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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Month of AlloSundays: The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Written by William E. Bast; additional material by Julian More
Adapted from an earlier unfinished project by Willis H. O'Brien
Directed by James O'Connolly

Creator of Visual Effects:  Ray Harryhausen

James Franciscus:  Tuck
Gila Golan:  T.J.
Laurence Naismith:  Professor Bromley
Curtis Arden:  Lope
Gwangi:  Himself

Looks like I got the long end of the stick on this one--my friend Bryan over at Cinemasochist Apocalypse called me up and asked if I would take it the wrong way if he got in on this "month of AlloSundays" action by reviewing The Beast of Hollow Mountain. That turns out to be an Allosaurus movie I don't have, so I was fine with him joining in to pay a little tribute to the Shemp Howard of dinosaurs. I like roundtables, so if anyone else out there in B Movie Internet Land wants to join in, please feel free. Bryan even covered the actual paleontology behind the name "Allosaurus" and a brief history of the fossil discoveries, so there's plenty of information to pinch if you feel like it.

Me? I'm just here to talk about the monster movies, not actual science.

First off, it turns out that all three of my movies were "people go to a lost place where extinct animals are still around" films; two of those lost worlds were in the Antarctic and today's is in Mexico (where I would expect the climate to be a little more hospitable to surviving dinos). And there's a lot of story beats in all three movies that play out the same--there's only so many different ways to use the plot where a bunch of adults explore a hitherto unknown area and see dinosaurs. But in this one, there's more than a few curveballs in the script (and after The Land that Time Forgot, I was really ready for something less bland and aimless).

The film seems like a throwback to the Fifties to me, at least partially because of the super-bombastic score that plays over the pre-credits scenery while a bunch of Mexican gypsies look for a particular Mexican gypsy that has taken a beating (he's got lacerations on his face, which, as the Dr. Phibes movies have taught us all, means he will die soon). He's also got a small sack which has something inside it that's squirming around and whinnying like a horse. I doubt that he's got a shrinking ray so it's got to be something else, doesn't it?

He collapses in a spring-fed pond and dies like a minor character in a Cormac McCarthy novel just as his pursuers catch up to him. The obligatory Blind Old Woman makes pronouncements that anyone who steals from "Gwangi the evil one" is cursed--one presumes fatally. The gypsy who picked up the burlap sack with a micro-horse in it doesn't go in for all that nonsense about curses and evil ones. The woman says everybody's doomed if the whatever-it-is in the bag doesn't get returned to the hidden valley. So whatever happens between now and the end of the film is this guy's fault if he doesn't bring the horse back and let it go into the wild. A year after Night of the Living Dead changed the rules seems to be a bit late for the "superstition versus reason" dialogue, too, but a huge part of the charm of this film is its throwback nature.

And the film itself is quite cognizant of changing times and changing tastes in entertainment--similar to the way Singin' in the Rain is a metatextual document chronicling the uncertainty in Hollywood during the rise of television via comment on silent movies accepting the advent of sound, this film comments on the changing marketplace of entertainment as well. Watching the movie now, one cannot help but feel that the dinosaur is an excellent metaphor for a science fiction filmmaking style that was going to be too expensive to produce over the coming decades as well as a harmless thrill ride of a monster movie made about half a decade before Leatherface was going to hurt the feelings of generations of movie watchers. One of the protagonists is T. J. Breckenridge. She's the owner and star attraction of the Breckenridge Wild West Show, a traveling circus that entertains people in the early 1900s "somewhere south of the Rio Grande", which I take to mean south Texas or northern Mexico.

The circus appears to be pretty prosperous as far as I can tell; there's two dozen people in its marching band and the performers and animals all look to be well-fed. The costumes aren't threadbare and the prop stagecoach that one guy rides atop isn't falling apart (the gaudy colors for the costumes and buildings really pop on the DVD--I bet this looked really cool in actual theaters). As the circus makes parade through the town, a handsome nattily-dressed stranger walks past the camera and he's got to be the protagonist because the shot follows him instead of the suspiciously white-looking "Indians" brandishing spears and bows and following the stagecoach. One of those kids that shows up in monster movies accosts the new arrival to see if he needs someone to carry his luggage or show him around town. The gringo protagonist gives him the brushoff until he finds out that Lope is an orphan, and acting as a general errand boy for anyone in town for food money.

Lope gets pressed into service to find the arena where the Wild West circus will be performing and the pair go to see the show (which gives the filmmakers a chance to show a lot of diegetically motivated stunts; there's an "Indian attack" on a stagecoach that requires plenty of falling off of horses and blank rifle shots being fired. I don't envy the performer that has to be inside the covered wagon when the attackers set it on fire. After the stunt exhibition, the next act is T. J. Breckenridge and her wonder horse Omar, who have a high-diving act. The unnamed protagonist in the natty suit turns out to have a history with the show and with T. J.; the stunt performers are happy to see him again and the ringmaster hopes that he gets hit by lightning.

Oh, and the high dive act involves riding a horse off a platform into a tank full of incredibly nasty looking water; the rim of the tank is on fire. This is what people went to go see before the advent of cinema, and there's got to be a better way to make a living. Omar doesn't look too thrilled to be doing the act. The unfriendly small talk between the ringmaster and Tuck the ne'er do well delivers a little more exposition; the circus is losing money and can't meet its bills. Apparently he used to perform with the show, but left (leaving a great deal of bad blood between T. J. and him) and now he's come back--though the people in charge of the circus want very, very little to do with him.

Tuck has moved up in the world; he's a talent agent for circuses and vaudeville, making more money for less work and absolutely no leaping off of horses in a dirt-floored arena. He's come to the Breckenridge show to make an offer for Omar courtesy of the Buffalo Bill show. T. J. is having absolutely none of it (Tuck being a smarmy jerk, possibly as a way to keep her rattled and get a better deal for Omar out of it, doesn't help) and he exits the conversation a half step ahead of the hairbrush she chucks at him.

Later, in the desert, Tuck and Lope are traveling back from the show and run across Professor Bromley, someone who makes regular use of Lope's errand-running and item-fetching business. Bromley's a paleontologist of the "daffy British upper-class goofball" stripe, digging holes in the desert looking for the bones of extinct creatures. Bromley has a theory that humanity is orders of magnitude older than the currently accepted theories would claim. He's got a chunk of rock with an Eohippus hoofprint in it--and the same rock has a hominid leg bone fragment. Bromley's theory is that the ancestors of humans as we know them today were around tens of millions of years earlier than the scientific consensus would have it. Tuck's mostly just impressed by the tininess of the Eohippus hoofprint. Bromley is genuinely dedicated to his research, but he's running out of money, food and liquor. Hard to say which one is most vital to his efforts, but needless to say all of them are important. And Tuck clearly doesn't quite know what to make about the unprecedented appearance of a humanoid leg bone in fifty million year old rock; he and Lope leave the scientist to his labors.

Meanwhile, back at the arena, T. J. is fending off the advances of the Mexican gypsy from before the credits. She owes him money for "El Diablo", whatever that is, and he wants to upgrade their partnership from "business venture" to "boyfriend / girlfriend". Tuck shows up just in time to unknowingly shoo away the guy that T. J. owes money to and Lope decides to try his hand at bullfighting after seeing one of the performers on the show working on that act. The kid falls down the second he tries to run away from the bull and only Tuck (and a few other people) intervening keeps him from getting hurt or killed. Plus T. J. shows that she's actually very concerned about her ex and they wind up rekindling their relationship.

The love story, business problems and scientific paradoxes work amazingly well to disguise the fact that we haven't had any Ray Harryhausen effects in the movie yet. There's enough going on and the performances are credible enough that the viewer doesn't necessarily need there to be dinosaurs and lost worlds.

Though when they get to the dinosaurs, I certainly won't complain.

In the wake of Tuck's heroism (and injury; the bull kicked or head-butted him in a manner that the camera didn't show) lead to a private conference in T. J.'s bedroom. Tuck, the cad, uses his status as life-saving hero in order to make another bid for Omar the wonder horse. T. J. says she's happy to sell to him, because there's a new act that the circus has--one that will pack crowds in from miles around. Tuck's mercenary enough to want to know what the new thing is, even more than he wants to seal the deal to buy Omar.

The new act is "El Diablo", and El Diablo turns out to be something that Carlos the gypsy brought in a sack. It's a tiny little horse--one that comes out of his dollhouse-sized barn when T. J. plays a tune on a music box. The show worked up an act--a platform on Omar's back instead of a saddle, with El Diablo dancing on top of it. That is really neat, but I think the people in the cheap seats are going to feel ripped off. And I have to say I think El Diablo is the finest example of Ray Harryhausen's genius. He made monsters, skeletons, gods, demons, dinosaurs and aliens all come alive through the miracle of Dynamation, but the Eohippus in this movie is truly amazing. Nobody who saw this movie was ever unfortunate enough to encounter an Allosaurus in the wild (you wouldn't be here if you had), but everyone's seen a horse--in person or in movies. We all know what they look like and how they move. And the miniature stop-motion creation in this movie doesn't look like a bad special effect of a horse, or even a great special effect of one. It just looks like a horse. The skill and precision that went into its appearance in the film are breathtaking.

Tuck is in a unique position--he understands that El Diablo is even more valuable than T. J. thinks it is, because it's a living Eohippus (Professor Bromley was kind enough to point out the toes in the fossilized tracks, and El Diablo matches up to those perfectly). He sneaks the scientist into the room where El Diablo is being held and listens to him rhapsodize about getting a knighthood and all that kind of thing. Tuck has visions of a bidding war between the Ringling Brothers and P. T. Barnum in his own head (and I really like the way both characters are so lost in thought that neither one listens to the other's rapturous fantasies of wealth and prestige even though they're only a couple of feet away from each other). Bromley decides that they need to know where El Diablo came from, and that means talking to Carlos first.

Carlos takes an instant dislike to both men, unfortunately, and refuses to tell Tuck or Bromley where the gypsy camp is; he has visions of money he'll never make because T. J. told outsiders about El Diablo before the show was ready to capitalize on the Eohippus' existence properly. Tuck decides to ask Lope about the gypsy camp (which turns out to be the absolutely right move--the kid gets him and Bromley there that night). The old blind woman refuses to tell either man where the hidden valley is, and pronounces doom on everyone if they don't return the tiny horse from whence it came. Bromley tries something clever--telling the old blind seer where the horse is hidden, so that when the gypsies try to return it to the valley he can follow them.

The next day at a cantina, Tuck is working on a beer and a dilemma--he can either help T. J. make a skabillion dollars exhibiting El Diablo, or get an equally large fortune himself using the little bitty horse. And he turns out to be much less of a scoundrel than everyone in the movie thinks he is, possibly including himself, because it is a genuine problem for him. Lope offers some advice and mentions that he's got to meet the Professor by the arena that night with a mule; this lets Tuck know that plans are afoot (or possibly a-hoof), but he gets to the Breckenridge show just in time to get accused of swiping El Diablo himself. Carlos got suckerpunched from behind by a dwarf with a crowbar during the theft, but he thinks it was Tuck that walloped him.

So we have the Science Faction, the Showmanship Faction and the Superstition Faction all rushing through some really boss desert panoramas to get to the forbidden valley and return El Diablo to the lost world; Tuck is on Team Showmanship, but none of the faux cowboys and Indians are likely to believe that after Carlos and the ringmaster are done talking about what a jerk he is. Tuck snags the professor and demands information; the prof says something that nobody else had thought of. If there was one Eohippus, there has to be more in the lost valley. And that means that he could get a few to do science on and the Breckenridge carnival would be able to show off a dozen of them to the crowned heads of Europe, garnering the people's ovation and fame forever.

Tuck, Lope and Bromley make it to the rear projection of mountains and cliffs that mark the edges of the forbidden valley and scope the place out, planning to go there the next morning when they can see (this movie, like many others of its vintage, is filming slightly dim for night, but there were other sequences in the gypsy camp that were actually dark; my guess is that matting in the dinosaurs and other stop-motion critters requires brighter images). And just before halfway through the movie to the second, a pterodactyl flaps across the screen. The trio of adventurers follow the gypsies' tracks to the point that El Diablo was set loose; the mini horse ran to its home in the valley, which means that by following its tracks they can find their way into the Mexican lost world and hopefully grab a wagonload of Eohippi to show off to the world.

Lope finds another campsite and while Tuck is looking around, T. J. lassos him and declares that she's found a horse thief. His unjustified beating doesn't happen because someone sees El Diablo wandering around near the campsite and there's a lightly comic scene of a whole bunch of people from two of the factions trying to edge up to the Eohippus and not freak it out (and again, other than some problems matting the rear-projection to the actors' footage the horse looks absolutely convincing). Their efforts fail and El Diablo runs into a narrow crack in the mountain that leads into the Forbidden Valley. The various people trying to get the horse follow along; it turns out that a boulder blocking the entrance to the cavern can be pulled down with exactly three horsepower of pulling and a few ropes.

During this sequence the score sounds much more like a Western than a monster flick; it's a nice touch. The score turns much brassier and strident when a pterodactyl scoops Lope off his horse and tries to fly away with him; it turns out that the kid's too heavy for the predator to take him back to a nest, or even stay airborne for very long. Carlos gets in a fight with the grounded dinosaur and breaks its neck (similar to the goofy monster boots in The Beast from Hollow Mountain, the live-action prop that the performers interact with is not up to the cooler-than-real standards that Harryhausen sets with his stop-motion creatures). There also appeared to be a problem with printing the film or getting the color balance right with the pterodactyl--it looks purple and blue in the stop-motion shots but the prop dino is dark green (this color-timing problem persists through the movie--Gwangi is muddy grey, dark green, blue, dark brown or purple at various points; when I got this movie back from a coworker she left a Post-it note reading "Purple Monsterrrrrr" on it as her review).

Everyone else catches up to Carlos and Lope and gape at the dead pterodactyl until one of the cowboy performers gets a look at a living Struthomimus eating leaves off a bush. They immediately decide they need one for the show and chase after it on horseback--the scene's kind of whimsical, with the dinosaur fleeing and vocalizing while a line of men on horseback get their lassos out so they can try to capture it alive (it's not nearly as hostile as the pterodactyl was, which is good news for them). The score stops at the same time as the horses do when Gwangi strides into the frame and eats the smaller dinosaur. On the one hand, the cowboys are instantly terrified, but on the other hand--if a tiny horse was worth millions, imagine what showing off a fully grown adult Allosaurus would be worth...

Unfortunately the cowboys are outclassed--their guns only have blanks (they're showmen, after all, and they aren't slinging live ammo around when going through their act) and they certainly aren't going to be able to punch Gwangi into submission. Carlos gets a neat moment where he realizes the stories about the evil one that rules the forbidden valley were a lot closer to truth than he ever said they were, and the group gallops off to warn T. J., Lope and Bromley that there's a threat coming. The horses and men must smell delicious, because Gwangi follows them along.

Everyone but the paleontologist flees, so Bromley gets a front-row seat for a fight between Gwangi and a Styracoraurus (and he seems as awe-struck and giddy as a child when he realizes what he's seeing); the Allosaurus scares the other dinosaur away and stomps off with the dead pterodactyl to eat it later. The mounted members of the party find a cave they can hide in if things get bad and then work out a plan to trap Gwangi and bring him back to civilization. The sequence where they accomplish this is an absolute standout of Ray Harryhausen's artistry and craft. Matting real actors on horseback in to a scene where they're lassoing a dinosaur that's really an eighteen-inch-tall armature with sculpted flesh and skin is the kind of thing that would be done with CGI today (and not look convincing) because there's no current economic motivation to let a single craftsman work for weeks or months to produce a single effects sequence. Apparently the real actors were lassoing a post on the back of a Jeep and the animated effects were superimposed over the vehicle.

And before that happens, there's a confrontation with Gwangi where he bites a blanket out of Carlos' hands; why is this movie not as revered as the Jason and the Argonauts fight with the skeletons? Is the color timing that big an issue? Are Westerns just not interesting to monster movie fans? You got me. I'm amazed every time Gwangi shows up on screen, myself. The attempt to have a dinosaur roundup goes quite badly (and fatally, for Carlos) until a rock fall stuns the beast. Nothing else the performers, paleontologist or Lope could think of worked at all, so if that boulder hadn't clocked him the movie would have been over. The prop used for the unconscious dinosaur falling over is pretty rotten, I have to say; further proof that there's nothing quite like a Harryhausen effect.

Monster secured, the troupe decides to bring him back to town in a rolling wheeled wooden cage (I love the sullen look on the dinosaur's face here) and show him off, as you do with gigantic unpredictable prehistoric beasts. On the way out of the desert, the old blind gypsy woman pronounces a curse on everyone for taking Gwangi out of the valley and Bromley makes the cogent and germane point that Gwangi isn't evil; he's just a fantastically dangerous animal. He specifically says that the Allosaurus has the same moral standing as an alligator and he's right (and the film says he's right as well, which is nice).

There's a lull in the action between getting Gwangi back to put him on display and the inevitable third-act rampage; Tuck and T. J. break up and Bromley gets indignant about putting the irreplaceable Gwangi out as a circus attraction, stalking off while saying the Royal Society will have to register a complaint about the shabby mercantilism involved in showing off a surviving dinosaur. When T. J. runs after her man the film gives them a bit of privacy while the reconcile--fine by me. The dialogue would have been the same in this scene as in any other "we belong together after all" reconciliation.

The seats are packed when the circus finally shows Gwangi off at the arena. The gypsies think that hauling the Evil One out of his valley is much worse than taking a tiny horse from there, and a dwarf opens the lock on the cage, hoping to cause a ruckus and keep the show from being profitable. Which he does, because the first thing people see when the cover is lifted from Gwangi's cage is him making an appetizer out of the dwarf. The second thing they see is the dinosaur going on a rampage in town. A posse is formed and the dinosaur fights an elephant (complete with amazingly awful trumpeting sound effects--the elephant noises in this movie are the auditory equivalent of the color-changing dinosaurs).

Gwangi runs amok in the streets and gets trapped in a cathedral; only the quick action of Tuck and the cowboys prevents massive loss of life, though they do have to burn the church down to do it (not that I mind at all, but someone's gonna complain to the Pope about this). And the old blind seer turns out to be pretty much utterly wrong--the doom was Gwangi's--the "evil one" she was worried about was the main victim in all of this. If they'd left him in his valley or just brought the Smithsonian and a bunch of cameras over there could have been scientific progress and knowledge unimaginable on a human scale. Instead there's just a burnt hide that could be stuffed and brought on tour as a reminder that giant flesh-eating beasts and public display don't mix.

"Yeah, let's see you try that torches-and-spears stuff NOW, you punks."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Month of AlloSundays: The Land That Time Forgot (1974)

Written by James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock, based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Directed by Kevin Connor
Dinosaur Sequences:  Roger Dicken

Doug McClure:  Bowen Tyler
John McEnery:  Captain von Schoenvorts
Susan Penhaligon:  Lisa Clayton
Anthony Ainley:  Dietz
And STEVE JAMES! as the First Stolu

It's extremely fitting that Amicus made this movie; they were the Pepsi to Hammer Studios' Coca-Cola back in the fifties and sixties, and if I'm watching a movie for the Allosaurus content I'm happy to see the name of a second-tier studio in the credits. Stephen Spielberg and Universal teamed up to give viewers the best Tyrannosaurus Rex that had been seen on film up to that point (and pretty much since then as well). The Other Lizard gets Amicus and Kevin "Motel Hell" Connor. If I was being completely fair I'd point out that Edgar Rice Burroughs and Michael Moorcock are heavyweights in the fantasy literature field, both responsible for game-changing landmark books, but that would undercut my premise so I won't be bringing it up at all.

The opening credits show a small waterproofed cask being thrown off a cliff and into the ocean somewhere; while the people who made the movie have their names on screen the cask bobs on the water's surface and eventually winds up at a tidal pool where a sea captain picks it up off the rocks. He finds a bundle of papers inside (hope you don't drop them in the sea while you're taking 'em out of the cask, buddy) that look like they were torn from a ship's log book, and are covered front and back with handwriting. The voiceover as he reads them lets us know that this is the framing device for the story--I imagine the last shot of the film will be someone tossing that cask off the cliff again (or, from their perspective, for the first time). Whoever wrote the journal and threw it into the ocean says that they've experienced wonders, horror and adventure within three short months.

"It must have been a little after three o'clock in the afternoon when it began" is a bit wordier than "Call me Ishmael", but it serves. June third, 1916, was a bad time to be on a passenger liner in the Atlantic Ocean; the main reason you didn't want to be there is demonstrated by a minor brass chord on the soundtrack and a snorkel popping up out of the ocean's surface. The lurking U-boat has a crew that works like a well-oiled machine, and with Teutonic efficiency they blow the 20,000 ton S. S. Montrose out of the water. It's a pretty nifty model effect, though as always fire and water look unrealistic when used in miniature shots of insufficient size. Too bad for the fourth wall that both elements are in this particular effects shot. But, as always with B movies, the viewer has to be ready to meet the film halfway in order to have fun and not just nitpick it to death.

The only two survivors of the attack on the Montrose are in a leaking life boat. The square-jawed American male is sullenly bailing the craft out with a metal can and a woman in a pink dress slumps against him. They talk about whether or not anyone else made it off the ship and dwell on their chances of being seen or rescued when the man hears singing off in the fog. He shouts to get the other peoples' attention and a group of sailors from the Montrose--riding in a lifeboat that's in considerably better shape than the first one--haul the pair into the more seaworthy craft. The two survivors are known to the sailors, the man is Mr. Tyler and the woman Miss Clayton. The highest-ranking man on the lifeboat busts out the good news:  They have very little fresh water, no food, and the ship sank before the radio man could give out their location; the chances of rescue are minimal at best.

Which means that when U-33 surfaces near the lifeboat, there's a slim chance of survival for the sailors and Miss Clayton. When the sailors open the hatch and go on deck for a breath of air that doesn't smell like used German rations from 1916, they can be bushwhacked by the survivors from the Montrose; it's a miniscule chance but it beats dying of thirst in the North Atlantic. Tyler claims to be an expert on German submarine construction, which is an odd thing for a sweater-wearing American adventure movie lead to be. Turns out his father was a submarine designer, so knowing about this sort of craft is the family business.

The survivors creep onto the hull of the submarine and try to capture as many of the German sailors as they can; it doesn't go completely well for them after they lose the advantage of surprise (taking a belaying pin to a gunfight goes poorly). I liked the fight choreography here; nothing flashy, just a bunch of people trying to choke each other out or beat each other down in the close confines of the ship's exterior. Miss Clayton, ignored by the film for this sequence, turns out to be the only reason that Tyler doesn't exit the movie in the first thirteen minutes. On board U-33, the survivors from the Montrose take over, although not without some difficulty (the first mate destroys the radio when he gets the chance, so the captured sub can't go anywhere near British waters without getting murdered by the Royal Navy).

Captain von Schoenvorts addresses his crew, telling them that they are to obey Tyler, at least for now, and that the craft is no longer under German control. The Montrose survivors still plan to get the U-Boat to England, where it will be captured by the Royal Navy and kept out of service for the rest of the Great War. There's some "good news, bad news" that happens soon after; the sub finds a British warship, but even though they're signaling that U-33 is under English control via an Aldis lamp, the Royal Navy craft either doesn't see the message or doesn't believe it and commences trying to shell the U-boat to death. They have to crash dive in order to get away from the barrage (bet the guy who trashed the radio room wishes he hadn't done it now, eh?) and the sub sustains damage. The dive and escape attempt takes the submarine a little past its crush depth to rest on the ocean floor. Once the English ship leaves the area, U-33 continues with the sketchy plan of fleeing westward and finding an American port before they run out of diesel fuel and everyone starves to death.

Again, thanks for smashing the radio equipment, jerk.

Dietz, the second in command, tampered with the compass by sticking a magnet in it; Tyler notices when the compass says one thing and the rising sun says another. Turns out the gigantic flaming mass of plasma in the sky is right and the altered compass is wrong; shortly after this is discovered the Germans regain control of their ship. The sub captain also politely informs Tyler that he plans to have the man shot for piracy after they rendezvous with a supply ship somewhere in the area of ocean that Dietz has steered them to. Shortly after this, he returns to his cabin--where Miss Clayton has been staying, so she's not surrounded by sweating sailors leering at her all the damn time--and Clayton, a biologist, asks von Schoenvorts why he's so dedicated to violence and killing when he's got things like a microscope in his cabin (showing he is an educated man interested in science). He responds that even the most cursory study of nature shows that everything is trying to kill everything else just to survive, which is a heck of a point to score. He also says that the Montrose was running guns in addition to carrying civilian passengers (which is why it exploded so violently when it was torpedoed), and that by sinking the boat he prevented those munitions being used against his own countrymen. Honestly, I like movies where you find yourself agreeing with the antagonist. As George R. R. Martin said in an interview, the villain is the hero of the other side.

Miss Clayton jimmies the lock on the key cabinet for the ship and lets the Montrose crewmen out of their prison cabin. They silently overpower the German crewmen, and fire a torpedo directly at the rear-projection of a supply ship as von Schoenvorts watches in shock. Tyler and the others resume control of the submarine and go on half rations to preserve the week's worth of food and fresh water that they have left (since the supply ship was destroyed before they could get so much as a tin of Spam from it). After journeying for a while, Tyler and von Schoenvorts conference in the captain's cabin; Tyler informs the German captain that they're lost and von Schoenvorts can't quite keep from smirking when he says he'll help figure out where they are (which is somewhere in the ocean full of icebergs, so they went WAY off the usual routes at some point).

Later, the principle cast is on deck (I really liked the ice on the submarine's rigging here; it helps sell that they're in freezing and remote waters) looking at a mountainous icy continent that von Schoenvorts thinks could well be a legendary lost isle found by an Italian explorer in the 18th century. The explorer named the continent "Caprona" after his own last name, but couldn't find a safe place to anchor to explore it. U-33 is better equipped to try finding a harbor around Caprona, and if the Anglo-German crew doesn't find some way to take on fresh water and get food, they're all going to die. An underground river flowing into the ocean from a semi-submerged tunnel provides a point of entrance for the craft and they make their way to the lost world. I hope you like shots of kelp waving in the currents underwater, because you'll be seeing a lot of them here.

Steering the craft through the underwater currents and narrow caverns is beyond Tyler's abilities so von Schoenvorts takes over at the till. They get hung up on a rock ledge and lots of nautical terms have to be shouted at people before they get clear of the navigational hazard. U-33 surfaces in a tropical lagoon and a dinosaur attempts to take a bite out of the periscope (Tyler wisely refuses to tell anyone what he saw, because they'd think he had gone insane).

There's the requisite "everyone looks at the new place" shots here, and they're about as well managed as anything you'll ever see from Amicus. Plenty of awe and wonder on the actors' faces, while the scenery looks forbidding--flickering lightning in storm clouds, huge jagged mountains in the distance and a hostile-looking sea serpent that nobody has caught a glimpse of yet are intercut with the shots of the crewmen and Miss Clayton on the deck. And she's the one who recognizes the screeching reptiles gliding through the air as pterodactyls, being the only one who knows biology in the group. She's looking the wrong way to warn one of the Expendable Meat crewmen about the sea serpent that hauls him off into the water, leaving a cloud of blood and a single boot floating in the lagoon. Great, now the dinosaurs know that humans are tasty and oblivious. It isn't bulletproof, though, so Tyler and another crewmen are able to kill it with a rifle (notice that there's no muzzle flash when Doug McClure pulls the trigger; the blanks must not have been working that day on the lagoon set) and a submachine gun. This means that the first fresh meat the crews get to have since their voyage started is some kind of prehistoric reptile. I imagine it tastes like chicken.

Over plesiosaur and white wine, Captain von Schoenvorts puts forth a proposition worthy of Joe Stewart--everyone on board will ignore the war in Europe and work together; if they find a way out of Caprona, they will sail U-33 to a neutral port and the Germans will surrender. That's quite fair, and Tyler goes along with it (possibly because he's to be installed as a nominally unaffiliated tie-breaker to resolve disputes between the German and English crews).

Miss Clayton and Captain von Schoenvorts immediately start doing science, taking water samples and trying to figure out exactly what kind of territory Caprona is (they theorize that it's a massive volcanic crater that is able to heat the territory enough to support plant life; maybe the Antarctic warm zone from The Land Unknown was actually Caprona all along). The water samples from the lagoon show bacteria that neither scientist can identify; von Schoenvorts declares the need for a fresh water source that isn't teeming with mystery germs so the submarine is anchored, a boat lowered and a multi-national crew goes out to stand in front of a pretty good matte painting and start exploring. I really liked the German captain's enthusiasm for everything in front of him--I think that would be a fully justified and human reaction to finding oneself in a completely unprecedented environment.

Two crew members find a small pond and take a water sample, neither one realizing that they're being watched by a band of cavemen crouching in the tall grass. And then a pair of rather endearingly realized Allosaurus show up, and all I can say is "it's about time". My own theory is that the Neopets creators, being from Wales, caught this movie on Saturday afternoon telly and created the Grarrl to look more or less like these creatures.

Thing One.

Thing Two.

The crew draw a bead on the dinosaurs, because they are jerks, but an attack from the cavemen means that they have more immediate concerns. In theconfused melee, one of the cavemen gets knocked out and Tyler scoops him up to haul him away from the dinosaurs. The sailors shoot both of the dinosaurs, which collapse next to each other. I bet they were a mated pair. These characters are jerks. Although it was nice that von Schoenvorts actually identified the poor things as the correct species.

The caveman wakes up, runs off, gets snagged by Tyler, and they start the tentative process of bridging the gap between each other in order to communicate. And then Tyler punches the poor guy unconscious so they can drag him back to the submarine. The caveman, named Ahm, was trying to tell everyone not to go south of the clearing where they shot the dinosaurs. Back on the ship, Ahm manages to communicate to everyone that he knows of fire that comes from the ground; a leap of not-entirely-convincing deductive reasoning clues everyone in to the presence of oil in the region. It would take time and effort, but von Schoenvorts believes that they have enough gear on the sub to refine the oil into something that would get them home (though it would be rough on the engines, to be sure).

Ahm guides the crews back to his territory (and let's appreciate the unintentional irony that the first thing the 20th century people do when they meet Ahm is punch him out; the second is planning to take the petrochemicals from his land). The sailors force Ahm to go past a boundary marker (a tree full of skulls; I'd certainly not go past it) and are observed by a more advanced cave person tribe. That tribe, the Stolu, appears to hate Ahm (a member of the Bolu) and also everybody else. They attack the U-33 cast members while they're taking a nap around a campfire in broad daylight (Amicus could usually be counted on for a couple day-for-who-gives-a-shit scenes) and wipe out some of the day players. Ahm attempts to explain either that the territory of the Galu lies beyond that of the Stolu--and therefore farther from the Bolu's home turf) or that the Bolu are going to reincarnate or evolve into Stolu and Stolu will become Galu. I didn't follow it at all, but Miss Clayton appears to think she knows what he's talking about.

Ahm brings the group to a deposit of oil on the surface of a pond, so they can start trying to figure out how to refine it and top up the U-33's tanks to get home. While we're treated to yet another "everyone walking through Caprona" scene, the movie pauses to give us a fight between an Triceratops defending its eggs (which look big enough to have killed the dinosaur that laid them) and something that looks like an Iguanodon but probably isn't. If I were eleven, I'd be able to tell you exactly what it is but I'm afraid a lot of my dinosaur information got dumped as I got older. The trike fatally gores the "Allosaurus with a nose horn or something" dinosaur as everyone looks on. A Styracosaurus shows up immediately after the rumble and wanders around, eventually meeting up with another one of its species. Sadly, the scenes matting von Schoenvorts and Tyler into the scene with the dinosaurs aren't quite realized as well as the ones from The Land Unknown; fifteen years of advancement in special effects don't mean much if you haven't got the budget to use them.

For some reason, Tyler tells the U-33 crew to use the deck gun against the herbivores that hadn't actually threatened him or anyone else (well, he is the token American). They die and von Schoenvorts says something about trying to figure out the secret of Caprona because their lives might depend on it. Whatever, dude. All you've done so far is kidnap Ahm, shoot dinosaurs and build a cargo cult refinery. Eventually von Schoenvorts figures out that different parts of the island have animals from vastly different epochs; apparently all the different animals in Caprona evolved along the lines that they would have in the rest of the world or something. According to the journal (remember the journal? As a framing device? Tossed off a cliff at the start of the film?) the farther north along the big river one goes, the more evolved the animals are.

This gets dropped in favor of a scene where the oil derrick works and everyone can start doing chemistry on their buckets of crude that have been siphoned out of the ground. It's been a while since there was a fight scene, so one of the Brits picks a fight with Dietz, the German second in command. I can't believe we don't get more time with dinosaurs because of this. Also,way to settle disputes between the two crews, Tyler. When the antagonist is a better leader and more sensible than you, I find myself wondering why he isn't the hero all along.

Ahm gets hypnotized by the Galu, I think, or possibly another group of Stolu. They give him a spear and all walk off; nobody at the U-33 camp seems to care about this and OH STOP PUTTING IN SCENES OF EVERYONE WALKING AROUND BECAUSE I DON'T CARE ANY MORE. Miss Clayton gives a pretty awesome "everything in Caprona evolves over the course of its own lifetime" speech while observing a Stolu encampment from a distance (including nudity filmed from about half a mile away or so, because Amicus is classy that way). The Galu attack, I think, or maybe it's the Stolu again, and kill a day player. Tyler pursues them, because that's really a good idea at this point in the expedition. While he's off playing hero, the tribe I'm pretty sure is the Galu wipe out more of the crew from the Montrose and the U-33. Miss Clayton gets kidnapped and a pterodactyl shows up to frighten Ahm and Tyler. Ahm gets carried off in a sequence that DVD resolution does absolutely no favors to.

Meanwhile, the Galu are inflicting the Male Gaze on Miss Clayton and also kicking each other in the face. Tyler shows up without a gun to try and pull off some kind of rescue when the volcano that Ahm vaguely alluded to earlier goes up in a blaze of stock footage for absolutely no goddamned reason whatsoever. Tyler and Miss Clayton run back to the refinery; some rocks crush various Galu but neither 20th century character, and the long-overdue appearance of quicksand occurs. It can't be good news for the film that the big finish is the most tedious and painfully overlong sequence in the whole mess. Tyler has to murder his way out of a Galu ambush and everyone really earns their stunt pay when actual flaming props get dropped on the set. The few dinosaurs left alive by Tyler and his compatriots get killed in the lava flow or boiled in the lake.

Dietz flips out and shoots a couple people, including the captain, then gets the submarine moving before Tyler and Clayton are on board. That turns out to be for the best, though, as what I'm pretty sure is an underwater volcanic eruption superheats the submarine and kills everyone on board--whoa, the 70s bummer ending makes it to Amicus! All that's left is for Tyler to write up his adventures and toss the cask with the bundle of papers in it off a cliff. Just like I figured would happen from the credits...

It's a real shame that the first half of this movie is so well done and the second half is so meandering and pointless; the actors all do a perfectly fine job but they're at the mercy of a script that does them absolutely no favors once they get to the lost world. I shouldn't be dreading more scenes with dinosaurs and volcanos, really, but that's what happens in this one. I'm not familiar with the source novel, but after having seen the film I have no desire to read it because it might have been a very close adaptation.

It's too bad, really. All three of the Allosaurus movies have lost worlds in them, because it's hard to justify finding a dinosaur in the 20th century otherwise. This one was made almost two decades later than the previous selection, but it would appear that the filmmakers learned nothing at all about pacing or story construction in the years since The Land Unknown got produced. Nothing else to do now but anticipate the Ray Harryhausen movie for next week, which is several orders of magnitude better than this one.

"And wouldn't you know it--I got dressed for the completely wrong lost civilization."

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Month of AlloSundays: The Land Unknown (1957)

Screenplay by Laszlo Gorog; Adaptation by William N. Robson; Story by Charles Palmer
Directed by Virgil Vogel

Jock Mahoney:  Commander Harold "Hal" Roberts
Shawn Smith:  Margaret "Maggie" Hathaway
William Reynolds:  Lieutenant Jack Carmen
Henry Brandon:  Doctor Carl Hunter

I've always thought the Allosaurus was the best dinosaur. It's the eye ridges, and the fact that they've got three claws on each hand instead of two (which, when I was a kid, somehow meant that they would make better pets than a T-Rex). I was also apparently some kind of dinosaur hipster when I was in grade school--sure, there's a lot of great stuff you can say about the Stegosaurus or Triceratops and I will admit that the Tyrannosaurus Rex is incredibly impressive, but the part of me that roots for the underdog in books and movies and that likes obscure music, books and films just really digs the Allosaurus. It's the middle child of dinosaurs; not as big as a Rex, not as well-known, and even its name makes me think the poor things got ripped off. It translates as "Other lizard", which means that even the scientists that found and named it were expecting something better. That just makes them more irresistable as far as I'm concerned. And when I got a Neopet fourteen years ago (!), it was no contest. They had a species that looked like an Allosaurus and I couldn't pick anything else at all. I named the little dinosaur JoeMeek (even near the beginning of the site's history, "Telstar" was taken) and I've enjoyed having a pet online ever since. Undoubtedly I would not have stuck with a hobby that can be described as "pretending to own fish" if not for Grarrls' significant resemblance to my fave rave dino species.

Which is kind of an odd start to a movie review, admittedly, but there's a point to it. I leave for B Fest in two weeks and two days from this writing, which means that there's three reviews to file before I go to Chicago and see my friends from years gone by, demonstrate generosity, forge alliances, and yell as many jokes as I can think of at the movie screen while watching dire-ass films for a solid 24 hours. And by sheer coincidence I've got three movies on DVD that feature an Allosaurus as the monster (or lead monster in a film that has more than one). Therefore I declare January 2015 to be my Month of AlloSundays. Faithful readers can expect another two films featuring the best dinosaur, with Ray Harryhausen providing what I think is his single best animated creation in two weeks and something decidedly less impressive but still nifty in seven days. I'm also rather tempted to steal Nathan Shumate's old gimmick and let a site mascot have the last word.

Fans of Fifties movies look forward to seeing the CinemaScope logo at the start of a film; it's one of the ways film studios tried to differentiate their product from the stuff people were seeing on television, which in that decade was a massive problem for Hollywood's bottom line. In order to entire suburban homebodies out to watch a film various tactics were used--the most famous is probably 3-D, but color film went into widespread use as a way to make movies look more impressive in theaters, and the use of screens significantly wider than they were tall was another way to show audiences that the films were epic in scope, unlike the stuff you'd watch on a dinky little 14" screen back in the living room. The Land Unknown is somewhat of a novelty, in that Universal spent enough money on the production to film it in 2.35:1 widescreen, but it's also a black and white movie. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other monochrome CinemaScope films from the period, but undoubtedly there's a couple other hybrids of expansive and cheap lying around somewhere.

The titles play out over the standard Universal Brass and Strings SciFi Suite; there's helicopter footage of a smoking volcanic crater in a wasteland of ice and snow. It doesn't look beat up enough to be wartime stock footage, so I'm assuming this is something that National Geographic or someone similarly interested in cool scenery filmed and Universal appropriated it for the start of the film. But don't worry, there's stock footage of Washington, D.C. the second that the credits wrap up. In a half-full lecture hall, a high-ranking Naval official tells his audience (white guys in either military dress uniforms or business suits) that they're going to be exploring Antarctica. Apparently the Navy wants to have an accurate map of the southernmost continent for military reasons. Damned if I can think of any that would make sense for 1957, but I'm really just here for the dinosaurs. The lecturer mentions a warm-water oasis somewhere in the vastness of the continent that a 1947 fly-over expedition noticed (audiences at the time would know if this was a real thing or not; I'm just assuming it's a total fabrication on the part of the screenwriters). During the lecture's wrapup, the officer mentions the possibility of coal, copper, iron or uranium deposits that could be exploited by anyone who gets there first, and suddenly the "map a place that will kill you in ten seconds" plan makes a lot more sense.

When a woman walks into the lecture hall, every head in the audience turns to gawk at her and the guy presiding over the lecture has to remind everyone what they're supposed to be paying attention to. Some of the military men seem a little abashed, while the others obviously are more interested in ethics in video game journalism. During a break in the proceedings two of the men discuss the XX-chromosome-having new arrival. She's Margaret Hathaway of the Oceanic Press, a presumably fictitious but real-sounding magazine that would be interested in the Naval expedition, even without the possibility of Shoggoths or alien shape-stealing aliens to report on.

Hathaway's going along on the expedition to report on whatever there is to report on, and the officer in charge of the briefing warns her that it's going to be dangerous both from the environment and from being the only woman in a group of eight hundred men, all of whom are thousands of miles from home or from any other females of the species. She takes the warning utterly in stride, and meets the expedition staff (specifically Commander Roberts, who turns out to be a fan of her column for the Oceanic Press and Lieutenant Carmen, a helicopter pilot). Everyone's pretty polite (though the pilot's kind of a leering jerk and everyone acts like this is nothing out of the ordinary) and footage of the Byrd expedition of 1947 gets shown to a room full of people that would presumably already be very familiar with it--though the movie audience in the theater or at home certainly wouldn't be expected to know about it. The exposition is delivered with a heaping dollop of stock footage and Roberts tells his seatmate that the expedition will leave in two months, which get elided through the elegant technique of dissolving from the briefing room to the Northwind, which sets sail for the bottom of the world.

One more helping of stock footage later, the ships are bashing their way through Antarctic ice and the actors are standing on a "ship's deck" set where the film grain doesn't quite match up with the icebreaking footage. Dire romantic banter ensues, with Hathaway complaining that her friend at the rail is too scientific and technically minded, and not emotional enough. The ice is thicker than expected, and the ships are expecting to be two weeks behind schedule (out of a projected four weeks' exploration, filming and map-making time in the South Pole summer). This means that there will be longer helicopter flights than the regulations would normally allow and everyone's going to have to do much more Science Stuff in the shortened time than they expected to be doing. There is absolutely no way this could go wrong at all.

The three principals (Hathaway, Commander Roberts, the helicopter pilot and a fourth dude whose name I didn't catch) head out in an observation chopper to go look at stock footage of seals and fly past some really impressive mountain scenery. Although at least one shot has the helicopter matted in so badly that it's translucent. The penguins are cute, though, and Roberts shows off a weird sense of extremely dry humor by claiming he can tell whether the animals they're looking at from a half mile up are male or female. Back at the base, there's some kind of nasty weather coming in and the expedition commander orders a functionary to recall the chopper immediately. The news of the storm coming in gets to the copter and the pilot starts his return approach just as they reach that "warm water area"; there isn't enough fuel to go around the storm and the ground isn't level enough to land safely (not to mention that there isn't enough food or water for the four people to get back to base camp on foot).

The pilot steers into a fog bank to avoid the worst of the weather (which doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me either), and then a pterodactyl buzzes the helicopter! The altimeter and temperature gauges don't make any sense (the chopper is supposedly 2500 feet below sea level with a temperature of 91 degrees and rising). The pilot sees the ground seconds before he makes a rough but serviceable landing and shuts the helicopter down. All that the characters (and the audience) can see at the moment are fog and a few trees. Steve (the fourth character in the helicopter) checks the rotor and there's a bent part that needs to be repaired before they're going anywhere--looks like they'll be at the bottom of a massive volcanic crater in the impossibly warm zone until the "push-pull tube assembly" gets fixed. Thank goodness Steve turns out to be a mechanic, or at least knows how to hit the busted part with a rock until it works.

While the pilot and Steve are fixing the helicopter part, Hathaway and Roberts go look around at the unprecedented scientific discovery--a "lost world" in the bottom of a gigantic volcanic crater. Yeah, it's not that surprising to me either. Marvel Comics has the Savage Land and Professor Challenger ran into these things all the time. I think Tarzan had two entirely different "lost worlds" that he came across at various points in his career. I'm a little surprised there was still room in the Antarctic for all the ice and snow. Hathaway backs up to a really boss looking carnivorous plant and utterly fails to notice it trying to grab her with its tendrils; meanwhile, the radio on the helicopter may or may not be working (they're an awfully far distance down for the signal to get out and the aerial took a knock during their landing). Steve breaks the push-pull tube in half while trying to straighten it ("You had ONE JOB" is the kind of thing I'd say here, although it wouldn't help the situation). Oh, and the main expedition will be leaving in several weeks, so if the four people don't figure out a way to repair the helicopter or get in touch with the main base, they could be stuck in the crater for the rest of their lives (which could be weeks or years).

They decide to get some rest and figure out what to do when everyone's a little less tired and freaked out; then a pterodactyl buzzes their camp and that's it for a placid meeting. I like the matte painting here, though it's not realistic--I tend to throw my nitpicking faculties out the window when watching something in the "jungle exploration filmed entirely on a soundstage" genre. Roberts knows enough science to peg the flora and (overheard but barely seen) fauna as belonging to the Mezozoic era. Before much can be made of this discovery everyone hears the search plane over the crater but a frantic radio call remains unheard. While Roberts, Hathaway and the pilot rig up a life raft so they can go exploring in a nearby lake, Steve looks for fresh water and finds a spring that's potable, along with a pterosaur carcass that freaks him right out. He runs back to the group to tell them he saw something that scared the heck out of him and when they all see the giant dead flying reptile Roberts points out that a dead animal is a food source, and whatever eventually wants to eat the carcass would probably be a threat to them as well.

Which is the cue for the standard "monitor lizards battling each other" sequence. I hate seeing them in these Fifties movies because I'm sure the animals were seriously injured or killed just for a B-list lost world adventure movie. As always, I heartily wish the producer that wanted this scene was badly bitten by the animals he requested. There's some rather-good matting in of the human characters to make the lizards look a great deal bigger while they're tussling--no, I don't like the scene, but it's done well on a technical level. While fleeing the victorious Big Damn Monitor, Steve falls in the lake like a dope and then an Allosaurus shows up. While I dug the movie so far, it's when they bring in my favorite dinosaur that I really start to feel well-disposed towards the film. The suit is mediocre-to-pretty-good, and the filmmakers didn't know enough to undercrank the film so the dinosaur looks bigger and more massive while it's moving; I don't care. I'm just happy to see one in a film. The blinking eyelids and moving jaws and tongue are a nice touch. Pity about the ludicrously tiny arms, but you can't have everything.

The human characters retreat to their helicopter and fire it up; the Allosaurus gets slashed by the rotors when it tries to attack them and wanders off sullenly. Alas! Also, the characters in the film call it a Tyrannosaurus Rex, which it clearly is not (note the three foreclaws as well as the eyebrow ridges). I don't know who built that suit but they either didn't care enough about accuracy to make a T-Rex suit or harbored a grudging fondness for the also-rans of the dinosaur kingdom and built an accurate Allosaurus suit, knowing the film producers wouldn't know any better. Either way, I'm just happy it's in the film. Turns out the suit performer was named Tim Smyth, which means I may have gone back in time under an assumed name in order to be in this movie.

After the aborted dinosaur attack, Roberts makes the command decision that everyone's going to condense their base camp and just live in the helicopter until they get rescued or figure out a way out of the cavern. But back at their supply depot, several cans have been opened and emptied. Nobody owns up to eating more than their rations, but Roberts knows for a fact that there were no humans around in the era that this region is stuck in. And for that matter, even if there were they wouldn't have developed the can opener without first inventing the food cannery. There's a distinct lack of those in the immediate area.

While taking stock of the situation, Steve finds a tarsier that everyone admires for being fluffy, small and non-homicidal; shortly after that interlude there's another monitor lizard that attacks the camp (or maybe the same one that won the Lizard Rumble earlier). When she runs off so she doesn't get eaten by the lizard a human arm comes out from behind a piece of scenery and puts her in the world's most quick-acting sleeper hold; the man, dressed in ragged leathers, carries her off to a woven-reed boat and paddles off without giving the audience a look at the kidnapper's face. The three men find the footprints left by the abductor and go looking for Hathaway, who has been taken to a cave by someone who eventually reveals himself as Dr. Hunter, a survivor of a plane that crashed during the 1947 expedition. The film seems to be hinting that Hunter is a caveman right up to the point where he speaks English; it's a pretty neat twist, considering how many times the earlier expedition was mentioned. Hunter has gone a little bit banana-crackers in his isolation, and tells Hathaway that everything in the valley is his, including her. I wouldn't have thought there'd be such an overtly sexist character in the film, what with virtually every other speaking part being a man who says something snide about women at one point. Hunter also tells his captive that one of the dinosaurs in the lost world killed the other three men.

Hunter explains how he's still alive in his Hidden Valley Ranch; he smashes the dinosaur eggs that he finds, and uses a conch shell that the reptiles hate to frighten them away from his swingin' bachelor pad cave. He then puts the super-aggressive moves on Hathaway but gets surprised by the three other men from the expedition showing up and holding him at gunpoint. Serves you right, jerk. Roberts makes an introduction (still keeping his gun out of the holster but not necessarily pointing it at Hunter right that moment), and the survivor of the earlier expedition reveals his name to the group, though there's a little ambiguity about whether or not he really remembers who he is after a decade of adrenaline and terror.

He's got enough of his marbles left to figure out that the wreckage of his crashed plane from the 1947 expedition might have enough useful parts in it to fix the busted helicopter component and he's willing to strike a bargain with the three men--they can have a map to his crashed airplane and whatever they need from the wreckage in exchange for leaving the valley and not letting Hathaway go with them. This proposition is roundly rejected and everyone walks out of the furnished cave.

So all the four members of the expedition have to do is find the crashed plane, not get killed by anything they don't even know is out there, avoid the dinosaurs they do know about, salvage something from the plane wreck to repair the helicopter, and get back out of the lost cavern in three weeks or less in order to get back to the base camp for the main expedition. It's the Fifties, so their survival is never really in question (and the pilot and mechanic are important enough to the escape attempt that they can't get killed until very near the end of it, if at all). The real fun is just in watching them do it and figure out a way out of the impossible and horribly dangerous situation they've gotten stuck in. Oh, and the Allosaurus comes back again, which is great. Apparently the monster suit cost so much to construct that the movie was filmed in black and white--that explains the incongruity of a CinemaScope release that wasn't also in dazzling color.

Truly, we live in an age where B movie fans are utterly spoiled by what is available. I'd never heard of this movie until I got the five-film DVD set "The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, Volume 2" for my birthday from a very good friend and fellow B-flick enthusiast. Having no idea what to expect, everything in the film was simultaneously a welcome surprise and a familiar experience. It's never going to win any awards (and the strolling man-in-a-suit dinosaur would look so much better if the crew knew to slow the shots down so it looked more massive), but if you're going to watch something where square-jawed American sailors figure out how to escape a lethal predicament it's a great choice.

And now, as a gimmick at the end of the review, my Grarrl would like to make a quick joke. It's a blatant theft of Nathan Shumate's gimmick from the now-defunct Cold Fusion Reviews; the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound sculpture was his mascot and would get the last word in his reviews.

"I don't know what you were talking about. These effects are AMAZING. It's like I'm really in the movie!"

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Punishment Park (1971)

Written and directed by Peter Watkins

Starring a cast of amateurs, improvising or following a script on a case-by-case basis

My politics have always been reflexively on the side of the underdog. I can't make myself cheer for the powerful or the ones on top of the socioeconomic pyramid. This has, on occasion, led me to wish the orcs would win in the Lord of the Rings movies and things like that--give the choice between the army of shampoo commercial models with shiny teeth and bright white clothing or the legion of sullen fuckups with rusty meathooks, I'm Team Fuckup all the way. If there's one side with guns and one side running for its life, I'm infinitely more sympathetic to the terrified victims than whoever has their finger on the trigger. When there's a two-sided dispute and one side has to bury a murdered child, and one side faces no consequences for killing a kid? I'm absolutely not rooting for the murderer.

Which brings us to this movie. It's a scream of fury and rage at a system where the people holding the whip are planning to use it more often, and on more people, so that they can protect their own interests. After all, what good is it being in charge if you can't stay in charge? There's a lot of eggs that have to get broken in order to make that omelette, after all. And other cliches that people use in lieu of substantive thought or cogent arguments when they want to make sure the right people are being hurt or killed.

The film starts with a square frame showing hilly, sparsely-covered desert while wind snaps in the boom mike and an unseen narrator explains what's up (and the camera zooms in on an American flag surrounded by nothing). The President of the United States (Richard M. Nixon, at the time the movie was filmed) can use one of the powers granted under the McCarren Act to detain and imprison people that might well commit sabotage or treason at some point in the future, maybe. That's a real law, incidentally. It was passed in 1950 at the start of the national paranoid breakdown known as the Cold War, and when President Truman vetoed it, Congress re-passed it in a supermajority to make sure that future political leaders had the power to set up an American gulag for dissenters. I think it's probably an accident of history that there weren't concentration camps for civil rights demonstrators in the early 60s, or perhaps the existing conservative power structure in America was happy to essentially subcontract the kidnapping, torture and murder of demonstrators to the county level and keep their hands clean. Think about the 1971 model of Richard M. Nixon, brain marinating in paranoia, mistrust and hate, given the chance to lock up all those "troublemakers" in the South without a trial. If you feel revolted about the Southern strategy he used in real life, just think about what could have been done to the Birmingham protesters under Tricky Dick or someone like George Wallace, Bull Connor or Strom Thurmond in the early 1960s if there was a President that thought lunch counter sit-ins were a threat to national security.

Under the film's depiction of the terms of the McCarren Act, there's certain formalities that have to be observed. Before they can be imprisoned for decades, the accused are allowed a trial--after all, this is America. The prosecutor at this trial does not need to submit any evidence and there's no way for the accused to post bail so they can return to their life in between their arrest and their stay in the kangaroo court. After the stage is set, the camera shows us a truck between a pair of jeeps making their way down a dusty road while heat shimmer distorts the view. Inside the truck, eight or ten longhairs are handcuffed and chained to each other in a line, guarded by armed soldiers and cops. A news bulletin on the radio declares that 100,000 reservists have been called up to serve in the military, with their eventual deployment planned for America to round up political subversives and domestic protesters rather than bolster the fighting efforts in Vietnam. Because the national priorities--at least in the film--were more devoted to punishing longhairs and anti-war activists at home than trying to win the proxy war between the US and USSR all the way over in southeast Asia. I can kind of see the point--with "enemies" so close, why not put them into prisons and camps? It's got to be cheaper than flying grunts all the way out to Vietnam and just as effective a handout to the military-industrial complex. Plus, upper-middle-class college students are probably a lot easier to beat than the NVA. Of course, you'd have to intentionally overlook the irony in setting up an American gulag as a way to fight totalitarian states elsewhere, but I'm sure Nixon would have been up to the task.

A group of silent young men and woman are shown in the back of an Army truck, bouncing along a dirt road in the California desert. They're eventually brought to some desolate spot and unshackled by police; the soundtrack doesn't feature any voices here. Rather, it's got jets streaking overhead (presumably from a nearby military base; it seems too empty and remote to have a commercial airport nearby) and news reports about social unrest in the United States providing background and exposition for the viewer--including a Senator who resigned to protest the passage of laws that strip away Fifth Amendment protection from accused criminals and other fascistic ordinances. The prisoners are in street clothes and are mixed along gender lines as well as ethnicity; the cops, of course, are uniformly white males. A flashback or flashforward to a court case in a tent in the desert shows different protestors being given the choice between half a century in federal prison or four days at Punishment Park; the court officials are all white as well, with a woman typing up the transcript of everything happening. And it appears that it's a complete farce, with a protestor being gaveled into silence for trying to address the court with anything other than his choice of prison or a four-day-long Running Man game in the desert. After the longhair chooses to make a run through the desert, the scene shifts to the outside and the narrator dispassionately sets the scene, saying that it's 9 AM at the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park--which implies the existence of many, many, many other Parks of this type in other parts of the country, and also implies that the United States is proud enough to have them that they've been added into the register of national parks. It comes across a little like having a photo booth, snack bar and a gift shop at a concentration camp.

The movie is filmed with handheld cameras, making it look like a subversive document captured without the full knowledge or consent of the government (although there's also room for an opinion that the forces of law and order would like a cheap, grainy film released that looks to be more sympathetic to the dissidents, because that way it serves as a warning and a threat to anyone who sees it--the squares of the nation would be likely to cheer on everything that happens to those lousy no-good protesters, and any potential troublemakers who watch the movie would probably try to stay on the government's good side as much as possible). Judging by uniform colors and styles, there's four different groups being trained in Punishment Park during this go-around; there's police in black uniforms and white helmets, police in tan and brown uniforms, soldiers in Army green and another group of cops in light grey. I'm guessing they're meant to be California state police, county sheriffs and perhaps L.A. city cops, but I don't know for sure. It might even just be a happy coincidence if the costume budget for the film was stretched farther by getting multiple types of uniforms; instead of it looking like only one group is out toting guns and processing dissidents in the desert, this appears to be a gigantic cooperative effort.

The police also block some of the cameramen during the opening scenes, which adds a great deal of verisimilitude to the fiction--it's incredibly rare to have characters acknowledge the presence of the camera in narrative films, but quite common in documentaries. The bailiff of the tribunal calling it the 47th session (of the day? of the week? Ever?) and the use of radio news bulletins do much the same; the impression given to the viewer is that these events have happened, are happening and will happen in the future. It's a system efficiently at work, not an ad hoc arrangement put into effect a single time. The American spirit of know-how and can-do entrepreneurial spirit managed to make Stalinist show trials into an assembly-line procedure, complete with bored employees churning units through the process.

The fractured eternal-now timeline of the film splits at this point; the 48th session of the tribunal takes place while the film crosscuts to the people who chose to run through Punishment Park from the previous show trial. Thus Watkins shows the viewer two sets of victims in the process and fills in the background on his system in two different ways. The bored and hostile functionaries of the court system are undoubtedly meant to represent Nixon's "silent majority"; they're a scathing attack on complacent middle-class authoritarians and Peter Watkins' sympathies clearly don't lie with them in the least. A lawyer (identified via subtitle as the chairman of the Constitutional Law department at UC Glendale) makes an attempt to get the charges dismissed using half the Bill of Rights as his argument; the judge denies this effort in a single sentence and things move along. The defense lawyer has shown up in a three-piece suit while the protesters are in street clothes and the show trial officials are either in cop uniforms or their shirtsleeves. There's plenty of social class exposition being shown in this sequence, with the subtitle necessary because none of the people in this scene identify the lawyer; it's assumed that everyone already knows who he is or that the cops outside blocked the cameraman during the defense's introduction.

The judge denies everything piece by piece--bail, a list of the charges for the accused, and even the chance to go over the charges one by one rather than putting half a dozen "dissidents" on trial at the same time. More than one of the accused makes reference to months of jail time without knowing what their charges are; this is another thing I can see happening pretty easily in a hypothetical American gulag. While the show trial proceeds for group 48, the judge mentions that there are camera crews from West Germany (remember when that was a country?), Britain and America documenting the trial procedure and showing that it's the fair and balanced system that the Nixon government claims that it is. Oh, and the judge also says that every time a prisoner speaks without first being spoken to, they will automatically be charged with contempt, found guilty, and sentenced to a year in federal prison in addition to whatever other sentences they get.

When the group making the run through Punishment Park gets to their starting point, a sheriff's deputy explains the rules. They will have four days to make a 53 mile hike through the California desert with no food, water, transportation or assistance. During that time they will be pursued by law enforcement officers from various different agencies, using them as live pursuit bait as they practice their techniques that are needed to round up dissidents and pacify them. The deputy explaining their travel route makes sure to remind everyone that's about to be chased down like dogs that they chose the Punishment Park run of their own free will. Because you can't be coerced into doing four days of hell when the alternative is half a century behind bars as a political prisoner. They're also informed that if they don't make it to the objective (an American flag), they'll have to serve their original sentences. No pressure.

Meanwhile / later, the talks break down at the kangaroo court, with one defendant taking a police beating while he's shackled to a chair and not allowed to use the Fifth Amendment to protect himself from self-incrimination. And one of the officials there tells the man that too many black people own cars and color TVs in America for Communism to work. I didn't understand it either, but put cell phones in that list as well and you have a Sean Hannity talking point from 2014.

The Battle Royale Information Officer at the start of the course also assures the completely willing participants that the police following them are under strict orders not to interfere with them or to hamper them in their attempts to walk over a mountain range without supplies and find a flagpole in the desert wasteland. And back at the courtroom the defendant who previously caught a beating for talking out of turn is described by a tribunal member as unpatriotic, and a man who stirs up trouble in the black community by complaining about things. Out in the desert at the start of the course, one of the dissidents tries to make a run for it and doesn't make it far before getting dogpiled by an inter-organization cooperative effort of four or five various law enforcement officers. This sequence is intercut with the defendant on the stand saying that America presents itself as a peaceful place but it is not, and that protesters needed to use violence to get the attention of the mass audience they were trying to reach. Watkins might not be subtle, but that's a great sequence.

The guilty parties are let go at the start of the Punishment Park run, with the narrator telling the audience they've got two hours to run before the pursuing cops will be sent after them. The rest of their part of the narrative is simple--they're running for their lives while armed police chase them (the cops, for their part, say lots of platitudes to each other while waiting to be released; mostly things about how if the people running for their lives hadn't broken the law, they wouldn't be in the position they're in). Another voiceover from an instructional officer says that anyone who gets captured by the pursuing officers (apparently getting caught doesn't count as impeding the runners according to these laws) has the choice to go down easy or go down hard, and that the rest of their time in Punishment Park will be exactly as violent as they want it to be. It's chilling and amazing to me to realize how little the establishment party line has changed since 1971--like much of the dialogue in the movie coming out of the mouths of the law and order characters, it could be spoken now and sound exactly as authentic as it did four and a half decades ago. By way of contrast, the protesters seem to be relics of a different time (mostly due to hairstyles and facial hair, but also through the use of terms like "chicano", which I don't recall coming across in the last twenty years or so).

The protesters become tired, haggard, exhausted and beaten down as they run through the hundred-degree wasteland, reaching landmarks and splitting into factions (one of which tries to get weapons and fight the police chasing them; it goes extremely badly).

Back at the tribunal, people are allowed to say their piece--or not--as the judges decide, and everyone is found guilty. As every viewer knew they would. But the final image of the film is the scarecrow figures of the show-trial victims staggering to the flag and finding out that the American system wasn't broken, like they thought it was. It's fixed.

Peter Watkins is a filmmaker at his best when he's expressing a sense of furious betrayal by his political leadership (his War Game was both banned by the BBC--which commissioned him to make it, and presumably knew what kind of filmmaker he was--for being too horrifying to show and also the only fiction film to win the Academy Award for best documentary). His Gladiators was another look at dangerous games, but it tried for a tone of congenial social satire and I like him so much better when he's screaming at the top of his lungs, cinematically speaking. He's got a real knack for viscerally disturbing scenes and getting the absolute most out of his budgets as well as his performers and he's a genuinely left-wing filmmaker. There really aren't that many out there and certainly they don't get huge budgets or get to write their own tickets in Hollywood when there's jingoistic action films to be made. But if you want to see a state-sponsored Most Dangerous Game in progress with the techniques of cinema verite brought out to their utmost, Punishment Park has got to be your best bet.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Service Interruption

It figures--just after a huge boost in readership courtesy of the "Berlin Thanksgiving" mini roundtable with El Santo, my computer starts blue-screen-of-death crashing repeatedly. I'll be back on my reviewing schedule as soon as I can.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Good Bye Lenin! (2003)

Checkpoint Telstar wishes to thank Cora Buhlert for supplying German sociocultural information relevant to this review.

Screenplay by Bernd Lichtenberg and Wolfgang Becker (with contributions by Achim von Borries, Hendrik Handloegten and Christoph Silber)
Directed by Wolfgang Becker

Daniel Brühl:  Alex Kerner
Katrin Saß:  Christiane Kerner
Maria Simon:  Ariane Kerner
Chulpan Khamatova:  Lara
Florian Lukas:  Denis
Stefan Walz:  Sigmund Jähn

Once more into the breach between East and West Berlin, dear readers. Since the Berlin Wall was dismantled twenty-five years ago this month, El Santo at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting asked if I'd like to go in on some Cold War movie reviews to mark the time on our metaphorical calendars. I wish I'd thought of this earlier, because I only managed to get movies from the 1950s and 1960s reviewed during November; I certainly think something from Peter Watkins for the seventies and Val Kilmer as a hypergenius slacker at Cal Tech would have fit the bill nicely.

But enough about regrets. Onward to the future.

This film, if you're an American, is an obscure arthouse comedy from Germany starring the guy who would later be the sniper / war hero in Inglourious Basterds and the antagonist Formula 1 driver in Rush (and who will hopefully be raising his profile considerably when he's in Captain America:  Civil War in a couple years). If you're German, it's the third-highest-grossing native film in your country's history. Not knowing about it would be like a United Statesian being unaware of Jaws. One of the reasons it was so resonant with German audiences would have to be the way it addressed the German national character; it's a home-grown movie about domestic concerns. I'm sure that there are subtleties and references I won't even remotely get because I just don't have the cultural background to do so. For that matter, high school German was a long, long time ago and Frau Tate was a semi-competent teacher at best. Mostly I'll be reading the subtitles and hoping that I understand the deep structure of the film.

Alex Kerner is a young man in East Berlin--but the first we see of him is home movie footage from the late 70s (I'm enough of a cult movie geek to note that the year of his summer-vacation film clip is the same as Dawn of the Dead's theatrical release). He appears to be a perfectly happy child, and like many kids in the Cold War, he's a big fan of the space program. Sigmund Jähn, the first German into space, is a particular favorite of his. And on the day that Jähn becomes the first Deutschlander into space, plainclothes officers from the Stasi are asking Alex's mom about his father's travels out of Germany. Alex's dad defects to the West, with the ten-years-older Alex fuming over the way his father rejected his family to sleep with an "enemy of the state" in capitalist Europe. His mother takes the betrayal far worse than Alex does; she spends two months catatonic in a psychiatric hospital that is exactly as cheery and warm as "East German mental health facility" suggests.

When Alex's mother returns home she amputates his absent father from her life; among other things, she sends his clothes off in a sack with SOLIDARITY WITH MOZAMBIQUE stenciled on it. According to the voiceover, Alex's mother decided she was married to the Deutsche Demokratische Republik instead. He doesn't have a father any more, but his mother is devoted to the fatherland. She becomes very involved in the East German equivalent of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts (and the communist organization seems more enlightened about gender inclusion than the Western European or American youth organizations; there's kids of both genders singing songs and going to summer camp together in the home movie footage). 

Her efforts to swim with the tide result in, among other things, an award for exemplary citizenship at a nationally televised ceremony. Alex seems to be accepting this new reality, becoming very attached to his mother and still dreaming of space and rockets--hoping some day to be the second German in space. It's probably very important to note that Jähn is never referred to as the first East German to travel into space; he's a German first and a member of the political system second. Looking down at Earth he wouldn't be able to see any political borders; the Berlin Wall is utterly invisible from orbit. 

Ten years later, Alex is an aimless young man working at a TV repair shop and lounging around on a park bench on his day off as East Germany prepares for its 40th anniversary celebrations (the contrast between the slouching dude stifling a burp on the bench and the voiceover declaring Alex was "at the height of his masculine allure" is amusing, but it also lets us know that Alex doesn't have all that many illusions about where his life ended up and how he's living it). He's in an apartment in a tower block, living with his mother and his older sister Ariane (and his sister's infant daughter Paula), in a room full of spare electronic parts and posters for rock groups probably not approved by the Central Committee. What appears to be actual period footage of the East German Army marching by the review stands contrasts later with Alex and hundreds of other young activists taking to the streets to protest in favor of democracy.

During this protest march (for "the right to go for walks without the Wall getting in the way", according to Alex's understated and sardonic commentary), two important things happen--when Alex starts choking on a bite of an apple he brought along as a snack a pretty young student nurse from Russia named Lara whacks him on the back till he spits it out, and they click once they get a look at each other. That's the good news. The bad news is that scads of police show up to corral the protesters at first, and then to beat the tar out of them with riot batons. Alex's mom is in a taxicab trying to get to the 40th Anniversary ceremony in East Berlin but gets blocked by police trucks and has to get out to take the subway to get to the event. Which is why she gets to see her youngest child as he's snagged by a pair of police, a shock so jarring to her that she collapses to the ground. Alex tries to run to her when he sees this, and gets tossed in the back of a transport truck as prelude to a punitive beating. But his mom is listed high enough on the Party org chart that he gets pulled out of the cell where the protesters are kept and released so he can get to the hospital and find out what's going on. His sister and the doctor give him the lowdown:  His mom had a heart attack, CPR wasn't performed quickly but she did survive, albeit in a coma. The doctor can't tell Alex or his sister whether or not their mother will ever wake up.

Frau Kerner remains in her coma for a highly significant nine months; during that time the head of the Communist Party in East Germany resigns, the Berlin Wall is torn apart and the Cold War judders to a halt, symbolized to the world by the two parts of Germany reuniting to become a new nation--no longer a divided pair of countries sharing an internal border, but a new Germany that will proceed into the future as one place, just as Sigmund Jähn was a Deutschlander, not an Ostie or a Westie when he was in space. It's tempting to use mental illness as a descriptor here, with Germany suffering a decade-long psychotic break followed by the paranoid split personalities of the Cold War countries. Now that there's a brand new nation put together, it remains to be seen just what kind of nation it will be, and how the two different Germanies will work with each other to make it that nation. 

History is occurring daily in front of him, although Alex is more concerned with something much more personal at the time. While the news clips that I'm sure are utterly iconic to an actual German (rather than an American who was properly awed by the peaceful reunification of the two parts of Germany but who only saw the highlights on TV) play out his mother sleeps on in the coma. Ariane gets a job as a cog in the great capitalist machine (becoming Employee of the Month at an East Berlin Burger King, as well as dating her boss, the "class enemy" who manages the franchise). Rainer, the fast food manager, moves into the tiny apartment to be closer to Ariane, leading to a great reaction shot when Alex observes them belly dancing in their underwear and decides he doesn't want any part of that. It's a great sequence, counterpointing the changes to the nation and to the flat at the same time.

Alex also meets Lara again after accidentally knocking the drip line out of his mom's IV bottle; it looks like she shows up in his life during medical situations. Which makes sense; she's a nurse. I'm certain that having a Soviet student nurse named Lara in the film is a Dr. Zhivago reference, but I don't know enough about the German take on that movie to make much out of it. At any rate, Alex continues visiting his mother at the hospital but makes sure to do it on days that Lara is going to be on duty. He's quite attracted to Lara but doesn't make any moves towards her, at least partly because everything else in his life is getting shaken up. The TV repair shop closes and Alex gets a job installing satellite dishes (the logo of the company looking very similar to the hammer and sickle); the installation manager picks names out of buckets labeled O and W (for Ost und West) to put crews together--doing his little part for unification. Alex is paired with a film fanatic named Denis and they hit it off pretty well.

What with the new job (and the implied lack of support from the new German welfare state as opposed to the old Communist one), Alex can't visit the hospital as much as he wanted to for either reason. He rigs up a tape deck to a timer and narrates an audio diary for his mother, which is more for Alex's good than hers at this point but also lets Lara see what kind of person he is if she's around when the timer hits 5 PM and the tape starts up. Eventually they go see some kind of techno performance art Teutonic version of GWAR at a nightclub and again I flounder as I wonder if the German audiences would recognize these goofs or if they're just as obscure in their homeland as they are in United Statesia. When the pair sneaks off to hang out in an art installation and not listen to the band for a while Alex and Lara chat for a while and our young protagonist shows that he's utterly inexperienced at doobie smoking (one wouldn't typically think of the USSR as a hotbed of youth in revolt, but Lara's handling the smoke a lot better).

When he's not working, dating Lara or worrying about his mother, Alex hangs out with Denis (whose Matrix-code shirt is part of an elaborate joke cut out of the movie; just roll with it). Denis, scraping up a little extra cash like a good class enemy, has a job shooting birthday and wedding videos but what he really wants to do is direct. He's got his own kitbashed editing studio in his apartment and he's actually got some talent (view the bouquet-tossing at an outdoor wedding that turns into a Kubrick homage and be amazed). As it turns out, Alex never saw the movie that Denis is referencing; East Germany and the rest of the Communist world was extremely careful about letting Western cultural artifacts in through official channels and our protagonist isn't a big enough pop culture junkie to track stuff like that down on the black market.

Months pass and Alex starts to fit into the new routine, though he's completely aware of how much everything has changed. The day he finally takes the initiative and makes a romantic move on Lara at the hospital happens to be the very moment that his mother comes out of her coma. The physician tells Alex and Ariane the good news--it's a minor miracle that their mother ever regained consciousness. The bad news is twofold:  nobody spends that much time in a coma without some kind of long-term mental damage; at this point, the extent of Christiane's deterioration is unknown but memory loss and confusion are the likeliest possibilities. The doctor then drops another bombshell:  It's almost certain that Alex's mother isn't going to live more than another month or so, and another heart attack will definitely kill her. The doctor warns Alex that he's got to protect his mom from any kind of excitement, which will put fatal stress on her heart. Alex realizes instantly that he's got to bring Frau Kerner home to the flat; at the hospital she'll find out that there isn't an East Germany any more and that will certainly be enough of a jolt to end her life. The doctor agrees and one jump cut later plans are being made to bring Christiane home (although I'm not certain how much information she's been given about exactly what's going on).

Alex turns out to be a really shitty liar; instead of telling his mother what actually happened, he comes up with an instantly transparent lie about her collapsing in a shopping queue due to the heat, in October. In East Berlin. Back at the flat, there's a three-directional argument between the two siblings and Rainer, Ariane's new guy. Alex's plan is simple and desperate:  To the best extent possible, shield his mother from the social and political changes in the world by fixing her bedroom up the way it was back when the Communist bloc hadn't fallen apart. She's going to be bedridden anyway, and her memory problems and assorted other mental-clarity issues are going to probably make it more possible to carry off the deception than one would think.

Denis gets dragooned into helping put the bedroom back together in a sped-up sequence set to a synthesizer version of The William Tell Overture; it looks like Kubrick references follow that character around like a faithful dog. Also, good on him for helping move a bunch of furniture up to the eighth floor of an apartment block when the elevator's busted. As the move-in date approaches, Alex also goes to charity shops to rebuild the East German wardrobe that he and Ariane discarded once Western products were available (though Alex himself, as a quietly rebellious guy, had a Levi jean jacket even when he was in East Berlin rather than just Berlin). He talks to the new doctor at the hospital--the old one having taken off for Dusseldorf as soon as was practical--and is kind of a snot to him about responsibility and duty to the nation. Which means the guy probably enjoys it a little more than usual when he demonstrates the proper CPR-at-home method to Alex by thumping him on the chest with vigor and abandon.

The big day arrives and Alex seems to be pretty out of his depth instantaneously; even the radio news bulletins in the ambulance are talking about things like switching East German currency to Deutsche marks. But after a couple minor hitches (like trying to make sure his mom doesn't see a neighbor wearing bright capitalist clothing) he gets her installed in the bedroom and safe from the outside world. Now his real task begins. For as long as her life lasts, Alex is going to make sure that his mother doesn't realize the sweeping changes that have gone through every aspect of German life and culture. It means dressing like a real goofball (I assume the clothing is authentically Communist), and also making sure that the radio is busted but the tape deck works; after all, he can control what cassettes make it into the apartment. It's an inversion of the usual family dynamic--Alex, the son, taking care of his mother. But he's going to protect her from finding out the truth, no matter what it takes.

The problems start immediately--from the small (the East German pickles his mom wants as a snack are no longer available now that competing Western stores have opened in his Berlin neighborhood) to the huge (his mother cannot remember where she stashed her bank book, and there's less than two weeks remaining to swap East German currency for the unified German marks). Alex turns out to be rather resourceful when he has to be. I don't think I would have had the patience to repackage all the various foods into old bottles, cans and jars even if I'd thought of the deception. But Alex is really applying himself to the project. The next difficulty pops up when his mother says she feels guilty for the round-the-clock care and asks Alex to set a television up in her bedroom so she has something to watch. The siblings also try to get power of attorney over Frau Kerner's bank account--in actuality so they can swap the East German money for the new currency, but in order to sell the story they claim their state-manufactured Trabant is ready for pickup after only three years on a waiting list. Alex's mom doesn't sign the paper and does tell Alex and Ariane a little secret--she didn't keep her money in a bank. But she can't quite remember where it's stashed in the flat and neither sibling is willing to push the issue too far out of concern for her health.

The geopolitical realities being what they are, a great many former East Germans are abandoning ship and moving elsewhere; this means that Lara and Alex can occupy an apartment abandoned by someone apparently more influential and powerful than the Kerner family--the place, which appears to be a swinging bachelor pad, is larger than the flat shared by Alex, Ariane and their mother. Lara is thrilled to find the phone still works there; Alex can't believe his luck when he sees a bunch of Communist-era packaged foods in the cupboards. The apartment even has a balcony; none of the windows in the gigantic tower block where the Kerners live have balconies. The apartment scenes also have a great sight gag where Alex helps Lara with her homework, which means that he gets stuck in the bathtub with a plaster cast on three limbs. This is almost certainly not what he expected to have happen when she made that request.

Alex decides to pick Denis' brains about what to do in order to prevent news of the world leaking into his mother's presence when she's watching TV; Denis says just showing the old programs again would probably work, since the Communist countries never really changed anything up and never had up-to-date equipment when making the shows. It seems to me that Denis is a relative rarity in the West, in that he was familiar with the East German programs. Maybe he liked them for the camp value, or just liked seeing what the Soviet bloc was doing. I never really thought of it before, but it's likely that the West Berlin channels could be watched in the East and vice versa. The two halves of the city were too close together for it to be any other way. Rigging up the television to show programming that his mom will be able to safely watch is one thing; the other is that her birthday is coming up and the neighbors will be invited, just like every year. And all of them have to be briefed about what conversational topics must be avoided (which is basically everything happening in the country and the world). 

Alex finds capitalism to be quite useful in continuing the deception, bribing a pair of kids 20 marks to sing old East German youth organization songs as part of the celebration. This sequence also puts a human face on the old guard. People who were Alex's age or younger when East Germany became a political entity are now told that everything is different now (true) and better (possibly not). The East German constitution promised a job for every worker, and in the brave new world that isn't true. Not only are the older teachers and principals out of a job, but during one of their gripe sessions they mention the troubles their kids are having looking for steady work in the unified Germany. In the scene where Alex talks to the principal at the school where his mother taught, he displays a steel and resolve almost completely absent from his personality at any other time--it's now safe to criticize someone more powerful than you in East Berlin, and he makes the most of the opportunity.

The birthday party goes off rather well (Rainer the Burger King manager commits to a Method performance, passing himself off as a buyer for a chain of restaurants that existed in the Communist days but no longer does--he also wears goofy-looking plaid-accented Western wear that I'm guessing is the height of fashion for his status and rank and has a remarkably goofy haircut. He even takes detailed notes on his faked autobiography in case any questions come up. And the old principal of the school where Alex's mom taught stays sober enough to not embarrass himself at the shindig--he's one of the characters that takes to the new world rather badly, having unexpectedly found himself consigned to the ash heap of history--which had been the fate predicted for capitalism, not the Marxist-Leninist system he'd lived under since he was a child. And he gets a chance to tell Frau Kerner how much she should have been appreciated by the system when she worked there. Even there Alex is on a tightrope without a net, hoping that the gaps in reality don't become too noticeable for his mom (and the kids who learned their properly Socialist songs do a fine job, and get paid). It all seems to have gone off without a hitch until the gigantic red banner is unfurled on a building that Alex's mother can see from her bed, and instead of a gigantic DDR slogan it's the logo for Coca-Cola, the single most imperialist and class-enemy carbonated beverage.

Before I go any farther, I'd like to praise the movie here, because it's as good a spot as any, for treating all of its characters sympathetically and for all of them being nice people underneath it all. Even the one-note characters like Herr Ganske, grumbling about how dire things are in the new world when he sees Alex looking for old produce jars in a trash bin, have moments where their concerns are taken seriously by the film and the filmmakers. It cannot be easy to shift gears after four decades of life in one system and try to do things completely differently over the course of a single year. But everyone pitches in to keep the deception going and to help Alex protect his mother. Rainer even buys a Trabant rather than a BMW to keep the charade going, and that's a sacrifice worthy of legend. As the article in that link will tell you, "Trabant" means "satellite" in German, so even though it's one of the worst car models ever built I have a certain affection for them.

Even with the affection the film has for its characters and respect for the difficult situation they're in, I don't think it's ever guilty of sugarcoating the regime in East Germany. The buildings are all crumbling and dingy (and in the inevitable return to the hospital, the capitalist system has brighter lights, better equipment and obvious significant improvements in everything visible to the audience). The scenes of people throwing Stasi records out the windows of the headquarters and of the Berlin Wall coming down are presented as unquestionably good, not as ambiguous events. I'm guessing that's one of the other reasons that it was such a smash hit in Germany--it understands what both sides were going through during the year of reunification and sympathizes with both the East and the West. Like Sigmund Jahn in space, or the successful all-German soccer team in the World Cup, it's a movie about Germans--not about East Germans and West Germans.

Back to the narrative--Denis has gone through the national archives of the former East Germany and taped dozens of hours of programming, setting up a system where Alex can have a series of normal "broadcast days" going whenever the TV is on and at least at the beginning of the scheme, his mother doesn't really notice the difference (a commercial about setting up satellite dishes in East Berlin is explained away as "interference", which might well be something that happened a lot on German television). And to start explaining things like that ten-story Coca-Cola logo outside the bedroom window, Denis becomes even more invaluable to the scheme. Frau Kerner has never met him and has no idea what he looks like, so with a bad haircut, a stick-on moustache and a powder-blue suit jacket he looks exactly like anyone else on the news and he can create "special news bulletins" that get dropped into the existing programs with increasing frequency as Alex's scheme turns out to be increasingly unsustainable (and, to Lara, creepy). To hear Denis and Alex explain it, there was a patent-law case proving that Coca-Cola was stolen from an East German chemist and now the drink is officially Communist instead of American.

After the Coca-Cola news break, Alex's mother remembers where she hid her life savings--it's in a piece of furniture that was taken out of the apartment to be hauled away; thankfully, the capitalist garbagemen haven't gotten there yet and Alex gets to rifle through all the abandoned furniture looking for the money. Naturally, Herr Ganske shows up just in time to grump that they've been driven to a new low by the switch to the new system, and wonder what use there was to working for forty years to build a Socialist paradise. Alex misses the deadline as it is, and the bank teller informs him that they would have had to make special arrangements to exchange paper currency instead of bank book records at any rate. Understandably, Alex loses his temper and gets thrown out of the bank. That night he scatters the worthless banknotes off a roof and, at Lara's insistence, engages in some primal scream therapy. Just as he lets out a bellow, fireworks fill the sky. The reunified German soccer team won the World Cup (having "exceeded their production target", according to Alex). His mom even feels better every day.

Another piece of the constructed reality falls apart soon after, but from a direction Alex wasn't expecting. His sister, working at the drive-through, took an order from their long-vanished father. She recognized his voice even through the crappy speaker, and handed over three cheeseburgers and two orders of fries with mayo (Germans apparently preferring that condiment to ketchup). Whatever might have been in her mind about meeting her father again after all that time, I'm positive Ariane didn't expect to just thank him for choosing one particular franchise restaurant for his hamburger needs. Far worse than that--her dad handed the meal off to a pair of young kids in the back seat. Germany might be together again but it sure looks like Herr Kerner won't be looking for the wife and kids he left behind when he fled to the West. Ariane doesn't mention the kids to Alex so he assumes his dad is a fat dude constantly eating terrible food (and the set design for the "capitalist pig class enemy" house is a great little cutaway gag).

When Paula, Christiane's granddaughter, takes her first few tentative steps, Alex's mom decides she should try and get out of the bed and walk around a little bit herself. When she leaves the bedroom, she's also leaving the tiny little scrap of East Germany that Alex constructed around her to keep her safe. Walking outside the apartment tower for the first time in weeks, Seconds after she's outside the building she encounters someone moving in from Wuppertal, in the West, and literally everywhere she looks there's something else new and confusing that makes no sense in the context of a world where there's still an East Berlin and she's still an East German. It's the helicopter hauling away a statue of Lenin (with his hand reaching out to Frau Kerner) that makes the biggest impression, and I'm positive that's a reference to a film I haven't seen yet--like Alex, my education is incomplete when it comes to art film. Ask me one about kaiju eiga films instead, and I'm probably your guy.

At any rate, Alex and Ariane's mom certainly knows that something is up now. One quick studio mockup later and Denis is acting as a newscaster explaining that East Germany is allowing refugees in from the West in the wake of economic collapse; I didn't notice the first time I watched the movie that Denis is wearing a suit coat and no trousers at the news desk. The material that gets repurposed as Westerners seeking political asylum in the Communist world is almost certainly Berlin Wall breach news footage; maybe they just pointed the cameras in the opposite direction? Alex observes that the fantasy East Germany he's creating to keep his mother safe is the country he always wanted to live in. Again, the evenhandedness of the film knocks me out. It's not exactly that the film is refusing to take sides; instead, it's more that the filmmakers are acknowledging that there are two different sides to be viewed. They aren't ten thousand percent for capitalism and Western politics any more than they could be said to be promoting Communism.

When Alex's mother sees the traffic streaming into East Berlin, she knows that she's got to do something to help all those refugees. It's the least a devoted Party member could do for the asylum seekers. There's no room to take in anyone at the flat, but they do have a weekend getaway cabin that could be fixed up and made available. While talking about this situation ("You'll have to decorate the whole city now"), Ariane and Rainer drop the news that they're going to have a child together. One that is both East and West German, and symbolic of the new accords between the two former nations. Also, it's worth noting that the Communist hospital didn't have an ultrasound viewer; the technological advances brought to the Eastern half of the country aren't limited to cars and soft drinks.

At the cabin in the woods, the Kerners, Lara and Rainer don't run afoul of a merman or dragonbat, but there's still problems. With significant nudging from Lara, Alex is about to confess his entire scheme to his mother, since she seems to be strong enough to withstand the emotional shock. Just before he can explain everything, his mother makes her own True Confession. Her husband fled to the West, but not to be with another woman. He wasn't a member of the Communist Party and was facing dismal personal and professional consequences every day. When he had the chance to flee to the west he took it, but Christiane was supposed to take the children and join him shortly after. Her nerve faltered, because if she failed in getting her kids out of the country they would have been taken away from her. She was more willing to live as the wife of a defector in the East than lose her kids and run to the West.

In that moment, Alex truly understands what he's done to his mother through his deception, but he's stung much too badly to react; while he's still numb his mother has a cardiac event and gets rushed back to the hospital. While Alex accompanies his mother to the hospital, Ariane tears the kitchen cupboard apart until she uncovers a decade's worth of mail sent to the family and hidden from her and her brother. Thanks to the return addresses on the mail, she knows where to find the long-absent Robert Kerner and sends Alex out to do just that. One of the last things Christiane said before her second heart attack was that she wanted to see her former husband one more time.

Outside the hospital, Alex gets one more ghost from his past--a cabdriver that's the spitting image of Sigmund Jähn, the first German into space. The cabdriver says he's not actually Jähn, but the movie is rather ambiguous on whether or not he's lying. He takes Alex out of East Germany and into Wannsee, where Robert Kerner has lived since his departure from East Berlin. Alex turns out to be rather underdressed for the cocktail party that's going on at the Kerner residence, and eventually spots his dad playing the happy host before stumbling on his half brother and sister watching a stop-motion children's show called Sandman that he remembers fondly. He calls the character a cosmonaut instead of an astronaut, and when the kids ask where he's from he simply says it's another country. He could mean the past just as much as he means East Germany. His father gets called away to give a speech to the partygoers, leading to the stingingly ironic "Robert, you sure kept us waiting" called out to him as he leaves his son. When he returns to the kids' TV room there's a fantastic bit of physical staging as he sits down next to Alex; the father and son haven't seen each other forever but they've got identical posture.

While Alex is off on his mission, Lara explains to his mother what's actually gone on in Germany for the last year or so; Alex has brought his dad back to the hospital (telling him to think of a good reason for coming back to "East Germany" after all this time). While he's cooling his heels in the hallway with a bouquet of flowers, Ariane shows up to see her mom. He suspects he's having another family reunion; she knows. And she walks away without another word, giving her dad a taste of just how that feels. Alex--and the audience--don't find out what Christiane and Robert talk about in the hospital room, but Alex has decided that his charade has gone on too far, and is utterly unsustainable at this point. It's time to wrap it up.

But he's going to do it on his own terms, and by reuniting East and West Germany himself. To help him in this task:  Denis, a law library with an impressive backdrop of books, a video camera, and a cabdriver in a second-hand dress uniform. With the polite tolerance of everyone at the library (who watch in baffled acceptance), "Sigmund Jähn" gives an important speech and Denis edits all the real-world footage he needs into the faux news feed. When he shows the news to his mother (five days early; she's in very bad shape and probably won't survive until the genuine reunification day), he has no idea that she knows it's all a well-meaning hoax meant to preserve her life in a strange new world. And, for the first time, she's the one lying to Alex about it to save his feelings. She lives three days longer than East Germany, and her son believes she never found out the truth.

A rooftop ceremony with a model rocket and Christiane's ashes is the last scene in the film; the people, East and West, who knew here are there to mark her passing with an aerial scattering of her ashes. Both halves of Germany forbade that, incidentally, but Alex was willing to change the world and reverse the course of history to protect his mom. Funeral laws didn't stand a chance.

I really can't praise this one enough. I'm going to have to watch The Room or something soon or I'll have nothing but masterpieces on this blog. It's a bittersweet comedy about truth, history, and reconciliation that affects me deeply even though I've got only the most tenuous connection to the time and place where the story happens. Daniel Brühl is way too young in the film to be as good as he is, with everyone else supporting his efforts magnificently. I keep forgetting how much bitterness is in with the sweet after I watch it, and every emotional beat hits like a sledgehammer. If you haven't seen this one, and you love movies, you owe it to yourself to check it out.


This review is part of the "Berlin Thanksgiving" event with 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall and corresponding end of the Cold War 25 years ago, in November of 1989.