Saturday, July 6, 2024

JLC Neo-Noir Watch: Blue Steel (1990)

Watched:  07/06/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Kathryn Bigelow

Criterion Channel is showcasing Neo-Noir films this month, and I absolutely remember this coming out and not understanding what it was at the time, and then never hearing from anyone who ever saw it.

But here at The Signal Watch, JLC is one of our patron saints, and I was curious.

The movie is a curious mix of genres - certainly an homme fatale noir, but 100% a thriller.  And sets itself in the New York of the late 1980's where finance-dudes were of interest to audiences, as were blue-collar types.

Jamie Lee Curtis plays a young woman literally right out of the police academy who, on day 1, stumbles onto a hold-up occurring at a grocery, where she's forced to shoot the gunman.  Which she does in 1980's style, emptying her gun and sending the guy reeling through the front window.

Unfortunately for her, the gun the guy had goes missing, and no witnesses say they saw a gun.  And there's no tape?  In 1990 in New York?  But ok.  

She's on administrative leave when she meets a commodities exchange fellow who woos her.

But, uh-oh, he was at the scene of the crime, took the gun, and is now murdering people with the gun after carving her full name into the casings, that he leaves behind after killing innocent people.

One good cop (Clancy Brown) believes her while everyone else just wants to fire her or make her go away, but Eugene (Ron Silver) ups the ante, and eventually she figures it out just pre-coitus.  And then things get really nuts as she fights for anyone to believe her and he lawyers up while also murdering her friend (Elizabeth Pena, RIP) in front of her.  

On the whole - my take is this: 

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Happy Fourth of July, Pals


Everyone get out there, eat some potato salad and beans, and try to stay hydrated.  

I don't think Vanessa Williams is hosting A Capitol Fourth this year on PBS, which makes this year less good than prior years.  But let's not cry that it's over, let's be happy it happened.  And may Vanessa Williams fill you with patriotism.

God bless America, I say

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Doc Watch: Burden of Dreams (1982)

Watched:  07/03/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Les Blank

As I mentioned when discussing Fitzcarraldo, as good as the movie is, it's probably more famous for the impossible conditions around the production of the movie - which was shot on location in the Amazon with a crew and cast comprised of indigenous locals and Klaus Kinski, famously one of the least agreeable actors to have ever walked the face of the Earth.

Burden of Dreams (1982) documents the production.  

I won't say the documentary fails to convey the catastrophe that was the production, but if you also saw Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse, a documentary chronicling the epically horrendous filming of Apocalypse Now, everything else is going to suffer by comparison.

Hearts of Darkness was originally captured by Coppola's wife, Eleanor Coppola, and so there's an intimacy to the conversations and scenes shown that Burden of Dreams is unable to achieve.   Burden of Dreams seems shot like a respectful third-party observing with the good-graces of Herzog and crew, and while it's a catalog of many of the miseries of the set - and there were innumerable setbacks and problems - it's not a camera rolling during conversations that feel private or raw, until maybe the end, where Herzog is clearly at his breaking point.

And while the emotional intensity and feeling of creeping dread is not there while watching Burden of Dreams, it's still an absolute ride watching events unfold, and the very obvious problems baked into what Herzog seemed hellbent on doing, against reason and logic.  And I wish the movie had been willing to be less dispassionate about how Herzog's weird hubris fucked with the lives of thousands of people, and got people injured and killed and disrupted multiple native tribes and the massive impact he had during his relatively short stay.  

Part of the problem is that a lot of what happened seems to have happened when the filmmakers weren't around, and so it's being reported to them when there's spats with or amongst the locals.  We never really see the rainy season, and they missed the whole part where Jason Robards shot weeks of film before taking ill and quitting the movie - meaning the movie also lost Mick Jagger.

Equally odd about the doc is that only Herzog and a few locals get real interviews.  We don't hear from Kinski, co-star Claudia Cardinale (I would love her version of events) or Miguel Angel Fuentes, who seems like he'd have plenty to say as a young actor.  

But what is abundantly clear is the recklessness and naivete with which the film was mounted, and the trust and hope the locals put in Herzog that doesn't seem to really pay off.  They're not dumb, and they know that, for example, if the boat's pulley system breaks and people are hurt of killed, it will not be Herzog who gets hurt - and they seem very unsure why they're supposed to be taking this risk.

Managing the long shoot - which has full stretches where nothing is shot - is insane, and it seems like a lot of trouble could have been managed with a better producer or production manager to ensure boats were where they needed to be, people were where they needed to be - but it's also clear if anyone tried to control this chaos, they'd have gone crazy while failing.  This is a movie that went up against the jungle and - much like Fitzcarraldo - maybe barely got what it wanted out of all the trouble it went through.

But, yeah, when you see Herzog sort of shrugging off his discomfort about hiring a prostitute for his film set to keep the peace - on the advice of a priest - you've gone through a rabbit hole.

Further - you may have seen memes or clips of Herzog's meditation on the jungle and what it represents, but it is - by far - the most powerful moment in the film, and by that time, you're inclined to agree with Herzog's take.

Anyway - I do feel like Fitzcarraldo is a richer experience for having had seen the doc and having some "how did they do that?" questions answered in this film.  I just wish they'd been able to get some better access.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Herzog Watch: Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Watched:  07/02/2024
Format:  Peacock
Viewing:  First
Director:  Werner Herzog

Fitzcarraldo (1982) is not necessarily famous for being a great movie, although some certainly have considered it to be so.  Instead, it's mostly famous for being the most notoriously difficult movie to ever make, including having to start over well into production because the original star fell ill and they had to find a new star and then start over.  Also, they really did move a massively heavy metal boat over the top of a hill.

I'd been wanting to watch this movie for a while, then whilst writing up 8 1/2, I figured out Claudia Cardinale is in this movie, and that was, apparently the item that tipped me over.  

As a story, this movie will remind you of a few other things from the era.  Perhaps Mosquito Coast.  For me it was The Mission.  But it's the general idea that someone is going to go into the wild to go do something that seems foolhardy on paper, and, indeed, it turns out to be super hard.  And in the jungle.*

There's a poetry to the mad man with a vision disappearing into the jungle to try and achieve that crazy goal, witnessed by only a few from home, and surrounded by indigenous people.  And, because this is a post-1970/ pre-1990 movie, we're fine with showing them totally failing.  Because they challenged the world and the world pushed back.

Set in the early 20th century, our movie is about an Irishman in Peru, Fitzgerald (who goes by Fitzcarraldo) played by the very not-Irish Klaus Kinski.  Fitzcarraldo sees himself as a man of culture as he loves opera, and he wishes to bring that to the town he's watching grow.  We know he's delusional as he describes his small town as a growing city on par with the finest in Peru (it is not) - and he wants to bring opera to his town.  But to do that, he needs money.  

He stumbles upon a plan, which is financed by his friend and lover played by Claudia Cardinale, a local madame.  He's going to exploit a whole new part of the Amazon jungle for rubber - it's a section that even the biggest rubber concerns haven't hit yet as there are troublesome rapids on the river connecting that area to the port town.  

His plan, as you will have guessed, is to pull a boat over the hill separating the traversable parallel river and connect with the other river upstream of the rapids.  It's what we in the plan-evaluating business called a "hare-brained scheme" but, also "so crazy, it just might work".

The staff he brings on his boat is irksome, and the crew is initially threatened by locals, but the locals discover what he's up to (charmed by his playing of Caruso opera tracks) and assist him in his plan to move the boat.

Watching the film, it is absolutely an unbelievable spectacle by 2024 standards.  Herzog famously did go into the jungle, he did recruit locals to act in the film and work on the set.  And there's enough drama there to have spun off a whole two documentaries, The Burden of Dreams and My Best Fiend (neither of which I've yet seen).  But the results are there on film.  You can see a movie in which a 350+-ton boat is moved up a hill, bit by bit, with an army of extras.

Kinski as Fitzcarraldo is manic and absolutely believable as someone who thinks building a jungle opera house is a phenomenal idea.  His character isn't stupid - and Kinski manages to thread the needle of his character's obsessions and when he gets overclocked, and his awareness of the real danger he's in from time to time.  It's an ecstatic performance.

Anyway - at this point I'm mostly looking to watching Burden of Dreams to see how this thing was put together.

Do I rank it as highly as, say Roger Ebert, who placed this in his Great Movies list?  I'm going to sit with it a while.  It is certainly one that will stick with me, and I see myself thinking on it in the future.  We'll see.  For now, I'll say it was well worth the watch, and I would give it another spin.  And I think it has almost mythological components that make it worth seeing as a cultural touchpoint.

*It reminds me of the placard I saw that says "We do not do these things because they are easy, but because we thought they would be easy."

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Mars Read: The Chessmen of Mars (1922)

One thing I know about Edgar Rice Burroughs - he is very certain women get kidnapped every 20 minutes.  

We're here in the Fifth of the Barsoom novels.  The Chessmen of Mars (1922) takes place a few years after Thuvia, Maid of Mars.  For the first time in a few books, John Carter returns to Earth - but now appearing ageless and in his Martian harness and weaponry.  He sits to share a story with ERB, this time about his daughter, Tara of Helium.

This book feels better constructed than Thuvia, which had a sort of improvisational quality to it, like ERB was just stitching ideas together.  The Chessmen of Mars reads less like combined installments reprinted into a single volume.  Instead, the book seems to have better considered foreshadowing, laying foundations for later actions, etc... in a way that shows growth in ERB's writing.  

This book essentially breaks into a few sections.  There's some business in Helium at the beginning where we first meet John Carter's daughter, Tara, who seems to be described as astoundingly beautiful - just not as beautiful as Dejah Thoris (I appreciate ERB's own loyalty to Dejah Thoris).  She's got the fire of her parents, but is never described to have inherited her father's great strength the way her brother, Carthoris, did. 

When the story opens, she's understood to be betrothed to a young man of Helium - but the two aren't clicking.  At a party, she meets Gahan of Gathol, who she sees in the finery of his people, and decides he's a showy fancy-lad.