[WARNING: This post contains spoilers for all four of the things mentioned in the title.]

About five years ago, I read Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.  Then, last year, I played Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 2, which are based in part on that book.  And then, yesterday, I watched Apocalypse Now, the 1979 movie also based on that book, and which influenced both of those games.

As you may know, it has long been my contention that video games are an art form on a par with books and film.  And of these four works, it is my belief that one of the games–Spec Ops–is the best.  That said, it is also the most recent, and it uses the expectations built by the preceding tales to weave its narrative.

To begin with, I didn’t really like Conrad’s novella that much.  It wasn’t awful, but I didn’t see what was so great about it.  So there’s this guy, Kurtz; and this other guy Marlow, has been sent to find him in the Congo.  But, turns out, he’s gone nuts and is dying.  And the reason this happened to Kurtz is because being in the Congo was brutal, and he couldn’t take it.

It was never clear to me what the point was.  I guess it was that it was no fun being in the ivory business in the Congo, and that colonialism was awful, both for the colonized and the colonizers.  Well, yes–and I suppose that was more of a shocker in the era when “colonialism” was not a dirty word–but I didn’t really see any major moral depth to it.

Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of the story, set in the Vietnam War, in which Marlow is named “Willard” and has been sent by the U.S. military to assassinate Col. Kurtz who has gone mad.  And so he does.

A big problem I had with the movie was that it is really thin.  In the first 10 minutes, we are told that Kurtz is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives.  And then, two hours later, we meet Kurtz and find out that, sure enough, he really is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives. There is a strong implication along the way that the Vietnam war generally is also insane, but that wasn’t much of a revelation to me.

(Aside–the theme of “War Is Insane, And Makes Everyone In It Insane” was done much better, in my opinion, in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.  It ends with the line “Madness, madness”, which would have fit Apocalypse Now as well.)

Kurtz has no character development. Neither does Willard, really: he starts off as a battle-hardened, PTSD soldier and finishes it as an even more battle-hardened PTSD solider. I guess his crew-mates on his boat are supposed to show the ravages of war taking their toll, but they all had “doomed” written all over them from scene one.

I read on Wikipedia that they considered a different ending, where Willard joins Kurtz and fights off an airstrike on the base.  While seemingly impossible logically, that ending would make more sense thematically.  Personally, I would have liked to see an ending where Kilgore showed up and destroyed Kurtz’s base.  It would at least justify why they spend so much time on his character early in the movie.

(Another aside: Wikipedia also says that “Coppola decided that the ending could be “‘the classic myth of the murderer who gets up the river, kills the king, and then himself becomes the king — it’s the Fisher King, from The Golden Bough'”.  For the record–this is the version of the story I remembered, not the one in the 1991 movie of the same name I wrote about a few months ago. But that’s mythology for you.)

(Last aside: this post has too many asides.  One of them should be removed.)

I already wrote about Far Cry 2 in this post pretty thoroughly, so I won’t dwell on it overmuch.  The short version is that it, like Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now before it, is well done, but empty. Although, I suppose it does sort of do what I criticized Apocalypse for not doing, in that there is some vague hint of character development in the sense that the player’s character is being sent to eliminate the Jackal in the beginning and winds up siding with him at the end.

To recap, in Heart of Darkness, we have this guy Kurtz.  Nobody is quite sure what his deal is, and we gradually find out that he went crazy in the jungle because everything was brutal.  Then, in  Apocalypse Now, we have this guy Kurtz who everybody thinks went crazy in the jungle because everything was so brutal–and indeed, so he did.  And then in Far Cry 2, we have this guy the Jackal, who goes crazy in the jungle because everything is so brutal.

Now, you will immediately see where Spec Ops is really different–here we have this guy Konrad.  And nobody is quite sure what Konrad’s deal is… and he’s in a desert!

Just kidding, that’s not the difference.


I have not read Stephen King’s novel yet, so I cannot comment on how the film compares to it.  I have heard there are major differences.

The plot of The Shining is–oh, heck, you all know it: Jack Nicholson goes crazy and chases his family around with an axe in an isolated hotel.

A problem I noticed early on–and, I have read, something Stephen King also complained about–is that Nicholson seems insane from the first shot he’s in.  He looks absolutely crazed in an early scene where he’s driving his family to the hotel.  This sort of makes it less shocking when he does go crazy later on in the movie.

This is compounded by the fact that when he does go insane, he’s ridiculously easy to defeat.  Two of the most famous scenes of madness end with him being easily subdued by his screaming and frightened wife, Wendy.  The “All Work and No Play” scene ends with her somehow knocking him out, and the “Here’s Johnny” scene ends with her giving him what amounts to a minor cut that somehow completely stymies him long enough for her to escape. This makes him seem less menacing and more like a blundering, angry buffoon.

Speaking of Wendy: she does nothing to counter my belief that Kubrick was a misogynist, and incapable of having interesting female characters.  She goes to pieces constantly, and seems like an overwhelmed hysterical idiot all the time.  And somehow she’s still able to thwart Jack, apparently by panicked flailing. People criticize Shelley Duvall’s performance, but I think it was a problem of direction rather than acting.

The Shining is strongest in the quiet, mood-setting shots. It does an absolutely  excellent job conveying the eerie atmosphere of the haunted hotel.  There is a famous tracking shot of Jack and Wendy’s son Danny riding a Big Wheel around the interior, and its fame is justified.  I knew going in how that scene worked, and it still was effective.

Kubrick has a reputation for being a genius cinematographer and having  no ability to relate to people.  The Shining totally fits that.  The atmospherics are awesome, and the characters are ridiculous. The best performance is Philip Stone as Delbert Grady, the ghost of a previous caretaker of the hotel.  He has a long dialogue with Jack that is the scariest sequence in the movie.

It has some good elements, don’t get me wrong.  There is a Turn of the Screw-like ambiguity as to whether the ghosts are real or all in Jack’s imagination. (Though this is undercut in the finale.) In broadest strokes, the plot is similar to The Haunting: Jack Torrance and Eleanor Lance both go to the haunted house, feel the haunted house “wants” them, and ultimately die and are implied to be claimed by the house.

Bottom line: the movie has gorgeous visuals, good music, and some eerie concepts.  But it fails to be truly scary because the malevolent spirits have chosen as their agent an incompetent, drunken, abusive idiot.  It would have been scarier if they had tried to use Danny to carry out their plans.  Come to that, why on Earth didn’t they? He was psychic!  He should have been the one most prone to ghostly machinations. Granted, then it might just turn into The Exorcist or The Omen on ice, but still, it would be creepier.

Thingy blogged about the movie The Fisher King the other day and encouraged her readers to see it, so I made a mental note to check it out sometime soon. Then it so happened that it was on TV last night.  I missed the first half hour or so, but since I’d already read the plot synopsis I could follow it pretty well.

It was very weird–which I expected as soon as I heard Terry Gilliam was involved–but also very cute.  I missed the darkest part of the story, though they had occasional flashbacks to it.  The main characters, played by Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer are indeed excellent, and they work especially well together. Ruehl won the Academy Award for her performance, and Williams was nominated for his.

I think I’d heard of the myth of “the Fisher King“, probably in The Golden Bough or something, but the version I remembered was different than as told in this movie.  One thing I thought interesting was the “Red Knight” creature, which seemed to be used as an allegory for the trauma suffered by the Robin Williams character. It was very cool looking, yet at the same time, it did remind me strongly of the knight armor designs from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which I suppose Gilliam designed.

One minor point: I couldn’t actually figure out why the Jeff Bridges character had to break into the castle and steal the “cup” the Robin Williams character thought was the Grail.  Maybe this was made more clear in the part I missed, (I’ll have to watch the whole thing) but it seemed like the point of the “Fisher King” story was that the Grail just gets grabbed by accident, not after a “quest”.

Even if it isn’t explained, it doesn’t matter, because even if it doesn’t make sense from a logic perspective, it completely works on an emotional level.  Important dramatic lesson: plot holes can be forgiven if they work for the characters and resonate with the audience.  I read that somewhere.

All in all, it’s a very enjoyable movie.  It was a bit strange, but very good.

I watched about 2/3 of the 1957 movie The Pride and the Passion on TV yesterday.  (I missed the middle of it.) It’s a good example of something I meant to make more clear in this post; to wit, that some of the old epic movies were not really very good.  It’s easy to romanticize the old era as nothing but great epics, but there were a lot of bad ones as well.

The film is set during the Napoleonic wars.  Cary Grant plays a British officer, who is helping some Spanish guerrilla fighters transport a giant cannon to attack a French fort.  The main guerrilla leaders are played by Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren.  A solid cast on paper, but Sinatra is awful.  According to the Wikipedia page, he really had no interest in the film.  There’s some chemistry between Grant and Loren, for good reasons, but her acting is otherwise quite wooden.  Grant does a good job, but his character is weak.

It was directed by Stanley Kramer, who I understand was a very well-respected filmmaker.  I’ve only actually seen one of his films, Judgement at Nuremberg, which I remember as having interesting dialogue and an incredibly good cast, but being staged rather like a stage play.  (Perhaps inevitably, since it was basically a courtroom drama.)

Pride and Passion is a very dull and stiff movie, with lots of scenes of a huge mob of extras wandering through the barren countryside, dragging the huge gun.  These scenes are punctuated by scenes of them having to hide themselves and the giant siege gun from French soldiers, and of course for Loren to do things like perform Spanish dances or bathe in the river while Sinatra and Grant quarrel with each other.

The movie made a lot of gross revenue, but it still lost money because the cost was so high.  And that’s the crux of it: epic war movies are like Massively Multiplayer Online games: they can’t just do well–they have to be wild successes that make record-breaking amounts of money.

Despite the fact that I like history and I like movies,  I don’t think a lot about about the history of the movie industry.  But I was reading the other day about the 1964 movie The Fall of the Roman Empire, which I’d never even heard of, but sounds very interesting, as it has a very strong cast.  (Too bad Edward Gibbon didn’t get screenwriting credit.)

The film was a fairly bad box office failure, reminding me of another epic historical film that famously lost money: Cleopatra, which I blogged about here.  It wasn’t that people didn’t want to see Cleopatra; it was just that it was so expensive it couldn’t make back its massive cost.

It seems like “epic” movies were big in the 1960s, until they ran into bombs like Cleopatra, at which point the industry turned towards smaller, more “personal” movies, until George Lucas and Steven Spielberg came along and turned things back toward the epic scale.

I think “epic” movies–think movies with ornate sets and large crowds–became prohibitively expensive to make, so they turned away from them in the ’70s.  Then the advent of CGI made it possible for the genre to be resurrected.  Look at the Wikipedia article on historical epic films, and take note of the dates:

Examples of historical epics include Intolerance (1916), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Cleopatra (1963), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Barry Lyndon (1975), Gandhi (1982), Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), Joan of Arc (1999), Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and Les Misérables (2012).

Now, the “new” epics are not as really the same as the “old” epics–it’s hard to put your finger on exactly how, but there is a feeling of unreality about the new CGI based movies.  They lack “grittiness”–a term normally associated with the non-epics made in the 1970s, but which applies to the macro scale as well.

“Capriccio Romano”, by Bernardo Bellotto. 1740s. Image via Wikipedia.

It can be done–one reason I think the Star Wars prequels are better than people give them credit for is that they do a better job emulating the “feel” of the bygone epic films than most other modern epics do.  George Lucas may be over-reliant on CGI, and he may have done more than anyone else to usher in the era of cheap epics, but he himself knows what he’s doing when it comes to CGI effects.   This could just be because Lucas (and Spielberg) are old enough to remember the era of the original epic movie era, and so can understand them enough to imitate them expertly.

But now that CGI is so prevalent, and makes epics so easy (relatively speaking) it makes all epics too overdone, too focused upon spectacle, and loses the deeper meaning.  I believe that some historians feel the same thing happened to cause the decline of Rome.   “Bread and circuses” indeed…

I touched on this with my last post about the movie Rudy: it can be fun to come up with alternative interpretations of movies that the directors and writers didn’t think of.  With Rudy, I was saying that I found the hero character’s fixation on football to be an unhealthy obsession, rather than the inspirational determination it is presented as being.

Some movies have much more elaborate alternative interpretations.  Take the Star Wars movies for example: most people assumed that the Empire is evil just because the opening crawl said so.  But, in Phantom Menace, it’s pretty clear that what Palpatine says about the Old Republic being “mired” by “bureaucrats” is true.  They can’t even get it together to go do something when one of their planets gets invaded and occupied.  If nothing else, the Empire runs a more efficient operation.

If I know politics, a few years after ROTJ, there would be a massive campaign to rehabilitate Palpatine’s image.

This does not even take into account the Jedi, who claim to be good–although the only people who really seem to feel this way are the Jedi themselves–but who are shown to brainwash people from a young age to indoctrinate them into their cult.  They say the Sith are evil, but in the movies, at least, the Sith wait until you’re an adult before asking you to join.  Count Dooku was a former Jedi and an aristocrat of some sort before he opted to try his hand at Sith Lording in his retirement.

Also, of course, there’s the fact that everything the Jedi do turns out to be an abysmal failure.  The Sith are clearly the only ones capable of creating a plan and seeing it through to the end in that galaxy.  Even at the end, in Return of the Jedi, all the Jedi stuff Luke had been taught goes by the boards, and the Emperor is overthrown not by him, but by the actions of a renegade Sith.

George Lucas probably didn’t intend any of these interpretations (and the “Expanded Universe” contradicts a lot of them), but I think the movies can definitely be viewed that way.  Personally, I think it makes more sense in some ways.

Or take Oliver Stone’s movie JFK.  It was controversial for its promotion of conspiracy theories.  I have a different take on it: I think Kevin Costner’s character is an unreliable narrator (he’s not really the narrator, but the film is very much from his perspective) who has this weird obsession with conspiracies.  Donald Sutherland’s character “X” is a figment of his imagination, whom he created to fulfill his dreams of uncovering a massive plot.  Try watching JFK and then A Beautiful Mind and see if you don’t agree.

I know there’s also a famous alternate interpretation of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off–although Freddie DeBoer doesn’t buy it–but I have never seen that movie, so I wouldn’t know.

What movies do you interpret differently than may have been originally intended?

In the trailer for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.

This movie really surprised me.  It was made in 1948, around the time of what is called the “Second Red Scare“, when concern about communist infiltration was very high.  Given that, the content of the movie is astounding.

Fred Dobbs (Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are unemployed guys looking for work.  They convince an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) to help them on an expedition for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.  The first remarkable thing about the movie is a speech given by Howard in his first scene:

Howard: Say, answer me this one, will you? Why is gold worth some twenty bucks an ounce?
Flophouse Bum: I don’t know. Because it’s scarce.
Howard: A thousand men, say, go searchin’ for gold. After six months, one of them’s lucky: one out of a thousand. His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That’s six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin’ over a mountain, goin’ hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin’ and the gettin’ of it.
Flophouse Bum: I never thought of it just like that.
Howard: Well, there’s no other explanation, mister. Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewelry with and gold teeth.

What’s so remarkable about that, you wonder?  Well, what Howard is describing there is what is known as a Labor Theory of Value–the value of something is determined by the labor put forth to get it.  This is an economic idea that is commonly associated with a fellow named Karl Marx.  And it’s a response to the claim that gold’s value derives from its scarcity–a major component of non-Marxian, liberal economics.

Also in the trailer for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

So, about twenty minutes into the movie, we have gotten a lecture on Marxian economics.  This is all the more interesting because the rest of the movie is devoted to proving over and over that greed for wealth corrupts people–specifically, Dobbs.  Howard repeatedly predicts that the gold will drive men to madness, and does it ever.

Dobbs’s inevitable corruption is fun to watch–that Bogart guy was a pretty good actor, you know that?–and Walter Huston  is excellent, even though his role is fairly predictable.  He is, essentially, an infallible sage, and normally those characters are pretty dull, but Huston imbues him with personality.  What is not clear to me is why he bothered to come along, since he believes almost from the outset that the expedition will be a disaster, and it proves to be exactly that.

It was odd to me that the movie’s most famous, yet often mis-quoted, line: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges” was spoken by a rather poorly-acted, bandit character.  I thought his character was pretty weak.  In fact, I felt that the bandits had too big a role in the film, when all they really needed to do was show up at the end when Dobbs’s luck runs out.

I keep coming back to the economic “moral” of the movie, though.  It’s a very socialist message, what with the capitalist who desires to earn for himself being depicted as either a monster or a buffoon, and the character who opens up describing the labor theory of value depicted as a wise and thoughtful figure.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking: “Well, this is it– Mysterious Man has finally gone completely crazy and is now seeing communist conspiracies everywhere.  He must have been listening to Glenn Beck too much, and he just lost his tenuous grip on reality.”

1950s anti-communist pamphlet

To be clear, I’m not saying I think this movie was some kind of evil communist-Hollywood indoctrination plot.  It was based on a book by a mysterious German called “B. Traven“, who was apparently a socialist.  Well, when your movie is based on a book by a German socialist, you can’t be surprised if some German socialism creeps in.  I doubt John Huston wanted to make Marxist propaganda; he just wanted to make a Western, and the book he adapted it from had some Marxist propaganda in it.

What surprises me is that, despite how popular accusing people in Hollywood of communism was at the time, the film wasn’t banned or censored, and John Huston wasn’t hauled up before the H.U.A.C. to explain himself.  I’m not saying any of that should have happened, I’m just saying it’s weird that the film apparently got released without any censorship or controversy, which is kind of amazing given the zeitgeist.

Image via Wikipedia
Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) in “Strangers on a Train.”

So, I finally saw the Alfred Hitchcock movie Strangers on a Train after friends of mine mentioned it to me nine months or so ago.   Yeah, I take my time with these things.

To put it briefly, my comment here about Hitchcock’s work applies perfectly.  It’s an amusing film, but by no means a masterpiece.  I’ll try to avoid spoiling everything in this review, but I will discuss certain plot elements, so be warned!   If you are the kind of sick, deranged person who reads reviews of movies they have not seen (me too)  there is a synopsis here.

The character of Bruno Anthony, played by Robert Walker,  carries the whole movie.  The guy seems completely mad and yet strangely charismatic, which is precisely what the role demands.

The problem is, this kind of works against the story even though it is really fun to watch.  It is so obvious that Bruno is not playing with a full deck that it seems like Guy Haines would have no trouble convincing the police that Bruno’s claims about him are nothing more than the ravings of a maniac.  Of course, then there would be no drama, and it would be a pretty dull movie. So…

…Haines gets enmeshed in a convoluted plot controlled by the madman. There wasn’t much that stood out about it to me, but there were two scenes that caught my interest.  One is the tennis match that comes at a pivotal point in the film.  Although fairly contrived, it was still somehow exciting to watch, even though I knew more or less how it would play out.  This alone may qualify Hitchcock as a great director.  It is one of the most effective uses of sport I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The other thing I really liked was the next-to-last scene.  I love the fact that even in his final moments, Bruno still lies to Guy and the police.  He has no reason to, he has to know that his deception going to be found out as soon as his fist unclenches and he drops Guy’s lighter, and in any event he is mortally wounded; but he lies to them anyway.  That little detail totally sums up the character and how detached he is from reality.  I love that.

Unfortunately, the movie is pretty weak otherwise.  The direction, editing and cinematography are all quite good, but the acting is pretty poor apart from Robert Walker.  Also, once you stop suspending disbelief, which I did whenever Bruno wasn’t around, you realize the whole plot is fairly far-fetched.  [Aside: is suspending disbelief the same as resuming belief? Discuss.]  The other problem with the movie is that even the “good” characters aren’t very likeable, so it was hard to really get invested in how things worked out for them.

Overall, an enjoyable thriller, but not a great one.

Famous scene from the 1922 film “Nosferatu”. The shadow is scarier than the actual monster (see below) because your imagination fills in the details.

Saw the movie House of Dracula on TV the other night.  It’s a 1945 Universal Monsters flick that contains three of their most popular monsters: Dracula (duh) the Wolf-Man, and Frankenstein’s monster.  It was fairly well-done for what it was.  John Carradine is great as Dracula.  Also, the film features the stereotypical hunch-backed assistant to the mad scientist, but for a change the character is female, and fairly attractive apart from the hunch-back. It’s an unusual role, and the actress, Jane Adams, does a pretty good job.

But what was especially notable about the movie was that it falls into the awful horror movie pitfall of trying to explain the source of the horror scientifically.  So, it turns out that Dracula has a blood disease, and that the Wolf-Man can be cured by brain surgery and some kind of weird fungus that the aforementioned scientist grows in his castle.

Folly!  I’ve blogged about this before: horror movies should not rationalize or explain the horror in any way.  When they do, it becomes less frightening.  They make this mistake all the time in horror movies.  It’s much better when the scientifically-inclined are skeptics and shown to be wrong, and the monster is an inexplicable violation of the laws of nature.   The intelligent, scientific  types being wrong is how you know you’re in trouble.

If you try to explain everything, it is less scary.  This applies not only to trying to give explanations for the monster’s origin or condition or whatever, but to every element in any scary story.  Just give people a few hints of the monster, and  let them piece together the rest, that’s what I say.

See what I mean?