Author Archives: revmem

movie log: Sputnik Mania (2007)

Viewed 5 days ago, January 11 2009: Sputnik Mania directed by David Hoffman and narrated by Liev Schreiber.

(A new blog and already I’m 5 days behind. This is, though, the only pending movie log entry. I waffled for a while about whether or not it fits my criteria for logging as a movie. But it does, so here it is.)

This is a documentary about how the US reacted to the USSR’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in October of 1957, and about the early days of the space race. It had been 50 years between that launch and the release of this movie, and many people have forgotten (or never knew) what the climate was like and to what degree the entry into space was seen as a military threat or opportunity. The documentary focuses on the culture and times, on the atomic weapons race, on each country’s view of and fear of the other – on those elements of circumstance as much as it does on the mere facts of launching satellites into space.

It’s hard to connect with what a shock the Sputnik launch was to people in the US at the time. To ordinary citizens who arrogantly believed that only the US was truly capable of making great advances and that the Soviets couldn’t even build a decent refrigerator, USSR being in space rudely revealed a different reality. Mentioned are the amateur rocket clubs that sprung up around the country (Homer Hickam, author of “Rocket Boys” — which coincidentally I read not too long ago — had a brief appearance) and the push for more and better science education. To the military, the initial space launch and those that followed were more sinister: to be able to put a heavy satellite into orbit was blatant proof of the current ability to launch a nuclear missile strike to any target on Earth. It also implied a future ability to put arms into orbit, stockpiling them until they could be hurled downwards.

A lot of interesting tidbits are to be found in this film. Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita and now a naturalized US citizen, remembered a joke about the USSR’s advice to its citizens. In one analog to the US’s “duck and cover” instructions, soviet people were told to tamp down the radioactive dust and then remain covered. The joke was that if you see a bright light, you should cover yourself up and crawl very slowly to the graveyard.

Interesting if you like this sort of thing (goes without saying, no?).

movie log: We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story (1993)

Viewed 3 days ago, Saturday January 10 2009: We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story – an animated feature based on a book by Hudson Talbott, and including the voices of John Goodman, Rhea Perlman, Walter Cronkite, Julia Child, Kenneth Mars, and others. Screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, recently noted for the play “Doubt” (not to mention the movie), and who will always be highly regarded (by me) for the under-appreciated Joe Versus the Volcano.

This is the story of a bunch of dinosaurs who are happily, hungrily, and savagely minding their own business when a scientist from the future feeds them “Brain Gain” cereal that makes them smarter, and who then brings them into the future to fulfill the wishes of children who want to meet real dinosaurs. Also in the present is the scientist’s evil brother who has his own nefarious plans.

No fancy animation, no real elaborate story (in fact, one that is downright silly), but the grandkids sure are enthralled by it. This is not the first time we’ve watched it and I doubt it’ll be the last (more log entries to come?!). 5-1/2 year old grandson watches it with rapt attention, and 3-year-old granddaughter mostly so, except when the dinosaurs are acting like beasts, during which times she sometimes averts her eyes.

If you have some youngsters of about this age and you want to watch something with them, you could do worse. Kids and dinosaur stories, they go together. There’s really not much more to say about it than that.

Movie log: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Viewed three nights ago (Jan 9, 2009): Shadow of a Doubt directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey, with a supporting cast that includes Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers.

This – purportedly one of Hitchcock’s (and Wright’s) favorite films – is billed as a suspense picture, but there really isn’t a lot of suspense to it. The story centers around the relationship between Charlie Newton (Joseph Cotten) and his niece – also called Charlie Newton (or “young Charlie”) (Teresa Wright) who is named after him (more or less; her name appears to be “Charlene” but she is called Charlie most of the time).

The movie opens with uncle Charlie and two men who are obviously chasing after him. Charlie manages to duck them in the streets of his city, and leaves town to visit his niece Charlie and her small-town family. From the start we see that young Charlie adores her uncle, in a way that seems a bit extreme, almost unsettling. As the movie progresses she learns a bit more about Charlie’s true character and the adoration gradually fades and turns to something darker. The uncle, as we find out early on, may be involved in a string of murders “back east,” and she learns that he does not share her small-town optimism about the world and the people in it. The world is a sty, he tells her, filled with “horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.” Charlie and Charlie are at odds, and as she learns more about him, he becomes threatened by it and something has to give.

We quickly see how the stage is set. Uncle Charlie the misanthrope and young Charlie the youthful idealist; the evil of the big world encroaching on the cozy little town and the tight loving family. A running gag has father Joseph (Henry Travers) and family friend Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) obsessed with thinking up interesting ways to kill each other. They are playing at evil, unaware of the real conflict between the two Charlies unfolding around them.

Frankly, though it’s a top-ranked Hitchcock film, it just didn’t grab me. It’s well-executed, and there are a lot of interesting elements, including the relationship between young Charlie and a police detective (very well played by Macdonald Carey) who is investigating the uncle. There is the occasional jump in continuity where it looks like a little too much was chopped, and that was a bit distracting. Likewise for a bit of potential misdirection that was never really fulfilled. One might think that it’s got something to say about US isolationism leading up to WWII, making some sort of commentary on small town self-centeredness vs an outside world that can’t be ignored when it intrudes, but the movie is set in 1942 when the US was already in the war. The small town vs outside world aspect does parallel young Charlie’s naivete vs big world harsh reality; given that Thornton Wilder was involved in the screenplay, I imagine small town life is deliberately given a bit of a knock. But I’m going off the tracks here a bit.

All in all a mixed bag for me. It’s not clear that there are any real lessons learned by most of the characters here, nor any huge change in the small town and family (other than a couple that I won’t spoil, even though there’s not much that is spoilable – as I say, it’s not really a suspense). But it was eminently watchable, with some interesting parallels and contrasts. Perhaps on a repeat viewing some day I’ll find more.

movie log: Running the Sahara (2008)

Seen last night: Running the Sahara, a documentary directed by James Moll and narrated by Matt Damon (who is also listed as executive producer).

This follows three men – Kevin Lin from Taiwan, Ray Zahab from Canada, and Charlie Engle from the USA – (plus their support team) as the three set out to run across the Sahara. This run is to start at the Atlantic Ocean in Senegal and end at the Red Sea near Cairo. The progress is given in terms of kilometers, miles, and number of marathon equivalents – about 4300, 6920, and 164 respectively. It’s fascinating to watch as they start out in good cheer and with high undaunted expectations, and see where and how they end up. One almost feels drained at the end. Since the documentary can only devote less than one minute, on average, to each marathon unit, it’s hard (uh, impossible) to extrapolate the actual experience from the viewing experience. Indeed, at the end one of the runners reflected on how even then he could not grasp it: how this emphasized to him how one can only really absorb bits of a grand experience as it is happening, and never the entire thing afterwards.

It’s interesting to see how the people change as the run progresses, particularly as they near the end. The three runners lose almost all of their bodily reserves; small and large injuries are everpresent. Pretty much all of the good cheer and bantering has vanished, mostly replaced by dogged persistence. From time to time there is bickering and recrimination, and it’s tempting to think of this or that person as being kind of a jerk. And then I think about what I’m like after being with somebody for only 24 hours, and suddenly they seem like saints.

While the film promotes the cause of providing water to Africans, the subject matter is more about the run than being a social or political commentary. Yet there are elements of both as they thrust themselves into the path. At one point they come across a 7-year old boy who has simply been left alone by himself in the desert while his father goes on a 2-day search for water. The boy is obviously frightened (of his situation and of the strangers); they visit with him for a time and move along. At another point they see a well-digging project, a very deep well being dug by hand by one person at a time, lowered to the bottom via rope. One of the runners wants to see what it’s like, and does.

This film has been playing on Showtime HD, which is where I saw it. As of this writing there’s a website about the run at .

Well worth the viewing time, especially if you’re a documentary hound as I like to believe I am. As a point of trivia, there are a lot of co-executive producer credits; a pair that jumps out at me is Nomar and Mia Hamm Garciaparra.

movie log: Dear Frankie (2004)

Viewed last night: Dear Frankie; directed by Shona Auerbach, starring Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, and Gerard Butler, including support from Mary Riggans and Sharon Small.

I’d had this on my want-to-see list for quite some time. We borrowed it from the Manchester (NH) Library as a candidate for viewing on New Year’s Eve but didn’t get to it that night; I finally did about a week later. I’m definitely glad to have done so.

I can’t talk much about this movie without revealing more plot elements than I’d usually like (I generally figure that things that happen close to the beginning of the film are fair game, as are parts of the story that are used to promote the film). I won’t go too far, but if you’d prefer not to risk it, stop now.

The movie opens with Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), her son Frankie (Jack McElhone), and her mother Nell (Mary Riggans) quickly leaving their home, making a sudden move to a new one. We get the idea that this happens frequently; that the family is accustomed to packing up and moving at a moment’s notice, for reasons as yet unknown. The family moves into their new apartment in Glasgow, and when Frankie goes to pick up some lunch at a shop nearby we learn that he is deaf. However it’s clear from his encounter at the shop and from his entrance into grade school the next day (or soon thereafter) that he’s not diminished by his handicap. And indeed the movie is not about Frankie as a deaf child as much as it is about Frankie and his other figurative voice.

Frankie’s other voice is used in his letters to his father, who he is told is away on a ship at sea. In reality this is a ruse invented by Lizzie to keep him believing in the existence and worth of his father. From time to time she picks up Frankie’s letters at a drop box and writes back to him in the guise of this fictional father.

Eventually it seems that the ruse has to end. Frankie learns from a new school chum that a ship with the same name as his fictional father’s fictional ship is due to arrive in Glasgow. He makes a bet with this other boy that his father will be coming to see him practice football. Lizzie’s hard decision is to hire a stranger to play the role of father for a day and keep the lie going.

Somewhere around the middle of the film I found it more than a little disquieting to think about what the mother was doing to her child. She was giving him a lie to believe in, and making him act out a fantasy that would, it seemed to me, be harder and harder on him the longer it was kept up. And yet as the movie progressed and we find out more about the circumstances that have led to this, and with an almost-satisfying ending the disquiet eased somewhat. Still, a movie doesn’t have to make me happy or make me approve of the protaganist: it just has to be a good story and be well told. This one is. Each turn of events is new and captivating, encountering and revealing serious material while remaining warmly and often deeply personal. There are stand-out performances all around.

Oddly, there were some elements in this movie that had parallels in the previous film that I saw (“Off the Black”, which I blogged about here. These are not ordinary things to be found in movies, either, so the coincidence was pretty striking. I won’t say more; if you happen to see both movies maybe you’ll notice them too.

movie log: Off the Black (2006)

Viewed two nights ago (January 5, 2009): Off the Black, directed by James Ponsoldt, starring Nick Nolte and Trevor Morgan, and including support by Timothy Hutton and Sonia Feigelson.

The movie opens with a close-up of Dave Tibbel (played by Trevor Morgan) pitching in a game of baseball in some unspecified teenage league. After some deliberation, he throws his pitch, which is called a game-ending ball four by umpire Ray Cook (Nick Nolte). From immediate fan and player reactions we learn that this is a controversial call that ends play-off hopes for the losing team. Several of the players, including Dave Tibbel, react by vandalizing Ray’s house that night. Ray catches just Dave in the act, and he makes Dave promise to come back and work on undoing the damage and mischief that was done. Thus begins a relationship between Ray, an aging man with health problems who spends much of his time drinking, and Dave, your typical good-hearted movie teenager with problems of his own.

This is what you would call a quiet movie, about the relationship that builds between these two men. Each has difficult family and personal situations that are tapped into to some degree, but not completely explored. That’s OK: not every piece of background has to be explained in detail; we learn little bits about each character as the characters themselves learn them. In fact that’s one of the idioms of this movie. Things happen or are encountered or mentioned, but often there are no attempts to completely explore them, no speeches of exposition, no flashbacks to fill us in. I think this is a fine way of dealing with the idea of things that simply exist, that are important to the characters, and that flesh out the story without getting us tangled up in them. Sometimes this is a bit confusing, until you realize that we don’t really need to know every detail, much as the characters don’t often know details about each other.

There is an odd development as Ray asks Dave to do him a particularly unusual favor, and the ending of the movie provides a poignant twist and a meaning to the title.

I had not heard of this movie before I stumbled upon it, and I watched it mainly because its description mentioned baseball, Nick Nolte, and Timothy Hutton. Good call, I think; it was one of the types of movie that I particularly enjoy: deliberately (I hate to say “slowly”) paced with attention on characters and interactions.

I should note that Timothy Hutton as Dave’s father and, particulary, Sonia Feigelson as Dave’s sister both do excellent jobs.

movie log: Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Seen last night: Charlie Wilson’s War directed by Mike Nichols and starring Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julia Roberts.

Based on a book by George Crile, this tells the based-on-a-true story of Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) and his successful campaign – along with help and inspiration from Texas matron Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – to fund Afghanis who are resisting the Soviet invasion of the early 1980s. The movie successfully uses a lighthearted touch when addressing its main characters’ flaws (and there are many, especially with Wilson) and a more heavy one with its serious subject matter, making this political story into a very interesting, thought-provoking, yet humorous film. The actors play their parts to a T, and there are many fine supporting roles including one by Amy Adams as Wilson’s chief administrative assistant.

movie log: The Dark Knight (2008)

Viewed last night: The Dark Knight directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, and featuring many others including Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Nestor Carbonell, and Eric Roberts.

There’s not a lot for me to say here, because actually there is a lot — if I were to start down that road I might never stop. So I’ll just make a few basic comments. This is a followup to the excellent Batman Begins from 2005. That movie set a pretty high bar for entertainment, and if anything this one exceeds it. In this film Batman, Gotham city’s vigilante antihero of the night, starts to believe that the battle against lawlessness is nearing a point where he is no longer needed, and where the forces of law and order that operate in the open (in daylight, as it were) can take over. DA Harvey Dent appears to be a strong heroic champion who can lead the way. But along comes the Joker, an engine of chaos and disorder, who just might spoil this promising vision.

That capsule summary only touches on what there is to find here. This is not just a two-way battle between Batman and the Joker, between good and evil, order and disorder. There are many agents acting in this story, and they each tug it and move it along towards its end.

An excellent film; I look forward to seeing it again. By the way, everyone mentions Heath Ledger’s excellent performance as the Joker – and I can’t resist either, I agree. But I don’t believe that he carries the film: the film carries itself. Ledger’s performance is an added treat.

movie log: I am Legend (2007)

I am Legend viewed last night. Directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith, with support by Salli Richardson and Alice Braga. Based on a novel by Richard Matheson that has been filmed a number of times before, the most famous probably being 1971’s The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston and which featured a memorable performance by Anthony Zerbe.

Will Smith plays Robert Neville, a doctor who is trying to cure the virus that has turned 95% of the people on Earth into mindless creatures who have feasted on most of those that remained immune. The poor infected souls are sensitive to UV light (that’s an understatement: UV light kills them), so they only come out at night. Neville may not be the only man left on Earth, but he might as well be. He stayed in New York City while most were abandoning it, thinking that this is where he can find a cure. He goes out in the day with his German Shepherd dog Sam to hunt and explore, while at night barricading in a location that he is careful not to let the creatures discover. After some time at this Neville has gone a bit loopy, as can be seen by his attempt to fulfill a promise to his dog and work up the nerve to speak to a mannequin that he has placed in a video rental store.

Neville’s loopiness aside (and thankfully it’s only a minor filmatic touch), there are a few excellent aspects of this movie. They are, unfortunately, countered by some flaws, but we’ll get to those shortly. The scenes of a largely deserted New York City, with plant growth sprouting through the pavement and deer and other wildlife running wild, are extremely well done and are worth the price of admission, as are flashback scenes of the city being abandoned. Smith’s acting is top-notch, to a degree that I hadn’t seen before (no, I haven’t yet seen “Ali”).

Unfortunately there are those flaws. After about the dozenth startle-cut in the first 30 minutes, I was about ready to give up. Every quiet focused moment seemed to be a set-up for an abrupt noisy one; each such sequence, I guess, designed to give an artificial thrill. What I got was annoyance. And then let’s talk about the human zombies, the victims of the virus. Here the movie suffers from a trap that seems to catch way too many filmmakers. When so trapped, creators of a movie are not content to build a story from its basic structure elements, elements that ought to support a film on their own. But no, things need to be bigger, faster, louder. Somehow, somewhere, somebody gets the idea that, e.g., a small-town police story could be so much better if only there were aliens from outer space behind the crime.
For various reasons I think of this as “The Dragnet Syndrome.”

In I am Legend, this trap manifests itself in several ways. The idea of zombified human creatures of the dark is not enough; they have to roar with great synthetic studio power. Their motions defy laws of physics, and they apparently have hardened skulls that can smash through steel, muscles that can tear apart buildings, all the while triggering the best, loudest sounds that Hollywood can offer. To be fair, I don’t know how much of this was in the book, but if it was, why not improve upon it? The movie has some lesser problems of plausibility as well that can trick you into thinking about them if you aren’t careful, but I can generally live with that kind of thing. It’s the impossible excesses thrust in your face that are hard to ignore.

The film also fails to make any attempt to explore what could be interesting reflections and parallels between the humans and the zombies, something that helped make the 1971 version somewhat memorable. And was there something in the book that made sense of the title, “I am Legend?” There was an attempt to explain it here in this film, but I’m afraid I didn’t buy it.

So bottom line: great visuals and great acting spoiled by annoying presentation. Worth seeing, except that you then see how good it could have been.