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Review: ‘Black Mass’

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

“Black Mass”
Three stars

By Burl Burlingame / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER

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

“Godzilla”
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.

Movie Review: Curse you, “Red Baron”!

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010


Every once in a while a movie comes along that you can’t wait to see, but when you finally get to see it, you realize — sigh — that it’s just a movie, and not a very good one at that. “The Red Baron” hit me that way.
Made a couple of years ago, “Der Rote Baron” was supposedly the most expensive film ever made in Germany, and when it was released, it was a tremendous flop. It was hard to figure out why from reviews. The YouTube clips of the flying sequences looked tremendous. Apparently, Germans don’t care much for war movies these days, even those that star a great national hero.
It took from then until now for the film to be released on disk. I tried to pick one up at Suncoast, but the girl there told me tartly that a film like that doesn’t appeal to “their” class of customers. Shrug. Order a copy of “The Red Baron” on Blu-Ray, which arrived promptly. I prepared by previewing Roger Corman’s “Von Richthofen and Brown,” from 1969.
The Red Baron is Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, the highest-scoring ace of the Greta War, with 80 victories, one of the first superstar pilots and a pop-culture icon. He was the terror of the Western Front until he was shot down by either Canadian pilot Roy Brown or a gang of Aussie soldiers on the ground popping off with rifles.
“Von Richthofen and Brown” was a low-budget actioner that contrasted the command styles of the two men, von Richthofen the dashing, titled Prussian; Brown, the dour, common realist. The remaining cast is a rogue’s gallery of famous aviators, including Hermann Goring, Ernst Udet and teenage Werner Voss, von Richthofen’s rival and friend. It is a snapshot of the changing face of warfare, and is largely successful as a movie. But it suffered from its small budget, and the aeroplanes and other details were inaccurate, although likely only us rivet-counters noticed.
Flash-forward to now, with a grand budget and the latest CGI techniques, and “The Red Baron” looks terrific and the aeroplanes are wonderfully accurate. The old gang is here, particularly Voss, although the new movie makes him a grizzled veteran instead of a talented teen. Nikolai Müllerschön, who wrote and directed, also adds a fictional Jewish pilot, although there were plenty of real Jewish pilots in the Fliegerkorps, such as Wilhelm Frankl. It’s an odd political move that smells like apologia.
Both movies, interestingly, make much of the German pilots’ veneration of ace Oswald Boelcke, almost as if he were a religious figure.
Virtually every review of “The Red Baron” points out it fails whilst on the ground, although it soars while in the air. Absolutely true. Taking the audience along in the dreamlike trance of flight is something movies are good at. It’s not only a thrill ride for the audience, it also helps explain the motivations of the pilots.
There are many things that go wrong here. One is the reoccurring figure of Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes) who seems to slip through the Western Front with ease just to have chitchats with von Richthofen. Another is a drummed-up romance with nurse (Lena Headey) that relies on her having abrupt changes of personality in every scene. And it’s storytelling suicide to cheat the audience out of the the two most famous dogfights in the Great War, von Richthofen vs. Brown, and Voss vs. a whole sky full of British SE.5s. These battles, that should have been the cathartic heart of the film, are simply shrugged away.
It also doesn’t help that Matthias Schweighöfer, who plays the title role, is thuddingly void of command charisma. It’s partly the fault of the script, which pushes the image of von Richthofen as a rather sweet, sensitive soul who just happens to kill dozens on men in vicious aerial combat.
The main problem, though, is that Müllerschön just couldn’t decide what his film was about. It needed a tough rewrite from someone who could keep eyes on the prize. Is “The Red Baron” a meditation on the evolving spirit of German martial ardor during the 20th Century? An analysis of the conflict between command and celebrity? A three-way romance between a pilot, his gal and his fighter plane? An engaging bio-pic about someone was once a world-famous figure, and is now a label on a frozen pizza?
This last is the worst. If you’re going to tell the story of a historic character, even if you have to telescope events and personalities, at least get his personality right. Otherwise, it’s literally character assassination. Von Richthofen was a dangerous, wily aerial tactician; a killer; a charismatic leader; a superb manager of public image. That’s an interesting person. This rather damp, twee youngster posing in aviator togs in “The Red Baron” is just playing dress-up.

9

Friday, September 11th, 2009

It’s been a couple of days since I saw Shane Acker’s debut film “9,” but I’ve had to mull upon it. It’s one of those films that sucks you in completely, wholeheartedly, into a dark, scary, fantastical world, although afterwards it seems to gang a-gley. Was it really simple as all that? It all seemed so real at the moment, although clearly it was not.
It is best described as a steampunk fever dream, with its own logic and perspective.
Acker pumped this concept up from a student film he made that was nominated for an Academy award. A little person awakens. He’s made of a bit of burlap, a zipper and camera-shutter eyes. He’s tiny. A human being, gigantic, lays dead on the floor, rotting. Outside, we recognize what remains of what was once a human world, now devastated into a smoking ruin.
The little creation has “9″ lettered on his back. He discovers that 1 through 8 are just like him, tiny sad sacks of ennui, hiding in a small community. But there are robot killers out there in the ruins as well. Dangerous, scary robots.
The entire film takes place within a few hundred feet, but it a massive place to the burlap people, rotting debris and shredded detritus from what was left of civilization. The burlap people don’t know how they got there, nor what allows them to live and think, but they do. They have to venture out into the darkness that is their tiny universe, picking up clues and fighting for survival.
If it all sounds like a meditation on existentialism wrapped in plot devices from a solve-the-clue-to-advance computer game, you’re on to Acker’s scheme. “9″ is a sequencing of tests for the little folk, like the labors of Hercules, except that these creatures are tiny as mice — and often photographed scurrying like mice. It gets rather metaphysical at the conclusion, but satisfyingly so. And the parallels to Nazi death camps and the horrifying destruction of cities during World War II are there without being clumsy
“9″ is being generalized as a film with great visuals but a weak plot. Certainly, the visuals are downright amazing, and Acker’s editing choreography is muscular and assured, and the sound work and score are fabulous as well. But I rather liked the script, the tentative, parrying nature of the burlap people. It makes spaces for patrons to interpret instead of having everything explained to them.
We project into the movie instead of having it project on us. Neat trick.

G.I. Schmoe

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

If you were to distill the testosterone of a 10-year-old boy who’s been playing HALO all weekend, you’d have what juices “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.”
There is some sort of plot to the movie, although it’s basically an excuse for a bunch of noisy mayhem. There are two gigantic secret organizations, one of which is the G.I. Joes, and I suppose the other is Cobra. The political details are fuzzy. The secret paramilitary organizations are so huge that all the black budgets in history would never keep them under cover, but hey, reality isn’t the point. Neither is basic physics. (And one point, the polar ice cap is blowed up good, and the ice sinks in the ocean.)
Nope. It’s all about pressing the trigger, baby.
Sounds profoundly stupid, which it is, but proudly. Also, sounds awful, which it isn’t. Not if you’re still in contact with that frustrated 10-year-old inside. “G.I. Joe” is perfectly OK with what it’s trying to do, which is bring toys to life. And reduce the humans to toylike avatars.
“G.I. Joe” is a tremendous success at one thing, and that is choreographing action sequences. Director Stephen Sommers — “The Mummy,” etc. — is an old hand at this sort of thing, but he’d outdone himself here. The movie is one bravura thrilling bit of crazy crashbang after another, and despite all the noise and fury and spinning camera work, you never lose your footing. You’re able to keep track of who’s doing what, where, and with whom. It’s the motion part of “motion pictures,” and on steroids. Michael Bay could learn a thing or two in basic storyboarding from Sommers.

Faking Woodstock

Monday, September 7th, 2009

If you remember the ’60s, then you weren’t there, ha ha. That old line is probably being used in each and every review of Ang Lee’s new film, “Taking Woodstock.” While I don’t remember what happened last week, I remember the ’60s quite well.
In Honolulu, Woodstock was pretty far away. I followed it in the newspaper, but frankly, at that time, rock’n'roll wasn’t considered “real” news. There wasn’t much reported. Essentially, the early reports of people streaming into upstate New York predicted a horrible disaster, then there were several days of no news at all as the festival occurred, and then afterward, stories explored residents’ surprise that things went better than expected. It was sort of a national sigh of relief.
Then word began leaking out that the festival had been bigger, wilder, more mysterious and magical than anticipated.
School started, my junior year. On the first day of class, I was trying to pitch woo at the cute girl who sat behind me in English class. Her name was Patti and she had been born in Germany and still had a little accent. The subject of Woodstock came up and a cloud passed over her face. She muttered something.
What?
“I was there,” she said, darkly. I vas dere.
Where, Woodstock? Suddenly Patti was even more interesting.
“Yah,” she said. After some urging — it was like pulling teeth — Patti told me how she happened to be there. Her folks were in New York City while transiting to Hawaii, and she bought a ticket to the festival and caught a Greyhound north, and then hitchhiked toward Bethel. The roads grew crowded, then gridlocked. It rained. She slept in mud in a field. She never got within five miles of the stage. Occasionally some faint music would drift over the treetops. She was cold and wet and miserable.
Patti shuddered. It was horrible, she said. It was like how her parents described being refugees in wartime Germany.
A year later the “Woodstock” documentary cemented the sunny popular image of the festival in our heads, and over the passage of time, it became apparent what a seminal event it was. I’m pretty sure, though, that Patti, wherever she is, hasn’t changed her opinion.
“Taking Woodstock” is a total flashback. No other word for it. Whether you were at Woodstock or at any number of music festivals of the time, the movie is a Wayback Machine. I don’t know how Ang Lee did it. It’s not just the period cinema verite camera tricks — the people in the movie actually look like 1969 people, not like 2009 people decked out in cringeworthy “hippie” costumes.
The movie is well-acted and more serious than you might expect, with excellent production. Why not? It’s Ang Lee. It succeeds because it has a legitimate story arc.
It’s also a recounting of a historical event, and successfully transports us to a different time. Generally, reality works against historical films. In “Tora Tora Tora” and “Titanic,” were you really surprised by third-act plot developments? The demands of actuality hang over a traditional story arc like an anvil on a string.
The really successful historical films put you not just in the shoes of people of that period, but in their thought processes as well.
Woodstock is farther away from us today than the Pearl Harbor attack was from the veterans who made “Tora Tora Tora.” Oliver Sacks’ treatise “Musicophilia” postulates that the part of the cerebellum that stores musical memory is the deepest, warmest, most welcoming and stable region of the brain. Your last memories, as life goes glimmering, are likely to be musical. Far out, man!

“District 9″

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9″ is perfectly and seamlessly imagined, that is, if your imagination runs to noonday horrors. Twenty years ago, a wounded spaceship appeared floating over South Africa, and when the aliens aboard were finally liberated, they turned out to be insectoid drones with little sense of direction. They are placed in refugee camps that eventually become concentration camps. Human beings are revolted by the aliens, which they call “prawns,” but when the time come to relocate the aliens to a faraway prison, things go wrong.
OK, it’s a beefed-up, edgier version of “Alien Nation” by way of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” It’s also told in a hyped-up, gritty video verite style similar to “Black Hawk Down.” The horrors of the alien slum are so vivid that it feels like a real place, not a scifi conceit.
“District 9″ is a smart, slap-your-face thriller with quite amazing F/X. Even though it’s a harrowing, genre actioner, it’s also far from stupid, pressing all sorts of prejudice buttons. It does what scifi is supposed to do, shine a future light on a dark present.