Pioneer Review: Deep Water, Shallow Story

C+

  • Writtern by Nikolaj Frobenius, Hans Gunnarsson, Cathinka Nicolaysen, Erik Skjoldbjærg, and Kathrine Valen Zeiner
  • Directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg

Early in this Norwegian thriller, two brothers—both highly-skilled deep-sea divers—have a talk. The one who’s a loving husband and father tells his bachelor brother that this will be his last dive; he wants to spend more time with his family. And so the clichés begin.

Set in the early 1980s, Pioneer’s plot wraps around a competition over which country will control a very lucrative oil pipeline in the North Sea. Will it be virtuous Norway, or the evil United States? The movie doesn’t play coy about who it’s rooting for. All of the Americans are crude, violent, and involved in an evil, murderous conspiracy. Many Norwegians are involved in the conspiracy, as well, but at least they feel guilty about it.

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The surviving brother, Petter (Aksel Hennie, star of wonderful thriller Headhunters), is blamed for the fatal accident. But he knows it’s not his fault. How could it be? He’s the star of the picture!

As Petter begins to look into the matter, people start trying to kill him. He’s even run off the road by one of those evil American divers. Mind you, no one is really taking his claims seriously at this point. Here’s a suggestion for anyone running an evil conspiracy: If someone is publically talking about your murderous work, and everyone else assumes that this person is crazy, his death in a car accident involving one of your employees will do your public image more harm than good.

Call it a thriller by the numbers. The twists and turns of the plot are almost all predictable. Really, did you possibly expect that the friend helping him wouldn’t turn up dead?  What’s more, Petter just isn’t all that interesting a protagonist.

The movie improves considerably in the last act, when the climax I expected didn’t happen. That was nice, but I had to wait for more than an hour to be surprised by a plot turn

Director Erik Skjoldbjaerg and his merry band of four co-writers never bring up the big question: Should this oil be tapped at all? I guess that raising the planet’s temperature and risking disastrous oil spills are acceptable goals if it helps Norway.

Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film

Film noir led to apocalyptic cinema. When human society has no clear moral boundaries, the end of the world is but a plot twist away.

imageAt least that’s the argument that Peter Labuza sets out to prove in his new, very short book, Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film. I can’t say that he really and truly succeeds.

After a first chapter arguing the differences between noir and melodrama, he discusses 10 films in moderate detail, showing their connection both to traditional noir and end-of-world themes. First, he discusses three classics from the golden era of noir that touch on issues of the then new atomic bomb:

  • Kiss Me Deadly
  • The Lady from Shanghai
  • The Big Heat

He follows that by examining three more recent films that display both noir tropes and touch on Christian conceptions of the apocalypse:

  • God Told Me To
  • The Rapture
  • Days of Heaven

Next, Labuza takes on noir-sci-fi crossbreeds that suggest a technological end of days:

  • Strange Days
  • The Terminator
  • They Live

Finally, he covers one film "that deals with a number of apocalyptic narratives through media saturation and the post-9/11 social environment."

  • Southland Tales

I’ve bulleted all of these films for a reason. The more of these films you’ve seen, and the better you know them, the more you’ll enjoy this book. Reading Labuza’s discussion of a film you haven’t seen is a laborious task; you’ll get little out of it except boredom and spoilers.

Things get more interesting (I wouldn’t go so far as to call them entertaining) when he discusses a film you know. Consider Days of Heaven, which I wrote about in 2011. Labuza notes (as I and others have) that the film places a B noir plot into a self-consciously artistic and beautiful mise en scene, and slows it down to an atmospheric pace.

The physical land thus acts as a temporal space of the past, a time of innocence made into a physical space. However, this supposed spatial heaven, which seems like the promise of an afterlife, has been plagued with the same troubles as human society.

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He also discusses the religious themes promised by the film’s title.

Malick juxtaposes the human conflict with the conflict of nature through biblical, apocalyptic imagery—the swarms of locusts, but especially the repeated depictions of fire. There are fires in the opening shots at the factory; in an early moment of the harvest, as the camera gazes into one of the tractors; in a brief mention by Linda during the voiceover recalling Ding-Dong’s story of an apocalyptic fie; and then, finally, during the fire that destroys the crops.

This book opened my eyes to new ways of interpreting Malick’s film. For instance, I had never caught on to the story’s relationship to the Genesis tale of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt. On the other hand, he failed to convince me that there’s anything apocalyptic about Days of Heaven.

But as you might guess from the above quotes, Labuza writes in the word-heavy, over-intellectualized style of an insecure academic. The whole book reads like a thesis. Even when what he had to say was interesting, his writing style made reading it feel like a chore.

If you’ve seen enough of these films, and you have patience with this type of writing, you might find Approaching the End interesting. You can skip the sections on film you haven’t seen or haven’t seen recently. You might even want to take the time to see them first.

The book’s publisher, The Critical Press, sells its e-books directly, without copy protection. When you buy the book, even without a physical form, you’ve really bought it.

What’s Screening: December 12 – 18

Only one festival, Another Hole in the Head, runs this week. It closes Monday.

A- Birdman, Balboa, opens Friday. Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star, who may or may not have superpowers, imagehoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman pretends it was shot in a single take. But unlike Rope, the gimmick works this time around–better technology, I suppose. Much of the film is hysterically funny, but the picture is just a bit too long, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Castro, Friday. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen this 1988 comic fantasy about animated characters and flesh-and-blood people living imageside by side in late 1940’s Hollywood. I remember it being funny, outrageous, and delightful for anyone who loves old cartoons. The special effects were cutting edge for their day, but still based on pencil, ink, and an optical printer. Today, of course, they’d be digital, and would lose a lot of their old-time charm. On a double bill with Ed Wood, which I also haven’t seen in a long time but didn’t care for when I saw it.

A- Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Rafael, Sunday. New digital restoration. Corrupt political bosses appoint a naive, young idealist (James Stewart) senator because mr_smith_goes_to_washingtonthey think he’s stupid. They’re wrong. The second and best film in Frank Capra’s common-man trilogy, Mr. Smith creeks a bit with patriotic corniness, and seems almost as naive as its protagonist. But it has moments–Stewart’s speech about how “history is too important to be left in school books,” for instance–that can still bring a lump to the throat of any leftwing American patriot. Besides, it’s just plain entertaining.

B Fantastic Mr. Fox, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. There’s a cartoon-like quality to a lot of Wes Anderson’s work, so it isn’t surprising that imagehe would eventually make a real cartoon. Based on a story by Roald Dahl, Fantastic follows the adventures of a very sophisticated but not altogether competent fox (voiced by George Clooney) as he tries to outwit a farmer and keep his marriage together. Children and adults will find different reasons to enjoy this frantically-paced comic adventure.

A Nosferatu, New People Cinema, Saturday, 9:00. You best forget about sexy vampires before you go see the first  film version of Dracula (an unauthorized version that got the filmmakers sued by Bram Stoker’s imagewidow). Max Schreck plays Count Orlok (the name change didn’t fool the court) as a reptilian predator in vaguely human form. This isn’t the scariest monster movie ever made, but it’s probably the creepiest. Not to be confused with Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake. With live musical accompaniment by DJ Tasho Nicolopulos, using only horror movie soundtrack vinyl records. Part of Another Hole in the Head.

A Blade Runner – The Final Cut, Castro, Monday and Tuesday. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. Yet it never preaches. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. I’m assuming this is the same final cut I saw in 2008, and not a more final cut made since.

A- Force Majeure, Lark, opens Friday. The carefully controlled, not-quite-natural outdoor experience of a fancy ski resort becomes a metaphor for the veneer imageof a troubled marriage in this Swedish drama set in the French alps. When an avalanche threatens his family, Tomas fails to protect them as he should. Soon his wife loses all respect for her husband, and Tomas losses all respect for himself. All this is set within a resort that appears to be just a bit more realistic than Disneyland.  Force Majeure studies courage and fear, and the destructive behavior that can destroy a marriage. But it’s also about the artificial worlds we create for our own enjoyment. See my full review.

Found Footage Festival, Roxie, Friday, 9:30. The world is full of unwanted VHS cassettes, which is a good thing forimage Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett. They mine comic gold from the unwanted dregs of the video universe. I haven’t seen their seventh installment, but it promises to include “A new exercise video montage featuring a Christmas-themed workout, a martial arts fitness regimen called ‘Tiger Moves,’ and a tape called ‘Butt Camp’.” Read my report on their sixth installment. .

Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.

Fantasy for the family that thinks together: Time Bandits on Criterion Blu-ray

At his creative height in the 1980s, Terry Gilliam wrote and directed some of the dizziest, imaginative fantasies ever projected. He would mash up well-known myths, social satire, amazing (but cheap) special effects, the surreal comedy of Monty Python (he was, after all, their token Yank), and a busily baroque visual style all his own. His more recent works, such as The Zero Theorem, are a pale reflection of what he once could do.

Time Bandits, briefly the top-grossing independent film ever, was his breakout hit. It came out as a bolt of merry lightning in 1981, reminding everyone who saw it that there was more to fantasy adventure than an endless stream of Star Wars and Conan rip-offs. Here was an irreverent tale of Robin Hood, Napoleon, Agamemnon, the Titanic, and the ultimate battle between God and Satan.

image

Actually, in this movie they’re called the Supreme Being and Evil. The Supreme Being is played by Ralph Richardson as a fussy bureaucrat in a business suit. I doubt anyone else could have properly delivered a line like "I am the Supreme Being. I’m not entirely dim."

David Warner, one of the great villains of the last half century, plays Evil with appropriate relish, in a costume and makeup that must have been great fun to design. He has henchmen, of course, obsequious yes men whom he blows up on a whim.

image

But let’s get to the story:

Young Kevin (Craig Warnock), a wise boy with idiotic parents, accidentally finds himself travelling through time with six motley and generally inept robbers. They started their criminal careers by stealing a map from the Supreme Being that shows holes in the fabric of time and space. With this map in their hands, they can rob Napoleon (Ian Holm) and escape into Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest. "Mr." Hood, by the way, is played by John Cleese as an insufferable and idiotic nobleman proud to be slumming with "the poor."

image

The robbers, played by little people–including David Rappaport as their leader and Kenny Baker (AKA R2D2)–start off greedy and self-centered, and constantly arguing with each other. But as Evil (who wants to get his hands on that map) comes after them, they have to learn to care for each other, and for Kevin.

Time Bandits is a family movie, in the sense that children and adults can all enjoy it. But it’s too scary for very young children. I would say it’s fine for kid seven and up. But it’s not appropriate for parents who don’t want their children laughing at God.

First Impression

imageThe disc comes in a thickish plastic case. The outer slipcover has a lenticular illustration that creates a 3D effect if you look at it straight on.

Remove the slipcover and open the case, and you’ll find the disc and, instead of Criterion’s usual book, a fold-out copy of the map so important to the plot. On the other side you’ll find an essay by David Sterritt and credits for both the film and disc.

The essay is alright, but there’s too much plot description and too much celebration, with too little real analysis.

When you insert the disc, it displays the aforementioned map, with standard Criterion menu on the left.

Like all Criterion Blu-ray discs, it has a timeline. You can bookmark any point in the movie. When you insert the disc for the second or third time, you’ll be asked if you want to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Gilliam, with the help of Art Director Norman Garwood and cinematographer Peter Biziou, filled the frame with little details to delight the eye and create a sense of wonder. That’s part of Gilliam’s signature style. The better the resolution, the more you get to enjoy.

Criterion’s 2K transfer, supervised by Gilliam, does justice to this busy image (yes, it probably would have looked even better in 4K). Details are sharp, and the film grain is visible but not distracting. In a couple of shots, the skin tones looked a little over-saturated, but I’m not sure that wasn’t intentional.

How It Sounds

Like most commercial features of the 80s, Time Bandits was released theatrically in the 35mm version of Dolby Stereo. To recreate that type of mix in home media, all you need is two-track stereo media, a surround audio system, and enough knowledge to press the Surround or Surround Decode button on your receiver’s remote control. (You don’t need to press that button for a more modern 5.1 mix.)

Criterion offers the original Dolby Stereo mix as an uncompressed, PCM, 24-bit, two-track stereo mix. The only thing missing: They don’t tell you that this is a Dolby Surround mix. I don’t know why. So you have to know, on your own, to turn on the Surround or Surround Decode feature on your receiver.

By the way, it sounds great.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by Terry Gilliam and cast members: The various people who speak on this track, prepared in 1997 for the Criterion Laserdisc release, were recorded separately. You don’t get to hear them talking to each other. Gilliam does the lion’s share of the talking, while Craig Warnock (a young adult by 1997) adds quite a bit. So does Michael Palin, who in addition to acting co-wrote the screenplay with Gilliam. John Cleese and David Warner talk a bit about their small parts. Interesting and fun.
  • Creating the Worlds of the Bandits: 23 minutes. HD. New. This documentary covers production and costume design, and tells the story of how the movie was shot, from the point of view of the designers.
  • Terry Gilliam and (film scholar) Peter Von Bagh: 80 minutes. A conversation recorded in 1998 at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, just before a screening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gilliam recounts his life and career, with very little about Time Bandits.
  • Shelley Duvall: 9 minutes. Excerpt from a 1981 episode of TV show Tomorrow, where Duvall is interviewed by Tom Snyder. Kind or ironic since she has such a small role.
  • Still Gallery: Lots of behind the scenes photos. Didn’t go through all of it.
  • Trailer: Very funny in a meta way.

The Criterion Time Bandits Blu-ray disc goes on sale today.

Dolby Stereo and the sound of the 1980s

Think of the films you love most from the late 70s through the early 90s. Raging Bull, The Last Waltz, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, The Princess Bride, Stop Making Sense, The Terminator, Goodfellas. There’s a good chance that you may never hear the original soundtrack again.

For 50 years after the talkie revolution, the optical, mono, analog soundtrack was ubiquitous on 35mm prints around the world. There were alternatives–primarily four-track magnetic stereo. But that more than doubled the cost of making prints, so optical mono remained the standard.

All that changed in the late 1970s, when after Dolby introduced an optical stereo format for 35mm prints. It didn’t sound as good as four-track magnetic, but it was a whole lot cheaper. The 35mm version of Dolby Stereo (Dolby used the same name for an entirely different format in 70mm) made multitrack audio ubiquitous in movie theaters for the first time. [12/10: I altered this paragraph because my original version implied that Dolby introduced this technology in the late 1970s. It was introduced in 1976.]

Dolby used three technologies to improve the then 50-year-old mono optical soundtrack. First, they split it in two, turning it into discrete, two-track stereo. Then they added a noise reduction filter. Finally, they used some electronic wizardry to channel the two tracks into four different directions. The technology could decode properly-mixed left and right tracks into left, center, right, and surround channels.

By 1978, Dolby Stereo was the norm for action movies, sci-fi, fantasy, concert movies, and musicals. By 1985, almost every Hollywood movie used the format. By 1990, independent and foreign films used it, as well. The big blockbusters, of course, were released in 70mm, with the far superior, magnetic, six-track Dolby Stereo. But the 35mm prints of the same movies used the optical, two-track, four-channel version.

The rise of Dolby Stereo in movie theaters corresponded with the rise of stereo television, first with Laserdiscs, HI-FI VCRs, and finally stereo broadcasting. As it happened, a Dolby Stereo mix worked reasonably well as standard two-track stereo. It didn’t really need the decoder

But it sure sounded better with it. In 1982, Dolby licensed the channeling technology to home audio receiver manufacturers, under the brand name Dolby Surround. The decoding technology is media-agnostic; as long as the media carried two-track stereo, the right receiver, with the Surround feature turned on, could convert it to four-channel surround. To my mind, this was really the beginning of home theater.

Digital 5.1 audio came to movie theaters in the early-to-mid 1990s. But all of the successful digital formats steered clear of interfering with the analog Dolby Stereo soundtrack, needed for backward compatibility and as a backup. Thus, although seldom heard, Dolby Stereo remained on almost all prints until the studios stopped making prints.

When digital 5.1 sound came to home media with DVDs, it was renamed Dolby Surround 2.0, to differentiate it from 5.1 sound. It was pretty common in the early days of DVDs, but soon disappeared. Today, it’s almost impossible to find a Dolby Surround 2.0 mix on any Blu-ray disc. The movies from the glory days of Dolby Stereo are almost always remixed to 5.1 (or 7.1), without even supplying the original mix we heard when we fell in love with them.

I understand that many people, including the filmmakers, prefer the newer, fancier mixes. But I do wish they would include the originals.

The Magick Lantern–waiting to be reborn

The Magick Lantern, a tiny theater in Point Richmond, opened early this year, showing recent arthouse fare on weekends and classics Thursday night. I added it my Theaters link list immediately, but I never made it there to see a movie.

Then, in October, before I had a chance to visit the Magick Latern, it closed. Go to the website now, a simple wepage will tell you that

THE MAGICK LANTERN IS

CLOSED

WE ANTICIPATE RE-OPENING
VERY SOON UNDER DIFFERENT
AND BETTER CIRCUMSTANCES!
IF YOU’RE ON OUR EMAIL LIST,
WE’LL KEEP YOU POSTED ON
ALL THE DETAILS!

On Saturday afternoon, the Magick Lantern held an open house, and I finally got to visit.

Point Richmond is one of those corners of the Bay Area that feel like a small town. A handful of retail streets surround a city square, on the edge of hills.

The Magick Lantern is in the back of a modest building. The auditorium, such as it is, looks more like a small apartment living room without windows. I’d guess that it could sit 40 at most.

Apparently it looked and felt more like a theater in the months it was running. But the previous owner took the seats, the tiered platform for those seats, and the equipment when he left.

A group of determined people have formed a non-profit to bring the theater back. They’re raising money to buy the seats, the platforms, a screen, a concession stand, and a projector and sound system.

Even if they could afford it (and they can’t), I don’t think they’d have the room for a professional, DCI-compatible projector. But a modest, 1080p home projection system and a Blu-ray player would be fine in that small space. They wouldn’t be able to play new movies, but they could play almost new ones and a lot of classics.

If you want to help, send your check to:

Magick Lantern
115 Buena Vista Ave.
Richmond, CA 94801

You can also contact them at magick-lantern@att.net.

What’s Screening: December 5 – 11

If the lack of film festivals this time of year scares you, we’ve got a festival that will scare you even more. Another Hole in the Head opens tonight (Friday) and runs through this week and beyond.

A Wild, Kabuki, California, Guild, opens Friday. Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she imagehikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. She learns self-reliance and makes friends, and becomes physically stronger, but she also runs out of water, gets lost in the snow, and faces the very real possibility of rape. Interspersed with the hike, flashbacks show us what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage. Read my full review.

Found Footage Festival, New Parkway, Wednesday, 9:15; Roxie, Thursday and next Friday, 9:30. The world is full of unwanted VHS cassettes, which is a good thing for imageNick Prueher and Joe Pickett. They mine comic gold from the unwanted dregs of the video universe. I haven’t seen their seventh installment, but it promises to include "A new exercise video montage featuring a Christmas-themed workout, a martial arts fitness regimen called ‘Tiger Moves,’ and a tape called ‘Butt Camp’." Read my report on their sixth installment. .

B+ Aliens, New People Cinema, Thursday, 9:00. Like most sequels, James Cameron’s first big-budget movie isn’t as good as the original Alien, but it comes close.. Less of a horror film and more of an action imagepicture (or, arguably, a war movie), it strands a platoon of marines on a barely hospitable planet infested with the big, egg-laying predators. Sigourney Weaver stars again. Unfortunately, the New People will screen the original, 137-minute cut. Cameron’s 154-minute director’s cut, which to my knowledge has never been shown theatrically, goes into far more character detail and is a much better film. I’d give that version an A. Part of Another Hole in the Head film festival.

A+ Brazil, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30. One of the best black comedies ever  filmed, and the best dystopian fantasy on celluloid. In a bizarre, repressive, anally brazilbureaucratic, andthoroughly dysfunctional society, one government worker (Jonathan Pryce) tries to escape into his own romantically heroic imagination. But when he finds a real woman who looks like the girl of his dreams (Kim Greist), everything starts to fall apart. With Robert De Niro as a heroic plumber. This is the second and best of Gilliam’s three great fantasies of the 1980’s, and the only one clearly intended for adults. Read my Blu-ray review.

A A Hard Day’s Night, New Parkway, Sunday, 9:00. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a suddenly popular British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to England and imageGermany, and could likely die before the film got into theaters. We all know now that UA had nothing to worry about. The Beatles are still popular all over the world. What’s more, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night still burns with outrageous camerawork and editing, subversive humor, and a sense of joy in life and especially in rock and roll.

A Boyhood, Castro, Thursday. Fifty years from now, people will still watch Richard Linklater’s intimate epic. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years, Boyhoodimage allows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up and older. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them has much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. But Boyhood avoids the sort of horrible situations that drive most narrative films, and it’s all the better for it. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. Read my full review.

A Spirited Away, New Parkway, Saturday, 2:25, Wednesday, 6:15. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz.. A truly amazing work of animation. I don’t know whether the film will be presented in the original Japanese with subtitles, or if it will be the English dubbed version.

C Sing-a-Long Sound of Music, Castro, Friday through Sunday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies–in a picture postcard kind of way. I have not actually experienced the sing-a-long version..

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