Monday, June 18, 2018

"BIG SLEEP" EYE-OPENER


          Every aspect over-rated.
          Is The Big Sleep classic influential film noir? Absolutely. But vastly more than it deserves because it's an inferior Maltese Falcon polluted by a campaign intended to normalize the affair of a married actor in his mid-forties with a girl just out of her teens.
          Raymond Chandler's novel The Big Sleep, published in 1939, elevates pulp detective fiction into a classic of American lit--ten years after Dashiell Hammett did it first with The Maltese Falcon. But the movie isn't Chandler's book.
          John Huston's 1941 Falcon is visually and thematically darker--more noir--with striking use of shadows, better use of music, and unforgettable dysfunctional characters--notably Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.
          If Humphrey Bogart as detective Philip Marlowe seems slightly similar to Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade it's because he plays them just the same. And whereas The Maltese Falcon concerns the obsessive quest for a fabulous prize, a dark object which can be held, The Big Sleep has a guy being blackmailed. Right there, comparison-wise there is none. First one interesting, second one not so interesting.
          Makes better parody material.
          Yes, the Coen Brothers saw The Big Sleep. One can even hear their brotherly quips and comments while watching it together. Let's listen:
          "Say mac, what if it wasn't Bogie in the story, but instead our L.A. hippie buddy? Might that not amuse?"
          "Plus there's a rug in that one scene. That's what our L.A. hippie buddy would have to deal with. He'd be bummed that it got stained."
          "But we couldn't call it The Big Sleep."
          "You're right. We'd have to call it The Big Lebowski."
          Two years prior to Sleep, Humphrey Bogart met Lauren Bacall. He was 44, she was 19. This was on the set of Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not. For that one, the studio paid William Faulkner to adapt Ernest Hemingway's novel. So they repeated that formula as best they could a few years later by having Faulkner adapt Chandler.
          (In the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, John Mahoney plays Faulkner around this time, very much depressed at having sort of sold out.)
          The private lives of the stars off-screen need not have been dragged into the film, but protecting the commodity was how the studio system worked at the time. The filmmakers conducted a four-pronged attack in defense of established moneymaker Bogie:
          1. They effectively reduce his age by eight years when Marlowe says he's 38.
          2. They effectively raise Bacall's age by giving her a much less mature younger sister.
          3. They make all young women in the film instantly sexually aggressive toward Bogie, thereby normalizing his being paired with someone less than half his age.
          4. They sanction the pairing, advertising it as "incendiary chemistry."
          None of which would impair the film, except it's done in lieu of action. And that's the eye-opener. The willingness to put public perception toward a relationship the bare facts of which most people would find immediately distasteful ahead of the action in a story.



Monday, June 4, 2018

"SOLO" A NO-GO


          Nope.
          Young Han Solo meeting young Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca is even worse than you imagine.
          It is as though the filmmakers realized that in spite of audiences being decidedly not keen on seeing another younger version of a character played by Harrison Ford (anyone remember "Young Indiana Jones"?), they could still target an audience of five year-olds happy to accept inferior product.
          Apparently it's also aimed at a global market in the most generic of ways. Kept simple--too simple--Solo: A Star Wars Story has zero story and characters too forgettable to even remember their names during the course of the movie.
          This movie is a perfect example of what's always been wrong with film and only gotten worse. It's a product of business-minded people who have no business making artistic or story-related decisions. It has nothing to do with Star Wars and is only a crass attempt to cash in on manipulated marketing potential.
          One long boring scene features what plays like the product-testing of a theme park ride perhaps retooling The Matterhorn. A mode of conveyance looking a lot like the twisting tracks of Space Mountain rushing in and winding around a big snowy mountain could conceivably be a joyous hoot if only there was a legitimate story needing to be told. Except there isn't.
          Young Han and Lando are awful. It's bad. Bad for a lot of reasons. Somebody told them to act like bobblehead versions of the characters. The backfill slopped in to explain things that didn't need explaining is cutesy and hate-worthy. "Ohh, so that's why his name is Solo!" says the dutiful target audience, chewing and blinking. "Oh look, it's twenty years earlier but Little Lando always goes around with a cape like a bobblehead version of himself." Chew chew, blink blink.
          When River Phoenix played a young version of a Harrison Ford character in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), that was pushing the issue about as far as anyone is willing to take, and it worked because Young Indy didn't last for the whole movie and River Phoenix did a good job paying a sort of homage to Ford. We even see the "explanation" for an actual scar on Ford's chin.
          But this movie has none of that. It's Justin Bieber plays James Bond. It's foisted product and a bad idea.
          Woody Harrelson is miscast. He plays a guy who's supposed to influence young Han, probably because he's in The Hunger Games and Planet of the Apes sci-fi-related franchises, and someone must have made a pitch that audiences perceive him as likeable, but also just questionable enough for young Han Solo to pass through the prism of his character. Doesn't work, still miscast.
          In fact, we already have the cinematic antecedents of Han Solo. He's rakish, like Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. He looks out for number one, yet will still support the cause, like Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine.
          Nope.
          Not buying it.
          We will forget that this ever happened.


SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY
Starring Alden Ehrenreich,
Joonas Suotamo,
Woody Harrelson,
Emilia Clarke,
Donald Glover,
Thandie Newton,
Paul Bettany,
Linda Hunt
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Jonathan Kasdan, Laurence Kasdan
Based on characters created by George Lucas
Runtime 135 minutes
Rated PG-13


Stewart Kirby writes for
THE INPEPENDENT
and 
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE

Saturday, June 2, 2018

US FOREST SERVICE


1

A departure.

I dreamed last night I traveled down a long and winding river . Though in my dream the night was dark still I could see it was not too deep for me to splash through pools and ponds and shallows, all the while vaguely aware of being pursued, sometimes it seemed by an alien called Venom.

First I wound down a mountain stream which took me to all sorts of places, always following the water's flow, always moving, coming at one point to a muddy place where I crawled and hid among the muddy boulders. Sometimes there were others with me, and sometimes I saw that I was being chased.

When I awoke I remembered. The day before I had spoken of the Happiest Place On Earth in the course of recounting my life, and I also recalled that the movie Venom is soon to be released and that I had eaten soup spiced with serrano peppers.

On one level I think the mountain I traveled down was influenced by The Matterhorn, and that Venom appeared in my dream because I write about movies for multiple paying newspapers. Undoubtedly my journey reflected having thought so thoroughly and recently about the course of my life, but I also think that on another level perhaps more significant my consciousness was aware of the processes of my digestive system pushing along the spicy food.

On my first day working in the Forest Service--talk about living the dream--I got holiday pay, time-and-a-half day one on the job.

Went to Oregon Trail Interpretive Center this morning. Poured bleach in the cistern, filled the water tank, turned on the generator, then turned on and off the water to let the bleach sit in the lines to clean. Met the older couple who work out there. Helped cook burgers and hot dogs at a retirement barbecue.

I met a hydrology specialist today. I meet a lot of people here. Sometimes they specialize in silt, sometimes they specialize in weeds. Some of the people I meet spend most of their time in the field, and some of them work the frontline.

I took the west side run all the way out to Umapine Park wearing my uniform and badge and driving the official United States Forest Service truck with my supervisor providing orientation, occasionally engaging with happy campers. All of the developed recreational sites I've seen are green and clean. Umapine, the park furthest west on my route, is about an hour from La Grande. I saw kids on dirt bikes have a blast on the laps and I helped respond to questions about OHV conditions from a camper who had recently been to Montana.

Birdtrack Springs, the largest campground I maintain on the west side of La Grande has lots of camping lots under lots of trees. Located on Highway 244, which runs along Grande Ronde River, Birdtrack Springs is one of five campgrounds on my route, Umapine, Spring Creek, Spool Cart, and Oregon Trail Interpretive Park being the others.

In all of the dozen-plus developed recreational sites I maintain my office is in fact a great vacation destination, a verdant tranquil world redolent with gentle winds and the soft trills of perched birds.
Over the lush expanse of emerald landscape, high sweeps of forests rolling, a predominance of bluest sky marbled with ever-mercurial clouds.

On the Interpretive Center loop there stands an old coach left from the days of the Oregon Trail with all real trunks and tools and barrels and things inside. And that marks the very spot where the people in the coach back in 1848 stopped it and ate each other.

2

Rambles down trails...




MORE
US FOREST SERVICE
SOON














Moss Spring is the one campground in the dozen I maintain with the distinction of being both the closest to habitation (town of Cove) and the fastest access to wilderness--Eagle Cap, by name. On top of that, Moss Springs also holds snow the longest. Here's a little spot behind me this morning.


There's a dam above Cove and a hydroelectric facility




Black cottonwood can look healthy when it's rotten. This one was hollow.


Lunch-time view up Catherine Creek

You can spot hemlock by the sharp bend on the last couple feet at the top
















Monday, May 21, 2018

"DEADPOOL 2" TO DIE FOR



          The hilarious saga continues.
          Packed with action--and a whole lot more, wink wink--Deadpool 2 is the The Godfather: Part II of Deadpools.
          Little known fact: This film combines not only the best parts of Citizen Kane but also The Magnificent Ambersons into one masterful masterpiece referred to by insiders as Citizen Magnificent Deadpool. True story.
          Remaining painstakingly vague to preserve the experience, suffice to say, 1.) Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's dad (oops!) and, 2.) it's not all that different from the first one.
          Which is exactly what we want. All your old Deadpool friends are back, plus loads more, here all but two to remain nameless. (See paragraph above.)
          It's a family film, like The Godfather, except with a Terminator-y time traveling guy called Cable (Brolin), plus a plus-size mutant teen named Firefist (Dennison).
          Indelicate though it may seem, as soon as Cable meets Deadpool, right away he tries to rub him out. That came out wrong. Or...did it?
          It's a story about revenge. And family. And trying to make more money than the last time. So yeah, this time, it's personal.
          And who exactly is the wise-cracking, self-regenerating R-rated admixture of Spider-Man and Wolverine known only to the world variously as either Wade Wilson, Deadpool, or any combination of sulphurous epithets? Too hard to pin down, really. Sort of an anti-hero. Carries swords, shoots guns. Wears a mask because he looks like a pineapple. Good with Crayons.
          From the James Bond-esque opening credits eschewing lots of scantily-clad babes in favor of lots of Deadpools assuming compromising positions, to everything else that happens, Deadpool 2 is a great big fat juicy slice of Post Modern pie. This means he looks directly into the camera a lot and refers to the fact he's in the movie. A hard thing to pull off? Yes, but it comes in handy.
          Not since Betty Hutton sang while jumping on a trampoline for Cecil B. DeMille has the silver screen exploded with such sheer joy and body parts.
          Like a katana-wielding undying human Cuisinart, Ryan Reynolds has singlehandedly carved for himself with a sword in either hand a nice soft spot in the collective filmgoing heart. And this time, he co-wrote it.
          Not to compare apples and oranges, which is a fruitless task because they're both so yummy, but this movie beats the crap out of Avengers: Infinity War.
          If all this sounds like a long way to go to give a sense of the movie by flawlessly imitating its voice and style without ruining its many surprises, so be it. A quick Google search of Betty Hutton and The Magnificent Ambersons will also give away nothing. (Cue any song from The Breakfast Club or St. Elmo's Fire.) Like this review itself--impetuous, yes, yet aglow with a sense of childlike wonder big as the great outdoors--Deadpool 2 breaks all the rules, plus every bone in the human body.


Stewart Kirby writes for
THE INDEPENDENT
and
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE



Friday, May 18, 2018

"INVISIBLE MAN" VISIONARY



          Clearly excellent.
          James Whale, as every schoolchild knows, made a terrific film when he directed the 1931 Frankenstein. However, the movie bears scant resemblance to the novel by Mary Shelley (referred to in the credits as "Mrs. Percy B. Shelley"). Two years later, he directed the film version of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, and this movie surpasses Frankenstein because it is closer to the source material, and perhaps closer to the filmmaker's heart.
          The 1998 film Gods and Monsters focuses on Whale's sexual orientation decades after the completion of his most famous work, but it is reasonable to assume that in 1933 he was himself an invisible man of sorts.
          Arguably, Wells' 1897 book is the first mad scientist story. Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll aren't insane. Frankenstein is repulsed by and fears his creation; Jekyll merely releases his bad side. Neither is Wells' Dr. Moreau. insane. All he does is experiment with genetics. But the Invisible Man is a scientist whose experiments physically alter him and, particularly so in the film, specifically cause insanity. To this extent The Invisible Man, both as book and film, appropriates a character akin to that associated with the best works of Edgar A. Poe.
          It's the story of a man named Griffin desperate at first to find a way back to normalcy, who then eventually changes this plan and decides to teach people a lesson and ultimately rule the world.
          What makes the movie visionary is the lack of anything pre-existing on which Whale could draw. Frankenstein lifts bits and pieces from Paul Wegener's The Golem (1920)--makeup artist Jack Pierce got his inspiration for the monster's look largely from a sketch by Goya--and Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935) plunders movie graves including The Magician (1926) and Metropolis (1927).
          Probably second only to King Kong (1933), The Invisible Man also boasts the best special effects of any film from the 1930s, a time when filmmakers prized their secrets, and could not rely on the all-purpose magic of computer animation to do their work for them. 
          On one level, it's also the story of a guy having an absolutely fabulous time taking off his clothes in front of other men. Quoth Griffin to a dirty little coward named Kemp: "If you raise a finger against me, you're a dead man. I'm strong, and I'll strangle you."
          Look carefully and you can see the film is packed with invisible men of all kinds. From a player piano which seems to operate by unseen hands, to the omnipresent voice of authority conveyed by radio, to Christian crosses built into the windows and doors of a drawing room laboratory referencing the invisible presence of the Holy Spirit, Whale's film revels in superlative cinema. The Invisible Man even subtly touches on gender issues by showing the women of the story shunted to a separate room to drink their beer invisibly.
          To achieve notoriety by being invisible is automatically an interesting premise. The appearance of the enigmatically bandaged stranger in the boarding house pub of the English village of Iping as portrayed by the inimitable Claude Rains in his first film role, relying primarily on the sheer power of his voice, only further compounds the film's intrigue.
          Looming imperceptibly over the entire affair, the vast shadow of Nikola Tesla. The greatest inventor--indeed, the greatest genius--the world has ever known inspired one of the world's most formidable literary minds. The cinematic effect of which remains undiminished to this day.


Stewart Kirby writes for
THE INDEPENDENT
and 
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"FORT APACHE" CUIRASSIER AND CUIRASSIER



          Just when it seems there's nothing left to watch, and all hope for a great movie is lost...here comes the cavalry!
          Directed by John Ford, Fort Apache (1948) stars Henry Fonda as a colonel named Thursday assigned to command a remote Arizona Territory cavalry fort. Though Thursday finds the detail ignominious, and resents being "shunted to a ten-penny post," he shows his military mettle maintaining regulations way on out in the wide-open spaces sloppy with enlisted men named O'Rourke and a big ol' mess o' mesas towering in the distance. 
          Loaded with loaded Irish-Americans, fiery, unforgettable dialogue, and black-and-white shots of Monument Valley worthy of Ansel Adams, Fort Apache is funny as hell and boasts fantastic action.
          "Who goes there?"
          "It's your new commanding officer." 
          "Holy Moses!"
          "No, it's your new commanding officer."
          Thursday's daughter, played by Shirley Temple circa age 20, finds herself upon arrival immediately interested in movie newcomer John Agar. Agar's father is played by John Ford stock character actor Ward Bond, but it's that other staple Ford Western veteran Victor McGlaglin who steals every scene. Quoth ex-boxer McGlaglin, addressing green recruits:
          "Is there any man here from County Sligo?"
          "Yessir!"
          "Now we don't want to show any favoritism about this, but you're now an acting corporal."
          McGlaglin plays a character named Festus seven years before the TV show "Gunsmoke" was created by Charles Marquis Warren, himself a WWII Navy commander. Ken Curtis, who played an entirely different character on the show years later named Festus, happened to be John Ford's son-in-law.
          Ford would later make two more "frontier pictures," She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956), each featuring the iconic Western presence whom he made a star, John Wayne. Depending on one's aesthetic, Fort Apache may well hold Wayne's most likable role. As Kirby York, Wayne shows deference to his commanding officer, but stands up to Fonda when it comes to paying respect to the Apaches and their chief. 
          "Colonel Thursday, I gave my word to Cochise. No man is gonna make a liar out of me, sir."
          The film is about as realistic a depiction of the West as Disney's Frontierland, and every bit as fun. It also seems to have directly influenced director Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) both visually and thematically.
          An interesting cinematic side note: the co-producer to Fort Apache, Merian C. Cooper, not only co-wrote and co-produced King Kong (1933), he also flew fighter planes for both the US and Poland, actively served in both world wars, and was eventually promoted to brigadier general. 
          Fort Apache also promotes some movie mistruths. Half the time we see officers and enlisted alike of Irish ancestry seeking to avail themselves of hard spirits. And this is nothing but a dirty lie, when in fact the seeking to avail would go non-stop. 
          At the big dance, everybody brings a bottle to spike the punch. As one guy says addressing the crowd, "The food is exquisite...and the punch, WOW!"
          In 99% of Hollywood's Westerns, the depiction of Native Americans is staggeringly abysmal. If the Indians get any lines, they're usually played by white guys. The clothes they wear look like they came from the Sears catalog. And they're just nothing like Indians at all. Here however, although the Native American presence does not figure prominently enough, and we certainly don't get to see through Apache eyes, the due respect paid cannot be denied. As Wayne's Kirby says of Cochise, "Six campaigns, he's out-generaled us, outfought us, and outrun us."
          Corny as anything and a real hoot, this rousing Western is almost impossible to watch without wanting to stop everything and join the Apaches--or at least the cavalry.


Stewart Kirby writes for
THE INDEPENDENT 
and
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE



Thursday, May 10, 2018

"TRIUMPH" SWILL


          Of all the movies about Hitler and the Nazis, the one most revealing, the one most damning, is the one Hitler himself demanded be made. 
          The trumpery of the only Nazi propaganda film anyone even remembers, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, begins with a blank black screen and soaring trumpet music building anticipation until...ta da! we see the image of a majestic eagle perched atop a broken cross, an ancient symbol of the sun which the National Socialist German Workers Party called the swastika. 
          The name of the party itself was trumped up because the Nazis weren't socialist but in fact fascist. Adolf Hitler patterned his dictatorship on that of Italy's fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was another not-so-bright little guy who used to strut around in front of crowds at rallies making stupid faces in lieu of presenting sound suggestions. Eventually, Il Duce's once-rabid base strung up his corpse by the heels and whaled away on it with sticks. Not long thereafter, Hitler hid in an underground bunker and was forced to commit suicide in order to avoid facing up to his crimes. 
          Prior to being tapped as Hitler's go-to propaganda director, Leni Riefenstahl had made a couple of "mountain pictures"--films featuring German mountain climbers climbing German mountains. Would that she had stuck with this. The 32 year-old director didn't have to help Hitler. When Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels tried to enlist film heavyweight Fritz Lang on the payroll, Fritz Lang left.
          Triumph of the Will is a movie without a story. "Commissioned by order of the Fuhrer," it documents in a highly stylized fashion Hitler's trip to Nuremberg "to review his faithful followers." 
          From inside an airplane high above the clouds the camera descends over the beautiful old city littered with banners of swastikas, the shadow of the plane falling ominously over the geometric lines of dutiful followers waiting below. When the plane lands, the crowds scream adoringly, hands upraised in obedient salute. In time, the reactions of the people to the sight of the Leader would not be so adoring. But in 1934, the long lines of admirers reveling in regional pride ecstatically greeted what they took to be the Teutonic tonic to narcissism wounded on a national scale after the unjust reparations of WWI. 
          Except he wasn't Teutonic at all. Hitler wasn't even born in Germany. He wasn't blonde, he wasn't tall, he wasn't muscular, and he wasn't Aryan. 
          Waa-waaaa.
          In fact, the one sort of person he resembled most was...Charlie Chaplin, the Little Tramp. Not just because of copying Chaplin's tiny mustache, either. The two were born only four days apart. In April, 1889. Chaplin first. 
          The film isn't shot chronologically. It jumps around from torch-lit nighttime rallies to sunny German Youth camp fun where the lads have a jolly time roasting their weenies and scrubbing each other. Here Riefenstahl stages close-ups of boys told to look at the camera and joyously, dutifully laugh, laugh, so we can see how happy they are forming the necessary bonds required to ensure military group efficiency. 
          In his major speech Hitler claims that the state does not order the people, but rather the people order the state. Prrffft. As balanced and fair as this lie sounds, in fact Hitler required that both his S.A. and S.S. troops take an Oath of Fealty not to Germany, but to him. And the suckers did it.
          Even the name of the film is an egregious error. Hitler wanted to identify himself with true German greatness. The greatness of Beethoven, Goethe, Alexander Von Humboldt. And perhaps the greatest of all philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, upon whose posthumous fame Hitler so very cheaply leeched...having clearly never read a word. 
          This was in keeping with Nietzsche's sister, herself an ignorant virulent old racist who gladly handed Adolf a problematic manuscript which the philosopher himself had specifically abandoned as a failed project. It was called The Will To Power, and the mere title alone was enough for parasitic appeal. 
          In reality, Nietzsche would have lambasted the Nazis. He wasn't anti-Semitic. Far from it. In the last letter Nietzsche ever wrote he said he was having all anti-Semites shot. And he signed it Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, also called Liber, which is the root word of Liberty.
          If more Germans had read Nietzsche's work, they might have known what to expect from allowing a hateful little mind like Hitler's into power. But Hitler's Germany was afraid of books. And so they did not see.


Stewart Kirby writes for
THE INDEPENDENT
and 
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE