, who talked to the vacuum tubes.

The opening credits say ‘Introducing Don Doolittle’ and the Internet Movie Data Base indicates this introduction was also his finale.

The hats the Flesh and Blooders wear are ersatz Confederate forage hats. They were sold as novelties at the centenary of the Civil War. Yes, I had one.

Humanoid hats.jpg Big Don is the big one.

Did they purloin those hats from the dustbins after a revival of ‘Gone with the Wind?’ Who knows. It is all of a piece with the hundred dollar budget for the film.

I came across it on You Tube when trawling for 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s science fiction.

It has whet my appetite for ‘Real Humans’ (2012), a Swedish series aired here, which for reasons lost to time, we did not watch.

Jaded cinephiles will think of Isaac Asimov’e ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Blade Runner.’ Readers may recall 'Tin Men' (1965) by Michael Frayn, which tried awfully hard to be funny.

One of the great westerns.  It combines a young director with two of the wisest hands on the ranch. Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea between them must have been in more than a hundred and fifty oaters. McCrea made it a point only to accept roles in Westerns and Scott did virtually the same thing though less explicitly. I would like to think that they did so for the same reasons that Justin Playfair gives in ‘They Might be Giants’ for only watching western movies. See the review of this latter film elsewhere on this blog for further explanation.

Ride High poster.jpg

The gossip is that McCrea and Scott flipped a coin to see who played the good guy and the not so good guy.  What a tour de force for the young director, Sam Peckinpah, and what a swan song for Scott and McCrea who both retired after this film, Scott at 64 and McCrea at 58.  

Scoot=McCrea.jpg A publicity photograph.

Two ageing lawmen find the west has changed and so have they.  It is no longer in need of them. One has become a sideshow barker and the other a bar-room bouncer.  Then a job comes up, one with a modest reward but it smacks of the old days and the old ways, off they go once again a team. One is losing his sight and other has arthritis but this is too good an opportunity to miss….for one of them it offers vindication and for the other one it offers something more venal.  

In 1962 audiences were also changing and the Western was on the way out. Nor was there any further need in Hollywood for these two old actors in particular. The screenplay reflects their own situation, too.  It becomes a story about the actors as well as the characters they embody.  

The tattered McCrea remains steadfast, but the flamboyant Scott has heard a different drum, after countless brawls, wounds, ambushes, shoot outs, injuries, chases, beatings, falls, and betrayals it is time to taste the honey. With what he thinks is subtlety Scott tries to suborn McCrea who seems not to realise what is going on. Subplots add depth and as in every Peckinpah film, each character however minor has a name.  Edgar Buchanan’s brief speech at the wedding, Federico Fellini could not have done better, gave me pause for thought.

Peckinpah.jpg Sam Peckinpah

The Biblical reference to ‘entering the house justified’ is another gem.*  Any close observer of Peckinpah’s films will realise, he was student of the Bible and studded his films with imagery and lines from parables, hymns, letters, psalms, and words of the prophets. 

The landscape of the high country is an elegy to a cleaner, better world made foul by humanity at its worst.  


Then the denouement comes. Perfect. The exchange of looks between McCrea and Scott constitute a master class in acting in a few seconds. Each man sums up his own celluloid career in a single glance.

Ride High End.jpg The end.

Then there is that last line of dialogue delivered by McCrea as his sun sets.  Moving and marvellous.  Redemption is even sweeter than honey.  

*Luke, 18:14

A very cold Cold War film noir set in the Berlin of 1953, just after the Korean War. Everyone is on edge. The military presence — USA, Great Britain, Soviet Union, and France — in Berlin is considerable. Is there going to be a European encore for the Korean War there in Berlin?

NP poster.jpg

Gregory Peck is in US counter-intelligence, trying to extract a Soviet defector when he is lumbered with the kidnapping of an American soldier, a private, with a very influential and noisy father, played to a T by Broderick Crawford. It is taken as obvious that the Soviets have nabbed the son, but why?

Crawford flies to Berlin to show the paper-pushing bureaucrats how to get results in the real world! This he tells to newsmen whose circumspect replies tip off viewers to what will follow.

In this Berlin human beings are trafficked in all kinds of ways and this incident is another example of that. Nothing happens by chance. Everything connects, somehow, but how?

Crawford discovers a world where insistent bluster and big bucks do not matter one whit. No one wants his money and his bellows fall on deaf ears. Peck gives him a marvelous dressing down but Peter van Eyck does even better in an earlier and lower key scene in breaking the news that his big money and many friends mean nothing in this time and place.

Before he became Jed Clampett, Buddy Ebsen is a perfect chorus to Peck who is effortlessly glamorous and briskly decisive, while Ebsen is an ‘ah shucks a good ole boy,’ but one who knows how to get things done even in this dark and menacing place.

Pecl, Crawford, Ebsem.jpg

Much of the screen play is cryptic by today’s standards. It takes awhile to realise that the extraction is afoot, and the importance of that briefcase Peck constantly carries around slowly dawns. He carries it around, I inferred, because in it he has the most top secret confidential documents that he does not trust, even to a safe at HQ. It is always in his hand or always in his sight. Almost.

Since he is there, Peck insists that Crawford witness the proceedings. He does and it is an eye-opener for him, and a growth experience, though Crawford’s change of heart is a little too quick but the clock ticks relentlessly in this film, and if the final result is just a little too easy, it does wrap everything up with a mighty twist.

There is a lot of talk and virtually no action. In Hollywood terms that makes it cerebral and it would probably not be made today in this way. Most of it occurs in offices or rooms, with one scene in a bar and another at the loading dock of a hospital. One punch is thrown when Peck strikes a woman!

Nunnally Johnson (1897-1977) wrote the screenplay and it is a corker for its overall plot, its humanity, and dialogue.

Nunnally Johnson.jpg If only.....

Among his many other credits are ‘Grapes of Wrath’ (1939), ‘Tobacco Road’ (1941), ’The Moon is Down’ (1943), ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’ (1953), and ‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ (1956). The themes in these films include that depression, corruption, oppression, anti-semitism, and racism, and then there is the delightful comedy of ‘How to Marry a Millionaire.’

The military parade at the beginning does drag on but to original audiences in 1954 it would have been reassuring, and it segues nicely into the plot. Original audiences would also have seen that both Peck and Ebsen wear uniforms with shoulder patches indicating combat service in World War II and both uniforms sport impressive ribbons betokening Silver and Bronze Stars. They have been in the shooting war.

I watched it on a DVD acquired from Amazon.

One of the many Westerns that Gregory Peck (1916–2003) made. That alone recommends it. The opening scene is superb and those that follow in the first act are on a par with it. Then comes the slide….

Stalking moon cover.jpg

The silence, the eternal and forbidding landscape, the big sky, and the taciturn dialogue get it off to a good start.

Robert Forster steals some scenes from his mentor Peck, but ever gracious Peck rolls with it. Forster has since been in every television program there is but never equalled this turn.

Foster cards.jpg Robert Foster waits.

There are some moments of humour as with the train ticket that it would take an IRS accountant to figure out.

Harder to take is that chiseled block of satin wood, Eva Marie Saint. That she is largely silent helps but the constant squeeze of the frontal lobes indicates her thespian range. When she speaks it is in whispers which I suppose is to add to the drama. It didn’t. (I admit that she was superb in ‘Don’t Come Knocking’ [2005] with Sam Shepard. Maybe with age directors were less inclined to limit her to eye-candy.)

Most of the faults of this film, however, lie with the screenplay and the director, Robert Mulligan (he of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’), and not the players. Where to start?

Eva, after ten years of (implied) brutal captivity, emerges with makeup intact and speaks English within five minutes as though nothing had happened. It is a strength of the screenplay that what happened is left to the viewers imagination and not stated, agreed. Yet she is none the worse for it.

Peck’s change of heart is a plot device and nothing more. It does not emerge from the events or his character. He says she can cook for him and Ned, but in the only scene of cooking, Ned, does not eat with them. Ned, too, is a plot device and meets the fate of a Star Trek Red Shirt in due course. That was obvious from his first appearance.

The aggrieved indian husband come to fetch home his son is granted no humanity. He is a spectre. Yet Peck has stolen his son as well as his wife. Why Peck chose to invite his wrath remains a mystery. This indian is supposed to be preternatural, yet when the showdown comes he is very visible and it must have taken practice to miss him with fusillade of rifle shots fired at him. He on the other hand drills Forester with one shot.

For a spectre he was none too bright. He lured the two younger men away but did not then go back to fetch his boy, who would have willingly come to him. Instead he prolongs the movie another twenty minutes. So that he can do the same thing again. In a Randolph Scott movie, made on a smaller budget, this kind of repetition did not exist.

But then Peck seems to lack smarts, too. In the last confrontation the indian is backlit in a doorway and Peck has a cocked rifle in hand, but waits politely for nemesis to enter the darkened room and shut the door so that they can slug it out in the dark. Go figure that one, Mortimer. Shouting at Peck to shoot, did not work. Indeed many of the interiors are too dark to see much.

Indeed the boy is likewise not granted humanity. He is a prop for Eva. That he might have collaborated with his father at the moment of truth seemed on the cards (joke, but to get it see the movie) but was forgotten come the time.

While decrying plot devices there is the dog. It is not present until needed for one scene, then is conjured as the watchdog. Ned’s reaction as that of a hardbitten frontiersman is a scriptwriter's cliché.

The final contest between the two alpha males is a forgone conclusion. If that is all that was at stake, we all knew how that would end, and we did not need 1 hour and 59 minutes to get there.

I watched it on Daily Motion and read Roger Ebert’s contemporary review. He nailed it. But then when did he not?

The ‘7th Cavalry’ (1956) is about the aftermath of the Battle of Little Big Horn in June of 1876 when many plains indians united in the Great Sioux War. George Custer led his seven hundred troops into a trap of which he was warned by scouts and against the objections of subordinates. Though dead when this story starts, Custer’s pall lies over it all. He is lionised as a great leader, soldier, general, man, and paragon down to his yellow hair. On him more at the end.

7 cavalary poster.jpg Lobby poster.

The story is a combination court room drama, star crossed lovers (for once Scott gets the girl), dissension in the ranks, and a culture clash.

The tension arises because Scott was sent on leave by Custer just before he set out for the valley of the Big Horn River. It was verbal order and in a subsequent inquiry the suspicion arises that Scott had deserted and is lying about the order. (How anyone could believe for a nanosecond that Scott would do something so dastardly beggars belief.) The result of the inquiry is inconclusive.

Then comes an order from distant Washington D.C. to retrieve the bodies of the now honoured dead. Gulp! The war is on and that is a battlefield. There are seven hundred dead, only a few hundred remain in the fort, demoralised, frightened, and confused without the great Custer.

Who will do it?

Scott volunteers.png I'll go.

Scott steps forward. (Of course.) He’ll go where the others fear to tread. With a detail of a few misfits not otherwise needed by the garrison, off he goes, tall in the saddle as always. The misfits include J. C. Flippen, Frank Faylen, and Denver Pyle. Familiar faces all. How this handful of misfits is going to bury hundreds and cart home the remains of the officers is anyone's guess.

There are many vistas of the Alabama Hills where it was filmed, and much dissension in the ranks, which Scott deals with - wallop. Denver Pyle is ever reliable as a malingering whiner.

The high point of the picture is the negotiation at the Big Horn with the Sioux, who are forbearing, dignified, and conscientious.

Negotation.jpg The negotiation.

The Sioux belief that the spirit of slain enemies nourishes their strength means the dead must remain in situ, especially Yellow Hair, the leader. Hearing this explanation from a Christian mission-reared Sioux, Scott says, ‘but you know that is all superstition’ to which the Sioux replies ‘just like your Christianity.’ Scott offers no reply. Superb. A moral and intellectual standoff between two well-meaning individuals who are now on a collision course.

Spoiler alert! Though guns are drawn and arrows slung, an ominous silence reigns. What Hollywood director would dare do that today? Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse have no wish to desecrate the field, but neither will they relinquish the bodies.

For the denouement have a look on Daily Motion.

It is a loose end that the messenger whose testimony finally and fully exonerates Scott does not seem ever to have delivered this testimony, and is killed without a comment. It was Harry Carey Jr.

George Custer had a great press, partly because of the efforts of wife and widow. He was careless with the lives of his men throughout his career, though of course he took the same risks himself, if that is any consolation. In the spring of 1865 when the ghost Army of Northern Virginia manoeuvred out of the deathtrap of its trenches at Petersburg, Custer ordered his cavalry division into a frontal attack on a scant division of emaciated infantry under Richard Anderson's command.

Think about it. Men on horseback at a distance of several miles array in a line and then gallop over water courses of a wet spring and scrub bush toward a line of infantry men who, seeing them far off, had enough time to build defensive breastworks of fencing and wagons, unlimber and aim artillery, and to lock and load, take aim, and fire, long, long before the horsemen get close. An infantry musket had a killing range of five hundred yards. In the hands of a marksman the range was as much a 1,200 yards.

The feeble grey infantry killed a great many mounted bluecoats and broke the attack. It was madness. Custer’s command had the latest repeating rifles but even if an trained horseman could handle the weapon while galloping, the chance of hitting anything were near zero and reloading once the first seven shots were fired was impossible at a gallop.

The advantage of numbers saved the day, and the headlines, for Custer. His vastly larger force withdrew and flanked the Confederate line and compelled a withdrawal. How much better it would have been for the widows and orphans of the men in his command if the flanking move had preceded, and thereby obviated, the frontal attack. There was no Tennyson to immortalise this catastrophe. Yet the Custer publicity machine turned it into a great victory for him at Little Sailor’s Creek.

This might be the best of the seven Ranown (Boetticher-Brown-Kennedy-Scott) movies. Why? The complexity of the plot and the surprise ending. Well, it surprised me and I thought I knew the formula backward. In fact, the end, the last scene is most fitting, though it left me wondering about a few things.

Ride poster.jpg A lobby poster.

It starts as the usual story. Scott is the cryptic loner who appears from the dust to aid the damsel, Karen Steele, in distress. He has in tow the murderous James Best, who, as always, makes one’s skin crawl with his servile, whining, inept, craven villainy. Moreover, Scott with Best and Steele falls into the company of a dubious pair, played superbly by Pernell Roberts and James Coburn, both outlaws themselves but not in Best’s class. The shadow of a future confrontation between this pair and Scott is obvious both to the viewer and to the parties. This was Coburn's first film role.

Roberts and Coburn.jpg Roberts and Coburn confer.

Best brags repeatedly that his big brother, the redoubtable Lee van Clef will be coming to his rescue and kill them all. I would certainly fear Lee VC, as he liked to be called.

Lee van Clef.jpg Lee Van Clef on his film career. Regrettably most directors asked no more of him than to squint those beady eyes.

Before that confrontation they have to elude the raging Mescaleros, Apache Indians, who are raiding and have killed Steele’s husband. This is one occasion in the series when the indians are a mere plot device and given no explanation. This party of five had better make tracks to escape the indians and Van Clef.

Yet, at Scott’s insistence, they take the long way, travel in daylight, and cross open country rather than sticking to tree lines and ridges, moving at night. No effort is make to cover their many tracks. It dawns on Roberts that Scott wants to be caught, not by the Apaches, but by Lee van Clef, because…

Roberts and Coburn have a powerful incentive to take Best away from Scott and deliver him to the law, for then they will gain amnesty for their own earlier and lesser crimes, and so be free to live an ordinary life. Roberts is magnificent in wrestling with this temptation. Understated and taciturn per the screen play but endowing it with depth and delivering it with timing. Coburn as a naif is the perfect foil to his ruminations.

Scott never has doubts and so never ruminates: Best is a murder and he must be delivered. He is Scott’s prisoner and so he will deliver him. End of story.

Well not quite because there is a confrontation with Lee Van Clef, the one villain in this series who is not fleshed out but left a cypher, as Van Clef usually was.

Then comes the surprise.

Then comes the ending.

Burning tree.jpg The end.

‘It figures,’ says Roberts in another of his diamond lines tossed over his shoulder.

My homage to Randolph Scott continues, after an hiatus. This one is near the end of the series, and the formula shows through it. Scott, as ever is a loner somewhere, sometime after the Civil War in the West. Reticent, stoic, confident, straight as the Indian arrows he dodges, here he is st age sixty-two.

Comanche Station poster.jpg A lobby poster.

His path crosses that of a damsel in distress, and she finds the enigmatic Scott compelling, yet he a distant and perfect gentleman and she, usually, is another man’s wife. To spice up the mix there must be villains, and to the credit of these productions the chief villains are never Indians, though they are there, but other Europeans. The villains are thrown together with Scott and his charge in hostile circumstances and, in this case, they have to cooperate to avoid the Indians, but we all know a showdown is coming at about minute 70. We all know who will prevail, but the skill of the writer and director still manage surprises through the supporting players like the damsel and the naif.

Inevitably, the naif grows to admire Scott and the naif's commitment of the Villain-in-Chief wobbles. Inevitably, the damsel misunderstands Scott’s motives and only gradually sees through that misconception to his noble core. Thus there are several nested stories. The overarching narrative is to survive the hostile circumstances and return to a town. Within that we have the menace and final confrontation with nemesis. Nested still more are the doubts of the naif and also the dawning realisation of the damsel that Scott is a knight without armour. When all these themes have played out, inevitably Scott rides off alone. Oh, and inevitably Scott wears a neckerchief. Don't know why. To hide a scar?

Another credit to the production is that the villain has personality, and is not just the CGI cipher villain now in Hollywood productions. In this tale the villain is Claude Akins, who combines a rude charm with a bottomless evil.

Randy and Claude.jpg The protagonist and antagonist discuss their differences.

I was disappointed to see Akins's name in the credits when it rolled off ‘Daily Motion,’ the website from which I streamed it, because I remember the caricatures he used to play on television in the 1950s and 1960s but here he projects a distinct individual who is not all bad and yet is - in a different sense - all bad. He is aided in his villainy by the ever reliable Skip Homeier, who is knocked off too early for this connoisseur of slim-balls. The villain in this formula usually has two acolytes, and third in this party is Richard Rust, otherwise unknown to me, who is a naif who has fallen into bad company and knows no way out. The list of chief villains Scott bested in these last films is impressive, starting with the most complex, Richard Boone, Lee Marvin, Pernell Roberts, Lee Van Clef, and Warren Oates, and many others.

Indians, I mentioned Indians and they are here and on the warpath, but they are also shown to be honourable. The Comanches kept the deal they made with Scott at the outset. Moreover, that they are making war is, we learn, precipitated by the murder of many of their women and children by still other bad Europeans off camera. In fact, they are victims who are lashing out at those to hand.

Scott made at least a hundred films and perhaps eighty of them were Westerns. He got type cast but he also liked that. He rode on to the screen time after time with a self-confidence and poise born from having been through it all before, again and again. It is no wonder Sheriff Bart invokes him in ‘Blazing Saddles’ (1974).

Seven of the films Scott made at the end of his career have been the object of my veneration in this homage. Why these? Because by that stage in his career, with the astute management that made him a millionaire many times over, and too old to remain under contract to a studio, he was a free agent who could decide what he wanted to do and then do it. This he did with some long time friends and associates producer Harry Brown, director Budd Boetticher, and writer Burt Kennedy. They were made in the Alabama Hills on the east side of the Sierra Madres. Each films includes many elegiac passages as the cast travel through the area. All of them also put the life-and-death human concerns against a timeless and limitless backdrop that shows just how small those concerns are in the ultimate scheme of things.

Budd B.jpg Budd Boetticher at work.

Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorcese and others have both expressed their admiration for these films. Look for them on You Tube. It is exactly this sort of the film that George C Scott refers to in 'They Might be Giants.'

Scott’s career culminated in one of the greatest Westerns, ‘Ride the High Country’ (1962), Sam Peckinaph’s first western, featuring a near-sighted Joel McCrea with an arthritic Scott, the ingenue Mariette Hartley, the drooling Warren Oates, and more. The gossip is that Scott and McCrea flipped a coin to see who would play which part, one a huckster and trickster and the other a pillar of unassailable integrity. Both were pitch perfect and both quit on that note. I will also sneak a peak at one of his defining films that etched itself into my prepubescent mind, ‘7th Cavalry’ (1956).

The other day by accident I came across a reference to this film somewhere or other, and much of it came back in a rush. That is a tribute to director William Wyler who got a performance of a career out of the block of wood known as Dana Andrews. A screenplay by that remarkable wordsmith Robert Sherwood is understated. and often pensive. There is much that is not said because it cannot be said. But it weighs on each of the three principle characters, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell.

That jolly upbeat title belies a taxing story which I doubt I would have the fibre to watch today.

Best Years poster.jpg Then there is this jolly lobby poster which in no way prepared audiences for what they were to see.

These three Odysseuses survived to return when so many others just like them did not, an indelible fact each carries everyday; moreover they return to a new and different world. They have changed and the world has changed, too. The three Penelopes have also changed, and that enters the equation.

Every viewer will remember Homer (Harold Russell) and so we should. How daring Wyler was to cast a paraplegic to play a paraplegic. It broke the unwritten law of Hollywood of showing reality.

Howard Russell.jpg Harold Russell

Even more daring was Sherwood putting the word ‘divorce’ in Fredric March’s dialogue. At the time and place it was simply not a word said in public. That word was the reason the film was not shown in some places. Perhaps the supposition was that to hear the word ‘divorce’ would drive couples into divorce.

The ghosts are many and mighty that overtake Dana Andrews. Andrews, in a long subsequent career, much of it in B-movies, never equalled his portrayal of confusion, consternation, and dread, no shouting, no hysterics but driven deep none the less. That scene when he once again sits in that seat is indelible.

Dana 2.jpg Andrews driven deep within himself.

Perhaps that was Wyler’s genius, to have an actor who would not over do it. But just let it happen. It happened.

If this is too cryptic, Mortimer, watch it. Those who have seen it, they will remember it well. Those who have not, have an experience in store that has no equal in contemporary cinema.

This is the second episode of Maigret with Rowan Atkinson in the title role.

It is a masterclass in drama. Every scene is a tableau. Nothing is extraneous. The characters are rounded, not stereotypes. All the loose ends are resolved. Marvellous.

Maigret deadman tv.jpg

When a crisis demands every police officer’s attention, Maigret insists on pursuing what seems in comparison a trivial case. Why? Because it has become almost personal.

A man in a panic had telephoned Maigret at the office saying that his wife, Nina, knew Maigret…. But he rings off, later to be found murdered. But Maigret knows no woman named Nina. Nor does he recognise the dead man when he is found. Who is Nina? And who is the victim?

This murder has the earmarks of a gangland slaying, and accordingly the powers that be see no reason to investigate it. But Maigret cannot let go. The victim personally asked for his help and Maigret feels obliged to do what he can now, even if it is too late.

What is refreshing about this, as with the first, instalment is the quiet plod of police work. There is no shouting, no histrionics, no flashes of insight, no scientific magic. Instead there is Just plod and more plod, piecing the puzzle together one part at a time. Even when Maigret is proved right, there is just a shrug without triumph.

Atkinson projects the authority, the calm, the impenetrable inwardness of a Maigret who has the strength to remain silent.

The direction is so confident and so demanding that viewers, well these viewers, were gripped by the slow movement, like a very slow tango with complicated steps that seem to go nowhere and yet fascinate.

All the heavy artillery in the opening scene soon makes sense. That the provincial police officer overreacts is hardly surprising. I also liked the respect accorded to him rather than the ridicule routinely written into most cop shows for such individuals. He is in over his head but who would not be so in the circumstances.

A quibble, however, in the novel Maigret slowly takes over Chez Albert. When he finds and gets in, he noses around and then it seems too late to go home and so he beds down there for the night intending to return to home and office in the morning. Then the next morning a punter knocks the door for coffee, and Maigret obliges. Then another punter arrives…. Margret soon calls Madame Maigret, Louise to the cognoscenti, to come and help out. He becomes a stand-in for the absent Albert.

It is the essence of Maigret to enter into the life of the victims and that is very well realised in this film in several ways, including this stay at Chez Albert, but also the betting slips and the lemon frappé. Atkinson performs these moments of abnegation well, very well, when his Maigret surrenders his persona to the milieu.

One powerful scene occurs when an exhausted and so far frustrated Maigret returns home to 54 Boulevard Richard Lenoir where an anxious Madame Maigret says a man is waiting for him in study. It is obvious at a glance that this visitor is one very hard man, a villain, but he has come to help, and after they talk, Maigret hands him a drink. It sounds like nothing to describe it but the humanity, the compassion is all the deeper for being unsaid. In other versions this scene would have handled much differently with some more, superfluous dialogue and perhaps a witticism, as often in the Gambon versions, but not here.

Purest will say that Atkinson is not a doppelgänger for Maigret, and they would be right. He does not have the bulk of Maigret. Michael Gambon fit that bill perfectly.

I said no stereotypes at the outset, and that has to be qualified. The villains are one-dimensional. They are elemental forces that rip through the lives of those caught in their path.

The second to last scene with the bejewelled girlfriend of the instigator is far too pat for this viewer. A woman so easily satisfied with baubles would not bow to reality quite that readily.

Inspired by ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951) the prodigious Danziger Brothers — Harry and Edward — turned their hands and low budget to sci-fi in this effort. It offers inspired casting and a prescient screenplay, and we watched it the other night. Well I watched it twice. to get the subtlety.

Devil Girl, indeed. Patricia Laffan is THE movie. When she is on screen there is tension, there is presence, there is drama and when she is not, there is none of the above. On her more below.

Devil poster-1.jpg

In the remote Scots moors an odd assembly takes refuge in a lonely inn. A married couple run the place, baby sitting a grandson, with a handy man, elderly Jim, and girl of all work who is mainly seen at the bar. With the winter approaching the only guest is a beauty from the big smoke and then a scientist with a newsman in tow arrive to investigate the strange lights in the sky. An escaped convict also insinuates himself in the group. Otranto Inn is now ready for the night ahead.

Devil poster-2.jpg

The scientist and newsman provide masculine leadership by debunking the worries of the women about those strange lights in the sky. ‘Just your imagination, my dear.’ They seem to have forgotten that those lights are why they are there in the first place. By now we know better. After the predicable confrontation with the convict, instant jealously over the beauty, and more condescension, Nyah appears!

Can that woman make an entrance. Seven times by my count. Shazam, indeed. The part of Nyah was made for Patricia Laffan, who is cool, calm, implacable, and pronounces her diabolical purpose with diction that would bring a smile to the twisted lips of Professor Henry Higgins. Her vowels are so round; her consonants are so icy.


With a black leather body suit, a cat-like skull cap, a Darth Vadar cape, a mini-skirt avant le mot, and a ray gun, she has it all. Then there is the spaceship and within, Chani, the tin-man. (I thought she was calling him ‘Johnny’ which seemed awfully informal for Nyah, but on a long flight, well….)

Nyah has no time for small talk, nor, I suppose, for a shipboard romance with Chani; she is all business and the business is men!

The near-sighted, shuffling Jim with the feeble manner of an emeritus professor is a poor physical specimen, she declares. Poof! That's it for Jim. He is no longer a drain on the taxpayer.

On Mars the emancipation of the women led to open warfare between the sexes. The females won, usurping the political power of the men. This eventually led to the sexual impotence of the planet's entire male population. (Remember Louis Malle’s ‘Lune Noire?’ Look it up, Mortimer.)

She is Hillary Clinton! Come to emasculate the Republicans! ‘Go, girl’ we shouted from the couch! Grab ‘em by you-know-whats!

Just like the Republicans, the first reaction of the men is amused disbelief. What, after all, would a woman know!

After a few object lessons, the next reaction is brute force. Why negotiate when a good whack should fix things. Think of the 7MATE demographic. Efforts to beat sense into her backfire.

Stage direction. The telephone lines are down. The only automobile won't start. Darkness falls. They are isolated and alone. They will have to work together to overcome this one woman who threatens life as men know it. Gasp!

But wait, what is the problem?

She wants men. Call for volunteers, Nyah! But stand back to avoid the rush!

The screenplay wobbles. At times she wants spirited and unwilling men and at other times the docile tweenager seems to be preferred. This Devil Girl has trouble making up her mind. How like a woman in the stereotype of the era.

The screenplay is inane and most of the acting, especially the male leads, ranges from wordy to wooden and back. The special effects are far from special, even by the standards of 1954. The tin-man clearly had no tin or much of anything else barely making it down the ramp much like the late Jim.

Lobby posters on the interweb give three women top billing. How rare is that! How rare was that in 1954.

Patricia Laffin, per the biography on the IMDB, was ‘a statuesque and striking actress with vaguely reptilian aspects, at once sinister and alluring; a smile that was as much a sneer and a commanding, imperious presence suggesting innate superiority with a delivery that was at once sardonic and disdainful.’

Stop there. That is Nyah.

Nyah is precise, frigid, fiery, and languid. This woman could be hot and cold simultaneously.

Laffan did not fit the pigeon holes of the time and was relegated to supporting roles as a villain or an eccentric. Our loss. (But she stole the show from Peter Ustinov in 'Quo Vadis' (1951) before hitting warp speed as Nyah.)

The men had their turn in ‘Mars Needs Women’ (1967), but Tommy Kirk in a wet suit one size to large for him just does not have what Nyah had! He did call for volunteers and not even Annette came. Mickey Mouse, indeed.


Both can be found on You Tube.

We idled away a hot and humid Sunday afternoon at the Newtown Dendy to see ‘Arrival.’

First contact with aliens is a gold standard in science fiction. Many examples are shoot ‘em ups from ‘The War of the Worlds’ to ‘Independence Day’ and their kind. Nothing more will be said about these sort.

Before going to ‘Arrival’ I checked an on-line trailer to see if it met our preliminary standards, little or no CGI and little or no shoot ‘em up. CGI is Computer-Generated Images, which are a fatal virus in most movies these days, an easy substitute for thought. It passed these two tests which rule out most of the dross from the dream factory.

Arrival poster.jpg

Off we went. What’s to like?

First and foremost its lead and star is a woman, who is neither glamorous nor trying to be a man. Amy Adams plays a skilled linguist named Dr Louise Banks. What she does is listen and think. That is a tough ask for Hollywood: thinking.

The usual currency for thought is the full face close up with wrinkled frontal lobes, but we get little of that here. Instead we get a lot of flashbacks, flash forwards, or flash sideways. I am not sure which, and will return to this point below. Adams does it well, and carries virtually every scene, certainly every scene worth watching.

The movie has pace but it is in no hurry. There is movement but not those crazy camera cuts loved by action directors who have never been in action themselves.

There is an intellectual puzzle — how to communicate with these aliens, who are very alien — placed in a high-pressure context.

Arrival screen.jpg

We loved all those alien zeros with their minute differences.

arrival zero.jpg

They were incomprehensible. That is the mystery. What a relief from the NRA-approved Hollywood films, made by bleeding heart liberals, where all solutions lie in a gunsight. Bam! See any of the recent Star Trek movies. Incomprehensible is better than splat.

In the original ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951 [and 2008]) Patricia Neal had to say ‘Gort, Klaatu barada nicto.’ It worked. Whew!

gort.jpg Gort.

To do that she had to get to the right place passed the guards, overcome her own fears for herself and her child, and remember the incomprehensible message, and deliver it by rote to the scary robot. That was hard. Especially when his light went on. See above.

Dr Banks's mission is infinitely harder. With all the same fears that Neal had, she has to figure our first what it means and then how to say it in zeroes. That is some tough exam. It is even more difficult than understanding something said by the Cheeto President-elect.

The biggest theme is time’s arrow which seems to be the governing narrative.

times arrow.jpg

However, neither of the professional reviews I read from the ‘New York Times’ or ‘Sight & Sound’ mention it. All the flashes, back, front, side, seem to be about the simultaneity of time about which we might find out more in a sequel three thousand years later. (To get the point, see the movie.)

I also liked the understated Forest Whitaker for whom dealing with aliens is another day at the office. Indeed, he is almost catatonic. Of course, it is unlikely a mere colonel would have command of such a situation, though most generals would try to avoid the likely career-ending duty. The massive overkill of the U.S. response rings all too true. The motto of the Pentagon seems to be 'Nuke the jaywalkers!'

Not so likeable were these things.

The dark cinematography defeated some of the exercise. I never did get a good look at Whitaker or anyone else. I expect it will be even more difficult on DVD.

Whitaker.jpg See what I mean?

The helicopter landing at the start is gratuitous, distracting, and unbelievable. The helicopter is seldom the fastest way to travel because its airspeed is nothing special, especially when in civilian airspace full of other aircraft. The noise distracts from the dialogue. It is unbelievable that a pilot would land in a wooded residential area at night.

‘They have to see me,’ Dr Banks says ripping off her Hazard Suit (coloured to remind us of ‘Space Odyssey’ I suppose) mask for no discernible reason than that its time to get that Hollywood star our of the glare of the plastic mask.


That the hero is bold where others hesitate is a tired trope trotted out here several times. Cemeteries are full of such bold wanna be heroes who never made it to celluloid fame.

The nicknames ‘Abbot and Costello’ come from nowhere and went right back there. While we silverbacks got it, did anyone else, or have these two execrable comedians been resuscitated? I hope not. Unless it referred to the two Australian politicians Tony and Peter.

The screenplay has its share of clichés. Top choice is the Chinese general who has mastered McKinsey-speak when he says that Dr Banks ‘reached out to him.’ I have heard that too many times from cliché-speakers who did the training course. At least he did not insert a meaningless ‘actually’ in his remark. The scene is good and the point is part of the mystery but all of that is deflated by this McKinseyism. The air went right out.

As expected, there is a hot headed soldier, though here the idiot is a working stiff who acts on his own with a few buddies, where in reality it would be an educated and overpaid general in D.C. who wants to blow something up to get another star. Think Sterling Hayden from’ Dr Strangelove' (1964) and you have the reality of General Curtis LeMay, a one time vice-presidential contender. The aside with Russ Limbaugh, the most shocking of jocks, was perfect but added nothing here.

If the pointless tracking shots, and empty rooms were cut, we could lose thirty minutes and not notice it. It is too long and indeed the longer it goes, the less the tension. A slow leak is still a leak.

I have to enter a plea for the chain of command. In this movie a Chinese general acts without the authority of the Communist Party. Never. All those purges Mao unleashed were partly aimed at cowing the army and keeping under the thumb of the party where it still is. Nor would the Director of the CIA call the shots as rendered here. There is a president to do that. Gulp.

The director, by the way, is Canadian Denis Villeneuve who has many other credits that I have not seen.

villaneuve.jpg Denis Villeneuve

Seeing this reminded us of the other First Contact movies. Chief among them is ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ as mentioned above in which a passive alien ambassador is murdered by a trigger happy grunt to the cheers of Russ Limbaugh and his kind. Then there was Jodie Foster in ‘Contact (1997).’ A cut above the mill, this one is for its intelligent screen play. In a class by itself is ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).’ As is ‘Paul (2011),’ though this not really first contact it is unexpected contact. There are also many instances in the Star Trek canon before the franchise descended into CGI shoot ‘em ups. Some of these are very thoughtful when thinking was still valued out west.

This is Year Fifty. It all began in September 1966 and I was there to see it on that night in September. All Trekkies will have to see this, whether they like it or not.

Star Trek Beyond poster.jpg

What’s to like?

The cast members are superb simulacra of the Originals. That is partly looks, assisted by make-up, but also mien, accent, and attitude. The actor’s craft is to inhabit another person and they do it with ease. Bones is perfect and so is Kirk. Spock is more nebbish than the Original. Uhura is more wonder woman, and Scottie is more excitable, but these are quibbles.

The distribution of lines and incidents to the ensemble cast of the crew. Scottie, Sulu, Uhura, Spock, Bones, all have more than one moment in the camera’s sun. Only Chekov misses out, in my memory. It is not all about Kirk, as too many episodes of the Original were.

Star Trek group.jpg

There are some zingers to be sure. Throw aways lines like ‘they say it hurts less if it is a surprise.’

The women hold their own. Uhura may answer the phone once or twice but she also delivers some surprises.

Jaylah’s literal-mindedness was amusing. Though good to have on side in a fight, Jaylah seems to be there mostly for the make-up.

The idea of heavy metal music can be used as it is in the movie was marvellous. I am trying to steer clear of a spoiler here.

The explicit tribute to the Originals in the last scene with Spock was humble.

What’s to not like

The repetitive shoot ‘em ups are incomprehensible and pointless and there are many of them, at full volume.

The holes in the plot are sufficient to pass Africa through. The villain’s backstory is vacuous. The Franklin is ... What's the word, it is impossible to suspend disbelief.

The Federation’s own responsibility for its problems is a worn out motif in Star Trek but here it is again.

The variation are the returned veteran was the theme in the predecessor ('Into the Darkness') but here it is again in a slight re-configuration. These writers need to read more to find inspiration, say Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope to broaden the horizons and deepen the insight.

The theme about unity and strength is said a couple of times but left empty. Recalling as I do all those conversation with thesis writers where I would say integrate, e.g., Michels’s Iron Law, and the writer would say ‘But it is on page 46’ and indeed it was mentioned there but it was not developed and integrated into the text. Neither is the unity-strength couplet here. It is a case of 'words without the music.'

The army of CGIs dispatched in the action scenes bring the franchise closer to the comic book status of Start Wars.

Kalara, the bait, with that strange head more or less disappeared from the story.

Summing up.

At two hours and two minutes it is about thirty-two minutes too long. The interest and intelligence of the story do not sustain the duration. It is out of balance.

The effort put into those CGIs and choreography of the action scenes might better have gone into the script.

Star Trek originals.jpg

What made 'Star Trek' a keeper in 1966 was that it was not just another shoot ‘em up on television where there were plenty others of that ilk. There were genuinely intellectual puzzles, like ‘Court Martial’ and morally challenging episodes, like ‘The Devil in the Dark’ and ‘The City of the Edge of Forever.’ In its current embodiment most problems are solved with a fist and a phaser. Such a contrast to the Original, e.g., ‘Nomad, ‘Return of the Archons,’ or ‘The Doomsday Machine’ where some thinking had to be done.

The Original was made for adults and ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ brought that to fruition. The present version is regressing to an audience of prepubescent boys which is probably inevitable since that likely describes the filmmakers from writers, directors, and producers.

A ten-part television series from Iceland.  Nordic noir without the computer graphic images of gratuitous gruesome gore that typify far too much of the genre. IMDB rates it at 8.2.

trapped cover.jpg

It kept us coming back for more. Each fifty-minute episode ending on some crisis, and each subsequent episode beginning with a recapitulation.  Slow and old fashioned.

What's to like?

The pace is measured and low key. No shouting, table banging, or the other crutches mentally impoverished screen writers and directors use to distract from the superficiality of the work.

The setting is great travelogue. Snow, mountains, and fjords, oh, and plenty of ice on the north coast of Iceland.


The Iceland’s weather is a major character that directs and limits what the human agents can do.

The interaction of the public and private lives of the characters in the small town which is cut-off by a storm.

The three small town cops, each different, make a good team, fallible though each is.

The crippled watcher. But we got too little of him.

The several wheels within wheels which were neatly wrapped up in the end.

The redemption of the falsely accused and imprisoned boyfriend.

'The devil entered me' said the grieving grandfather.

That most of the trouble was all homegrown and did not come on the ferry.

The mixture of languages, Icelandic, Danish, German, French, and English. 

The cannibalistic media. Another tired trope but I am not yet tired of it.

trapped ferry.jpg

What's not to like?

The big city cops are a trope, arrogant, easily satisfied, and incompetent.

The ex-wife's boyfriend is ever present, leading to the conclusion that he will figure in the plot, but he does not. A blue herring.

The ferry captain's change of heart was pat.

The police commissioner in Reykjavik was built up to be important in the story and then dropped.

Andri’s backstory was a boring distraction as they always are. This is another crutch.

We found it on SBS On-Demand.  Hooray!  

SBS on demand.jpg

But we found it very difficult to find on the telly. The TV screen search function could not find itself! Nor could it find ‘Trapped.’ 

The iPad app is great. It was easy to find ‘Trapped’ on it but we wanted to watch it on the big screen in front of the easy chairs. The app does not communicate with the television as far as we could see.  

Sherlock Holmes has taken many forms over the centuries, none more compelling and engaging than in this eye-popper.

They Might be Giants COVER.jpg

George C. Scott, at the height of his considerable powers, is Justin Playfair who had been an attorney of note and then a judge of discerning insight, striving always for justice in large and in small things. Striving always and never yielding, but the years passed and world seemed no more just and then his wife died. Lost of her compass, Justin shut himself away in the family mansion, for Justin has many dollars, and became….a reborn Sherlock Holmes, complete with period costume, laboratory, and (a poor) Brit accent. He secrets himself away in the house for months at a time in a waiting game with Professor Moriarty, who else, the nemesis.

Giants still-1.jpg

Justin’s brother needs money and a lot of it soon to pay off a mobster, and sets in motion the wheels to have Justin committed to a mental asylum so that he, the brother, can take control of the dosh. He finds a compliant doctor who will sign anything for a dollar, and then needs a second expert’s signature. Enter none other than Dr Mildred Watson, played by that star of the Hollywood firmament, Joanne Woodward, a frumpy single woman with broken fingernails and an irritating manner.

Yes, Holmes has his Watson, at last! What follows is movie magic when movies still had magic.

Giants montage.jpg

Playfair as Holmes is a force of nature and intellect (‘I never guess!’). When she introduces herself as Dr Watson, Scott’s eyes pop off the screen; even on a DVD on a small television, he is electric.

Of course, he’s nuts, she can see that, but…. well, it takes time to be sure. He meets her, he because he wants a Watson, she because she wants a diagnosis that can be published to enhance her career. Both get more.

Scott’s march down the hall of the mental hospital is a delight to behold. Force of nature, indeed! (No spoiler. But Scott was a Marine for four years and it shows.) It gets better when, with his deductive powers, he diagnosis one of Watson’s patients far better than she has been able to do, working by the book.

It turns out someone is now out to get Scott, to settle the wayward brother’s debts, and the game is afoot.

The search for clues leads to a telephone exchange where a scene with a caller and an operator stayed in my mind for near fifty years. That is some credit to all the players, writers, and directors. When the operator turned, I knew what to expect. It was silent comment on enslavement of us all to the machine that is society, which Michel Foucault would recognize.

There is much more, but best of all is a scene and speech. which over the ensuing many years I have sometimes quoted and often recalled.

Seeking respite from the pursuing villains, Scott takes Watson to a theatre, an old broken down movie house; as they climb the stairs, she, querulous, asks ‘Why here?’ ‘Why … because they only show westerns here,’ says Scott as though naming the self-evident.

‘Huh!‘ is the learned doctor’s reply. Patiently, as to a slow-witted child, he explains why westerns are the ultimate expression of morality. It goes something like this: ‘If you look closely at Westerns you can see principles, the possibility of justice; you can see individuals who move their own lives, bringing them to the ends they deserve.’ There are no masses, no bureaucracies, no excuses. (Bring on Randolph Scott! I cried.)

There are false notes to be sure. Jack Gilford is wasted. The episode with the garden elves is pointless. The scenes of sidling are silly and without purpose. The plot is full of holes. If it is blackmail, no one seems to care. The march of acolytes at the end is fun but pointless, and the final descent in the end still seems…. confusing., incomplete, a let down. Writers sometimes just cannot figure out what to do at the end, maybe because they do not want it to end. I know, in this case, I did not either. A great trip with no arrival like ‘L'année dernière à Marienbad’ (1961).

It is a tribute to many hands that Joanne Woodward, that belle from Georgia by way of LSU in Baton Rouge, could be turned into this dowdy woman, she who melted the screen fours years later in ‘The Drowning Pool’ with that molasses accent and honey blond beauty. Here she looks exhausted and cranky or cranky and exhausted with a big city accent, and shambles around like a lame department store window mannequin. She has many other credits, of course, and I mention a few for the sheer pleasure of calling them to mind: ‘The Long Hot Summer’ (1958), ‘The Sound and the Fury’ (1959), ‘The Fugitive Kind’ (1960), ‘Paris Blues’ (1961), ‘A Fine Madness’ (1966), ‘Rachel, Rachel’ (1968), ‘Winning’ (1969), ‘The Effect of Gamma Rays’ (1972), the list goes on.

Woodward-1.jpg Woodward-2.jpg

Scott, he too from the South — Virginia, was never better, and that is high praise. Among his remarkable performances was the prosecuting attorney in ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ (1959) who was so smart that he outsmarted himself, ‘The Hustler” (1961) as an avaricious agent, one of many crazed generals in ‘Dr Strangelove’ (1964), before taking the world by storm in ‘Patton’ (1970). He also did a noteworthy television series ‘East Side, West Side’ (1963-1964) as a social worker in the bowels of New York City. He had the reputation for professional intensity that sometimes put off other actors. Once he was in-character, he stayed there for the duration. Though not trained as a method actor, he out-methoded most of them.

Scott intense.jpg That intensity shows in another role.

The IMDB entry is sketchy with only first names for the characters, and not all of them. It has a rating of 7.0 which is respectable but not high enough.

I saw ‘They Might be Giants’ on the wide screen in Edmonton Alberta Canada when a callow graduate student and a night at the movies was a major financial commitment. It was memorable and I have checked many times in the following decades to see it again. No luck. Then a few weeks ago I happened to check again and lo, there it was on the Amazon site. I ordered it and when it arrived, I ripped it open and watched it, a rare treat that has withstood the test of time.

It was a morning on the Sydney Opera House Quay at the Dendy Cinema Theatre where Jim Kitay and I went to see the antics of the Marx Brothers, Julius, Leonard, and Arthur, and so on. Neither Karl, Milton, nor Herbert are in this one.

Night opera.jpg

It is feature length at 93 minutes, cut from the original release of 98 minutes, and it is a big production, i.e., a large cast, and some set-pieces worthy of Busby Berkeley. Old troupers like Margaret Dumont and Sig Ruman liven things up. The screen play is by that stalwart of the typewriter, George Kaufman. It is scored at 8.1 on the IMDB. That is impressive.

Among the outstanding scenes are the crowded stateroom on the steamship and the aerial acrobatics in the theatre. There is also a good deal of ‘Il Trovatore’ sung by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. Ms Carlisle continued to sing well into her 90s, says the fount Wikipedia.

Otis B. Driftwood, now there is name with which to conjure, reminds me of some scholars I have known. Always on the prowl for easy takings and completely irresponsible.

These things are best seen on the wide screen without distractions, but if that is not an option, turn the lights down and cue it up on the idiot box. These idiots always have something to offer.

While marvelling once again at Willa Cather’s life and work in Red Cloud recently, we acquired this video as an aide-memoir. It is as wonderful as the woman herself. There is a very intelligent narration delivered with grace by David Strathairn, punctuated with interviews from critics and scholars.

While most of the talking head spouted the professional cant, a few seemed to be so emotionally attuned to Cather that they spoke in plain English with a catch in the voice. Those are the capital 'R' readers to this reader.

The sayers of cant are the sayers of cant, and their careers will flourish as they impress each other, but they have nothing to say to a reader.

Someone who hesitates to speak, who pauses to think, who slowly finds the right words within, and then says them slowly in simple declarative sentences without the blot of jargon, these people I want to hear. The video had several of these Readers.

CAther video.jpg

More important are the readings from passages of her novels through her life as she explored new themes and ideas, but always returned to Red Cloud for inspiration from her formative observations and interpretations.

How a fourteen year old girl could fathom death, as she did, and revert to it more than once, is one of things that makes me think that Willa Cather and her kind are aliens, come to earth to teach us about ourselves.


That she resigned as the most highly paid and influential editor of the most successful magazine, ‘McClure’s’ in New York City, this girl-woman from Red Cloud, because the magazine kept her from writing is quite a story in itself. Be glad she did.

Led by that man of limited ability and unlimited ego, Ernest Hemingway, she is often disparaged by the literati. So be it. Theirs is the loss. Let them sup on the cant.

Her books earned many favourable reviews and a Pulitzer Prize, but more important, millions of Readers.

This film is more explicit about the lesbian relationship(s) than anything at the Cather Center, but leaves open the question of which her friendship with two other women was erotic. (Figure it out, Mr Spock.) All done with a respectful tact. Ergo not done by journalists.

Welcome to Alliance Nebraska, population 8,519, home of CARHENGE.

Carhenge? Just what it sounds like, Mr Spock. It is Stonehenge with cars.


We have seen Carhenge with our very own eyes, and long to see it again!

Alliance and its sister city Chadron (population 5,767), which is about an hour by car due North, were way stations for French explorers and trappers who followed the Platte River. Practice French pronunciation on each: Alliance, Chadron, and Platte, and voila!

This video is an account of the origin, creation, and development of Carhenge, featuring the founder, Jim Reinders, who discovered his home was not his castle even on the Sandhills. There are interviews with townspeople who reacted to Carhenge. Some for it and others against.


I particularly loved the interview with the mayor whose determination to ensure that it is someone else’s problem appealed to me. The first solution was to move the city boundary line a few feet so that Carhenge no longer fell within the zoning laws of Alliance, which laws in turn had to comply with state standards, which have to comply with Federal standards (to qualify for grants and funds, say emergency relief in crisis). So the boundary was moved. Other issues followed about parking, about toilets.....

Some residents objected to this gloried car wreckers yard, as they saw it, as the emblem of the modest little burg. While others saw it, I think, it was hard to tell, as public art to which one must bow. Others heard to slide of credit cards as tourists left I-80 to give it the once over.


Then there were the hoons who vandalised it.

Patiently Mr. Reindeers and his family responded to each assault, verbal, legal, or destructive, and Carhenge has outlasted its critics and despoilers for more than a decade, evolving in the process.

Having read, Jim Work’s krimi ‘A Title to Murder’ which parallels Cargenge to Stonehenge as it figures in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the Dubervilles,’ I was reminded of Carhenge, and ordered the DVD.

I would like to see the real thing again on my occasional visits to Hastings on the Platte, but it would a major expedition for Alliance is five hours by car. It closer to Denver.

A little gem from Finland. A blind Lutheran priest takes on as an assistant a paroled murderer, Leila. Father Jaakob has a reputation as an intercessory, I.e., he prays for people and offers advice to those who write to him.  While no time period is given it looks like the 1950s.  He lives in a forest near a church on a lake.  Nature dominates the time and the day.

PAsto Jaakob cover.jpg

His only contact with the outside world is the post and the postman.  The pastor has long since given up preaching because of blindness, and he lives for those letters.  

Leila is angry at the world and makes no effort to cooperate though she is glad to be out of the slammer. She is neither particularly bright nor attractive, and expects people to dislike her. They oblige in the person of the postman.

At first she thinks either the priest is shamming or is a fool. In time she comes to respect, if not share, his faith in a meaningful world.  Or so I surmise because the dialogue is like much from Finland, practical and not introspective.  And there is little of it.  Much is told by the camera.

She also realises that he needs her if he is to live - she reads the letters to him and he needs those letters, just as the writers need him.  And she also learns she owes not only her freedom to him, but more, too.  No spoiler. His previous letter-reader left for the city to take care of grandchildren.

For some reason never explained the letters dry up and that brings the needs of each to the forefront. Earlier she destroyed some of the letters and perhaps his consequent failure to respond to those, discouraged others from writing. It is not clear, nor need it be. Little of life is that, clear.

In fewer than eighty minute there is more about life in this film than the latest CGI-infected three hour Hollywood brain-buster.  

Klaus Haro director.jpg Klaus Hãro, the director.

It earned place on my list of Finnish movies along with

Leningrad Cowboys (1994)
The Man without a Past (2002)
Vares (2004)
The House of Branching Love (2009)
Rare Exports (2010)
Midsummer night's tango (2013)

Top marks must go to ‘Rare Exports.’

This time the aliens try South London instead of East London, and find the locals even tougher!

What’s to like?

The gradually revealed social order amid the outward chaos of the streets, alleys, trash, and detritus of squalid urban life. The additional revelation that for most of the boys in the gang, there is a home to go to but the streets are more exciting.


The mix of races and ages. Mugging passers-by is acceptable to the code but not dealing drugs to brothers.

The foul mouthed swearing is for the streets, not when safe indoors among friends. The swearing and cursing is part of the role of the street-tough.

The implicit social criticism. First the bullies and thugs, then the police, then the drugs, then the guns, all sent to destroy the black migrants of south London.

Then come the aliens. No point in calling the police because they will blame everything on the street toughs and lock them up, leaving the aliens to destroy everyone else. When confronted with the pistol-totting drug lord, the police prefer to arrest the street boys. So much easier. No, the boys from the Block have to look after their own, so they arm up and take on the aliens.

The dope growing nerd, Nick Frost, and his nephew prove to be surprising helpful in the denouement. Some basic sciences goes a long way in this script.

attack_the_block still.jpg

When the newly-moved in nurse tries to explain to the police, who arrive in the end after the street toughs have destroyed the aliens, that the boys saved her and everyone else, the police conclude she has been traumatised by assault, threats, and perhaps rape, Stockholm Syndrome, one officer mutters, while arresting the boys.

The leader of the gang is, by the way, Moses (who led his people to the promised land).

From SBS-2 a foul-mouthed slaughter-fest featuring the geriatrics at a nursing home who take on THE ZOMBIES.

I gave it a three and a half snorts rating (four is tops) as I guffawed my way through it.

The nursing home is threatened by a new residential development for the Yuppies who have discovered how handy and cheap East London is. Two grandsons of one of the geriatrics swing into action to come up with the dosh to help out. Their solution is to rob a bank. They assemble a team. This is no A-Team, and includes a klutz, a psycho, an absent minded type, and a cousin who does have some nous. While the lads are busy robbing the bank, the zombies rise and demolish most of the East End.

When the team emerges from the bank, all is devastation. ‘Wh ‘append?, they ask? They are all pretty clueless. But the zombies soon make themselves known. Yes, the have a lot of money now, but who cares! Off they go to save granddad, sure that he will have survived the onslaught, taking along a couple of superfluous hostages who now do not want to be let loose.

What to do? Stay on mission and rescue Granddad.

It is a wild ride and perhaps not best viewed around meal time.

The nursing home includes many familiar faces from Brit cop shows hamming it up, among them Richard Briers who tapes an Uzi to his Zimmer frame, Honor Blackman who knows how to handle a gun, Alan Ford who for years played characters on ‘The Bill’ and similar programs listed in the credits as First Thug, Second Villain, Dudley ‘Tinker’ Sutton whose wheel chair becomes a tank of sorts, and Tony Selby who uses his wooden leg to beat one zombie into pulp.

These seniors have survived Dunkirk, the Blitz, Hitler and World War II, cancer, fifteen years of rationing, the Beatles, divorce, porridge (that is jail time), bell-bottomed trousers, colonial wars, Thatcher, and other catastrophes, a few zombies will not lay them low.


The discerning viewer detects a certain satire here. The Zombies taking over East London surely represent those Yuppies who are driving out the respectable and toiling masses. But then the working class is not spared either, shown to be idle and criminal in the McGuire family.

That it rates a measly 5.9/10 from 14,386 votes on the Internet Movies DataBase confirms a lot about the people to do those ratings, none of it good. There are sixty-eight reviews and I do not recommend reading any of them but I do recommend watching it, though I fear some knowledge of Brit cops shows, personnel, and conventions, will add some seasoning denied those without this background knowledge.

Our last Sydney Festival gig was this film. Through images and dance it conveys the ambiguity of being an aboriginal in contemporary Australia. Note it is not a narrative.

spear lobby card.jpg

Unlike some of the annual breast beating about Aboriginal Australia that usually occurs on Australia Day and then is quickly filed away, this film is direct without either villains or victims, although there are some cringe-making moments.

A young man undergoes an initiation ritual. Into what? Is he affirming his aboriginal heritage or leaving it behind? Should he do one or the other? What is the past in Arnhem Land? What is the future in Redfern? There is some symbolism interspersed with some very literal and brutal honesty.

Some of the emotions are expressed through dance, somr through symbolic figures. and once and while in words. Mostly it is introspective with some aboriginal language, music, and bird calls. It is spare.

The boy witnesses much and is left to make his own choices, day-by-day.

spear redfern.jpg

There was much that I did not get, like the upside down man, but the movement, the intensity, the creativity, they were more than compensation. There is some film on You Tube for samples.

We have seen some of Bangarra’s other productions and found them compelling. Ditto this.

Here I am again with another Randolph Scott western movie. This time he plays against type, though it took this viewer a while to realise that. The certainties of the western genre are used as a foil to go further and to go deeper.

Bart Allison (Randolph Scott), is slowly revealed to be a crazed obsessive who stubbornly persists in his destructive ways against all evidence and reason.


Moreover, it is also against genre since westerns invariable take place before a background of wide open spaces. Not so here, where nearly all the action is confined to one cramped interior.

But wait, there is more! It is also against type in the portrayal of the villain, Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll). He certainly seems to have the town under his thumb, but he seems to have accomplished that with some greasy charm, a wad of dosh, and veiled threats, nothing more. As it turns out, the villain is not guilty of the heinous crime, Allison supposes, but Allison will not hear the truth nor accept that exculpation, not even from his best friend, Sam, played by the ever-charming Noah Beery, Jr.

beery 001.jpg

Only later does Allison seem, at least for a few seconds, to realise his colossal folly, but even then he persists in his mad quest for vengeance. This is one of Randolph Scott’s darkest role, made all the darker by the expectations audience bring to his films.

The counter point to Allison’s moral disintegration is the gradual moral reintegration of the town’s people to throw off the yoke of Tate Kimbrough. Shades of ‘High Noon’ (1952), though the threat there was far more visceral and immediate.

The town doctor is a one-man Greek chorus who comments on the folly around him without getting involved in it himself.

In the end there is mano-a-mano shoot-out in the great tradition of the western, but this one has a surprise result. The last line of the film from the doctor says it all. See the film to find out about both the surprise ending and the last line.

The cast is full of familiar faces from 1950s television from the sheriff to the bartender, the barber, the banker, and more.

It offers lessons for film makers any time. In less than 80-minutes we have an ensemble cast, vivid scenery, much debate, some soul searching by both Kimbrough and Allison, violent death, and true love.

There are plot holes here. In the first scene, why is Scott in the stage coach, and why is it necessary for him to stop it with threats to meet his partner? Why could he not get a horse and ride to the meeting? Or why could he not arrange for the stage driver to stop at the locale he wanted, and just get off? Perhaps his threats to stop the stage are meant to indicate just how unreasonable he is to become later.

In the town of Sundown, how did Tate Kimbrough establish his hold? What about him led the decent and upstanding Lucy (Karen Steele) to want to marry him? (There is no affinity between them in a few scenes they share.)

Randolph Scott rides onto the screen with the confidence of a man who has emerged victorious in a previous fifty westerns, relaxed and confident. That slow and easy smile is knowing.

Buchanan rides.jpg

Tom Buchanan (Randolph Scott) is returning to West Texas to settle down, having made enough money in Mexico to buy a ranch. He re-enters the United States at the town of Argy. Big mistake. The town is owned by the Argy family, each member of which is more corrupt than the other.

Although the Argys are all stinkers, individually and collectively, they do not amount to much, and it is a foregone conclusion that Buchanan will best them.

Amid this venal bunch, there is Abe Carbo (Craig Stevens, before his ‘Peter Gunn’ days) who advises the Argy patriarch. Carbo seems to have some sense of honour that is not for sale, and becomes a neutral arbiter in the moral equation. Why the Argys tolerate him is a mystery.

The Argys steal Brennan’s swag while trying to lynch him and then to ransom a Mexican boy whom he befriended. The plot is disjointed with too much repetition and too little tension. The Argys have no honour among themselves and fall to bickering, first over Brennan’s stake, and then the Mexican ransom even before they get it. They end up killing each other. The body count rivals some of the riper episodes of ‘Midsomer Murders.’

Buchanan will ride on, alone, while Carbo will take over in Argy for the better.

Scott and Stevens.jpg

The screen play has the Elmore Leonard touch in the dialogue, but not in the story line. There is a nice performance by L. Q. Jones as Pecos Bill. Did Craig Stevens ever play a heavy? That reassuring baritone of his is hard to imagine as menacing. The Internet Movie Data Base entry refers to him as a ‘light leading man.’ There I learned that he did dentistry at KU before the acting bug bit him. Sci-Fi fans may remember that he alone saved us from ‘The Deadly Mantis’ in 1957.

Unlike many of Scott’s other westerns there is no damsel in distress for him to rescue.

Psychopathic killer Frank Usher played by Richard Boone captures Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) by mistake. Boone almost steals the show (with that hat he always seemed to wear in Westerns).

Tall T.jpg

By a chain of incidents, each of which is unexceptional in itself, Brennan and newly weds Willard and Doretta Mims are kidnapped for ransom, well it is Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan) who is worth the money. Her husband Willard is eager to sell her to the villains to save his own skin, a fact which the reticent Brennan does not reveal to her.

It is based on a story by Elmore Leonard; need I say more. It is terse, focused, and with depth. Within the conventions of an oater, it is a character study. Brennan and Usher are more alike than different. Loners and lonely, each too smart for the lives they live.

When Usher takes a cup of coffee to the sleeping Doretta and as he stoops to leave it for her, he pulls the blanket up to cover her better, well, that is some villain, isn’t it? That is an Elmore Leonard touch and Richard Boone is just the man to do it, that combination of menace and tenderness, as he, for a moment, realizes the life he has missed. It is a bittersweet moment passed in silence and seen only by the audience.

Doretta, who barely speaks in the first half, rises to the occasion with the encouragement of Brennan. To survive they have to out-think the villains.

Usher is ably assisted in his villainy by Billy Jack (Skip Homier) and Chink (Henry de Silva). What a crew of drooling half-wits! As we learn quickly they murdered a ten-year old boy for fun.

We know from the opening credits that the end will come down to Brennan (Scott) versus Usher (Boone) and that Brennan will prevail. Even so the tension throughout is well maintained.

Scott and Boone.jpg

And the final confrontation reveals the self-destructive — even self-hatred — of Usher. He has no wish to continue into the future the life he has been leading with morons like Billy Jack and Chink.

By the way, the title, ‘The Tall T,’ is never mentioned or explained. I supposed that it was the name of Brennan’s ranch, but that is nothing but a guess.

The same story is the basis for ‘Hombre’ (1967) and Richard Boone is there again, with that hat.

Guilty secret number 71.

I learned much about manhood from Randolph Scott. Who? Randolph Scott (1898-1987), the movie actor. His westerns in the 1950s left an indelible imprint on the prepubescent consciousness of any boy who saw them and was conscious. This second criterion eliminates quite a few. Scott was everyman, whereas John Wayne was always much bigger than life. It was fun to watch the Duke, but no normal boy could aspire that high. Scott was so much lower key, he might live around the corner going about his business.

He was taciturn, honourable, persistent, and polite. For years I have toyed with watching the famous (in a quiet way, befitting his screen persona) seven films he made at the end of his career with Burt Kennedy (the writer) and Budd Boetticher (the director) in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I may have seen them each once upon a time, but the hazy ambition was to watch them in sequence. However, lacking the courage of my convictions I never got around to ordering them on DVD, and the local Civic Video did not have them or access to them. In any event the DVD collection on the market is incomplete.

Then came the miracle of You Tube and there I discovered ‘Seven Men from Now’ (1957). The candle was lit, and the next night I dialled it up.

Seven men.jpg

When it was released in 1956 Scott was almost sixty years old. That was the year of Wayne’s greatest film, ‘The Searchers.’ and while the two movies share the conventions of the western there are differences. Let me see if I can put my finger on some of the difference(s).

It starts it the middle at a time when linear story telling was the dominant approach. At the outset Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) seems ominous, and even malevolent. Though the narration soon reveals he is a man on a deadly mission to find and kill the seven men who robbed a Wells Fargo Office during the course of which they shot and killed a clerk, this being Stride’s wife. Thus we have a tale of revenge. Seven to one against Randolph Scott. Don’t take the bet!

He kills the first two within five minutes of run-time. That is fast action. It also seems unjustified. Is not the good guy supposed to try to arrest them and take them back to jail, not provoke a gun fight?

While Scott pursues the villains, in parallel that wonderful heavy Lee Marvin pursues the gold they stole. From the second scene onward, we all know that in the end it will come down to Randolph Scott versus Lee Marvin at even money. Marvin's villain has a certain vulgar charm and a great deal of intelligence; he is not ravening beast that villains are sometimes made to be. He makes a superb foil for Scott’s reticent decency.

There are some nice twists and turns, personal growth, and irony that is unspoken but revealed in the actors’ faces, all too subtle for the Hollywood hammer these days. Truth to tell, there are also some gigantic plot holes that I will pass in silence. Plot holes remain a common Hollywood currency.

While there are rumours of restive Apaches, these indians are portrayed as victims. The real evil ones are the robbers, and Lee, as he shows soon enough. There is an obligatory old-timer who adds a lighter touch to one scene with some self-deprecating humour. I suppose since Gaby Hayes the old timers are there also to show that a man can grow old in the wild west. The conventions of the western are honoured in this.

There is some marvellous countryside as the wagon (loaded with the illicit gold) rolls to its destiny. It has pastoral moments.

Through it all Scott utters very few words, but when he does, we all know he means exactly what he says, and says exactly what he means — not one word more, not one word less. We all also know he will do what a man has to do in a quiet, dignified way. Wow! What a guy.

By the way, the female lead, Gail Russell, had near-clinical stage fright in front of the camera, and dealt with it by drinking whiskey. She had the reputation of being unreliable and the director Boetticher, the wiki-gossip goes, made a considerable effort to coax her through her scenes and to keep her off the drink during the production. It was her first film in four years and one of her last.

John Wayne made many westerns but he did a variety of other films, while Scott more or less settled in the western genre and stayed there. He accepted and made his own the type casting of the strong, silent loner. Apart from his early career, and the war years, his film credits are westerns, westerns, and westerns, including some based on stories by that stylist of the sage brush, Zane Grey.

By the way, the main difference between 'Seven Men from Now' and 'The Searchers' is John Ford with his capacity for poetry, faith in the camera to show the grandeur of nature and the small size of men, irony, and even sense of humour. 'Seven Men from Now' is just much lower key, nothing mythic about it.

Next up will be ‘The Tall T’ released in 1957.

‘The Searchers’ (1956)

After much anticipation I took myself off the Dendy on the Harbour to see ‘The Searchers’ on the wide screen. Wow! I expected that at two+ hours it would drag now and then, but no. The lights went down — and mercifully we were spared Val Morgan’s assault on intelligence — and the titles started. There in the darkened theatre the mythic events and characters came to life. Roger Ebert said a movie is a machine for empathy. Click went the machine.

‘The Iliad’ with the doomed Achilles, ‘The Odyssey’ with the bedevilled Odysseus, and ‘The Searchers’ with the haunted Ethan Edwards are each epics of endurance but also of self-realization. Each is a man of war whose role in peacetime is uncertain, precarious, and unhappy. But each is needed in times of war.

Searcheers cover.jpg

What can be said about ‘The Searchers’ that needs saying, or has not already been said many times? Film schools have dissected its technical aspects, deep focus, Vista Vision, the framing shots, the comic interludes, filming the horseback chases, the terse screenplay, and more that I do not fathom. I am even more sure that Cultural Studies aliens have parsed it into an empty husk in more than one PhD dissertation, burying it under polysyllabic barbarianisms to prove to each other how smart they are. The pygmies must have their days.

Yet it remains on any informed list of great films and at the top of its genre, the Western. ‘Shane’ (1953) is so elegiac it is hard to watch without choking up, and there is no greater moral lesson than ‘High Noon’ (1952) or ‘The Unforgiven‘ (1992), and a personal favourite is the laconic ‘Comes a Horseman’ (1978) or the profound 'The Misfits' (1962), not to mention Ford's own cavalry trilogy. All are excellent and so are many more, ‘Lonesome Dove’ (1989). ‘Ride the High Country’ (1962) but they are second to ‘The Searchers.’ To the reader who has never seen ‘The Searchers,’ what can be said?

First, the film has pace. At nearly two hours, it is long, but the pace keeps an audience engaged, as I rediscovered.

Second, it offers the remarkable landscape of Monument Valley and the Grand Tetons. For the geographically deprived, Monument Valley looks just like its name, a flat, red plain with soaring rock monoliths, while the Grand Tetons are mountains that rise from a high grassy plain without foothills of any kind. (We spent a few days in both some years ago, and they still look just like that.)

Searchers Monument.jpg I stood on this very ledge once upon a time.

Third, there is the cast of characters from John Ford’s stable, each supporting actor getting face time, and some memorable dialogue. Today supporting actors might as well be CGI.

The natural and social context is rich then in place and people.

Four, the Indians are allowed an integrity not seen again in Westerns until Ford’s ‘Cheyenne Autumn’ (1964). The whites fear and hate the Indians for good reason in this world, and vice versa. This is a clash of equals who are enemies.

Fifth, there is the moral tale of redemption as Ethan Edwards, whose hate knows no bounds, whose disappointments are innumerable, whose future is bleak, whose past was bitter hardship and defeat, finds the little remaining humanity he has, much to his own surprise. Some of the close-ups of John Wayne's expression of hate are works of art.

Searchers Wayne closeup.jpg

The most powerful one I could not find on the web. That is when he looks back at the crazed women captives at Fort Robinson. It delivers a silent jolt of hatred that foreshadows all that is to come.

This Wayne character is an unpleasant and twisted man, not the anodyne hero he often played. Added to that is the flat voice only he could ever do.

Ethan has one moment of pathos, yet he has no future, ergo the last scene when from the doorway he turns away. This Achilles has no place in an ordered society. He knows that even if no one else does. It is a moment of self-consciousness worth seeing, made the more powerful without either a close-up or a comment. Understatement, thy name is no longer Hollywood.

The story is simple, as epics are. A Comanche raiding party carries away a young girl and the Texicans pursue it. The going is hard, and in time most of the pursuers give up, but not Ethan for whom the pursuit becomes an addiction that gives his miserable life meaning. This man who has lost so much, will not accept another loss. That obsession transmutes into blaming the victim, and when the opportunity comes to rescue the girl, well, there is a moment of profound hesitation and doubt, which is beautifully realised by the camera, the dialogue, the director, the actors, as if for a moment they were all elevated to a higher plane to produce a masterpiece. All this is silently observed by the vastness of nature broken by a single line of dialogue: 'Let's go home.'

The pygmies find much to fault. The cast is replete with the stock characters of westerns. The subplot involving a romance is not well integrated. As there are stock characters, so there are stock events and incidents, a dance, a fist fight, etc. One part of the film is Ethan’s gruelling quest played out against the social context back home. In joining the two, Ford perhaps made the former acceptable to audiences by reassuring them with the latter. Maybe the combination also satisfied him, too. It certainly satisfied Homer because he juxtaposed Ithaca with the war at Troy.

Those who are easily satisfied can hang the label ‘racist’ on Ethan and leave it at that. Ethan does hate, and these Indians have done much to earn his enmity, and vice versa, but Indians are also shown as majestic, insightful, good humoured, and with a nearly divine endurance. The only reprehensible character in the film is the store-keeper Jerem Futterman.

It is a movie that has a coherent screen play complemented with some very astute camera work to punctuate the story, and then there are Ford’s veteran actors who know what to do and how to do it. Though it does lack one of his usual features, namely a chorus to note silently the futility of it all. The assembly of the family on the porch at the initial homecoming is a near example, as are the Comanche women lined up when the Mexican trading party enters. But neither shot is held, nor is there any obvious emotion.

Ford momument.jpg John Ford on location in Momument Valley

That dean of movie reviewers Roger Ebert used words like magnificence, unforgettable, influential to describe it. Though it is clear to this reader Ebert was gun-shy of praising the film too much for fear of eliciting rants from the pygmies. On You Tube there is a comment on the film from Martin Scorsesse who styles Ethan Edwards a 'poet of hatred.'

Perhaps one day, Hollywood will butcher this one, ah, remake it. How would that go? Scar will be an innocent victim, and will be played by … Angelina Jolie. Like it so far? The Rupert Murdoch's cavalry will kidnap Scar’s little brother played by Johnny Depp, using his Tonto make-up which hides the white spots on his face. Angelina can lead a band of Amazons to abstract Johnny from the clutches of the villainous general played by ... Ron Howard! Is this gold, or what!

That is Major The Honourable John Wickham Gascoyne Beresford Steed, MC, OM, graduate of Eton (where he knew James Bond as the school bully), resident at 5 Westminster Mews. Further details may be found at his Wikipedia entry or in one of the biographies of this estimable but fictional English gentleman.

Steed-1.png Steed, ready for action with bowler and brolley.

However gallant and distinguished Steed was to earn the MC and OM, he was nothing without Patrick Macnee (1922-2015). Gone recently to his reward.

Steed created the Avengers. The details are many but the nub is this. The original television series was a vehicle for Ian Hendry, called ‘Police Surgeon,’ with Steed as his assistant. When Hendry left to pursue other options, as they say in show biz, the producers gambled on Steed and reshaped the series. Therein lies an explanation for the title, ‘The Avengers,’ for the police surgeon sought vengeance for victims by identifying the villainy and the villain. I know when it was broadcast Stateside a different gloss was put on the title, what I have offered is the historical dimension.


In the 1962-1964 episodes Steed evolved into the bowler hat, the Saville Row suits, the bow tie or ascot, the umbrella, and the ever present smile. In the 1961 series he usually wore a shabby trench coat and a glum expression.

News of Macnee’s death prompted me to spin the old DVDs and watch the 1965-1968 episodes. There are many tribute web sites that say everything that needs to be said and which say quite a bit more than needs to be said. The later evolutions of the series I leave in silence, including even those that retained the services of Macnee.

avengers dvds.jpg

We are at last catching up to the technology of the Avengers:
3 D printing
Mobile telephones
TV remote controls
Self-driving cars
Web cams
Anti-gravity boots
Electronic IDs
The smart house
Satellite communication

But we still do not have Cybernauts.

More generally:
One episode concerned climate change,
another plant genetics
militant feminism
student rebellion
Arab oil
Marvel comics

Each ‘ripped from today’s headlines,’ as the movie posters once proclaimed.

On a more personal note I learned from Steed that the glass is always half full, that a smart girlfriend is essential, that tying a bow tie is de rigueur, and a boutonniere is better than a medal. He was also known to drink rosé wine. I have tried to follow his example in all these ways and more.

The award for best victim goes to J. J. Hooter (‘How to Succeed at Murder’) with a close second to Ponsby Ponsby Hopkirk (‘Honey for the Prince’).

JJ Hooter.jpg J. J.

The unrivalled champion of villainy is Z. Z. von Schnerk (‘Epic’)!

Schnerk.jpg Z. Z.

It is not often that I hear my own department at the University of Sydney mentioned on stage, but it is in this production.


We entered committed to dogs in the eternal world war between the canine and feline, at the end we had to admit that the cat stole the show.

But as any dog will say, the problem with the first part of the title above is that there was NO dog. What is a dog to do if it is not there? That sounds like a Zen question. Moving on.

The staging was exhilarating. The players were exuberant and mournful by turns as we charted the ups and downs of the love lives of the principals.

It is sold out for the remainder of this season but there is a waiting list for cancellations. That might be worth a try.

I booked long ago after reading a review, but when Herself asked me on the night why I had wanted to go I had forgotten the substance of the review. It didn’t matter. The show sold itself. No mediation required.

Dear diary,

We went to see ‘Mr Holmes’ at the Newtown Dendy last night. I am glad we went but I found the film a disappointment. First, the molasses, and then the vinegar.


It was a pleasure to watch Ian McKellen hold the camera. Marvellous is this old trouper. And what knees he has for a man born in 1939.

The story does draw from the well of Sherlockiana. Holmes did retire to keep bees on the south coast near Dover. He did have a brother Mycroft whose reach was international. And there were nice touches, e.g., that 221B Baker Street was a false address to mislead curiosity seekers. The glass harmonica pricked my interest and off I went to Wikipedia to be informed. We also cackled at the film within the film, in part because it looked like more fun.

After Hamlet and Henry IV, Holmes must be among the most sought after roles in British drama. Yet having said that there is no Holmes from Laurence Olivier and the other celluloid knights. McKellen certainly lives up to the standard. It was because of him we went, as it was because of Robert Downey that we did not go see his 2009 travesty,

McKellen at 77 convincingly handles the various flashbacks and forwards from 93 to 58. Though what the point of the flashbacks and forwards was, that was lost on us. It just seemed pointless to put Holmes in Hiroshima. The film is based on the novel ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind’ (2006) by Mitch Cullen for those who want to make up their own minds. Perhaps it makes more sense there.

Slight Trick.jpg

The supporting players were fine, though it was all so predictable. Mrs Munro was just cardboard. Full marks for transforming American beauty Laura Lynney into this Devonshire frump. Roger goes from monosyllabic to articulate in one scene. Me thinks also, the author of the screen play has not spent much time with the elderly. It is not just not remembering but not knowing that one is not remembering. When it is gone; it is all gone. One does not struggle to remember, rather it is gone without a trace.

Holmes and roger.jpg

The mystery of beehive murders, now that would certainly have been enough plot for a good film, about Holmes passing the baton — the deerstalker — to Roger, but that was nearly lost in the all the flashes this way and that until it was needed to find somewhere to end.

The setting along the white cliffs was nice but throughout the cinematography was washed out and blurred.

Thanks to the miracle of SBS Television we went to Japan last night and got back in time to go to bed, watching ‘Departures,’ a life-affirming film with cello music about death. Slow, meticulous, and accessible with some travelogue, the story of young Daigo Kobayashi’s transition from mediocre cello player to encoffiner is related, and the effects of the move on those around him, starting with his loyal, but taxed wife.

‘Encoffiner’ is one word Noah Webster did not get. In this case it means laying out of dead person to be placed into a coffin. This is a task performed before the undertaker disposes of the body. ‘Task,’ no, not the right word. Ritual is the word, a performance before the deceased’s family. It is done with the decorum, grace, and precision of the best of Japanese culture, but achieving that takes time and practice, and sometimes the difficulty is compounded by the emotions which the death has unleashed in the family. All of this, and more, is carefully documented as Daigo, reluctantly, enters this world.


He is broke, in debt far beyond Mika's, his wife, wildest guess: celli are expensive. The ready money NK Agents offers is too tempting to refuse.

His initial revulsion at both the physical and social aspect of the work is gradually overcome when he realises slowly that the ceremony is of great solace to many families. In time he finds solace of his own in the task. Though it does take a longtime to close the loops and there is more repetition than I liked. Robert Ebert reviewed it in 2009 and gave it four stars out of four and wrote his usual perceptive comments with some comparisons to other films.

yojiro_takita.jpg Yojiro Takita, the director with the Oscar for best Foreign Picture.

We could have watched Computer Generated Images slug it out on 7MATE but we preferred something about life and people, not comic strip nonsense made by prepubescent boys for prepubescent boys, or is that the other way around. Or we could have been hectored by an ABC journalist firmly brandishing one end, usually the wrong end, of a stick. So many choices.

I record a selection of SBS free-to-air movies based on David Stratton’s comments in ‘TV Week.’ I use his comments and not his ratings, which I find too high, though he has recently changed the method and I am still trying to gauge his new approach of categorising rather than numbering.

This is a feature film from Finland, the land of low-key but often very interesting and accessible movies.

Genre? Mockumentary, I guess. It is told deadpan. A Finn writes to a tango club in Buenos Aires, claiming that the tango originated in Finland, and supplies a long and detailed history of its evolution in the far north of the far north. While the Argentines laugh it off, it is, well, curious, and what, after all, is Finland like that these people would make such a stupid claim.

TAngo coveer.jpg

Three of them club together — a guitar player, a singer, and a dancer — to head north to the land of midnight sun, endless forests that all look alike, wrong turns, language barriers, a dead battery, and reindeer on the road.

They find something they never found in Buenos Aires, peace-and-quiet, and also people who have plenty of time for them to get past that language barrier and they learn some things about themselves, Finland, and even the tango, as they finally admit. The explanation of why Finnish men like the tango is perfect.

Tango lake.jpg

tango crew.jpg

Completely unpretentious, no plot twists, plenty of travelogue, first in Buenos Aires and then Lapland. That deity of film criticism Roger Ebert would certainly give it all thumbs up, and so do I.

Fiction? Well not quite. See Wikipedia for an entry on the Finnish tango, and be enlightened.

I read a charming review of this Finnish film about a year ago, and determined to have a look at it. I tried to get it on iTunes but failed. It could not be sold into the Australian market. I even tried to fool iTunes by logging in while in the States to no avail. Though it was available for purchase, I could not purchase it. Frustrating. Yet another chance to develop my patience. (Yes, I know about VPN, but my needs are few.)

I thought that by June 2015 it would surely be available. I was assuming it would be screened at the Sydney Film Festival, since it seemed perfect for that, and then have a commercial release and we could see it on the wide screen. I checked with a Film Festivalian of my acquaintance, who said no, it was not on the program. Rats!

I tried again to locate it for purchase and lo and behold I found a vendor and ordered it toute suite! It promptly arrived and we gave it a spin.

Robert van Gulik (1910-1967), a Dutchman, wrote a series of krimies featuring Dee. Gulik was an orientalist and lived most of his life in the Far East. Scrupulously following the trail of historical authenticity in the novels, Gulik’s Dee is a judge, rather like a circuit court judge who travels around China finding wrongs and righting them, and not a detective. One supposes that the label ‘detective’ is used to make Dee accessible to contemporary audiences, unlikely to know their own history. Having read a couple over the years, when I saw this title in the SBS line up, I was curious to see what contemporary Chinese would make of a European’s appropriation of their society fifty years ago.

van-Gulik-robert.jpg Robert van Gulik

The short answer is not much. This is an original story, per the IMDB information, and the title does not match any of Gulik’s at my glance. I rather think this film takes more liberties with Chinese historical accuracy than did Gulik. It seems as free as a Hollywood script, veering this way and that, with talking animals, ghosts, and other excuses for CGI, CGI, and more CGI, without a meaningful story line or characters with any depth. A moving comic book, but then Stan Lee has ascended to royalty on that. I let it run but assigned only 1% cognitive attention to it while plowing through the NYT Sunday crossword puzzle.

Dee cover.jpg

IMDB scores is 6.6 and some reviewers found it ‘enthralling’ and ‘sumptuous.’ I found it repetitive, predictable, incomprehensible, and boring by turns. Something for everyone then.

There are ghosts in the Dee stories I know, but inevitably it turns out that some villain is trading on the belief in ghosts to get up to some dastardly deed, and the no-nonsense Judge Dee soon settles that!

Reading about Vichy France reminded me of this film, so I watched it again.


Love the film, but not the many historical inaccuracies in it, though it is easy to forgive them, still we should not forget them. Here are a few.


1.There were Germans in Morocco to monitor the neutrality of the Vichy Administration, but none were permitted to wear uniforms.

2.The Germans dressed in mufti and were confined to poor hotels in Rabat, not Casablanca.

3.The Germans were permitted out and about only when escorted by many French soldiers, almost as though they were prisoners. Had they travelled to Casablanca, they would have had a large French military escort.

4.The French governor of Morocco in Rabat, General Auguste Noguès, had in 1940 advocated continuing the war from North Africa, and he made as many difficulties as possible for the Germans in Morocco, while following the letter of his orders to cooperate. There were complaints by the Germans, but the matter was too low a priority for pressure to be exerted.

5.Ergo there would have been no singing in nightclubs.

6.No questioning of travellers.

7.No truckloads of German soldiers.

8.That immutable letter of transit is wrong, too. De Gaulle’s signature would have landed the bearer in the slammer. Pėtain's signature perhaps.

9.There was little if any unity among the anti-Nazis within a single country let alone internationally as depicted in the film. No Norwegian would not flash the cross of Lorraine to anyone let alone a Czech.

10. There was a sizeable language barrier between Norwegians, Bulgarians, Czechs, French.

The deep ambiguity of the situation is certainly true and Casablanca was perhaps, I do not know, a magnet for refuges.

Hitler's only interest in the French Empire was to keep it and its colonial army, warships at anchor, and other military, financial, and natural resources from the Allies. Germany did not have the troops or the access to the four corners of the globe directly to do this, but if the paper-mâché regime at Vichy could effect those exclusions, it was worth the comic opera pretence that it was independent.  

There is another ambiguity, too, that of the Roosevelt's enduring effort to maintain diplomatic relations with Vichy, first when both it and the USA were neutral, and when the USA entered the war he tried hard to maintain diplomatic relations with the still neutral Vichy. Ergo there may well have been an American consul in Casablanca. 

FDR also undermined de Gaulle for years, even after the invasion of North Africa, when much to the chagrin of some advisors to FDR, the French troops there responded to de Gaulle, and not the puppet they had put up instead.

These ambiguities muddle the clean lines of the story from the first shooting in front of the poster of Pėtain's to the bottle of Vichy water at the end, but they explain how confused and confusing the situation was for those individuals. 

It is unlikely that the screenwriters had this detailed knowledge. And finally, who cares! It is entertainment not a history lesson.

A Danish drama courtesy of SBS. The title translates as Murk.

Murk cover.jpg

It is a study in ambiguity and the viewer's sympathies flow back and forth between Jacob and Anker. Is Jacob, the tall dark, handsome, and assured Copenhagen journalist, an obsessive nut case, while the fat, ugly, placid farmer Anker the victim of circumstances? Or is Anker a devious serial murderer several steps ahead of Jacob, who was right about him all along? Most of the action occurs in the village of Murk (indeed) in Jutland, flat, wet, brooding skies, the smell of farms (manure).... Be glad there is no Smell-O-Vision. [Remember that? Just wait; it will come again.]

Midtjylland 056 them ry .jpg

The local plod cannot believe Jacob's wild accusations, and he certainly is unstable by then. But Anker is on a mission and he cannot deviate....

With the resolution at the end, a number of loose ends arise: Did Hanne make the last phone call? Where is the razor blade or knife?

Maybe we need a little more of Anker to understand the mission. Is it because he, too, is outcast by his looks and so knows what his victims really want even if they never say it, may not ever say it. Why did Jacob keep waking up to answer the phone that did not ring?


In Denmark, one of the most regulated societies, could a serial widower like Anker pass unnoticed by the police, media, and the vigilantes of the blogosphere? Still less in the small villages where he passed. But what if he could….

Another gem from SBS world movies, which I recorded years ago and just got around to watching. A feature film from Brazil without slums, guns, drugs, or violence, it is a rarity indeed.

(D) Sao Paulo_tcm530-378279.jpg

Brazilian film makers seem as fixated on guns as the prepubescent boys of Hollywood.


The film offers a set of character studies, and a daring one at that for the characters neither intersect nor interact, though we keep expecting that they will since that is the film convention invoked. Instead São Paulo Stories sums it up. Along the way there is a travelogue of São Paulo, much of it from the air, Google earth, and the streets, too. It moves slowly. The director is in no hurry and establishes the place before the people.

Centro_SP2.jpg Centro, São Paulo

Three sad, frustrated, and bereaved people make the best of it and get on with life. These are real people, not the products of the adolescent mind of a script writer. What a treat. By the end, Ênio reunites with his daughter. Pedro comes to terms with his grief. Lúcia quits her job and finds the cloud lifting.

There is one surprising almost staggering moment, and I suppose this is a spoiler of sorts. Be warned.

When Pedro and Lúcia pose for a picture against a great vista it seems they are reaching an understanding that they can help one another. Then later she discovers, by chance, that he has photoshopped her out of the picture and inserted his deceased girlfriend, and indeed perhaps the whole trip to the vista and the photograph had the purpose of getting that pose so that she, Lúcia, could be removed, or so she might well conclude. She is, to say the least, stunned, hurt, angry…. How would you liked to be photoshopped out of a picture by someone you cared about?

The opening titles and then first scenes establish the thesis. Oh, yes, there is a thesis in the film. It is that we and all around us flow through time and space, here illustrated with São Paulo’s road traffic.

highway-freeway-São-Paulo-traffic-Living-in-Brazil1.jpeg" The traffic

Enio at work.jpeg The traffic controller, Ênio, at work

Fluid dynamics provides a model for both traffic flow, and human interaction. There is no intent and yet there is order. Chance creates meaning, I would say, contrary to the title, in Portuguese ‘Não Por Acaso’ which is literally ‘Not by Chance.’ Whether that phrase has an idiomatic meaning in Portuguese, I cannot say.

The effort of Pedro to plan ahead his pool games, and of Ênio to foresee and avert traffic jams, and Lúcia to predict the commodities market, these actions can influence events, they can divert the flow, but they cannot change the fundamental dynamic. The sequence when Pedro realises his plan for the pool game is wonderfully rendered. It is the payoff of earlier preparations both by Pedro and the film maker.

hqdefault.jpg Philippe Barcinski

This film is Philippe Barcinski's first feature length movie and yet is assured and controlled as if by an old pro.

All trip but no arrival. Wait! That is not quite right. There is a charming end.

Toufic wanders around Beirut by night, leaving work at an internet café to got to a party where he hopes to meet Yasmina. He stops home to change clothes (one grungy tee-shirt for another) where he has a loving mother and a younger brother who worships him and a father who provides well for them all. All perfectly Main Street. On the way, while fuelling his moped he sees in the middle distance a kidnapping, from which he averts his eyes once he (and the viewer) realises what is happening. He crosses the city, past the neon lights, the lines of sedans at traffic lights, fast food joints, bars. Buses with workers going home. It could be a city anywhere. Note it is all set at night and so many of the images are dark, very dark.


At the party in a private apartment the misadventures begin when one of his buddies flies into a jealous rage and has to be placated. There is an argument in the parking lot over a dented fender. One of the antagonist deliberately batters his moped.

Testosterone now rising, the mild mannered Tou seeks out a weapon with which to deal with this malefactor. He travels on the damaged moped along the famous Corniche around the bay. He encounters a friendly garage owner who helps out with the moped, an officious paramilitary policeman who is heavily armed for a traffic cop, an arms dealer who pines for the good old days when the private armies bought big-time, some unpleasant goons, while his buddy, now back to normal, seeks him out to stop him doing anything stupid.

There is much back and forth and in the end Tou, though he now has a weapon, goes home and plays with his younger brother, and the two of them fall asleep. The End.

While the story in the foreground is a staple ‘what Toc did last night’ it is placed in the context of street kidnappings, trigger happy cops, and psychotic merchants of death. It was made fifteen years after the last war fought in Lebanon and about four years before the next one, a time of relative calm and normality. These twenty somethings lust after one another, dance to the latest European craze, talk of American block buster movies, the girls strut their stuff, and the lads admire it up close. They speak Arabic but act like Europeans in every way. See, normal. Yet just a few feet outside the bubble are the guns, kidnappers, paramilitary thugs, and street gangs looking for easy meat. There are few words of French with some visitors.

150px-Michel_Kammoun,_Cines_del_Sur_2007-1.jpg Writer and director Michel Kammoun

It had a surprisingly good but superficial and mostly descriptive review in 'Variety' I found on the IMDB.

I recorded it from SBS because of its origin in Lebanon at a time of (relative) normality.

A combined performance of Legs on the Wall, Vox, and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs for the Sydney Festival 2015 at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta. I went to a matinee to see the alto do her stuff. I class this entry as a Film Review for my convenience.

SF15_Riverside_Puncture_960x295.jpg The lobby card.

What singing! What energy! What colour and movement? And some of it was in black-and-white, too. It had everything.

RiversideTheatre-e1389226725630.jpg The Riverside Theatre, the one in Parramatta, not Milwaukee or San Francisco.

It is presented as one continuous piece with breaks for applause. There were several distinct parts. The opening reminded me of ‘West Side Story,’ later there was a one-note ’Space Odyssey,’ a soprano ascendant, a Strauss waltz, lost souls in the haze à la Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ some aerial fish on harnesses, and — best for last — a superb, creative use of iPhone cameras which I thought was delightful, and apt with the app! All done in about an hour.

The black-and-white were shadows projected on the wall. Having recently seen the relevant episode of ‘Rectify’ I agreed, Plato was on to something. [You either get it or you don’t.]

Wait there is more! The audience entered through the tradesman’s door and snaked down a maze of hallways to sit on the stage with the performers. I had already instructed me to seek the high ground and I found out why later. In stagecraft-speak that is supposed to break down the barrier between audience and performer. Hmm. Reduce it yes, conceded.

This piece has been the Sydney Festival for 2015 for us. Kate has had numerous rehearsal with much get ready and wait along with seven (7) performances, sequins and all in the haze.

It was blisteringly hot day in the centre of Sydney, Parramatta being the geographical and historical centre of the greater Sydney metropolitan area.

aerial.jpg The red flag at the top edge centre left is the Sydney CBD with Parramatta in foreground.

I took the train back to Newtown, glad of the air conditioning on board. Kate had to stay for the evening performance, returning much later ready for a large one.

As this nerd’s tribute to another nerd, I left my desk this morning to ride Bus 352 to the Chauvel theatre in Paddington to see Roger Ebert in ‘Life Itself.’

Life itself poster.jpg

A movie is a machine for transmitting empathy by telling the stories of other people, of other times, and of other places … and there we find something of ourselves and we experience it in the silent company of hundreds of others. No, we are not alone. Call that an Ebertism. I am sure he said something like that but I could not track it down.

The movie chronicles Ebert from cradle to grave, the small town mid-western only child who made his way in the big wide world. At the University of Illinois he worked his way up to editor the ‘Illini Daily’ where he rose to the occasion in November 1963. (By the way, I loved seeing that two-storey printing presses, the rumble of which is heard streets away.)

The essential loneliness of the man is inescapable in his earlier years, here portrayed as his salad days, the life of the party with no home and no one to go home to, drinking all night and eating like a pig, and he poured himself into his typewriter.

That Ebert was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his movie reviews is noted and mentioned a couple of times, but nothing is said about why he got it. A quotation from the citation would have been valuable. It was remarkable that a film reviewer would receive such an accolade. Still is.


One of the major themes has to be the odd coupling with Gene Siskel. They were from different worlds, and found little in common. If they bickered on screen, they positively reviled one another off it. Though even some of that seemed forced yet it was amusing to watch the out-takes, boys being bad boys because it was expected of them.

Film literati never accepted Ebert and hated the influence he gained with audiences and indeed directors and studios. His most egregious failing was that he did not write in the inscrutable, closed, self-referential way beloved of Cultural Studies. I think of all those films made for other film directors lovingly reviewed in the ‘The Story of Film: an Odyssey’ (2011). (A documentary film reviewed elsewhere on the this blog.) Ebert cut through all of that.

Whenever I see a movie I like, I check the Ebert archive in the hope that he wrote about it, putting into words some of the things that occurred to me and, more importantly, putting into words things that did not occur to me at all.

This is the man who recognised Martin Scorsese’s genius in ‘I Call First’ (1967), who searched out and encouraged independent film makers like Errol Morris, reviewed documentaries as if they were feature film when other reviewers ignored documentaries, and made subtitled movies acceptable to an ever larger audience. Credit where credit it due.

By the way ‘I Call First’ was retitled ‘Who is that knocking at my door’ when it got a wide release thanks to Ebert’s push. His battles to review independent films with little or no theatrical release is more than enough to make the case that he expanded the realm, likewise, his thinly disguised efforts to review some obscure film three times to give it exposure. Siskel played a part in all of this, too, but is not given credit for it in these 120 minutes. No time, I guess. See my comment on length at the end.


Among the many likeable moments in the documentary are these:

Martin Scorsese’s perplexed reaction, even years later, to a bad review from Ebert was delicious. Not only did Ebert start Scorsese's career but he resurrected it once, but even so he did not like 'The Color of Money' and said so.

The continental tensions with the rulers of popular culture in Los Angeles and New York City who ignored those two guys living in a movie house in Chicago for years and years. (I always thought they lived there anyway.)

His abiding loyalty to the working class 'Chicago Sun Times' and its readership even under the baleful influence of Rupert Murdoch's ownership was staunch. It gave him his start and he repaid that everyday.

Werner Herzog’s description, delivered in the thick overcoat of a German accent, of Ebert as a comrade wounded in action who soldiers on was charming, grim, and exact.

Richard Corliss of 'Time' magazine eating the words of some of his early attacks on Ebert's approach to reviewing. Too down market for the young Corliss. An older and wiser Corliss sees a bigger picture now, or having made his career, Corliss perhaps now has no need any longer to attract attention by attacking an established figure.

The recitation of the last page of 'The Great Gatsby,' 'Most of the shore places were now closed...[get it and read it for yourself].' A dirge to be sure, but 'Gatsby believed in the green light.' So did Roger Ebert. Find and follow the green light....

Art mirrors life but it need not reproduce it, as Ebert said more than once. There was about 30 minutes too much of life in the film for this viewer, the grieving wife, the loving grandchildren, the lingering camera shot to wring every last drop of emotion from the take, enough already!

I enjoyed leaving my well beaten paths for a while today, but I won’t make a habit of it! I have footnotes to go and chapters to write before I play hookey again.

A Walter MItty story set in contemporary Montréal. Jean-Marc lives a downward spiral in a world that is collapsing all around. To escape he daydreams, nightdreams, afternoon dreams his life away, enduring an impossible job, a loveless marriage, a daily trek to be demeaned at the office while being incapable of assisting any taxpayer who comes to him for assistance. It is a well worn franchise, this story but it is handled with vigour and imagination. If the whole does not compute, many of the parts are great fun, some of them instantly recognisable.

Days Darkness

For instance, the committee meeting of ten to explain to Jean-Marc that ‘negro’ is a non-word in his first official disciplinary warning. The elaborate methods of the smokers to avoid the anti-smoking patrols. Yes, security guards with dogs on anti-smoking patrols. Then there is the singular Montréal touch, that Olympic stadium white elephant. Though no government in fifty (50) years has a found a use for that monument to the ego of Mayor Jean Drapeau, Denys Arcand has: government social services offices.


Why not, a billion tax dollars went into that monstrosity at the end of the metro. It is has been cited in every other Olympic bid as an example of what not to do.

Of course the functionaries have little time to deliver social services since they are constantly in meetings to hammer each other very politely with a host of conflicting and contradictory rules, to be motivated even if depressed and dispirited by Humour Quebec, to be trained in the latest trivial tweak to the meaningless rules, planning how to cut the next budget, and scheduling the next meetings. See, I said instantly recognisable.

His daydreams about revenge on his line manager and the supervisor….

Equitorial Prince.jpg The prince's minions at work.

Well that prince of equatorial origin is famous for his cruelty. Seeing a Roman emperor dragging on a cigarette, that is worth the price of admission.

His imaginary girlfriend’s anger at being the dream girl for such a loser, ouch, that hurt! But she did not seem to mind his other fantasy women.

hareem.jpg The harem.

The high-powered wife is a caricature, to be sure, but then so is everything and everyone else. The news on the radio, television, and newspapers is one downer after another. Everyone wears surgical masks in public because of an unfathomable disease that the authorities cannot control. The commuter train, which breaks down everyday, is repaired by the driver with a sledge hammer. The metro is packed with unpleasant people. Criminals with guns are released on technicalities that no one understands. Gangs roam the streets at night. The sky will be falling soon. This is not a Montréal for tourists.

Perhaps thanks to a chance meeting with another fantasist, and more importantly the death of his mother, Jean-Marc is jarred out of his mind world. He leaves home just when his wife returns. I started to type ‘estranged’ wife but their relationship is not close enough to become estranged. He banishes his dream girl with the recriminations of a long married couple. By the way the earlier shower scene with the reference to American film classifications lets us all in on the joke.

Arcand.jpg Denys Arcand gesturing. A great talent, this one with a string of thoughtful and memorable films including 'Jesus of Montréal,' 'Decline of the American Empire,' and 'The Barbarian Invasion.'

Recorded from SBS and watched later. The title ‘L’Âge des ténébres’ is literally the Dark Ages, but for reasons best know to themselves the SBS producers called it ‘Days of Darkness.’

Bletchley Park first was unknown, then a curiosity, a historical drama, and now a fantasyland.

Bletchley,jpeg Bletchley Park, now open to the public.

It remained secret for most of the Cold War, then a little information became available in the 1960s, then a lot more in the 1980s, and now the facts no longer constrain the story teller. ‘Enigma’ in 2001 was one take on it, a drama with a tortured performance from Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet playing against type. It was perplexing and rousing.


In 1968 Dirk Bogarde ran the show in ‘Sebastian’ with understated panache.


’The Bletchley Circle’ has also been on the small screen, which after a great start descended to the average, emphasising special effects over intellectual content.

Bletchley circle.jpg

We dithered about going to ‘The Imitation Game.’ Seeing man’s inhumanity to man, well, we could see that on the television news any day. Huh? The publicity emphasised the abuse of Turing for his homosexuality; no doubt this was done to martyr him, but it put us off. For a while.

Bletchley Park, I had to see that again. Nerds winning the war! Near sighted, stoop shouldered, shuffling wallflowers with bad table manners, I could identify with them! Sorry Brad Pitt but you are not in my league.

The importance of codes and decoding has a long history to be sure. There is that Zimmerman telegram of 1917, a coded German message to Mexico that was intercepted and decoded and gave the United States a push into the war. More on the Zimmerman letter at the end. Read on.

To compare ‘Enigma’ to ‘The Imitation Game’, a few points standout. ‘Enigma’ showed Bletchley Park to be the gigantic factory it was, employing in 1944 about 12,000 people. The Bletchley Park’ of ‘The Imitation Game’ is confined to less than a dozen people with a few CGI backgrounds. In ‘The Imitation Game’ Commander Alastair Denniston is a foolish martinet, played to a 'T' by Charles Dance, but in fact he was the one who decided very early that code breaking in this war required mathematicians and engineers. In earlier years, decoding had been the province of linguists and translators. Not this time. Likewise, running crossword puzzle competitions to recruit personnel was his, not Turing’s, brainchild. Nor do I think the beard is right for 1942. None of the pictures I could find show him with a beard in the 1940s.

Colossus was indeed a digital computer but it was neither designed nor used by Turing but by others. Turing devised and built another device, but the film is 'based on a true story' so the slather is open.

Many reviewers have focused on Turing’s homosexuality, and it certainly was the man. For the one-eyed there is not enough emphasis on that, no doubt, but to this viewer it seemed partly anachronistic, i.e., the references were too explicit for the time when homosexuality was the love that did not (dare) speak its name. The very word itself in 1942 would have not always been understood. Having said that, there was plenty of emphasis on it, though Turing suffered also from autism, and code-breaker he might be, but he could not see double meanings in conversation, a fact that is very nicely presented in the scene in the pub. There was also paranoia in the mix.

There is no historical reason to believe that Turing made any decisions about the use of the material. Disclosure by using the intelligence, this was a command decision made at the very top. though Turing may have realised the implications of acting on the information but it hardly seems consistent with his complete self-absorption most of the time. Making a member of the inner circle, who apparently does nothing, a relative of a sailor on a convoy was a very midday soap opera touch. Every ship had brothers and sons on it, a good many wives, sisters, and daughters, too. ‘Enigma’ plays this straight and the result is all the more powerful when the senior naval officer implicitly orders his men to their deaths for the greater cause.

It seems very unlikely to me that a one page letter from Turing to Churchill would have uncorked a £100,000. Perhaps Leo Szilard, Churchill’s science advisor, interceded, but we will never know in ‘The Imitation Game’ where Turing is the singular Atlas on whose shoulders the world rests. On the same page the confrontation after the door is kicked in seems almost childish in its resolution where the messenger from the Home Office without word of dialogue has the authority to nod to a six month extension but mutely accepts a one month edict instead. Hello! It does not work anything like that.

Turing did write to Churchill at one point to ask for more clerical staff, and Churchill did reply immediately for ‘Action this day.’ Based on a true story they say. Hmm.

I found the chopping back and forth through time from 1928 to 1942 to 1955 confusing and distracting. The only reason the schooldays of 1928 were there in the end was to explain the name Christopher on the last contraption Turing built. It was unnecessary to the story.

Benedict Cumberbatch strives to save the day and nearly does. He does not need that backstory of 1928 to be confused, arrogant, inept, autistic, brilliant, frightened, determined, lost, secretive, brassy, paranoid, unpredictable, lonely in a crowd, and more. He did them all by turns and at times a couple at once, riveting.

Turing,jpeg Alan Turing

The female lead by comparison goes through the motions without ever quite inhabiting the part, made more difficult for being underwritten. She becomes nothing more than a plot device. Joan Clarke in fact became Deputy Head of Hut 8 which housed the first Colossus, but you’d never know it in ‘The Imitation Game.’ And she did not secure this position by patronage from Turing, to be clear. By the way she wore glasses, as did Kate Winslet in ‘Enigma.’ Hooray for Four Eyes!

The idea that the air is full of secrets is quite an idea and I wished the film makers had scrapped the CGI warfare, which was uniformly poorly done, for something creative. Would there not be a way to show those messages passing through the air like tracers and being netted at British listening stations. Now that would excite any viewer. Maybe something like this map of transponders on European air traffic.


There are several scenes of Turing running and he was a Olympic class distance runner, who failed in an Olympic try out because of an injury. One of his many personal eccentricities was to run to London for meetings, carrying a back pack with clothes. Another was to chain his perfectly ordinary tea mug to the radiator.

The imitation game is still a test for artificial intelligence pretty much as described in the police interview room where Turing breaks the Official Secrets Act he signed in 1939 to tell the plod all.

The Zimmerman telegram was decoded and acted upon in 1917 by a team that included Alastair Denniston. A feeble effort was made to hide its source, and the Germans continued to use the same code. More intelligence from broken codes was used, and the German continued to use it. Even when the pretence of hiding the sources was dropped, they continued to use it. Why? Because it was a German code and so it was the best. It was unbreakable, despite the evidence that by the middle of 1918 the Allies were reading every radio message. See Barbara Tuchman’s marvellous book ‘The Zimmerman Telegram’ (1985) for tale of his Teutonic arrogance and folly matched only by that of the United States.

Another little gem from SBS Television, this one from France.

A la suite d'un accident de voiture, Arthur est plongé pendant quelques heures dans un coma. Durant sa phase d'éveil, dans un délire verbal, il exprime des phrases incohérentes qui trouvent leurs racines directement dans son inconscient. A son réveil, il est face à une curieuse énigme : Que faisait-il la nuit sur cette route, proche de Cherbourg?


The title is perfect, once you get it, and as soon as it is said it clicks. The Black Box, c'est toi. Nice, very nice. The layers of reality and illusion are nicely done and the preoccupation with the brother begins to seem strange, and it is.

At first it seemed to be the story of an amnesiac who sets out to investigate himself, to recover his memory, as in a detective story, but it drifts away from that to science fiction or fantasy with the masked ninja. Even so, compelling viewing. It remains a study of unresolved guilt and obsession unleashed. Perhaps the larger purpose is to challenge the borders between reality and illusion but it does not succeed at that.

Juan Garcia’s many transformations from bland, sad, angry, confused, disoriented, lost, forgiving are worth the 90 minutes. He is in virtually every scene and carries the film. He is a superb actor and when we watched another SBS movie later I missed his depth, variation, and intensity compared to the callow actors in the next film who were so clearly going through the motions. Garcia believes what he is doing and makes the viewer believe it, too.

I recorded it because I saw that Richard Berry was the director and that it featured the ever versatile Juan Garcia.

Garcia I got to know when he played Adamsberg in a film based on one of Fred Vargas’s superb novels, altogether very fine that one,’Pars vite et reviens tard’ (2007) from ‘Have mercy on us all.’ That title in French is an idiom like ‘scoot and come back later’, and has nothing to do with the title of the book which is the same in both languages. Go figure. I cannot think of English equivalent to this idiom, though no doubt there is one I just cannot recall.

Richard Berry took his place in my mental pantheon with ‘C’est la vie’ (1990), another gem, directed by Diane Kurys, in which he played one of the parents, with only one scene but that was cut glass. I have kept my eye out for him ever since. He has a long list of credits including “Tais-Toi’ (2003).

The tag line on the poster above, 'it is necessary to forget' is perfect. It also reminds me of that old maxim that successful people have short memories. They forget their failures and mistakes and keep going. Selective memories is more accurate, but the point is not to dwell on mistakes, errors, and failures, and to keep going. When you quit, the others win.

I see that on the IMDB 'La Boîte Noire' scores a miserly 5.8/10. Well that confirms a conviction that most people do not recognise quality.

Driven by the pack instinct of nerds, we went to the Dendy Newtown to watch ‘Particle Fever’ about physics. The star of the show was the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (Centre Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Geneva.

MV5BODg3MTM3NTY1OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDg5NTM2OQ@@._V1_SY963_CR10,0,630,963_AL_.jpg Lobby card

The focus of the 100 minutes was the alternative explanations offered by theoretical and experimental physicists. The commitment of the individuals portrayed to pursuing ideas and testing them was inspirational. All the more so, considering the diversity of their background and formative experiences.

The theoretical issues were well enough explained to keep interest. The mix of interviews, exposition, graphics, background, and images of that Collider kept us engaged. Though much of it was in the form of extended selfies, and that got thin. A super nerd talking to an iPad camera is not entirely captivating.

The search for evidence of the Higgs Boson particle provides the drama, and there is a lot of it, including a meltdown. That Peter Higgs is there to see it was touching, affirming, and delightful.

7969331_orig.png The theoretical matrix in which Higgs Boson is crucial

Along the way are messages about the importance of basic research which everyone wants and no one wants to fund. The clips of United States congressmen defaming such research is sobering, though the conditions of unfettered thinking that physicists at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton enjoy is the obvious counterpoint which left in silence.

Also left in silence is the engineering that built that sucker, and the endless political work that must have gone into securing, maintaining, retaining, perpetuating, and using its funding.

ATLAS.jpg Look closely at the people in the bottom left for perspective

This is a film about the actors on the stage, the physicists, and not about the stage machinery that made it happens. More’s the pity, because the people who made it happen also include all the politicos who sold the project, and continually re-sold it to keep those Euros coming in.

My visit to Geneva years ago took me to the League of Nations archives where I read 3x5 index cards from 1939. Fascinating!

It has fifteen parts and is currently being aired on Studio TV. We have watched three episodes with great interest, and occasional comprehension.

What we like is the low-key presentation and comments, the worldwide scope from Zimbabwe to Afghanistan and the generosity of spirit that underlies both. All so rare on the air these days when shouting replaces thought, when the crass drives out all else, and the relentless me-focus shrinks the world, and that is on the the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)!


The most recent episode was an account of the last days of celluloid filmmaking before the CGIs (Computer Generated Images) conquered all.

Among those in the spotlight were Lars von Trier one whose films deadened me when I was a film festivalian, but he gave a modest and cogent explanation for his approach, as did some others, though none of it encouraged me to watch their films. They make 'L'Année dernière à Marienbad' (Last Year at Marienbad) (1961) seem like an action movie! It is all so intellectual, dessicated, retentive, inward, abstract, meta, self-referential, reflexive, slow ... well you get the idea by now or you never will. Gone are plot and character, gone are place and time, and with them, meaning. Instead the images on the screen are to trigger some unconscious response in the viewer. Uh huh... Well, unconscious anyway.

However, the broader theme was that actors are human beings and CGIs are not. Accordingly, Mark Cousins featured directors who concentrated on film characters as human beings. They have imperfect bodies, which age, sag, and sometimes let them down. (Amen.) They also have emotions that cannot be articulated in an six-second scream but have to have portrayed. (For an example, BCGI (Before CGI) recall Steve McQueen, without a word, bouncing the ball off the wall in 'The Great Escape' [1963].)

Tsai Ming-liang, a Taiwanese director, had some insightful things to say, and talked mainly about his ‘Vive l’Armour‘ (1994). His comment on the Hollywood fetish of CGI concerned the deadening effect of the screen busy with multitudes of CGIs from spaceships, endless weapons, to vampires, and a deafening surround soundtrack. Sadly that is too often true.

Tsai-Ming-liang.jpg Tsai Ming-liang

Cousins focussed on the last scene in ‘Vive l’Armour’ where a distressed young woman cries, and cries, and keeps crying in an exhausting (to watch) seven-minute take. Emotions engulf and cannot be switched on and off, that is the point. I appreciated that argument intellectually, but I confess it did not inspire me to sit through any of his work.

images-2.jpeg Here she is.

As said above, I found much of the material covered in this segment, as in some of the others, to be inward looking, made only for other directors, not an audience. Though much was said about humanity in the program, it seemed there was little for the actors to do but stand in front of the camera. These directors often prefer a single handheld camera, cutting the cost of elaborate camera work, producing little more than a home movie to my eye. The director is the auteur who creates everything, when everything else has been discarded, the actor is the last prop. More than once Von Trier has done films without sets, leaving only actors. Maybe next he will dispense with them, too. That would leave the director doing a selfie into the camera, which some of these films seem to be anyway.

"The Caine Mutiny" (1954) at the Dendy Quay on the very wide screen.


What a treat! A great cast, a rattling story, superb performances, starting with the conscience-stricken Executive Officer Steve Maryk played by Van Johnson (showing the scars on his face of a car accident before filming started). José Ferrer does a star turn in the last segment (with a bandaged hand, a result of a sporting injury off the set). These blemishes add to the authentic feel of the movie. Fred McMurry, E. G. Marshall, Claude Atkins, Lee Marvin, Tom Tully, James Best, and more offer chiseled performances.

But none can match Bogart when he testifies. No rolling of eyes, no histrionics, no drooling, none of that Jack Nicholson stuff. Click, click, click go the ball bearings as he goes off the deep end, and then, oops, tries to pull back, but it is too late - the Mad Hatter has been seen by one and all. It is the one scene everyone remembers.


Bogart said he never did understand Queeg so he just did what the director, Edward Dmytryk, told him to do. Ever the professional Bogart did it well for a short guy with bad teeth, a receding hair line, and a weak chin. No matinee idol good looks had he. He'd never make it today in Hollywood.

The film is much more focussed than Herman Wouk's novel, which wanders all over the landscape of the civilian lives of the officers and men, yet the film did seem long to me at 124 minutes. The ingenue Mr Keith seemed an unnecessary distraction, though perhaps he is what Maryk was two years earlier. But his mother, his girl friend, his immaturity are annoying. While in the cutting room I would also have cut some of the repeated vistas of the mighty U.S. Navy and the repeated passages under the Golden Gate Bridge.

The film is a set of character studies, of Queeg, the worn out captain, of Maryk the Executive Officer in over his head, the glib but spineless would-be novelist played to a T by Fred McMurray, the defense lawyer who knows the mutineers were both right and wrong, and the ingenue.

For all of that I see that the imbecile factor is such that it rates a 7.9 on the IMDB just ahead of some of Adam Sandler's films, a benchmark for puerile nonsense.

This film comes from Chile and offers an account of the advertizing campaign that unseated the Pinochet dictatorship.


To placate world opinion in 1988 (perhaps in anticipation of the medical care that tyrant might one day need, and mindful of the example of the Shah of Iran in 1977) the dictator of Santiago decided to stage manage a plebiscite.

It was contrived to insure a victory. The proposition was a simple 'Yes' or 'No' to the continuation of the one-man rule of Pinochet.


The graylings of the regime assumed (1) ‘Yes’ could not lose on such an All or Nothing vote and (2) the many opposition parties would never unite but would rather tear themselves apart, confusing and repelling votes by the ever more holy competition among themselves. As additional insurance the campaigning was be limited to two 15 minutes time slots on the television every day. The ‘Yes’ segment to be aired first in prime time. The ‘No’ segment at 11 pm, when honest workers should be asleep. Finally, leaving nothing to chance the voting day and poll hours were chosen to minimize turnout.

As much by accident as design one of the opposition parties hired an advertizing consultant who in time shapes a very simple, very direct, very funny set of television advertizements.

The ad man is reluctant to be hired, the money is laughable, the people are tiresome, it threatens his place in society and the firm to consort with such outsiders. He is threatened and yet, well, his father was exiled, friends from university disappeared, and he feels the pall that hangs over the past, so he took it on after hours.

Then there are the committee meetings. My god, I thought I had endured Dante’s committees, but these surpassed even Mr. Aligheri’s curriculum meetings. They are Olympian in scope, starting at 8 p.m. and going on and on and on, as everyone present airs every grievance they have against the regime with the demand that it be included in every installment of the 15 minute episodes. It is attrition by the self righteous.

There is indeed no agreement among the many opposition groups, several of which depart in moral outrage and make their own episodes, 15 minutes of a very sincere talking head putting any hapless viewer into a trance. Some of the programs seem like televised therapy for the talking head. ‘Now is my chance to tell my story of trial and suffering to indict this despicable regime.’ Others dwell on stern didactic messages documenting the many misdeeds of the past, and there were many, in mind-numbing detail.

The fact that it is all true does not make it either good television or good advertizing.

This is the lesson some of the opposition leaders have to learn and it is an emotionally hard lesson to realize that today’s generation does not much care about the dark deeds of the past. [Pause and consider how much Reader you really care about the dark deeds done in the 1950s and 1960s to aboriginals by people who are still alive and to whom you politely yield your seat on the bus.]

The final indignity to those who had so long risked life and limb to resist the Pinochet dictatorship and its willing thugs was the advertizing jiggle, calculated to catch on! What they wanted was a stirring anthem, what they got was a 30 second lilt!

By the way, the No vote was 55% and the Yes 45% in a 97.5% turnout! Having invited the world media to witness the affirmation of the Pinochet regime, the outcome could not be concealed, but instead led to constitutional revisions that in time eventuated in a reformed regime. (Stan Freberg always said advertising worked, and he was right!)

I am not quite sure what conclusion to draw. Are voters so fickle that a catchy tune sways them? Is voting just another product?

Or, are people motivated more by the future, which was the focus of the episodes? Are viewers more receptive to a message delivered with wit and good humour than one presented in self-righteous hellfire and brimstone?

What I got out of it can be summed up in this way, ‘It is not about me.’ That was the mistake so many of those oppositionists made, too much about me, my suffering, my tears, my journey, my commitment, my sincerity, my trials. Just another kind of self-centred self-absorption that is rife everywhere.

By the way those committee meetings are still going on. The Wikipedia entry for the film and the IMDB page are replete with combatants still claiming that everyone else was wrong!

A sports documentary like no other!

The film tracks eight (8) players making their way to the World Table Tennis championships.

That sounds conventional and boring. NOT!

These athletes, both women and men, are each 80 or older, well Dot of Australia owns up to 100. The Germans Inge and Ursula are in their 90s, Inge having found that her ping-pong training seems to stave off dementia. Rune from Norway jogs to keep fit at 85. Sun from Mongolia is not sure whether he is 82 or 83, the papers having been burned long ago by the invaders, either Chinese, Japanese, or Russian. Who can say?

Ping Pong.jpg

Les has been devoted to body building since he left the RAF and never misses a chance for press ups, or cleaning and jerking twice his own weight! Terry has been repeatedly told he has only a week to live for the past two championships, but there he is, at the bell with paddle in hand.

Then there is that self-described reverse Marshall Plan, the wise-cracking Viennese from Texas Lisa (85) who wants to be first and best at everything! She may have only 1/8th of the camera time but she steals the show and wins the women’s final in a walk. Terry feels a failure when he finishes second, but looks forward to next year, just to prove those doctors wrong.

Les, in between reps in the gym, composes poems about life, nature, and people. Sun decides he has to change his training to compete. Lisa searches for a spot on the mantle to display her latest triumph.

What a crew!

When reviewers do not know where to start a review, they sometimes start by slagging off at other reviews. In that spirit I recall a review of an exhibition of Impressionist paintings complaining that it was too French; another that faulted a film about cricket for too many references to cricket. Then there are film reviews that find Hollywood movies so American. I can say, without fear of contradiction that ‘The Great Beauty’ is very Italian. That is why we went; to see some of Italy without the travel.

great beauty.jpg
'La grande bellezza' poster

The film features that greatest of Italian film stars: Roma itself.

The other actors, fine though they be, are supporting players to this great star with its architecture, its lavish art works, its vistas, its history evoking buildings, it inspiring sunsets and ravishing sunrises, its profligate statuary, its intimate chapels and by-ways, its grande boulevardes, its.... Well, one sees the point by this time, or will never see it. The film is a paean to Roma.

Jep, played superbly by a very serious actor Toni Servillo, has frittered away his talent as a novelist along with his humanity, by living the indolent life Roma offered him with a spacious apartment overlooking the Colosseum, bedding so many willing women that he has long since lost count, rising at 3 pm on many days to party the night away. His being is certainly light in the sense of Milan Kundera’s ‘the lightness of being.’ To reach for another metaphor, it is the 'feathered life,' as the Aztecs offered their sacrificial victims before the knife. I read it as a character study but he could be taken as an exemplar of the milieu in which he swims, and thus the film offers some social criticism, too.

Sounds familiar? Yes, ‘La Dolche Vita’ (1960) comes to mind and there are many fountains. By the way, ‘La Dolche Vita’ is thirty (30) minutes longer than ‘La grande bellezza,’ which is listed at 142 minutes. Yet it held our attention as did ‘La Dolche Vita.’ Confession, one also thinks Silvio Berlusconi who defies parody. Then there is Fellini's own 'Roma' (1972) with the Master's taste for disconnection and the grotesque.

'La grande bellezza' has many tributes to Federico Felllini in its tableaux, its return to the sea, and -- it has to be said -- the dwarf, who here is a real person, not a circus prop, and even a giraffe, a knife thrower, performance art, and on and on.

Jep at 65 is bored, bored, bored, bored; he is also sometimes boring. He lives like a king, dresses like a prince, wanders the haut monde with nary a care in the world, except the dawning realization of his mortality. Jaded, cynical, and worn he is, yet he is not bitter, not angry, not a victim. But he is defeated. He wrote one novel forty (40) years ago, yet he still occasionally meets people who quote from it. He brushes off their admiration and when they ask him about another, second novel he is so long-practiced at diversion that the question does break his emotional skin. Instead he writes witty fluff for a newspaper which must pay him way over the odds so he can afford all those perfectly tailored 3,000 thread-count suits he wears.

It is all trip and no arrival. Much happens, but nothing matters. A tourist faints. Is that part of the story? It is not part of Jep’s story, no, but it is part of Roma’s story. A young man is killed in a car crash, or kills himself by crashing his car and either way drugs may have been involved. His life does not go on, but Roma's does. One of Jep's girlfriends dies and he hardly notices. He goes on ... for now. Roma goes on forever.

In addition to the gorgeous photography of Roma in its many faces there is a wondrous array of music -- some ethereal, some energising, some reassuring, and some that sounds like a train wreck -- in the soundtrack, and all the Milano style in the clothes on the actors. Though in Roma the Milano labels would be cut out. Eye and ear candy supreme.

For the viewer it is two and half hours spent following a camera around Roma over the shoulder of a wastrel named Jep. The camera is at times sinuous, at other time inert, then it seems to dart through the air, or float over the Tiber. However, Jep, no fool, is completely self-aware and perhaps he may yet try to write another novel, but probably not. It makes no matter to Roma.

Tony Servillo as Jep

I refered to Toni Servillo as a serious actor because I have seen him many times before, including as the very humane detective in ‘The Girl by the Lake’ (2007), a surprising story of what people will do for love. He also directed ‘Propaganda’ (1979) and ‘Guernica’ (1985). Both as serious as the titles suggestion. Though he smoked enough cigarettes in this film to reduce his chances of doing much more work.

Who is the greatest philosophy of the Twentieth Century? 

Before reacting with answers, think about the question. The question implies there are many philosophers from whom to choose, after all ‘greatest’ is a superlative that is the third is a series: great, greater, and greatest, and before that the very good, good, and so on.  Taking the question in that light several names come immediately to mind:  Bertrand Russell for ‘Principia Mathematica’ (1910) and his other technical studies of knowledge, language, and logic;  Jean-Paul Sartre for ‘L'étre et le néant’ (Being and Nothingness’)(1943) and the essays that led up to it; or even -- in the German world -- Martin Heidegger for ‘Sein und Zeit’ (Being and Time) (1927).  Maybe even Richard Rorty, ‘Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature’ (1979).  Remember the honour is the ‘greatest’ and that excludes both the great and the greater, like Michel Foucault, John Rawls, Roberto Unger, Martha Nussbaum, and more.

But what if we re-phrase the question? What if we ask 'Who was the only philosopher in the Twentieth Century?'  That question requires us to think about what we mean by 'philosopher.'

Hannah Arendt is my answer. If by ‘philosopher’ we mean someone who makes sense of life, then she is in a class by herself.  Always was, always will be.  She was the only philosopher in the Twentieth Century. This sense of the word ‘philosopher’ is what Aristotle meant by it.
Arendt film.jpg It has taken two generations for the dust to settle on the story that lies at the centre of this film, for her life and works to be appraised in their own light, not against national priorities, political necessity, ethnic identity, ideology, the lust for revenge, blind emotion, crowd mentality, etc.  In this context the film, by letting her words and ideas speak for themselves, is a tour de force.  And more. Here’s a word one does not see often: magisterial. 

With clever staging and segmenting of the story, Arendt’s singular voice is heard just enough to show how penetrating her thought was, and how naively courageous she was in pursuing that thought where it led. Publish and be damned! 

She did publish and she was damned!  Lifelong friends from childhood (and as an Jewish exile émigré she had few of those left to lose), genial neighours, editors, professorial colleagues, personal friends until then, shunned her. The hate mail, obscene phone calls, attacks on her husband, and her ever loyal intern multiplied, threats from Israel’s Mossad, a deathbed denunciation by an uncle, (her only living relative thanks to the Holocaust), feces smeared on the door of her apartment, and so on (the film omits as much of this as it includes of all this, details to be found in the biographies), none of these stopped her. 

Give her the Socrates Medal for putting Truth before all else.  

In the film, her greatest sin is the passing remark (ten pages of 300 in the book 'Eichmann in Jerusalem') that in some cases some leaders of Jewish communities co-operated with the Nazis as the Final Solution was implemented. These leaders calmed their followers, tried to slow the process by working with it, took over the administration of death at its zero point, selected their fellows for transportation on those railroads run by Adolf Eichmann and his ilk. Indeed this very point was made in passing during the Eichmann trial which is why she reported it.

It is this factual observation that lit the atomic bomb that almost destroyed the 'New Yorker' magazine where her articles on the Eichmann trial appeared.  To wash this linen in public was the sin that had no atonement, not that she was ever about to atone. It was to blame Jews for their own destruction. It was to betray Israel. It was to blaspheme Judaism. It was ....

Her second sin was to believe her eyes. She saw Eichmann as a nobody, a nothing.  How then to reconcile the equation with on one side the unbelievable evil of the Holocaust and on the other side this insignificant nobody?  The Darkest events of Dark Times were not committed by John Milton’s magnetic Satan of 'Paradise Lost' (1667) nor by Johann Goethe's breath-taking Mephistopheles from 'Faustus' (1808).  Instead, Eichmann was just what he appeared to be, everyman, anyman, noman.  Just a man, not the raging beast of Baal.  Evil could work through such a man. Though there is no denying, and she certainly did not deny it, that there were evil men and women in Nazism, but they worked much of their evil through everyman and anyman. A very fine, if harrowing, empirical study is Christopher Browning, 'Ordinary Men' (1992). But this too was unacceptable because if a nobody could destroy Jews then Jews were… weak, or should have resisted, or something…

What the film elides, though there is an early reference for the cognoscenti, is that Arendt’s ‘On Totalitarianism’ (1951) argued the unpalatable case that every means, device, and tactic used by the evil dictators Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and their many imitators in Europe, had been developed, tested, applied, refined, implemented, and perfected by the Enlightened Western European colonial powers in Asia, and most of all in Africa, and, in truth, in Australia, too.  Selective murder, denigrating humanity, rape upon rape, displacing populations, mass murder, separating families, slave labor, industrial-scale cruelty, brutality for fun, group punishments, dehumanizing victims to themselves, genocide, all of these are well documented in colonial history long before 1939. Every colonial power made use of these atrocities.  Though she is careful to distinguish between the degrees of evil among the colonial powers, while she is ruthless on the collective guilt of the peoples of those colonial powers who did not (want to) know the evils done in their names in far away places that produced the riches that we still see today in a city like Brussels.

What the Twentieth Century dictators did was to repatriate those practices to Europe. They invented nothing.  But brought to new levels the technologies of destruction perfected in the colonies. (By the way this return from the peripheries is just what Michel Foucault detected in other social institutions at a lower level.)

Even generous reviewers have found it hard to work up much enthusiasm for this film about ideas with virtually no action, though there are enough tensions to produce heart attacks, fist fights, and brain aneurisms all around, and to ruin more than one career.  Apparently this is not enough to hold the attention of even a sympathetic reviewer. Admittedly, the film also features much thinking time when Arendt broods on what she has seen and concluded, and sees how all those other journalists who were there have trumpeted the conclusions they took with them. They react; they do not think. Thinking takes time and this director respects that and expects her audience to have the attention span to cope with it. Amen!  

The film integrates black and white film footage from Eichmann's trial and it is essential.  Because, at least to this viewer, it confirms everything Arendt said.
Eichmann smirk.jpg
Adolf Eichmann

It is unmistakeable. No re-enactment, not even I suspect by the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, could do it better, and Ganz even briefly made Hitler seem almost human in “Der Untergang‘ (Downfall) (2004).

Barbara Sukowa offers a superb performance.  She projects a laser intelligence that burns through all the irrelevancies thrown in her path.  She dominates the camera when she sits silently in a crowd watching Eichmann testify as she seems to suck out of the air his every word, twitch, tic, hesitation.  It is a remarkable sequence in which she alone seems alive to what is there before all but she alone sees him for what he is - nothing.  It is a scene that is repeated in the press room among the cynical and jaded journalist there seeking sensationalism, and finding it. They react. They are satisfied with the prejudices they came with, but she, silent and still, is not. Though she is silent and still she is more alert, alive, and active than any of them because she is thinking, and they are not. So said Plato of Socrates’s silences.

Margarethe von Trotta is a very experienced director and I found her 'Das Versprechen' (The Promise) (1996) which mirrored the Cold War history of Berlin in a love story memorable for its compassion.  She also made 'Rosa Luxemborg' (1985) and 'Katrina Bluhm' (1975).  Both of these I found heavy-handed.  

But for this film she deserves her own medal for taking it and conceptualizing it in a way that could be filmed, and then selling the project to those that supported it.

Arendt fag.jpg  
Hannah Arendt

In the film nothing is made of Arendt's most important book 'The Human Condition' (1955) and most important essay 'The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man' (1963).  There is nothing else Iike either.

The official website for the film which is in German but there is an English translation button.

When Alain Resnais died a few weeks ago I stopped to think about his films, well to be exact, the ones I have seen.
Recently when browsing ‘Le Monde’ I saw another tribute to him and that prompted me to be more systematic about my own recollections. I put them in three categories: (1) compelling, (2) entertaining, and (3) undecided.

1. Compellng does not always mean comprehensible.

‘Nuit et Brouillard’ (1955)
nuit.jpg A very short film (22m), believe it or not, a lyrical meditation on Nazi death camps from the German ‘Nacht und Nebel’ in Wagner's Rheingold where it is magic spell, but it became a code for extermination. The many enemies of the Reich began to disappear into the ‘Night and Fog.‘ Understated and cryptic.

‘L'Année dernière à Marienbad’ (1961)
Everyone tries to figure our what it all means, and like James Joyce it may mean nothing at all but it is gorgeous to look at it.

‘Muriel’ (1963)
Though not a word is said about the Algerian War (torture, genocide, coup d’état, betrayal, treason, lying, cover-ups, assassination, a putsch) and yet its shadow falls across everything. Long silences. Social dysfunction. Unspoken and unspeakable guilt and shame.

‘Providence’ (1977)
John Gielgud writes a novel which Dirk Bogarde Ellen Burstyn, and David Warner are living, or are they? An ode to the creative process of the novelist.

2. Entertaining is not always funny.

‘Le guerre est finie’ (1966)
The most acessible and explicit of his films, an absurdly romantic vision of a communist cell plotting against the Franco government, but Yves Montand burns with conviction.

‘Pas sur le bouche’ (2003)
A musical comedy is a real change of pace for the master at 81 years of age; it is fast and furious. ‘Not on the lips’ is the title.

3. Undecided.

‘Hiroshima mon amour’ (1959)
War is bad, atomic war is worse, yes, I got that much but as for the rest, it is too deep for me.

He made a lot more films, I see from the Wikipedia filmography.

Missed this film during its short theatrical release in Sydney, but noticed it in Civic Video après le gym the other day. There was only one copy on the shelf.


It is a very clever and daring film. Silent and in black-and-white, so that means 95% of those under 40 will ignore it. On the other hand, because it is silent the language barrier is lower and the title cards are far fewer and easier to read than subtitles.

The film transplants 'Snow White' to Seville 1925 in the milieu of bullfighting and bullfighters. The usual suspects are present: the evil step-mother, the helpless father, the seven dwarfs who are aspiring bullfighters. It all hangs together though Snow White as a bullfighter takes some getting used to.

By the way, the bullfighting sequences make it very Spanish but are filmed very carefully for an international audience, i.e., not cruel or bloody.

In addition to the step-mother, Snow White also has to deal with a corrupt and incompetent press and a manipulative and scheming promoter. It is a lot for a fairy tale to deal with, but she does well, despite the downbeat end.

The Brothers Grimm would approve.

Technical note, the black-and-white in this is not monochrome. Believe it or not monochrome film stock is far more expensive than colour these days. The technical notes on the official web site it was shot in colour and then it was developed as black-and-white, I think it says that. Some will notice this film lacks the subtly of monochrome which offers a world of greys. Whereas in this film, and perhaps it fits the story, everything is either black or it is white.

We had to see it, and see it we did. It is King Lear in worn jeans with grease under the fingernails.

For plot details see the Internet Movie Database entry at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1821549/
Or the official web site: http://www.nebraskamovie.co.uk

Nebraska title.jpg

What I liked about it included, the wonderful cinematography that made the Sandhills seem almost alive in the background of the long drive.

But even better was the slow and steady camera survey of the ruined and wrecked Woody’s face in confusion, despair, determination, loss, repose, fatigue, purpose. Bruce Dern is center stage and mostly silent while the camera follows the emotions across his face.
Viewers may remember Bruce from ‘Coming Home” (1978) or ‘Silent Running (1972). If not, they should!

Having yielded reluctantly his kingdom to age, like Lear, Woody tries to reclaim it a little of it in that lottery scam.

One of his two sons, having nothing better to do makes the futile trip with him. During the drive this son, David, learns many things, some about himself and some about his irascible, volatile, not very loving or lovable father. And he meets many very nice people and a couple not so nice. Such is life.

David sees in Woody lost opportunities, mistakes, quiet achievements that no one knows about but his wife Kate, who wants to stomp Woody more often than not but destroys those others who might criticize or take advantage of him. All in all, it gives David a lot to think about in his own life, about 40, going grey, bunking alone in a motel room.

The other son, Ross, seems completely self-centred, and yet when he is needed, he is there. Capped with a marvelous scene when the two brothers momentarily return to their youth, communicating preternaturally, and off they go to get that damned air compressor. They learn next time not to take quite so literally what is said by someone diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Well, maybe not diagnosed, for when a well-meaning stranger asks David if Woody has Alzheimer's he replies in the payoff line of the movie: ‘No, he just believes what people say to him.’ It is such a gem I thought, in my perfect hindsight it should have come later to cap it off.

The most powerful scene? Several come to mind, but none can beat Kate, Woody’s long suffering wife, when she bellows down the ravenous relatives who think Woody has indeed won the lottery. Jane Squibb as Kate blows their hair off, and the eyes of her two adult sons pop when she does.

I could not find an image of this scene, but here she is pensive.

But even more moving is the short drive down the street with Woody at the wheel of a new truck with an air compressor in the back. Redemption without a word.

Some critics, seeking always to be critical, which is usually translated as different if not perverse, suppose the director, writer, producer Alexander Payne is mocking the people who inhabit this story. I heard that a lot regarding his earlier movie ‘About Schmidt’ (2002) and let it go through to the keeper since the very assertion betrays an incomprehension so deep no remedy applies. It is a conclusion only a critic could draw.

This is not the country of Bill 'The-Cheaper-the-Shot-the-Better' Bryson.

Payne shows us a world, complete unto itself. It is light and dark, and within its confines, it has good and evil, too, but they shade into and out of each other. It is life.

I did not know Hollywood still made movies about real people, living real lives. It is a pleasure to see it is. Made by adults for adults.

I have no doubt that higher being Roger Ebert would put all thumbs up for this one.

'Casablanca' has slipped a rung in the list of the greatest movies ever made.  'Backyard Ashes!' Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal' has got nothing on it.  That chess game is dead boring by comparison. The drama! The pathos! The barbecue! The googley! It has everything!  And it has more!  

Backyard Ashes.jpgText

'Citizen Kane,' move over.  This is an instant classic.  ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ is so last century. Why bother? [Confession: I thought that at the time.] But before cinema history is revised let’s go back to the beginning.

Blue ticket in hand I set out from the Ack-comedy on the 370 bus which wound about to Coogee Bay Road where I dismounted and walked around the corner to the Randwick Ritz, an Art Deco picture palace.  Leaving the wind and the rain behind I flashed the receipt on my iPhone and entered.  The password was ‘Cinema 2, on the right.’

The Best and Brightest showcase, unanswered emails, summer projects, the Machiavelli exhibit, the British International Studies Association conference paper, the remaining 400 pages of James Joyce's 'Ulysses,' the Prague utopian presentation PowerPoint, mysteries of the slate roof, all of these fell behind in a thrice. The lights went off and the magic started.  

After some initial stereotypes to set up the people, the place, and the tensions, time flew by all too quickly.  There was so much snorting and guffawing I am sure I missed some imperishable dialogue. A fellow nearby slid off his chair laughing.  At the end several patrons seemed unable to move, paralytic with amusement.  

Shades of Big Merv, the key in the wicket, Dennis the Mo, Richie, body line, to say nothing of the specter of BRADMAN which hangs over it all with Wilma and Mack.  Best for last, that ball from Seven-Eleven.  

Oh, and the cat!  

If only Roger Ebert could see this.  He'd love it for what it is: Warm, witty, wise, and wonderful. Just like Wagga Wagga.

I do feel sorry for the professional critics who have to find fault with it, e.g. ‘rough around the edges,’ ‘a cast that combines professionals with some amateurs inevitably...‘ Here’s a perfect example: ‘Wearing its heart and hopes on its sleeve may help patch over the repetition and derivation that monopolises the movie; however, the passion of the production can’t conceal the standard and less-so elements,’ says one reviewer on ArtsHub giving it a measly two stars from five. But wait, ‘repetition and derivation that monopolises the movie,’ what does that mean? How can ‘derivation’ ‘monopolise’ anything. Is this Monash English? Only a self-described film critic can answer that. This Einstein also finds the references to cricket in a movie about cricket to be annoying. Go figure. I know what Spock would say.... [In this case, Spock is one of the cricket players.]

Such reviews are as infantile and self-obsessed as 90% of posts on Trip Advisor. This film is a GEM.

A character study set in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) of 1980.  Understated, muted, ambiguous, spare, unadorned, and demanding. Recommended for adults.


Dr. Barbara Wolfe applies for an exit visa to leave the Workers' Paradise that is the German Democratic Republic. Verboten! She is transferred from the prestigious East Berlin university clinic to an under-equipped small hospital on the Baltic Coast. Her visa request is denied.  We piece this together from cryptic remarks and visuals. There is no exposition. One is left to infer the meaning of what one sees. Nor is there music. Instead there are winds in the trees and the distant sea and the creak of floorboards.

Rejection and transfer confirm her desire to leave.  

Meanwhile, at the provincial hospital she sees the next generation being ground down by the regime. Dr Wolfe befriends a young girl who has repeatedly escaped from nearby Labor Camp.  Quick to apply the regime-approved label, the physicians suppose she is anti-social, seeking only to avoid work. Dr Wolfe finds that she has meningitis and sets about treating her.  She also observes the consequences of a young boy's attempted suicide.  His attempt was born from a love affair but it becomes a crime against the state and when he recovers he, too, will go to another labor camp. Wolfe says these ‘Arbeitlagers’ are in fact ‘Sozialistische exterminaiton Lagern.’ I am sure readers can work that out.

Everything is the business of the STATE in this world.

Throughout Dr Wolfe is harassed by the police, and I mean harassed! Throughout she distrusts her new colleagues and they reciprocate.  It is a society where everyone reports on everyone else, perhaps like North Korea today.  

The paramount importance of the East German state justified its totalitarianism but totalitarians will always find a paramount cause to justify telling everyone else how to live be they self-righteous Greens or God-bothering Christians. One totalitarian is pretty much like another.

In time Barbara Wolfe comes to terms with her Sisyphean existence and concentrates on her work.

There is a remarkable scene when the Stasi officer comforts his wife that shows a humanity I have never before seen credited to agents of the DDR on screen since 1989. I thought that more striking than the self-abnegation at the end, surprising as that was.  Wikipedia has it that as many as 4,000 East Germans died in the Baltic Sea trying to get to Denmark. 

To find out more about life in the DDR I recommend Timothy Garton Ash, The File: A Personal History (Random House, 1997). Many who have commented on this film on the Internet Movie Data Base know nothing of the DDR, it would seem.

In 1980 pin-headed intellectuals in the West routinely denounced the evils of liberal-democracy, while enjoying its fruits, and defended regimes even worse than the DDR. I have yet to hear a mea culpa from these sycophants.

By the way, the past is still with us. The Wikipedia entries on the DDR are contested. Its apologists insert and insist on its merits, denying the facts of their own lives at times, it seems, such is the power of a dream, albeit totalitarian. Perhaps the most profound judgement on the DDR lies in this fact: from 1947 to 1989 its population shrank from 19 million to 16 million. As the young girl says, in effect, in Barbara this is no place to be born.

A small quibble: Nina Hoss's eye shadow, if I have the term right, was distracting and out of place.  I cannot imagine the exiled women in the DDR has the means, the time, the motivation to apply blue eye shadow to get that Cleopatra look.

Times are tough in her one-woman restaurant and when the offer comes to cook for a senior official in Paris for a couple of years at an incredible salary, Hortense takes the bait. I particularly liked the stunned silence when she is told that Joël Robuchon recommended her. (It is like being recommended by Zeus, a higher being.) Soon enough she realizes she is cooking for the President of France (loosely based on François Mitterand) in the Élysée Palace at 55 rue de Saint Honoré.

Recommended for adults.

Haute Cuisine.jpg

There are some insights into the workings of the Building and its many thousands of employees, with some amusing, perhaps alarming scenes for taxpayers, examples of the waste caused by a ten minute delay in a departure for the airport. There is the inevitable tension between different departments within the household.


Hortense's mission is to cook for the President in a simple way to give him a contrast to the formal, state dinners with their elaborate sauces, etc. Yet she has no way of knowing what the President likes, since she has no access to him, so she examines his plate when it is brought back from the table and infers from that.

The men in the main kitchen, they are all men, resent the existence of this small private kitchen in the residential wing do all they can to undermine it. All too believable. They would do this in any case but that the private cook is an unknown women triples their efforts.

She struggles, not always with success, to limit cost, achieve the highest quality, and stay within the dietary regime of the dying President. Meanwhile, the boys in the main kitchen carp, grudge, cheat, backbite, undermine...

It is great fun, plenty of food to drool over, and I also liked her brief excursion to the Antarctica research station to cook for the crew. There she talked to the diners, learned what they liked, enlisted their help in securing items, and enjoyed it a lot more than than the starched, constrained, combative, zero-tolerance, macho environment at Numero 55. Yes, strange though it may seem the Palace was presented as much more macho than the research station on the edge of the world, which by contrast seemed much more like a family, a large and noisy one to be sure.

While the 'Tastes of the Palace' makes perfectly good sense, for reasons unknown the distributor of this film have called it 'Haute Cuisine' in English. It is a title at odds with the major theme about food, namely that simple food is best when made from the best available produce. No doubt an advertising agency thought Haute Cuisine would appeal to some regardless of the intellectual coherence of the film.

Upon the recommendation of Jerry, guide and driver in West Arnhemland, we watched on DVD the four-part ABC documentary ‘First Footprints.‘ * * * * Highly recommended.

It is an engrossing examination of aboriginal life on Greater and Lesser Australia since time immemorial. Well, to be more specific, the 60,000 years before 1788.

It is part travelogue and part archeology with some ethnography, too, all with a light touch that lets the evidence speak for itself.

What the evidence shows is how aboriginals coped with the changing climate and the coming of the first boat people from England. They dealt with rising sea levels, epic droughts, and a changing fauna. Resilience is the word that applies.

It explores the development and transfer of technology within and among the peoples of Australia through time. A technological breakthrough in one part of Australia would be communicated to another part, three thousand kilometers away in a very few years, evidence of a continuous trade across tribal boundaries. If Joe figured out how to chip a stone tool in Sydney harbor, that knowledge would be in evidence in Geraldton within a generation.

There was so much that new and surprising to me that I cannot recount it here. We will have to watch them all again one day the better to take it in.

There is evidence of fish farming and settled agriculture in Greater Australia before the rising waters separated New Guinea and the Torres Islands. How did these primitive people do it before those advanced Europeans arrived to save their souls with gun powder and whiskey? I mimic the dreaded Erich van Däniken. The answer, Erich, is that they figured it out.

I though EvD several times on our recent tours through West Arnhemland and Kakadu because of the elongated human figures I saw in some rock art.

Kakadu figures.jpg

I could hear the egregious Swiss voice saying, ‘What else could they be but aliens!’ The answer Erich is artistic license. Check with Salvador Dali about watches!

‘First Footprints’ is also very informative about rock art, though it is never enough to satisfy me. I wanted more detail about the cosmology and less ‘Isn’t it great!’ expostulations from our guides. While I am carping, I would also have liked more about the social organization that underlay the art, the fish farming, the trade, and so on. Though perhaps we just don’t know, though surely everyone at the ABC knows how to speculate with pompous authority, or is that skill confined only to the News department.

The URL is http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firstfootprints/

An understated tale of redemption in face of the absurdity of life. Wry humour, pathos, and friendship across barriers are the motifs. Now that Roger Ebert is no longer there, I try to view movies as he would. He would like this I am sure.


Ricardo Darín is, as always, impeccable as the wary and weary Ricardo. He is subdued, defeated, grumpy, sullen, grey, grizzled, ragged, prissy.... He counts the nails in a box, in every box, delivered to his hardware store. The count is short, as frequently it is. On the telephone he complains in a tirade that seems an often repeated performance well out of proportion to the offense. When the supplier tries to make amends with some free extras in the next delivery, these he refuses and sets about counting the nails in this delivery. Take that! What is at stake is not the nails but the principle! But what principle?

When not counting nails, at the end of the day Roberto compiles newspaper cuttings into albums that demonstrate the absurdity of life. He subscribes to a lot of newspapers to find these stories. Some of the stories are hilarious, as long as it is not you. In each case Roberto pictures himself in the victim's role. Get it? In time even the absurd opening scene is explained. (During the credits this explanation is vindicated, so keep watching.)

Maria throws herself at him but he cannot let anyone touch his emotions because, as the evidence in the albums shows, it will turn out badly, everything turns out badly, even having a shave in a barber's chair. Then the Chinese, Jun, pops up and somehow gets inside the shell, and stays. In time Roberto learns he is not alone in his misery. In time he learns that life goes on and there is no escaping from it. He learns this from Jun's persistence in the face of even greater adversity.

If you have no emotions then no one can hurt you, this seems to be Roberto's approach to life. But Jun has even less than he has, so Roberto helps him, reluctantly, then for a moment the tables are turned and Jun comes to his rescue. Now Roberto has to stay the course. And there is Chinese take-away.

Some of the comic scenes are overdone like the one at the Chinese Consulate but who cares. The film oscillates from realism to parody but it does not go to either extreme.

With any and everything from Argentina I look for the Dirty War. This one refers to the Falklands War. And once again here the police are malevolent, a staple of Argentine films, and perhaps a reminder of the Dirty War. Also the newspaper that has the picture that starts the album is Italian, not Argentine because, I assume, of censorship in Argentina.

Civic Video in Newtown has one copy.

Recommended for adults.

A stranger enters a small, close-knit, inward-looking, isolated community. As the locals react to him the papers over the cracks give way and old animosities flare, pent up desires surface, suppressed hopes roil, unspoken truces are broken, irritations long ignored are scratched. The ructions spring from ambition, from dominance, from emotions, from lust, from insecurity, it matters not the origin once they are loosened.

as it is in heaven.jpg

It is a common trope in westerns. Examples include 'Shane,' 'Red Harvest,' 'The Quiet Man,' 'Bad Day at Black Rock,' 'Bus Riley is Back,' 'The Wild One', 'Suddenly Last Summer,' and many more, including 'As It is in Heaven' (2004), this delightful film from Sweden. There is much singing and dancing, but also wife-beating, shotguns, fistfights, car smashing, and a lot more.

The world renown musician Daniel has a heart attack and leaves the international music grind, buying an abandoned schoolhouse in his home town, which he left at age seven. He has long since adopted a stage name as his own, so to the locals he is a stranger, a famous stranger to be sure.

Little by little he is drawn into the local church choir where he returns to the fundamentals of music like breathing, projecting, relaxation, and so on. The choir is the reactor that leaks emotional radiation. Those who hold apart from the choir suspect demonic doings there, and a mole confirms that. Among those who participate there are old rivalries, conflicts, and trouble at home from spending so much time practicing.

Daniel has no wish to become involved in any of this but it is inescapable in such a small community. The characters are well rounded though the two villains are the least developed, the jealous and envious parson and the wife-beating truck driver. The changing Nordic seasons contribute to the story. Along the way love is explained.

Despite frictions and cross purposes the choir hangs together, shielding the wife from the thuggo, accepting the retarded Toré, matching up an elderly couple, and recruiting more young people. These successes infuriate the parson.... It is Gabriella whose courage inspires the others to persevere when the centripetal forces threaten.

It has a marvellous end that draws together the larger theme explaining why a great musician found it so satisfying to work with this village choir from the remote north of Sweden. Bicycle riding is a metaphor for facing fear for Daniel and despite his worldly successes he, too, has fears.

I could not find a review by the Dean, Roger Ebert. If he missed it that is too bad because he would have liked it.

An art history student's thesis research is presented through the cinematic conventions of a mystery. Recommended for adults. If you like X-Men XV do not watch this movie.

The student notices female figures in Watteau paintings: always these figures have their backs to the viewer. The more she studies them, the more she sees them in many of Watteau's paintings, and the more it seems to be always the same woman with her back turned. Who is she? Why is she always there, with her back turned?
Watteau.jpgA little tension is added to the plot with a thesis supervisor who discourages the quest. We discover he pursued the same line once and it came to nothing. Is he simply trying to steer her onto safe ground, or is he, brusk and uncommunicative, hiding something?

Then there is the mime in square outside the print shop where she works; he is young and handsome but begs for a living. They meet and she discovers he is a deaf mute but through him she finds a painting similar to a Watteau by an obscure painter called Opener.

With the single-mindedness and doggedness of an obsessive only child she tracks down this similar painting and acquires it (by selling a treasured watch from her deceased father). She has also tracked down every site in Paris that Watteau painted (miraculously most are still to be recognised these hundreds of years later) and lived, though this latter information is scarce. She also researches the people in his paintings. She triangulated onto the actress Charlotte Desarmes as the mystery woman, a prospect rejected by the supervisor as unsubstantiated.

She persists and persuades a friend to x-ray the Opener painting and voila there is a Watteau beneath it, as her supervisor is the first to acknowledge. It seems there was no Opener, but it was a second name that Watteau used for some of his painting when Charlotte rejected him. He could not bear to destroy his work but he did paint over it.

Her travels through libraries, archives, auctions, Parisienne sites are entertaining to us nerds. The silent boy friend remains a cipher. The landlord never gets the rent. Her mother remains at a distance, a reluctant banker at times. The boss at the print shop is sympathetic but has a business to run. Indeed all of the supporting characters are positive, if sometimes upset, distracted, or angry. I liked that. I find the cynicism of Hollywood cheap and no substitute for plot, story, or character. By 'positive' I do not mean singing and dancing but not cunning, malicious, sinister, predatory, sneering or anything like that. Just people going about their business; such people are seldom to be seen in Hollywood anymore because they do not interest fourteen year old boys.

But an obsessive would probably use them as she does with few qualms, especially when the trail is hot.

The supervisor has the best line: express your passion in your life, your work needs detachment and perspective. Of course, it bounces off the knight on the quest but they are words to live by.

I was interested to see the techniques and technology used in the research shown here. I found the image of the lion subdued by love very charming, and it is the key that opens the way to Opener. (Could not resist that.)

I did quite see what either the French or English title meant to the story, respectively, 'That which my eyes have seen' and 'The vanishing point.' I was also surprised when this penurious student produced a Visa card to pay 400 euros.

Thank you SBS television.

Free from the timetable of classes and meetings, and more meetings, I have given in to the temptation of Dendy’s classics and gone to several movies on Monday morning, while Kate goes off to good works. Today it was “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) With Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, and Nancy Olson, along with Jack Webb (of Dragnet) before he got his teeth straightened. To see it on television is nothing compared to the wide screen: Marvelous. A very excellent print that gives us the crisp light and dark and many shades between that only black-and-white can do.


Leaving aside all the lore and gossip, the parade of celebrities, the contrivances of staging that swimming pool scene, after all that it is Gloria Swanson who dominates everything, and not just the scenes she is in, but through her presence manifested in the house and its furnishings, in the soul of von Stroheim, and seen or unseen clutching always at Holden. It offers a parallel love story of two women and one man. The man is Holden and the women are the aging relic Swanson and the fresh-faced ingenue Olson. He disappoints both because at his core, well, he has no core, though Olson shows him the way out and after he sacrifices himself to drive her away, he seems resolved to break the cancerous link with Swanson. Or is he.... we will never know.

It is a talkie, of course, and Swanson has some remarkable lines penned by the one and only Billy Wilder, and she by turns spits, drawls, mumbles, hisses, and declares them, all with lift of the chin, the bulge of the eyes, and turn of wrist. An Oscar does not seem a high enough award. With her increasing histrionics von Stroheim is the perfect foil, a rigidly controlled man whose unrequited love drives him to accept every humiliation with the merest flicker of an eyebrow.

Hollywood eats its own, and in 1973 Holden reprised this film in reverse as an older man captivated by a much younger woman who barely notices him in "Breezy," and it was directed by Clint Eastwood.

No one ever says it better than the dean of movie reviews Roger Ebert:

Cut-and-paste the link above to see his comments.

Après le gym I often pass through Civic Video on the way home. It is a short cut of sorts with some added benefits. The other day I saw ‘The Sound of My Voice’ on the shelf. It caught my eye because (1) there was only one specimen there and (2) the cover art was arresting. One of my criteria for considering a video is that it is not there in dozens of copies. Figure that out. For the cover art, have a look.

Sound of my voice.jpg

Once in hand I realized it was the same crew that made ‘Another Earth’ (2011) , and I was hooked. I have commented on ‘Another Earth’ in another post.

I watched 'The Sound of My Voice' the other night, and have no idea what to make of it. It is studied in its ambiguity and enigmatic in its approach, and I like that. Subtle, open-textured, mysterious, and in no hurry. That kept me interested. It seemed to me it was a variant, on a micro-budget, of ‘Contact’ (1997). In 'Contact' the aliens approach humanity in a surprising way. In ‘The Sound of My Voice’ the surprising contact is from the future....or is it? That is the ambiguity.

There are many discussions in the ether, e.g. IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, Facebook and more.
Cut and paste this link to find it on The Internet Movie Data Base:

More importantly, there is a measured review from Roget Ebert, the greatest, at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-sound-of-my-voice-2012

Better yet see it for yourself. It will leave you thinking and it is a vote against Hollywood. Two good things there.

Good Trekkies that we have been since 1966, off we went to the Dendy Newtown last night to watch Start Trek: Into Darkness in 3D. Trekkies will have to see it. But many of them will be disappointed. Everything those who promote it say is true: it is high energy, it is fast and furious, it is action-packed, it has some etched characters...

trek into darkness.jpg

It is also true to say that it seems to have been created by writers with arrested development and targetted at twelve year old boys. No doubt that is a winning formula.

It is also true to say that it quite indistinguishable from three other movies currently showing in the Dendy chain: Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, and Escape from Planet Earth. It is loud, it is trivial, it is superficial, it is one-dimensional, thoughtless, inconsistent, with a leaky plot and inexplicable action and eighty (80) minutes of gratuitous violence... It lacks the gravitas of even a Marvel Comic.

What is worse, the local reviewers seem to think that it is an authentic representation of Star Trek and thus the reason there are Trekkies like us. WRONG!

Star Trek the Original Series featured more than one meeting where the assembled staff tried to think of ways to do things, debated over a table the limits of their orders, and then went away to think about it, because thinking takes time. In many episodes not a shot was fired or a punch thrown by the crew of the Enterprise.

Thinking time in Into the Darkness is 5-6 seconds. That is perhaps indicative of how decisions were also made about the film. Or is it the reality of Bush Junior White House?

Moreover, many episodes of Star Trek: Original Series posed questions about life and humanity from start to finish. I will cite only one example: The Devil in the Dark (Season 1, Episode 25 in March 1967). There are plenty of others from Original Series, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, too. Of course, to cater to the television audience there is action, as well.

Into the Dark has many allusions to the Star Trek lore. The villain of the piece is Khan, played by Ricardo Montalban in ‘Space Seed.’ broadcast in February 16, 1967, and he reprised the role in the 1982 film. In 1967 the issue was returned soldiers. He was a great villain, as is Benedict Cumberbatch in this outing. That issue of returned soldiers remains relevant -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- but not when it is only an excuse for more fisticuffs.

This Captain Kirk is everything his mentor says he is, except for the potential for greatness. He is as arrogant, opinionated, and uninformed as a radio shock jock. Admittedly, he is far more handsome than any shock jock I have seen in the jungle.

There were certainly things for a Trekkie to like. The opening sequence is dazzling, albeit pointless. The Mr Spocks dialogue was delicious. And the actors were excellent at creating those familiars: Uhura, Chekov, Sulu, McCoy, Scottie, Spock, and Kirk, as well as Khan. They could do it, now if they had just had something interesting to do.


We watched this documentary about the redoubtable Diana Vreeland last night. Recomended for adults.


I knew nothing about Vreeland but thought the distaff side might be interested, so I borrowed it from the local Civic Video on spec. What I found was a force of nature who had no taste whatever but had drive, pride, intelligence, wit, and a capacity to learn. Her attitude seemed to be: be what you are. And strut it. She joined all of that to an enormous appetite for the world, realized through the no-expense-spared camera shoots she did for her magazines. All of this, in some measure, she passed on to those who looked at the editions of her magazines.

She was the long time editor of Harper's Bazaar and then Vogue. She was one of the models for the demanding editor in 'The Devil Wears Prada.'

In the boundless energy, enthusiasm, and bullying she reminded me of Lyndon Johnson. She was likewise as profligate.

Perhaps the most amusing part of the story is her last assignment at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where her shows, and shows they were, brought in masses of paying customers. Those successes condemned her in the eyes of the other curators, numbering her days there. It was easy to imagine meetings where curators argued that having people crowding into the Met was undesirable! I expect they did, though veiled and subtle in public.


On a fine Sunday afternoon with blue sky and green grass aplenty we sat in a dark room and watched “Kon Tiki (2012). Recommended for adults.

Thor Heyedal’s greatest contribution is that he believed those primitive people had the wit and willingness for such a colossal undertaking. I said ‘primitive people’ to mimic that great scourge of reason, Erich von Däniken who always says in response to his own rhetorical question: "How could these primitive people do it?" by saying the aliens did it. Heyedal is a wonderful antidote to that drivel. Moreover, they did not just go with the flow but also charted their travels with the stars.

The film has something for everyone. Some intellectual weight, a cast of handsome Aryans, some light relief, and plenty of adventure and action. Though some viewers may conclude that it all came down to Heyerdal’s will power and conviction and not to the evidence he had before he started and that would be a shame. He did have evidence, and faith does not move ocean currents.

No doubt the moronic fault-finders will find that which they seek and miss the point.

Films are often based on books, but as a rule films simplify books. A novel of 400 pages is reduced to a screenplay of 60-80 pages or less. Minor characters are deleted, background events glossed over, and the context is muted, if not altogether blanked out, to focus on two or three protagonists. As a reader I have generally found the novel much better than the film that claims to be based on it. There are exceptions and I saw one recently. ‘The Secret in their eyes’ (2009) is from Argentina. To read all about it go to the Internet Movie Data Base. (The tools to insert hyperlinks, bolding, and so on remain off-line.)

secret in their eyes.jpg

It is long at 129 minutes and has a surprisingly high score on IMDB of 8.2. It is well deserved. I read the novel some time ago and my notes (yes, I keep notes about the novels I read) speak of a lack of tension, the icy detachment of the central character, underdevelopment of the judge ... concluding that I will not bother to read any more by this writer. Oops! I must have missed quite a lot, because this film follows the book’s plot closely and it is a revelation.

On the surface it is a police procedural with a exotic setting: Argentina during the Dirty War of the 1970s. That is why I read it. Though my notes also say that the Dirty War is never mentioned and there is only one character who seems to have anything to do with it. While that is literally true, the film unmistakably communicates the repression of the society, when even tying a shoe is suspicious, when it is far better not to know than to know ... that secret.

Since most of the film is about files, judicial processes, and the writing of a novel an archaic Olivetti typewriter is where much of the action occurs. The lead is Benjamin Esposito. See the film poster above. While there are two murders, each brutal, the tone is, apart from those punctuations, contemplative and inward. The greatest tension in the film is the elevator ride in the devil's lair. Nothing is said. But when the doors open the judge is gasping for breath and Benjamin is as pale as a ghost. See it!

For action fans there is one incredible scene at a soccer match that leaves one wondering how it was filmed, but filmed it was, not computer magic. The production and direction are supremely confident and fluid in this scene as throughout.

Espositio’s associate Pablo Sandoval also deserves a word. He is played by Guillermo Francella to a T. Sandoval is slovenly, disorganized, reckless, persistent, noble, and -- at times -- creative. It is his constant study of the files that produces the insight which both resolves the plot and states the meaning of the exercise. No one can change who he is. (Yes, no doubt the Word Police will pounce on that rendering as sexist though it is an accurate description of the point in the story, and it does not mix singular and plural.) Gomez is a fan of Racing soccer club and remains that even when he is on the run. Esposito is hopelessly and wordlessly in love with the judge and has been since the first moment he saw her. Sandoval is a nerd.

What I did not get from the book by Eduardo Sacheri, 'La Pregunta de sus ojos' (2005), which by the way I take to mean ‘The question of her eyes,’ is the parallels between the two, intersecting cases of love at a distance.


But thanks to the players and the pacing that gives priority to looks, pauses, and hesitations, it becomes clear first to the viewer and then to the protagonist Benjamin. His unspoken love for the judge is very like the love Isidore Gomez had for his victim, and like Isidore he is incapable of expressing it in a positive way. Or is he? On several occasions the damn he has built around his emotions seems about to burst, but it holds, until a delightful, if incredible, last scene when the judge says, with characteristic understatement, ‘It will be complicated.’

Pedants note. The novel, in editions after the film, has been retitled to match the film.

Conclusion? I will re-read the book, and I suggest that others might do both, read the book and see the film. What is that secret? I think I know. We each have to find it for ourselves.

SBS late night movies has once again given us a gem.

The dean of film reviewers, Roger Ebert, gave it a glowing review. By the way, he is absolutely right about the judge. (As noted above, the hyperlink tool remains unavailable.)

We enjoyed watching Samsara at the Dendy Newtown. Breath-taking visuals from around the world combined with uplifting music. No Brad Pitt, no screen play written by a case of arrested development, no shouting, no message shoved down one's eyes. A meditation, most of which works, some of which does not. All trip and no arrival, much like life. So many arresting images, so many of them completely foreign and yet familiar for all that.



Once again, well still, really, the tools for underlining and linking are unavailable. Cut and paste the link above to see more.

Melvyn Bragg is a higher being. He is erudite, cogent, neutral, and direct. He is an expositor with few equals. I am addicted to 'In Our Time,' his weekly podcast from BBC4. It is a feast for the mind each week. He handles the panel discussion with three specialists with a deceptive ease, striving always to get them to drop the academic caution, the polyglot speak, qualifications that swamp the main point, and communicate to the educated listener who would like to be informed.

Some of these qualities can be seen in the ABC-Television interview he did recently in Sydney in the link below.

Compare him to the aggressive, simple-minded journalist who interviews him. Her goal is to trip him up into yet another slang-off at the Murdoch press, as if the ABC was ever short of them. When that fails she loses interest until another slang off at religion from the ever full arsenal of clichés that pass for journalism. Spirituality is evidently unknown there.

Along the way, by implication, he gives her a lesson in interviewing, help the subject say what he has to say. Point not taken, I should imagine.

As a result only about half the interview concerns the subject that brought Bragg to the interview. Thus do ABC journalist grind their own axes on the public dole.


Lord Melvyn Bragg of Wigton is a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction. We first encountered him with his masterly "The Adventure of English." There is a book, but it is boring compared to the film, so find the DVD. We loved the recitations.

Bragg adventure,jpg

Dress sense was not his strong point in this film.


Euripides pared to the essentials. Not one word, not one gesture is wasted. Nor is there ever an iota more than necessary.


"Edge of Darkness" 1985.

As Karl Marx said, the first time is tragedy and the second time is farce. This review concerns the first time "Edge of Darkness" was produced.


Changing policy is easy, changing people is impossible. This is the link to my IMDB review.


One of the central political points of the story is that policies come and go, but people stay. When one policy is set in motion, it rolls on, even if back at headquarters the policy has changed. Darius Jedburgh explains the changes of policies in Washington to Ron Craven, with a shrug. The policy changed but the people who worked for the previous policy went on. Policies can be turned on and off, in this case, by executive orders, but people cannot. When Jedburgh set up GAIA he recruited believers who would do some serious work, and when Washington policy changed, they just kept going as best they could. There is an important message here that few people in the policy business ever get. Once something is started, it may take on a life of it own. The lesson to draw then is to be careful about what is started, a lesson few learn.

What is the difference between the voice of the mob and the voice of the people?

Seven days in May.jpg

The core of the film is a compelling dialog about democracy. The general just might be right. The beleaguered president still has one thing the general does not have, an electoral mandate. When he explains what that means, it is worth listening.

My IMDB review

Recommended for adults.

Il generale della Rovere (1959) has been released, at last, on DVD.


A measured story of spiritual growth, self-realization, and redemption in the worst of times. For adults.

MY IMDB review.

Recommended to all students of the human condition.

Persistence pays off again.

2 comments |

The Authors

About the Blog

Thoughts on the canon of poltical theory and life.

You are visitor:
hit counter script