They Might be Giants is an underrated gem (and not just the name of a band)

I’m an unabashed fan of the work of Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. I think Holmes is one of the most exceptional characters in all fiction, and the fact that Holmes has been reinterpreted and continuously reinvented over the past 125-plus years reflects the power and strength this character still holds.

Many actors have played Holmes on screen over the years, and while Benedict Cumberbatch has gotten raves for his most recent portrayal of the character on the BBC, my personal favorite is the great Jeremy Brett and his seminal portrayal in the 1980s and 90s. Though, to be completely honest, I must say that George C. Scott’s take is a close second.

What, you may ask… George C. Scott, playing Sherlock Holmes? When did Scott do THAT?

In the underrated and entertaining 1971 film They Might be Giants, that’s when.

Here’s the thing, though… Scott didn’t play Holmes per se, he played a character who THINKS he’s Holmes. In the film Scott’s character, a millionaire named Justin Playfair, had a psychotic break after the death of his wife and became Holmes… And that he had to hunt down and capture his arch enemy, Professor Moriarty. When his family tried to get him help, he meets his Watson… Doctor Mildred Watson, played by Joanne Woodward. Once he learns her surname, he brings Watson into his world and his pursuit of Moriarty.

Moriarty represents the design of things… every evil thing must have a root cause, death and horror and anguish cannot be random. It has to have a root cause. It has to be Moriarty…

Scott is, as he so often was, brilliant. The idea that this was his followup to Patton… the mind reels. He had good taste. And Woodward is his absolute equal on screen, giving as good as she takes. Though Woodward is best known as being the life-long wife of Paul Newman, she was an impressive talent and is the beating heart and soul of the film. And there’s other great actors on display, character actors such as Jack Gilford, Al Lewis, Rue McClanahan and James Tolkan.

This movie inspired the name of the (much more famous) band, and I think it’s sad that the film is a footnote in their story. It’s worthy of more than that, because it is a flight of brilliant whimsy and drama that rewards repeated viewing. The movie’s themes and ideas were a tough sell in 1971 (heck, it’s a tough sell NOW) and the film flopped. It deserved better, and it has rightly developed a cult following.

They Might be Giants is a surprisingly powerful and moving film, a wonderful quirky movie that is satirical and funny and very very good. Take the time, and watch it.

Battle Beyond the Stars is a Star Wars knock-off that’s hardly worth revisiting

I was playing with a new outdoor projector setup and was looking through Netflix to test it out. What movie could I use to run it through its paces? What film had a great variety in shot selection that would really show me what it could do? For some reason, I picked Battle Beyond the Stars… The cheesy Roger Corman Star Wars knock-off.

Oh, my… Battle Beyond the Stars.

After Star Wars came out, I was a crazy fan of anything that was remotely like it… So, of course, I dragged my mom to take me to Battle Beyond the Stars. I loved it, but time (as we have seen) has a way of change one’s perspective. Battle has not aged well, and it is as cheesy as any 70s or 80s sci-fi gets.

In addition to the obvious “homages” to Star Wars, it’s also a blatant rip-off of The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven. It’s a “high concept” movie before the term even existed. But “The Magnificent Seven in Space” does not a good movie make… And Battle Beyond the Stars is not a good movie.

It is also incredibly ernest… And it is that tone that takes any and all fun out of the proceedings. Things are played with no whimsy or happiness, and it’s that dreary tone that makes it a chore to sit through.

(Sidebar: Holy cow, the amount of not-so-subtle sexual subtext in the spaceship design in this movie. It’s pretty clear that the designer of these spaceships was a Freudian, and stuck in the Phallic stage.)

What I did enjoy was some of the acting. Three of by favorite B-grade actors are on display: George Peppard, John Saxon, and Robert Vaughn. They do the best with the material they have been given, with Peppard looking like he’s having the most fun. Other actors, like lead Richard Thomas and actress Sybil Danning, do their best to make things work, but the film just doesn’t.

It’s not the worse movie I ever say, but it’s far from the best. If you like cheesy sci-fi, you may like it. Casual viewers need not apply.

A final note: the movie did produce three impressive “graduates.” The first was composer James Horner, who’s work here predates his impressive soundtrack work in Star Trek II, The Rocketeer, and Titanic. The third was writer/director John Sayles, who went on to better things. The third was a man who was responsible to making most of the low-budget sets and effects look quite impressive. You may have heard of him: James Cameron.

A look at some Neglected Directors

I’ve written about some underrated and/or neglected movie directors like John Carpenter, Bob Fosse and Orson Welles before, but when I put my latest Neglected Cinema column to bed, I realized that there were many other directors who haven’t gotten a proper appreciation by the general public… directors who need some “love,” as it were. Hence, this look at some neglected directors and their work. Let’s start with one of my favorites:

Franklin Schaffner

Who? You may not be familiar with his name, but you have undoubtedly seen at least one of his films. Papillon. The Boys From Brazil. Patton. Planet of the Apes. Schaffner directed all of them, as well as ten other films in his quarter-century career. He was the poor-man’s David Lean, the “go-to” guy when you wanted an authentic big-screen epic. He made great films, and wisely used the great Jerry Goldsmith to score half the films he directed. He died in 1989.

George Roy Hill

Like Schaffner, George Roy Hill also directed only 14 films, but what a great filmography: musicals like Thoroughly Modern Millie, dark comedies like Slap Shot and The World According to Garp, and the two films that put Paul Newman and Robert Redford together: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Classics all, and George Roy Hill’s efforts in pulling them together are underappreciated and he deserves greater attention and respect. Hill died in 2002.

Peter Weir

Australian filmmaker Peter Weir has done some great work, and is best known for his movies Witness, Dead Poets Society and The Year of Living Dangerously (one of my wife’s favorite movies). He also directed the film that gave us the best performance of Harrison Ford’s career, The Mosquito Coast. I’ll have more to say about that and his movie Master and Commander when I revisit then in future Neglected Cinema columns.

Michael Powell

A remarkable British director, Powell had two genuine masterpieces: The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus… films that he made consecutively, in 1947 and 1948. He was incredibly influential, and his 1960 horror film Peeping Tom predated Psycho by three months (Psycho was hugely successful, but Peeping Tom almost ended Powell’s directing career). Powell passed away in 1990.

Jack Arnold

Director of many 1950s SF and horror films, Arnold elevated the genre by producing smart movies with tight writing and cutting-edge special effects. Among his films were The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tarantula and Creature from the Black Lagoon. He also directed the underrated Peter Sellers comedy The Mouse that Roared. He went on to a successful and prolific career directing in television and died in 1992.

F For Fake is Orson Welles’ forgotten masterpiece

I love Orson Welles. He is one of the most amazing people of the 20th Century, a larger-than-life figure who’s had a dozen books written about him (I’ve read quite a few of them). His life could be accurately described as a “Shakespearean” tale of triumph and tragedy (which, considering the many times he performed the Bard’s work, is completely appropriate).

What great heights, and what sad lows. He directed the movie many proclaim as the greatest film of all time at the age of 23, and yet at the end of his life he was begging friends and family for money to finish his last film (I still hold a grudge against Spielberg, the hottest director at the time, for not helping out). Because he never got the necessary funding, he never finished his last movie, The Other Side of the Wind, and thus his last cinematic work was the documentary film F for Fake… a “documentary” in name only.

It’s brilliant, overlooked, and underrated… hence it’s inclusion in this Negelcted Cinema column.

What makes F for Fake so good is it’s more of a personal essay than a documentary, a meditation on life, art, and the creative process. The central “story” of the film is about the great art forger Elmyr de Hory, who made millions by making and selling fake masterpieces. He could mimic the style of the greats, and many many “experts” had authenticated his work as original. Orson takes great fun in puncturing these “experts” but the story gets even more strange when the film reveals that author Clifford Irving (de Hory’s biographer) had perpetrated his own forgery, creating the infamous Howard Hughes “authorized biography.”

Hughes, like Charles Foster Kane, was a man of mystery… who had to come out of hiding to refute Irving’s purported “biography”… and the fact that Orson’s last movie has such an interesting connection to his first provides an odd form of symmetry. Adding to that connection: His co-star in Citizen Kane, Joseph Cotten, appears in F for Fake in a small role.

Detailing anymore about the F for Fake would be spoiling things, save for this: Pay close attention to what Orson says at the beginning of the film, and remember these words in the last seventeen minutes of the movie when he is discussing Picasso and “the girl” (Oja Kodar). You’ll thank me for it.

The movie is also notable for the “kamikaze” style of editing and use of different media (photos, music, 16mm film) to tell a story in a nonlinear way. It’s the type of editing that we later saw in music videos on MTV… Ten years later. Again, Orson was ahead of his time.

Instead of spending time heaping many more superlatives on the film, I’ll simply end here. If you have never seen F for Fake, see it. If you’ve seen it before… watch it again. It’s wonderful, and while it’s not how Orson intended on ending his directing career, it’s still a fine ending to a life in cinema.

Speed Racer brings a cartoon to vivid life in a surprisingly divisive way

One of the first movies I purchased on Blu-Ray was Speed Racer. Not because I was a fan – I hadn’t seen it before I bought it – but because it was on sale for less than $10. I was building a (now excessive) collection of HD titles, and I thought, “Why not?” It would be a good “demo disk” for my home theatre setup, and the kids might like it.

I hadn’t expected to fall head-over-heels in love with the film.

When it was first released, a lot of fans and critics HATED it. Just take a look at some old comment boards and online reviews… they despised the film, and that hate spread among people who never even saw the picture. I call it the “Ishtar Effect”: When the pop culture zeitgeist decides something sucks, well… it’s decided. Any opinion to the contrary is drowned out by the majority who just “know” it’s bad. What surprised me is how many people acted like they had a vested interest in the film’s failure, and they were gleeful at the disappoint box office returns.

Here’s some of what I wrote at the time of the film’s release:

You look at the message boards, all afire as users post insulting slams against those who loved or hated the film, often becoming incredibly insulting and personal attacks, and you just think…. wow. We are the most blessed nation on the planet.

I mean, really. People (including myself, to be fair) are able to use their computers, connected to an incredibly rich network of information and opinion that did not even EXIST 20 years ago, to debate the merits of a movie based on a CARTOON. I’m absolutely sure that none of the people who debated Speed Racer had to worry about where their next meal was coming from. Heck, I’m sure many of them could stand to skip a couple of meals (sorry, cheap shot).

My point is this: we don’t know how good we got it, people. And so thank God we can speak our opinion freely, when many many nations don’t allow our populace to do likewise. The fact that we can debate over a live-action-anime film based on a bad 1970s TV show is something we need to enjoy and cherish and be grateful for.

Speed Racer may be fantastic. It may be horrid. But if it could raise such a stink with people then there must be something of note there.

There WAS something there. Something amazing. The Wachowski siblings, who had previously brought us one good Matrix movies and two bad ones, brought a thin-as-paper cartoon to vivid life and gave it a beating living joyful heart. It’s as artificial a film as was ever constructed, but it feels real and completely human.

The cast are perfect, from John Goodman to Emile Hirsh to Mathew Fox and Christina Ricci. The racing segments are incredible spectacles, so superior to other race segments as to make them boring and lifeless (I”m looking at you, Episode One pod race). But most important is… it’s moving. This film, a cartoon writ large, touched me.

Again, I hadn’t expected THAT to happen.

Many notable critics, far more respectable than I am, share my view that Speed Racer is a magnificent film (Richard Corliss of Time Magazine listed it as his 9th best film of the year). But the Ishtar Effect was too strong, and most people think of it as a bad movie that bombed at the box office and is best left forgotten. Hence, my inclusion in this Neglected Cinema series.

Don’t listen to the haters. Find a copy of Speed Racer, and smile as you view an amazing Technicolor wonder that will enter your mind… and your heart.

On James Bond movies and continuity…

Trying to figure out and align James Bond continuity is like making a vodka martini from Siamese vodka… it can be done, but it’s not going to result in something that is very palatable or satisfying.

I remember one of the first attempts, a crazy theory promoted by many fans, one that aligned all the Bond films by saying “They are all different men, given the codename James Bond along with the number 007.” That theory was “blown up” (along with Bond’s childhood home) in Skyfall when we see the grave of Bond’s parents. Bond isn’t a code name, it’s his name. He’s just one (really cool, well-trained) guy.

You could also say, because of the last scene in Skyfall, that the other Bond films take place AFTER the movie ends… which makes no sense because of the fanboy-pleasing callbacks in the movie and the many topical and technology references in the earlier films.

There is no “Grand Unified Bond Theory” that makes it all make sense, as hard as we would like to try, because it Just. Doesn’t. Work.

Bond is an “evergreen” character, open to reinterpretation and “resurrection” every few years. It is what has kept the character alive and relevant, the same way different takes on the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne have occurred over the years. You can’t align the Bond movies into a single timeline anymore than you can make the Christian Bale Batman exist in the same “universe” as Adam West and Michael Keaton.

I love continuity as much as the next fanboy, but we should really take the sage advice of someone much wiser than I am, a man who long ago said “Just repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax…’”

See question on Quora