One of the first movies in ages that we’ve tried to watch with people over, ending as usual in failure. I knew it would be sci-fi with an environmentalism theme, but wasn’t prepared for the woeful hippie Joan Baez songs. Pretty good story/ending/character with pretty good physical action and pre-Star Wars model work, with a couple of exceptional elements. First, obviously, Bruce Dern is wonderful and gets better in the second half when he has nobody but himself and his robot drones to act against. Then there’s the drones – they worried me because I couldn’t figure them out. They’re not shaped correctly to have an actor inside, their robotic parts are truly 1970’s-robotic-looking (simple and slow), but their leg movements looked too natural to not be human. I wouldn’t have guessed there were amputee actors inside. Effects whiz Trumbull brings some of his 2001: A Space Odyssey expertise to a sequence where Dern pilots the ship through Saturn’s rings to escape detection – otherwise it’s mostly bunches of boxes painted silver in front of a starfield.

Two “drones” in foreground, with greenhouse-pod behind:

No explanation is given, but Earth sends commands for the deep-space (why didn’t they stay in orbit?) stations that hold the last of the dystopian planet’s plants and wild animals to detonate their greenhouse pods and return home. Three fun-lovin’ astronaut dudes wheel off in their rovers with suitcases full of nukes to complete the task, but Dern loses his cool, kills one of ’em with a shovel (his leg is hurt in the scuffle) and lets the others explode in a doomed greenhouse, then escapes past Saturn (“killing” one of his three drones, which gives him and the other drones more distress than the human deaths do). Interestingly, the submarine-style radio/radar silence of the title is never directly addressed in dialogue or on computer screens – it’s just inferred that Dern is making his escape, leaving the authorities to believe that his ship was destroyed. I’d give Trumbull and his writers (two of whom would later write The Deer Hunter, the other would become a major TV procedural-show writer/producer) credit for letting the audience add interpretation instead of overexplaining everything, but other evidence (like the blatant, subtext-killing Baez songs, the oversentimental but otherwise extremely simple robots and Dern’s confusing leg-injury subplot) would indicate bungled storytelling instead.

There’s not much suspense left after Dern has killed off his fellow astronauts. The movie tries to make us care when he’s joyriding his dune-buggy and injures a robot, and tries to make us believe that a botanist wouldn’t realize that plants need sunlight. But really it’s all build-up to the last five minutes, when he’s located and about to be “rescued”. He sets the sole working robot to the task of watching over the last garden dome, then jettisons it to safety and sets nukes to blow himself (and his rescuers?) into space-junk.

Part of the same financing program to let young filmmakers run wild on low-budget pictures, along with American Graffiti and The Last Movie. Sounds like a program they should’ve continued. Music by PDQ Bach under his real name.

Forgot what a sad movie this is. Bowie falls to earth, finds a patent lawyer (Get Smart creator Buck Henry), makes more money than Steve Jobs, but the government interferes in his plan to return home with water for his desert planet and he ends up a secluded musician, discovered in hiding by his stalker/employee Rip Torn.

The 1970’s were the kind of ridiculous time when Rip Torn could be a sex symbol, starring as Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer – that I’ve come to accept. And I can accept Bowie as a sex symbol, too. But seeing them both naked in the same movie is just confounding. I suppose that’s Roeg’s point, making Bowie that much more alien by casting him with Torn. Also somewhat confounding is Candy Clark (of Q: The Winged Serpent) as Bowie’s earth girl. She’s a housekeeper at a bad hotel who becomes Bowie’s main source of human comfort – not the brightest bulb but maybe he decides that makes her less of a threat.

Good variety of music – only one Bowie song. The old-age makeup is markedly better than Julie Christie’s in The Go-Between. Hard to imagine how this got released without copious explanatory voiceover added. For instance, shots of Bowie’s home planet/family seem to be subjective, their present situation as Bowie imagines/hopes/fears, but of course this is never discussed. Not that I’m complaining – I like it the way it is, full of Roegian trickery. Bowie gives a blankly contemplative look almost all time, detached, Bowie-like, in other words. Why is Buck Henry thrown through a window at the end, and Bowie imprisoned in a mansionous hotel suite by badmen who don’t seem to know what they want from him? Something to do with Bernie Casey, I think.

One program Bowie watches on his array of TVs is lions fucking, which I found funny since the night before I’d watched The Lion King. Remade for 1980’s television with Wil Wheaton and Beverly D’Angelo. Bowie failed to grab an oscar nomination for playing his thin white alien self, but picked up a golden scroll from the sci-fi academy.

G. Fuller:

As critic Tom Milne has suggested, [Bowie’s] defenselessness is central to the exchanging of identities and the shifting of power dynamics between the characters in The Man Who Fell to Earth. This also occurs in Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing, and Track 29, the other films on which Roeg’s reputation as an auteur is based. As Newton becomes progressively more human, he becomes susceptible to the same vices that taint his intimates: the aggrandizement of power and wealth (Farnsworth), alcoholism and emotional dependency (Mary-Lou), abusive sexual behavior (Bryce). They, in turn, in Milne’s words, “rediscover something of that vulnerability,” shedding their protective carapaces even as they variously let Newton down, because, as humans, that is what they are fated to do.

This completely lived up to expectations. I’ve been a big Malick fan since The Thin Red Line, and this movie showed plenty of his current style (whispered voiceovers about pained relationships as the camera pans up through the trees) while forging a whole new one, had the boldness to turn a man’s memories and inner life into a visual montage of the history of the planet Earth. It shows small moments, real and imagined, and becomes almost completely untethered to plot. It’s almost unbelievably gorgeous in the way it looks and moves through time. But all this is what I expected, from reading vague reports of the film’s genesis as Malick’s intended follow-up to Days of Heaven, to its winning the top prize at Cannes last month, to the rapturous critical acclaim it’s been receiving upon release. I expected the best, most ambitious movie of the year, by a long shot, and that’s pretty much what I got, so I’m gonna have to process it for a while.

Jack and his brothers live in a quiet Texas town with proud, hardass father Brad Pitt (representing Nature in the film’s mythology) and pure, uncritical mother Jessica Chastain (representing Grace), both of them loving in their own way. Years later, Jack is Sean Penn working at a giant, modern architecture firm, looking world-weary. He chats with dad on the phone (we don’t get to see Brad pull out the Ben Buttons old-age makeup), but Katy guesses that mom has died, maybe recently. Oh, also there’s the history of the universe and of life on earth, with CG dinosaurs. The movie scatters its narrative for so long, it’s like a two-hour trailer for a life-length feature (or perhaps just the rumored six-hour cut). It’s like nothing else, ever, not 2001: A Space Odyssey or Malick’s earlier movies or anything else it’s being compared to.

Production design by “man in the planet” Jack Fisk (all five Malick features, four by Lynch plus There Will Be Blood and Phantom of the Paradise), shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World, Sleepy Hollow, all the Alfonso Cuarón movies), music (very good, sometimes too large and overpowering) by Alexandre Desplat (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Birth) and edited by a bunch of guys (including, counterintuitively, Jarmusch’s buddy Jay Rabinowitz).

It’s not hard to find people walking about Tree of Life, but it’s surprisingly hard to find film critics as unhesitatingly impressed by it as I was. Suppose they’re doing their job, hesitating to fully recommend the most narratively unhinged major film of the year. I haven’t been recommending it around much myself. P. Bradshaw in The Guardian calls it “a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy.” The movie has no built-in defense against people who snicker at the cartoon dinosaurs and the whispered voiceovers and the biblical metaphors. It takes itself very seriously and demands that you do the same, or the whole thing could fall apart.


EDIT 2021: I watched this again – the extended version – and the only notes I took were:

– I don’t remember the abusive mustache neighbor
– too much high-pantsed brad pitt looking disappointed in this version

But at the time of viewing, I felt the full glory and splendor of the Malick, which is what I needed. I’ll revisit this post again when I get to the blu extras.

Very nicely assembled space doc, a tribute to the Apollo missions. Some 16 years after we stopped going to the moon, Reinert montaged audio interviews and film records from the flights into a concise movie with some familiar imagery (still good to see it in well-restored HD) but plenty of new stuff for a space novice like myself.

Lots of anti-gravity play, and talk about music. I was impressed that one astronaut took the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack into space, forgetting that the film predated the first moon landing. And speaking of music, I liked the documentary’s music without paying much attention, didn’t realize until the end credits that it’s all by Brian Eno. Nor did it really occur to me until more than halfway through the short feature that multiple missions were being shuffled without comment. These are two things I’ll have to focus on next time. Turns out Reinert cowrote that Final Fantasy movie I hated, but I can’t hold that against him now.

T. Rafferty:

What he does in this project, editing millions of feet of film and hundreds of hours of audio recordings into an eighty-minute feature, is treat the whole Apollo adventure as a single, epic trip to the moon, peopled by a crew so anonymous that it seems to represent, well, all mankind. … [Nobody] is identified by name. The film simply proceeds, with serene inevitability, from one fiery liftoff to one gentle splashdown, not troubling itself to distinguish any individual mission from any other and never interrupting the hypnotic flow of otherworldly imagery with a shot of a talking head. At first, when one of the offscreen voices says something unusually poetic, or funny, you wonder whose voice it is, but after a while you stop wondering. It doesn’t seem to matter. It’s everybody’s voice.

Reinert:

I began interviewing the Apollo astronauts in 1976. They were mostly retired astronauts by then, changed men. Over the years I taped nearly 80 hours of interviews with those original extraterrestrial humans, and excerpts from the tapes constitute the major part of the soundtrack of For All Mankind. The movie thus speaks with the intimate voice of personal experience.

For All Mankind is the firsthand story of a great mythic adventure. Touching the Moon was by definition a work of inspired imagination and high art, and scarcely requires further embellishment. It speaks for itself more eloquently than it can ever be interpreted: an age-old dream that at long last was fulfilled.

Rafferty again:

It takes enormous daring to make an avant-garde movie about people as determinedly square as the scientists, technicians, and pilots of the Apollo team; where this journalist, who had never directed a movie before, found the inspiration for that unlikely project is—like so much in the film—unfathomable. … In the late nineties, HBO aired a twelve-part docudrama series called From the Earth to the Moon, to which Reinert contributed two scripts. (The series is less exciting than it should have been—it tries too hard to be stirring—but its history is pretty reliable.) Reinert also had a hand in writing Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, which effectively (if, again, a bit too strenuously) dramatizes the 1970 mission … But For All Mankind is irreplaceable: one of a kind and likely to remain so. It is, formally, among the most radical American films of the past quarter century and, emotionally, among the most powerfully affecting.

You ask me to believe that in the future, 70% of the earth’s energy comes from a mineral harvested on the moon – fine. And that the harvesting station is manned by only one astronaut, Sam Rockwell – fine. And that to cut training costs, they actually have a hundred clones of Sam Rockwell with memory implants and they wake one up every three years – fine. But then you tell me these moon-harvesting Sam Rockwell-cloning men of the future can’t spell “satellite” correctly on their satellite receiver, that’s where I have trouble suspending disbelief.

Sam is great as the only actor in the movie (people on video screens don’t count) playing clone #5 whose term is almost up and also clone #6 who was awakened prematurely when the computers thought Sam 5 had died. Interesting how the computers don’t have any biometrics on Sam, requiring him to talk to the friendly (anti-HAL, sabotaging the company to assist Sam) Kevin Spacey-voiced computer played by a ceiling-mounted roving smiley-face machine with a cupholder in front and a “kick me” sign on back. Funny also how the company’s way of disabling Sam’s live communications with Earth is to install massive radio-jamming towers around his base instead of, say, just sending an error message whenever he calls. My way would be cheaper.

But it isn’t our job to poke holes in the sci-fi movies – we’re here to enjoy them. And it’s enjoyable for sure. Sam 6 flies to earth in a jet tube meant for a can of minerals and brings legal action against Original Sam and the company in the cough-and-you’ll-miss-it audio finale. The whole thing seems vaguely anticlimactic since Sam 6 appears early in the movie. Once you’ve seen two Sams in the same room, learning about the motivation behind the clone thing is no big deal. But it’s an amusing flick to be sure.

I’m behind on the ol’ movie blog, but nobody ever notices. If I watch a John Ford movie on video and I write about it a few minutes later, or four months later, nobody will know the difference. But posting on the Star Trek Remake three weeks after it came out seems like such ancient history. There’ve already been five or six blockbusters in theaters since I watched this – I’d be surprised if Trek is still playing.

Decent movie, anyway. Already one of thee greatest films of all time according to IMDB users, but I preferred Mission Impossible III. A bit wearying in its length and intensity, with an exasperating number of dialogue references to the original shows and movies (“dammit Jim I’m a doctor” was especially forced).

Good to see John Cho looking badass with a sword (his actual action is shot from so far away, it’s doubtful Cho went through months of fencing training to prepare for the role), and I enjoyed comic relief actors Charlie Bartlett as Chekov and Simon Pegg as Scottie. Eric “Hulk” Bana played the sneering Romulan (not Klingon) bad guy, and neither of us realized that Winona Ryder was Spock’s human mom. L. Nimoy is still a commanding presence, but his role amounts to being young Kirk’s destiny tour guide.

Movie gets its Kirk origin story out of the way (angry young man because of dead father at hands of time-traveling rogue Romulan, joins starfleet on a dare from captain Bruce Greenwood, happens to team up with random group of the best and brightest young crew in fleet history) before making Spock the focus of the movie. Future-Spock failed to save planet Romulus from black-hole destruction, so evil Rom wants Spock to watch him destroy planet Vulcan. Rom gets a 3-for-1 bonus, since both Spocks witness planet destruction and Spock’s mom dies in front of him, prompting a Wrath of Khan-esque action-revenge climax.

The filmmaking is super stylish but it’s not my favorite style… constant handicam motion, fast cutting, lens flare in every shot. Nice to watch planets implode and the torpedo fights and transporter effects. Pleasant enough diversion but I wouldn’t have felt bad to miss it entirely. Katy is annoyed that she had to watch this as a loyal Abrams fan and hopes he doesn’t make part 2.

1982: the year of Blade Runner, White Dog, Poltergeist, The Thing, Gandhi, Britannia Hospital, Fitzcarraldo, Fanny & Alexander, Tron, the Sting version of Brimstone & Treacle… and this, the legendary Worst Kurt Vonnegut Adaptation Ever. From young hotshot Steven Paul, one of the producers of Doomsday, and I know I just said I wouldn’t waste my time watching anything created by anyone involved with Doomsday, but the Vonnegut connection combined with this movie’s reputation for being one of the worst comedies of the 80’s forced me to watch it out of morbid curiosity.

Laurel and Hardy? The book was dedicated to them.
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Opens with narration by Orson Welles, surely giving even less effort than he did as the voice of the planet in Transformers: The Movie. You can immediately tell that the movie has no comic sense whatsoever. It looks cheap despite the big-name cast, and every “joke” is dead on delivery. The comedy is mostly people falling down, moving fast, talking funny (slapstick, I guess) and it’s badly staged… for instance, the twins are giant-sized, but only when convenient.

I don’t think Vonnegut was as mean-spirited towards the Chinese. And of course, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita is not of Chinese descent, but better him than Mickey Rooney I suppose. He plays the shrunken thumb-sized ambassador, a reference only understood by readers of the book since it’s unexplained during the movie. Other bits from the book are also rethought and bungled, and the twins are from SPACE now (and return to space in the ridiculous ending). All traces of Vonnegut’s trademark sadness and humanity are lost, unless you consider the sadness of the cast and the releasing studio and the audience. Rogue Cinema points out that the movie’s cast (Khan, Feldman, even Welles) and poster and title (and renaming the doctor “Frankenstein”) aimed to make audiences think that this would be a Mel Brooks Close Encounters parody. That particular advertising lie is probably the most well-thought-out part of the whole film.

Lewis!
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Khan!
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Madeline Khan and Jerry Lewis double-star as both the super-genius twins and their rich, detached parents. Marty Feldman is the butler in the twins’ secluded home. John Abbott plays a guy with a cool beard and Samuel FULLER is the colonel at the Military School For Screwed-Up Boys.

Feldman!
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Fuller!
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One of the last films of Jim Backus (Mr. Howell on Gilligan’s Island, voice of Mr. Magoo), John Abbott, Marty Feldman, and even Jerry Lewis (had starring roles in 6-7 more movies, most of them bad) but Jerry recovered in time to make Arizona Dream. Yes, Slapstick was a mega-career-killer, destroying the respectability of everyone involved! It ruined cinematographer Anthony Richmond, who previously shot the beautiful Man Who Fell To Earth and Bad Timing but went on to shoot Dane Cook movies and Dumb & Dumber 2. And – little known fact – it contributed to the death of Orson Welles and was directly responsible for his never completing Big Brass Ring, The Dreamers or Other Side of the Wind. Orson’s female co-narrator’s career was so thoroughly demolished that the internet has no record of who she was. But on the bright side, the movie helped launch the film career of Pat Morita, who would star in The Karate Kid two years later.

Morita! (he’s the one not looking at the camera)
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Music by Michel Legrand and a song with lyrics by Vonnegut were edited out of the movie after the original release – why?? Assistant-directed by Michel’s son Benjamin Legrand, ending his short career as assistant-director (begun the year before on Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round).

Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads? The incest scene doesn’t go very far, because we need a “PG” rating.
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Released around the same time as Scorsese’s awesome King of Comedy, also with Jerry Lewis, though I think this was shot first and shelved for a while. Gene Siskel calls it “shockingly bad” and Ebert calls it offensive but makes a point of not blaming Vonnegut or Lewis. I heard one detectable Jerry joke: “You know, do as the romans do… when in rome, that is – I had it backwards” (it’s all in the delivery). There’s an occasional passionate line-read by Madeline or Jerry, the occasional animated bit of action, but mostly the movie moves mechanically from one laborious scene to the next, a simple motion illustration of a screenplay written by a guy who knows a guy who talked to a guy who once read the Vonnegut novel (which wasn’t one of KV’s best stories to begin with). I would looove to say that Fuller, Lewis and Feldman were excellent and the movie was slightly worth watching, but they weren’t and it wasn’t. I’m not in any hurry to rewatch Breakfast of Champions to decide whether this one is worse, but I think it probably is.

Close Encounters of the Dumb Kind:
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First saw this when I was seven. Mostly memorable for being the only (?) movie I ever watched with aunt Nora. Otherwise I remember it being a pretty cool, very weird space movie which no other kids would discuss with me when I got back home to Texas because no one else had seen it.

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Little did I know I was witnessing the feature film debuts by two new stars, Ethan Hawke (left) and River Phoenix (with the glasses).

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Also this kid, Jason Presson, who was just as good but never got as far as his costars in the movie world (despite a cameo in Gremlins 2).

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And Ethan’s love interest Amanda Peterson, who got her own romantic comedy starring role two years later before disappearing from the screen. She was barely in this movie, the token female character. Ethan kisses her at the end in the above cloud-flying dream-sequence, to show that he has grown up a little bit from his adventures, and to show that despite all this fooling around in basements with his boy friends, he sure ain’t gay. River still might be.

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There’s a schoolyard villain, 17-yr-old Bobby Fite, but the coolest character is of course Dick Miller (above) as a helicopter pilot who sees the kids’ spaceship and single-mindedly tracks them down. A villain, perhaps, a stuffy adult authority figure come to put an end to their fun, but when he arrives at the clearing and sees them taking off in the ship, his reaction is unexpectedly sweet… he just smiles and stays behind the trees.

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Computer effects by ILM, makeup by Rob Bottin (fresh off The Thing), music by Jerry Goldsmith, with James Cromwell as River’s absentminded father… a respectable crew. Not at all a bad movie, but I have a hard time summoning up much excitement for it… just a cute little journey with a refreshingly unexpected conclusion.

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Nerdy German kid River is friends with picked-on dreamer Ethan. They love drive-ins, sci-fi and horror movies (hello, Joe Dante). Both begin to have a shared dream (the circuit board above), so River builds the board to the dream’s specs and has himself a computer-controlled floating forcefield. After teaming up with bully-baiting Jason, a tough loner kid from an unhappy home, they build a ship (called the Thunder Road, using a seat from a tilt-a-whirl) and test it out, surrounding it with the force field and buzzing their town, using alien technology to peep through Amanda’s window. After another dream which reveals the circuitry for a magical oxygen-generation board (?), they head out to infinity and beyond. Some wacky shenanigans with a giant spider aboard the alien craft that captures them, then they meet the aliens, a boy and a girl. Kids first lines: “I’ve waited all my life to say this… we come in peace.” A stunner from the aliens: “ehhh, what’s up doc?” Cartoony sound effects everywhere, kids don’t seem to know what’s going on, layers of TV shows and static all over the screen. Finally the alien craft is captured by a much much huger alien craft piloted by the parents of the TV-addict earth-meddling kid aliens who first met our heroes, and River’s gang returns to earth vaguely disillusioned. But we end on the kissing cloud dream, so it’s alright.

Bad science: “It was airtight – I couldn’t feel myself speed up or slow down.”

“They’re heeeere” reference to Poltergeist, which Goldsmith and ILM also worked on.

Loved this. The music was perfect. As things start to fall apart on the spaceship, the image gets more strange, with some almost avant-garde shots throughout the second half.

Spaceship behind giant solar shield is heading for dying sun to launch a bomb that may reignite it. On the way, they board the previous ship that was sent out on same mission, now inhabited by a dark force. Shades of Event Horizon follow, with a heaven thing going instead of Event‘s hell thing.

Each crew member gets enough personality to be easily distinguished a half hour in (and I was hardly trying to keep up), so that instead of wasting time in the second half trying to remember who’s who, we can focus on action blasting through space. Your standard kinda Aliens / The Abyss sci-fi action structure then, but with images that do not seem to belong in a big-budget movie. The camera can’t seem to SEE the Icarus 1 captain – he’s always out of focus or hidden by sunlight, even when another character should be able to see him clearly. I just enjoyed the hell out of that idea, and probably appreciate the movie more than I should because I’ve latched onto it. But there’s no shame in loving a particularly well-made sci-fi thriller. This one will be my War of the Worlds or Minority Report for 2007.

Who were those people: Cillian Murphy is in an upcoming film noir comedy. Michelle Yeoh was in Crouching Tiger. Rose Byrne was the girl in 28 Weeks Later and Kirsten’s friend in Marie Antoinette. The tan guy was in The Fountain and Die Hard 4. The captain played the lead in Twilight Samurai and was in The Promise and Ring. Suicide guy was in Code 46 and Tristram Shandy. The replacement captain was Human Torch in Fantastic Four. The guy who doesn’t make it back from Icarus 1 played Tom Hayden in Steal This Movie. And best of all, the captain from Icarus 1 (which lost contact seven years ago) was in 1999’s Sunshine (just over seven years ago) starring Ralph Fiennes in the Cillian Murphy role.