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Review: “Dunkirk”

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Four stars

I’ve interviewed dozens of veterans of battle over the years, and when you ask them what it was like, when they can re-imagine the entire spectacle played out before them, most say, “It was like a movie.” And why not? Film is the primary shared visual and communicative experience of the last century. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet who can’t reference a movie.
Movies about battles are more difficult than movies about wars. It’s a matter of perspective and storytelling — whether the narrative thrust via the the storyteller is a gold-braided general or a grunt private. Your choices boil down to (A) What happened and why? and (B) What was it like to be there? These are two fundamentally different approaches to storytelling and trying to do both in a battle film can be self-defeating. A battle film generally goes with the (A) approach and the war film with (B). Sort of like menu choices — something to decide on before preparing the meal.
The gold standard for big-time battle films has always been “The Longest Day,” based on (and closely following) Cornelius Ryan’s history book that told the story of the battle through private vignettes. It’s a huge film, both in scope and length, and frankly, it was made by people who were at the actual battle and had an interest in telling things correctly and were willing to spend production money and amped-up running time to do so.
All the little vignettes together, almost like a collection of short stories, added up to a battle movie that told the story of the fight in strategic, big-picture terms. “Longest Day” has an eagle’s-eye reserve on the storytelling process. Compare it to Sam Fuller’s “Big Red One,” however. Fuller served with the First Infantry Division, and that movie’s vision of the Omaha landings seems to occupy about 30 square feet. That was Fuller’s view of Omaha when he landed there. Battle movies need to decide whether they’re about war or about soldiers.
Which almost brings us to “Dunkirk.” But first, some notes that are so obvious that they form a battle movie catechism:
* Movies aren’t about facts. They’re about emotions.
* Movies don’t show reality. They show artistically filtered impressions of reality.
* However finely made, movies are a commercial product. (This imposes limits on everything from pre-production to running time.)
* Movies are made by creative, dedicated artistes who — nonetheless — generally know nothing about the subject.
* Filmmakers are more interested in a story arc that provides an internal emotional “truth,” a payoff bang, than in lecturing and hectoring. They want your heart, not your brain.
It is pretty much impossible to separate writer-director Christopher Nolan from his new film “Dunkirk.” It is Nolanistic in its on-the-beat — albeit intersecting — time signatures and replete with wittily visual Nolanisms throughout. The basic story has been told before, primarily in a large-budget 1958 British production with the same title and made with the stiffest of upper lips.
The tale is heartfelt throughout England and barely known in the United States — we tend to think of it as a charming British fable about plucky lads in cockleshell boats pulling the Tommies out of snapping German jaws. But it is, of course, much more than that. As the British Expeditionary Force tried to reinforce the Belgians on the left flank and the French armies collapsed on the right flank, they were funneled into a narrow sector of shallow beaches. Goering assured Hitler that his Luftwaffe bombers could handle the situation, and so the Wehrmacht tank brigades (running low on fuel anyway) hung back, out of harm’s way.
The situation escalated into something like 400,000 Allied soldiers, mostly British, trapped in the open, under regular aerial attack, in a place where large ships could not pick them up. It was almost the entire British army. Unless there was a way to get them across 26 miles of freezing, choppy English Channel, Britain’s defenses were hollowed out. Luckily, the small geographic scope of the battle allowed for British boats of shallow draft to cross the Channel and pick up soldiers a few at a time. The armada of tiny boats managed to rescue enough of the British Army to fight another day against the Nazis. The annihilation of the entire British army was such a near-run thing that Winston Churchill felt compelled to “fight them on the beaches, fight them on the landing grounds … we will never surrender.”
Nolan’s retelling of this episode is heavy on the desperation and danger, and that is the proper place to be. It’s told as a soldiers’ story, not a general’s story. There are no markers moved around on map boards. There are instead bullets arriving without warning, from any direction, and no way to fight back except to flee in good order.
But because this is a Christopher Nolan movie, told in Nolan Time, it’s a bit more than a horror-movie shootemup. Nolan demands that an audience pay attention, and provides clues through editing and pacing so that the story arc falls into place. (If there’s a fault with Nolan’s storytelling, it’s that it is a bit too detached and clinical. He’s a mathematician for which all things must add up.) His work with “Dunkirk” is so brilliantly realized that it is not only one of the great battle movies of all time, he is showing us a way forward to shoot similar things in the future.
Any critical analysis of “Dunkirk,” (or any battle film) falls into two parts, separate but not necessarily equal. On one hand, how well is it structured to tell the tale it wants to tell? Because this film is created in Nolan Time, it is fragmented in a clinical way. He has decided to tell it in three arenas, divided into Land, Water and Air (the film actually titles these on the screen). Each is given roughly equal weight; the plight of the soldiers on the beach, the efforts of the civilian boatsmen trying to reach them, the work done by Royal Air Force fighter pilots trying to protect both Land and Water.
The great pleasure in the storytelling arc is how these elements move swiftly together. Nolan’s biggest trick is that the film starts out being epic and moves effortlessly to the intimate, while at the same time dialing up the dramatic pressure. What seems to be random events becomes a small microcosm of the entire situation — and he then provides enough of a denouement to catch your breath — forcing the audience to reflect. This is either sure-footed and classy filmmaking, or too clever by half, and probably both, but Nolan manages to succeed mightily. Much will depend on whether you’re fascinated or confused by Nolan’s playful and elastic experiments in the relative passage of time. Nolanistas will swoon. Still, this is his most approachable film.
As for the battle itself, it is largely over when the film opens. For the Germans, it’s a mopping-up operation. For the British, it’s a looming disaster. Still, lives are in the balance. You never really see the enemy — death comes from any angle (land, sea, sky?) and unexpectedly. This situation never lets go, and actually revvs up as “Dunkirk” progresses.
Most of the characters don’t even have names — the first British soldier we meet is actually named “Tommy”! — and the relative anonymity of the cast lends itself to the overall feeling of inclusiveness. The big trick that “The Longest Day” used, and it became the primary casting solution for battle movies ever since, was to cast big-name and familiar actors into small parts that fit their public persona. The notion became a scripting shorthand. The real Maj. Julian Cook in “A Bridge Too Far” was a kind of Robert Redfordish character, so cast Robert Redford in the brief part, and let sheer star-power steam over the five-minute-and-done performance.
There are only a few familiar faces in “Dunkirk” (and Tom Hardy’s is masked) and so the film is cozily communal. And also allows the soldiers to be played by actors who are properly young enough.
And that other hand — is it accurate? Does it get the details right? Largely. I can’t speak for the Royal Navy destroyers, but as an aviation historian, I was delighted with the Mk.1 Spitfires, the screaming sirens on the Stukas, the pilots’ concentration on fuel economy, the measured machine-gun bursts, even the way the Messerschmitts and Heinkels were photographed to minimizes their Buchon engine adaptations. It doesn’t cost any more to get things right in a film, and treats the audience with respect.
“Dunkirk” is filmed largely with practical effects, and very little (if any) blood and gore. It avoids the gun-and-guts porn of other recent war movies, which are made by filmmakers with more experience with “Call Of Duty” than an actual call to duty. This does not lessen the lessons. “Dunkirk” is a big movie about a big subject, and a sobering look at the actual costs of war. Urge your political representative to see it.

Review: “Criminal”

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

2 stars

This movie stays true throughout to its goofy premise, which is something of a miracle, given the many opportunities it has to either go flat-out actioner or philosophical conundrum. No. “Criminal” stays the course, resolutely remaining a character-driven shoot-em-up with a mild sci-fi veneer, and played so straight that it is nearly a parody.
Kevin Costner reprises the sort of character situation he faced in “Three Days to Kill” a couple of years ago, a tough guy with a mortal countdown clock. Here, though, thanks to a childhood brain injury, he’s a completely amoral criminal sociopath who, for the benefit of society, is both locked in a cell and required to wear neck chains.
Seems part of his brain is missing, waiting to be filled. They might as well named his character Tabula Rasa.
Ryan Reynolds is short-lived as a CIA agent working an important case, and when he’s killed, CIA case officer Gary Oldman dragoons brain-surgeon Tommy Lee Jones to electronically drain Reynolds’ brain of memories and dump them into Costner’s empty noggin.
It works, after a fashion, and Costner’s violent lunatic is gradually tempered down into warm and fuzzy. But not so much so that he’s still hacheting people to death in the final reel.
Most of the pleasure in “Criminal” comes from witnessing Costner’s crazy killer’s befuddlement at the occasional human emotion. He’s actually very funny. And often horrifying at the same time. That’s fun to see as he seesaws between nature and nurture.
The other casting that’s fun is Jones and Oldman, because they’re essentially playing each others’ roles, at least the generic ones they’re usually offered. Jones is the cool-cucumber, cerebral scientist, and Oldman is the perpetually angry section chief. Actually, Oldman is so explosive that he needs a brain-personality download himself.
The rest of the movie? Bang, bang, bang, car crash, car crash, car crash, boom-boom, wango-tango. All delivered at top volume and pyrotechnics, and competently executed, but that’s about it.
“Criminal” is a kind of mash-up between “Charly” and every somberly gray-toned, big-city shoot-em-up you’ve ever seen. If you don’t take it seriously, it can be fun.

Review: “The Jungle Book”

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

“The Jungle Book”
3.5 stars

Although anthropomorphism and personification have existed as literary devices for — literally —thousands of years, there was a real explosion towards the end of the Victorian era. In addition to Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” tales, there was “The Wind In the Willows,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Peter Rabbit,” “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Tarzan of the Apes,” right up to more recent bouts with serious literature, like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Watership Down,” and “Animal Farm.”
All this background because the newest incarnation of “The Jungle Book” made me wonder, who the hell is King Louie?
OK, he’s the oversized orangutang who heads a ruined temple full of monkeys, and he sings songs and acts both endearingly and menacingly, but Louie isn’t a character in Kipling’s stories. Orangs don’t live in India, and Kipling made the point several times that monkeys were incapable of being led — they were a pack of anarchists.
It turns out King Louie is wholly a Disney creation for the 1960s animated film, a character created from scratch in order to paper over the darker philosophical themes of the original work. Disney’s lawyers are careful to credit their work as “inspired” by Kipling, instead of an honest or straight-forward adaption. “Jungle Book” has been a cash cow for Disney, one they return to every few years to milk for remakes and spin-offs.
The 1967 animated film, for all that, is well-loved and a high point of hand-drawn animation. It is the last animated film that Uncle Walt personally oversaw and it became a touchstone for a whole generation. The new film is a remake of that film, not of Kipling’s canon. (It might be helpful to recall that Kipling’s books are collections of short stories with reoccurring animal characters, not a single long-arc story.)
This latest edition is also an extraordinary work of animation — apparently, the only real thing in it is little Neel Sethi as Mowgli. It also benefits from being helmed by Jon Favreau, a director who puts special effects at the service of story and character, instead of the other way ‘round. It’s also the first movie in a very, very long time that works well in 3-D. Very well!
It looks startlingly real. Favreau’s jungle is a dirty, messy, dangerous place. Mowgli (played by Sethi with a buoyant, yet cautious, optimism) is covered with bruises, stings, scars and mud, just the way a little boy in the jungle would be.
The animals do talk, in American and British accents. I guess it would be too much to have Mowgli sound like a tech-service telephone solicitor from Bombay. The animals look incredibly real, and Favreau doesn’t make them do facial gymnastics to make it look like they’re talking. Sometimes its as if we’re hearing their thoughts.
The voice casting is first-rate, and neatly encapsulates how we know the characters. Bagheera the panther, voiced by Ben Kingsley, is stern and concerned; Baloo the bear, voiced by Bill Murray, is the vocal equivalent of sly sloth; Shere Khan the burnt tiger, voiced by Idris Elba, is absolutely terrifying. The late Garry Shandling has a swell turn as a porcupine, Scarlett Johansson’s silky seductiveness is scary as the giant snake Kaa, and Christopher Walken’s King Louie is just plain weird (in a way that works), a mix of Brooklyn gangster and Apocalypse Now Brando.
“Jungle Book” draws you right in with the frankly amazing CGI work, Favreau’s skill at visual story-telling and the existing pop-culture familiarity with the characters. The story? Same as previous editions from Disney, but this time served up with realism and verve. Some of it is actually pretty scary.
It all works up to a point, and the exact point where it breaks loose is when suddenly the movie shifts mood and tone in order to reprise the cheesy pop songs from the 1967 animated film. Way to renew copyright, Disney! The musical interludes reinforce nothing except the notion that Disney views “Jungle Book” as product instead of literature.

Review: “13 Hours”

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

“13 Hours”
Three Stars

By Burl Burlingame

When a movie states at the outset “This is a true story,” as “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” does, that doesn’t mean it’s an accurate story. It can’t be. The simple physics of time and space mitigate against a true moment-by-moment replay. In this case, 13 hours are shoehorned into a couple of hours, and characters are combined and events blended.

Here’s the kicker — movies aren’t reality. They’re, at best, impressions of reality, strained through a filter. Well, duh.

“13 Hours” actually spans about a week, during a critical, dangerous time in Benghazi. It’s just after the revolution, and just before the 9/11 anniversary in 2012. American ambassador Chris Stevens is trying to woo the disaffected Libyans, but there are dangerous anti-American elements out there, and it’s hard to tell who’s who. He’s holed up, not in well-guarded embassy, but in the seized compound of a former Libyan millionaire.

Only about a mile away, in a similar set-up, the CIA has an office. The difference between them is that the ambassador’s security is thin and new at the job, and the CIA’s security has a half-dozen tough, ex-military contract soldiers.

At the same time riots break out all of the Middle East over an anti-Allah YouTube video, militant forces of indeterminate origin assault Stevens’ compound, overrunning it, and then hit the CIA base. During the attack on Stevens, the CIA security team mounts an ad-hoc rescue mission and manages to retrieve some of the Americans at Stevens’ place, but not Stevens, who has already died in the smoke and fire.

They return to the CIA compound and fight off wave after wave on insurgents. It’s all very Alamo.

Needless to say, this is all soup and nuts for director Michael Bay, who never met a script he couldn’t blow up. Bay has peculiar talent for grand, crashing chaos — the sturmiest of drangs — and it’s all on display here. As a plus, Bay has discovered cameras mounted on drones, and so the eye of the screen flies merrily through the whizzing bullets and smoking rockets and shrieking bad guys and gut-crunching explosions. Yeah, baby.

This is probably Bay’s best film to date. It also has the baggage of political expectations. Hillary-haters will be disappointed, as the movie is focused on the firefight, not on political fireworks. But Hillary-haters already have their minds made up, so it doesn’t matter.

What “13 Hours” does do, and does so brilliantly, is recreate the absolute chaos and stifling options of urban warfare in the third world. It is the best film to do so since “Black Hawk Down.” Warfare in this region of the world is done door-to-door, with individual weapons, and the narrow streets lined with buildings of no more than two stories are shot traps and sniper fields. Add to that the near-impossibility of telling friend from foe, and you have essentially a no-win scenario.

Americans have always been quick to blame ourselves rather than credit the enemy. Chris Stevens was killed by a rabble of thugs, not by protocol glitches. It’s too bad that our tough contract soldiers were not able to rescue the ambassador, but the ambassador, by his own choice, was way out there in the badlands. There was no way to get aerial help to him in time — planes only fly so fast.

But should the air assets have been mobilized anyway? That’s one of the few questions raised by the film. My impression — and I thank “13 Hours” for the impetus to think upon it — is that modern warfare and modern communications work at cross purposes. The ease of communication leads to battles being commanded at long-distance, by multiple levels of command, instead of relying on the initiative of those few on the scene. Tragedies like Benghazi occur when there’s too many people in command and no one in charge.

“In the Heart of the Sea” — That She Blows!

Friday, December 11th, 2015

“In the Heart of the Sea”
1 star

By Burl Burlingame / Special to the Star-Advertiser

Call me unimpressed.

True confession time: As a wee lad, I lived in a remote place where the local library was so small there was no division between children’s and adult books. In fifth grade, I pulled “Moby Dick” from the shelf and read it. It was tough going at first, but you get used to the rhythm of Herman Melville’s rich language. I became fascinated with the man-against-the-sea challenge of harpooning whales.

So, here we are a few years later, and killing whales is just about the uncoolest thing anyone can do. And here we have “In the Heart of the Sea,” Ron Howard’s visually ambitious retelling of the true story of the Moby Dick yarn, studded occasionally with pop-up segues of plot exposition with an actor playing Melville. The bookending — plus, essentially, chapter headings — by the Melville actor (Ben Whishaw) makes the whole thing seem, well, a little book-reportly, rather than seamlessly organic storytelling.

At a time when whale-oil was all the rage for lighting cities, the dauntless whalers of Nantucket roamed the seas looking for whales to kill. Once slaughtered, the creatures were diced up and the chunks fed into pots for rendering. It was a very dangerous, filthy, grotesque way to make a living, and naturally, New Englanders proudly excelled at it.

“Sea” tells the tale of whaler Essex, her snooty, neophyte skipper (Benjamin Walker) and surly first mate (Chris Hemsworth) on the hunt for whales, and how one whale got fed up and bashed the ship to pieces, and how the surviving sailors drifted across the Pacific for 90 days. They even had to feed on each other as they died, but the movie studiously looks away when that happens.

This really happened. The angry whale, which had white patches on its blubber, became the role model for the “great white whale” Moby Dick. “Moby Dick,” however, is a work of fiction, and “In the Heart of the Sea” is a work of fiction memorializing a true story that became a work of fiction.

Movies aren’t reality, they’re impressions. And so “Sea” does its best to drop you into that particular time and space, but because it’s a movie, the whale is given motive and personality, and because the movie is supposedly a true story, the universal themes are sucked out of the main characters and they seem pale and dull next to the whale.

It’s all very sea-going and wet. At least no one says “Yo-ho-ho!” Howard is reliable at building an action scene, gets good work out of his actors, and the art direction is first-class. The editing is a bit turgid, and the movie is longer than it needs to be, but that’s not the primary problem with “Sea.”

The movie is fatally compromised by a marketing decision. Not just hurt by this decision, but killed dead, as if there were a quivering harpoon in its heart.

The problem is that it was made to be projected in 3D, which affects all visual aspects and compositions.

Let’s get real. 3D only works in intimate settings. “Sea” is a story about the grandness of nature, the boundless horizon of the ocean, and the smallness of man. It requires visual storytelling of the highest order. But to make this production work in 3D, everything is shot in extreme closeup. There are virtually no establishing visual compositions, which completely scuttles the storytelling choreography. This, in turn, leads to jittery editing. To hammer home the 3D aspects, the movie regularly resorts to extreme close-ups of inanimate objects, as long as one end of the object is closer to the screen. The water scenes even leave fake drops of water on the “camera lens,” because it looks more 3D that way.

This tale, which should be expansive and grand, is hijacked by the demands of the 3D process, making it small and crowded, myopically claustrophobic and deeply murky. The movie begins and ends with a character who makes crude, tiny ships inside dirty bottles, which is actually the best visual metaphor that “In the Heart of the Sea” can say about itself.

Review: ‘Black Mass’

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

“Black Mass”
Three stars


Johnny Depp has certainly played a number of odd characters over the year, but this is the first time in memory he’s played a monster. And what a monster. “Black Mass” is the bizarre, perfectly true tale of psychopathic hood “Whitey” Bulger, and Depp has, as usual, zipped the character up over his head and disappeared into it.

There’s just enough of Depp’s wry humanity evident to make Bulger disarmingly — and disturbingly — real. After all, Bulger loved his mother. He loved his son. After both of them died, Bulger loved killing others.

It’s to “Black Mass” credit that the film does not dwell on murder, while at the same time it makes murder both terrifying and banal. There are monsters among us.

These monsters lived in Boston, circa the 1970s. Bulger was a neighborhood tough, and his brother Billy was an up-and-coming politician. Childhood friend John Connolly has gone straight and joined the FBI. Reassigned to Boston to “clean up the gangs,” Connolly has what he thinks is a bright idea. He recruits Bulger as an informant, but Bulger only snitches on the rival gangs.

The Italian gang is taken down. The Irish gang, Bulger’s, thrives. It’s your basic deal made with the devil.

It all goes sour. You knew it would. The amazing thing — and again, this is a true story — is that it went on for nearly two decades.

Depp’s general dark appearance is transformed into a ghostly thug so pale that his friends nicknamed him Whitey. It’s a startling and spooky transformation, revved up by Depp’s quiet, cobra-like malevolence. OK, it’s likely an Oscar nom.

The central character, though, and the dramatic throughput of the story arc, is FBI agent Connolly, played with Boston brio by Aussie actor Joel Edgerton. After all, the last time we saw Edgerton, he was shaved head to toe, playing Ramses in “Exodus,” and here he’s all ’70s trash and flash, complete with a Breck Girl pompadour. His self-delusion and hero-worship of Bulger is nearly as scary as Bulger himself.

The Boston Southie locations seem real and set in the proper time frame. The film is not an action movie, and has long periods of creepy quiet. It might seem long and dull to a generation raised on “Grand Theft Auto,” but it is immersive in a grim world that seems both broad and claustrophobic.

It’s what you might call a character study. In Bulger’s case, it’s a study of a lack of character.

The title comes from the true-crime book by a couple of Boston Globe reporters. I’m sure the title means something in the book, but there’s no context for it here. “Black Mass” just seems like code words thrown together at random. When an associate of Bulger’s is interrogated and asked what his relationship was, he replies, “Strictly criminal.” There, folks, is your movie title.

Godzilla’s Big Foot

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

2 stars

It’s always interesting to see places you know well on the silver screen, and it’s even better if these places get destroyed by gigantic monsters. So when, in “Godzilla,” a military functionary announces there’s an “anomaly northeast of Diamond Head,” we barely have time to think “Kaimuki?” when the scene shifts to a trackless jungle dozens — maybe hundreds — of miles away from civilization, and the automatic reaction is, “That ain’t right …”

Spoiler alert: Movies aren’t reality. Movies are a fever-dream impression of reality. That’s why McGarrett and Danno can make a left turn on Waialae Avenue and immediately be on the North Shore. And why Godzilla can wade ashore on lovely evening in Waikiki, tear the joint apart, get attacked by fighter jets, and then hightail it across the Koolaus without waking up folks over in Waianae.

It’s interesting. The early Hawaii scenes are clearly filmed in Waikiki, but the mountains appear a little too close, or maybe they’re quite a bit too tall. They are towering over Waikiki. And uninhabited, because there’s no suburban streetlights visible. But we barely have time to focus on Waikiki before we discover that Oahu’s rail-transit system is already up and running, and the international airport has expanded mightily, with enclosed glass-window concourses. (And, alas, neither proves to be monster-proof.)

There’s just enough reality to lend reasonable suspension-of-disbelief to the rest of the proceedings. And the reason gigantic monsters destroy recognizable landmarks is because the landmarks are recognizable. D’uh, bro. The Golden Gate Bridge has been destroyed so many times in movies that I’ve lost count. The bridge eats it here too, naturally, when the monsters destroy San Francisco. Only the Transamerica Pyramid is unscathed, likely because its image is copyrighted and the Golden Gate Bridge is in public domain.

Oops, did I say monsters, plural? The “Godzilla” trailers have been most excellent in playing up the awesomeness without getting very specific on details. There are three, count ‘em, three monsters for the price of one in “Godzilla.”

How has it come to this? There’s no size limit where it comes to metaphors. The bigger the better. And when you’re dealing with a filmic metaphor that encapsulates both the harsh resiliency of nature and the bumbling hubris of mankind … well, the sky’s the limit.

Toho Studios’ surprise 1954 hit, “Gojira,” which was redubbed into English and some additional American scenes added, was released in the U.S. as “Godzilla, KIng of the Monsters” in 1956, and a classic movie monster was born. There have been dozens of versions since, and a not-so-subtle recasting of Godzilla from a Tokyo-stomper into a Japanese folk hero, but basically, all the films since boil down to a guy in a rubber suit kicking over balsa-wood model skyscrapers. You gotta love the schadenfreude involved, and the movies are the perfect arena to experience destructo-porn.

The original film, however, was a fairly dark — and not-so-subtle — metaphor for the horrors of nuclear war. This notion has pretty much evaporated, paralleling Japan’s increasing dependence on nuclear power.

The American nightmare that provides context and weight is the 9/11 attack, and the long shadow of that horror has permeated American films since. Add to that the crushing natural disaster of the 2011 tsunami in Iwate Prefecture that swamped the Fukushima nuclear plant, and you have a modern-day recipe for a Godzilla movie.

This grim background gives the new film some karmic weight. It all starts out promisingly a bit more than a decade ago as a nuclear plant in Japan has a meltdown, perhaps due to a concurrent and mysteriously regular seismic disturbance. The guy in charge (Bryan Cranston, looking bug-eyed crazy) and his wife (Juliette Binoche, looking fab) are harshly effected by the disaster, and when “Godzilla” zips up to the present day, their Seal-team son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) finds himself dragged back into the mystery as the seismic drumbeats start up again. Also on board are a freaked-out Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe, with odd English diction) and his Sancho Panza, a sidekick (Sally Hawkins) who doesn’t seem to have a name and exists mainly to provide expository dialogue.

Director Gareth Edwards, whose only previous series credit was the independent thriller “Monsters,” does a fine job here with Spielbergian camera moves and composite shots, plus that hard-to-capture sense of overwhelming awesomeness,

Predictably, on a human level, “Godzilla” is meh. The human “star” actors don’t last long, and the second-string actors who carry the rest of the film are, as you might expect, fall under Godzilla’s shadow. They’re mostly reduced to staring upward in horror or dusting themselves off after being buried by rubble.

The real stars are the monsters. Big, big, sprawling monsters. There’s the Big G himself (The film notes state that Godzilla is 350 feet tall, but who’s measuring?) plus some awkward-looking insectoid / pterodactylish / bullfroggy creatures they call “Mutos.” Godzilla spends much of the film getting from here to there so he can thrash them. Godzilla is so focused on this that he doesn’t notice the convoy of US Navy ships keeping him close company, or that he’s stomped Waikiki into brightly-painted rubble. Big G doesn’t even stop to eat.

Come to think of it, there’s been a curious switch in Godzilla’s diet since 1954. Instead of being a poster child for the horrors of nuclear radiation, Godzilla and the Mutos “eat” radiation for breakfast. Godzilla has retained his morning-after radiation breath, however.

Eating radiation? So much for science.

Hey, Mr. Science, can there really be giant monsters like Godzilla?

Actually, no. The problem is the tensile strength of the average cell. There is an upper limit to how much strain can be placed upon the cells in bones and muscles, and the enormous mass of such a creature would rend the cells apart. Even though some of the dinosaur sauropods were dozens of feet long, they were long and narrow in their physical structure. Cetaceans such as whales have large body mass, but they are supported by water, which is 800 times denser than air. Not to mention the caloric intake required by a Godzilla-sized creature to supply nutrients throughout its gigantic frame. A monster the size of Godzilla would collapse under its own mass, the pressure actually liquifying the body cells into a kind of protein ooze.

Gee, Mr. Science, you’re kind of a bummer. Think I’ll escape reality by going to the movies.

Watch out!

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Here’s a snapshot of a new lobby card for an upcoming comedy film. I actually said “Ouch!” out loud when I saw it. I can’t imagine the kind of damage control going on at the distribution company right now.

Beauty fades, friendship endures

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Clifton Webb feeds chocolates to Marilyn Monroe and Laurette Luez on the set of 'Sitting Pretty,' 1947. Well, SOMEone had to do it.

Though it is said that Helen of Troy’s beauty was such that her face launched a thousand ships, it was the girl on the cigar box that stopped Richard Blackburn dead in his tracks.

That face! That figure! The vision of womanliness reached out to him through the cheap gold foil of the package. Blackburn was only eight years old at the time, in the mid-’60s, but he remembers holding up a checkout line while gawking at the cigar label.

He memorized the face. He memorized the figure. He was transfixed.

As he grew older, as he learned where to look, Blackburn began seeing her everywhere. Pulpish girlie magazines such as Modern Man. Hollywood publicity stills. The covers of girl-in-danger mystery paperbacks, the kind that invariably showed her bursting out of a peasant blouse, on a darkened staircase, being menaced by a fiend. Among the sea of faces in crowd shots; an extra in B-movies. A long-running role as the evil daughter in the 1950s ”Fu Manchu” TV serial, available later on videotape. And, all too rarely, a star in movies like “Kim,” with Errol Flynn, in ”D.O.A.” with Edmond O’Brien, in “Ballad of a Gunfighter” with Marty Robbins, and for one glorious, cheesy, fur-bikini moment, the name above the title in the 1950 ”Prehistoric Women.”

It was a time when a woman’s fuselage was celebrated for its natural shapeliness, not its artificial toning.

The cigar girl’s name, Blackburn learned, was Laurette Luez. And that she came from Hawaii.

Elizabeth Taylor, as a young actress, avoided being photographed next to Laurette Luez.

Born Loretta Luiz, she spent her first year cradled in a guitar case as her English-Portuguese parents worked the Far East vaudeville circuit. Mother Francesca was a glamour gal herself, and danced on the stage while father Frank sang in Spanish. As a Honolulu teenager in World War II, Luez became one of the favorite pin-ups of GIs fighting in the Pacific. She was occasionally featured on the cover of the Star-Bulletin’s Sunday magazine.

Hollywood took notice, and her first role was as a Malay dancing girl in ”Dr. Wassell” with Gary Cooper. When the war ended, 17-year-old Luez was signed by 20th-Century Fox and cast immediately in ”Anna and the King of Siam.”

Over the next decade Luez found herself cast primarily as exotic, foreign beauties in a variety of not-great movies. Along the way, she suffered a fractured skull on location, was romanced by Howard Hughes, married and divorced actor Philip Soldano — whom she met at a screen test — and was briefly engaged to producer Sam Goldwyn Jr. When Luez dumped Goldwyn uncermoniously a few months later, all Hollywood wondered why. She then married the producer of “Prehistoric Women,” a union that fell apart when the picture wrapped.

Luez also befriended another budding actress in drama class. Norma Jean Baker was searching for a new name, and Luez had a theory about allitertive names that echo famous people. She suggested combining the names of actress Marilyn Miller and the Monroe Doctrine. Luez believed she was the source of Marilyn Monroe’s screen name.

By the late ’50s, Luez’ career arc essentially peaked, and she was only in her late 20s. In 1957, Luez married a fellow named Robert Creel, which lasted until he died two decades later. Afraid of the effect Hollywood would have on her three children, the couple eventually settled in Florida. She considered returning to film, but a nagging health problem that turned out to be diabetes derailed that dream.

And so Luez vanished into the mists of popular culture.

Blackburn, by now a deputy sheriff and manager of his family’s Los Angeles apartment buildings, owned a copy of “Prehistoric Women” on videotape, and would watch it when he was feeling low. He was still entranced by the sloe-eyed girl, and a Spanish maid he employed kept telling him she knew where the lady in the video lived — nearby, almost a neighbor. Blackburn laughed it off.

Later, he became consumed with curiousity about Luez and began a search for her fan mail address. It turned out the maid had been right. Luez and Blackburn had been unknowingly crossing paths for 20 years.

He sent flowers to the address, but they were returned. Luez had moved out shortly before. In 1998, he tried a long shot, wiring flowers to a white-pages listing in Florida, and that night Luez called him.

They became telephone friends and confessors. Blackburn learned that Goldwyn used to beat Luez, that she suffered from emphysema due to cigarettes, that Greta Garba had made a pass at her but Howard Hughes never had, that her pregnant mother had been told by a swami in India that the child would be world-famous.

“We discussed each others’ problems and thought of solutions together,” said Blackburn. “I wanted to meet her in person; she was 100 percent first-class. She sounded very nice and had a high-class voice.”

Blackburn sorted her memorabilia for her and created a website devoted to Luez. They planned to meet.

And in mid-September, 1999, Blackburn received an email from Luez’ daughter Claudia. The star of “Prehistoric Women” had died suddenly at age 71, at home in Milton, FL. The only obituary of Luez was written by the Los Angeles Times, noting only her career in film was that of an ”exotic brunet beauty.”

Blackburn, stunned, took solace in the thought that Luez’ ashes were scattered over the Atlantic, rather than the Pacific, because she believed that all oceans — like all lives and interrupted careers and unexpected friendships — were interconnected, a part of a whole, and that there was a reason a girl’s picture on a cigar box would, and could, stop a boy in his tracks.

Movie Review: “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

Gad, what a needy woman. Joan Rivers’ idea of a nightmare is a blank page in her datebook. This new documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” follows the comedienne around for a year, and she has plenty on her plate, generally three appearances or projects a day. Does she sleep? And when she does, does she dream about not meeting goals for herself?
It’s all self-inflicted, so we don’t feel too sorry for her. The fallout is that she’s rich and surrounded by supportive people. On the other hand, she’s also desperate for money, deserved or not; and her supportive people basically burn out. Even her long-time manager, Billy Sammeth, during the course of the film, disappears, which calls for Rivers to weep lonesomely and then fire him. (Sammeth recently sued Rivers over his portrayal in the film, although Rivers had no control over how the film was edited. In show biz, keep your friends close, your legal advisor closer.)
Rivers is in her 70s, following a schedule that would kill people half her age. Much is made of her extensive plastic surgery, which by now resembles a kabuki mask melting in place like that guy in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
There’s relatively little related about her early years, fixating mostly on her needy relationship with Johnny Carson, a subject that provides a tipping point in a play she wrote about — of course — about herself, “Joan Rivers: A Work In Progress By A Life In Progress,” the tryouts for which consume a third of the film. The play meets middling success in England, but because there are no raves, Rivers abandons the project instead of bringing it to the U.S. She talks endlessly about her need for approval as an actress. The comedy, she claims, is just a side gig until she can make it as a thespian. What are we to make of that? What drives her to desire what she hasn’t got?
The filmmakers keep a cool distance, as if they’re stalking wild game. Joan Rivers is no slacker. She’s pointy, obtuse, crude, daring, fragile, angry, a case study of an overachiever in a business that celebrates mediocrity and cruelty to yesterday’s headliners. She’s mean to, but meaner to herself.
Joan Rivers is a master at making you laugh, sometimes in surprise, sometimes in wonderment, mostly in shock at self-revelation. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” may be the most entertaining slow-motion train wreck ever filmed.