Zardoz. 20th Century Fox 1974

Before watching the movie:

The discourse around Zardoz typically begins and ends with Sean Connery’s outfit. Nobody has anything to say about Zardoz other than how bad it is, and at this point I wonder how many people saying that have actually seen it. On paper, there are a lot of cringeworthy elements, but I have to wonder how it manages as a cohesive whole. I have to know for myself what Zardoz is like.

After watching the movie:

In 2293, most humans live in a brutal, uncivilized state. A chosen few are selected by their god Zardoz, a flying stone head, to use weapons to exterminate the rest, in the belief that humans only destroy nature in their existence. Zed, one of the Brutals, hides inside the stone head to gain entrance into a Vortex, a utopic village of the elite Eternals who control the Brutals and force some of them to grow crops for them. Almost immediately, Zed shoots Arthur Frayn, the Eternal in control of the stone head and Zardoz identity, and Frayn falls to a death below. However, Eternals have developed a life without natural aging, where those who manage to die are immediately reconstructed in new, identical bodies. The scientist Consuella and her assistant May capture and pacify Zed with telepathy in order to study him and subject him to menial labor within the community. Another Eternal, Friend, plans to use Zed to overthrow the social order the Eternals have been imprisoned in for hundreds of years. But none of the Eternals suspect that Zed is not as mindless and savage as he seems.

At least in the British Isles, there was often a dreamy, new-age aspect to science fiction in the 70s. I feel like, by watching this movie, I’ve seen several episodes of “The Prisoner”. And I think I would have rather watched The Prisoner. This movie is full of trippy visuals that don’t make much sense, trying for something more artful and psychedelic than representative. Everything hinges on crystals, video projection is used to paint walls and people, and everything in the world of the Eternals that isn’t straight out of an 1800s Irish countryside feels so technologically advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.

The other aspect that came to dominate 70s movies was an overindulgence in the evolution of social mores caused by the sexual revolution. This movie sets up a society of haves and have-nots where the haves are as repressed and oppressed by their lifestyle as the have-nots they distantly rule over, but rather than explore that very much, it would rather exult in explicit assault and meditate on the collision of raw sexual power with a world that has bred reproduction and desire out of itself. I don’t think there’s a single woman in the movie that doesn’t spend at least a third of her screen time topless. The result is both deeply uncomfortable to watch and dramatically disappointing.

There is also an incredibly frustrating mix of over-explanation and drawing out mysteries so long the viewer decides they aren’t important. I finally found something really interesting to watch in the third act, when Zed begins to really develop into his full potential and explain his intentions, but the mysteries and tensions that set that up are so buried by exploring the Vortex and the pretenses for nudity that it affords that I had thought that Zed’s origins were just unimportant.

There’s an interesting spin on the kind of social commentary that’s been a part of science fiction since The Time Machine here, but unfortunately, it’s held back by the extravagances and limitations of the 70s. Maybe a modern remake could salvage this, but I’m sure it would be so different that it would be rejected as a remake. I’ve seen Zardoz, and in that knowlege, in this form, I can’t recommend others do so.

The Conqueror

The Conqueror. RKO Radio Pictures 1956.

Before watching the movie:

This movie was probably forgotten for a while except as a strange footnote in John Wayne’s career. However, it’s been seized on due to the fact that it was filmed downwind from nuclear bomb testing, which leads more and more people to discover the bafflingly bad idea of casting Hollywood’s most famous Cowboy to lead in an epic on the origins of Genghis Khan.

On paper, it sounds bad, but hardly any movie deserves to have this much ridicule heaped on it. Most of the people mocking it haven’t even seen it. One thing I like to do with this blog is give movies a chance at the minor redemption of pleasantly surprising one hobbyist critic on the internet, so this was an irresistible pick.

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Watership Down

Watership Down. Nepenthe Productions 1978.

Before watching the movie:

If there is one thing I know about this movie and book, it’s that they traumatized a lot of children. I know there are rabbits, and I think they go to war, and the horrors of that war are not shied away from. I have to confess that with the sum of that information, I always pictured rabbits holding rifles on a battleship or submarine. When I first heard the title, I pictured an airship crashing, which was especially silly because an airship is not a watership. But anyway, nobody seems to want to discuss what it is aside from “cute rabbits experiencing The Horrors” so I don’t have any idea what to expect.

That poster does look pretty bleak and existential though. I have strong Ralph Bakshi movie vibes from that design, but it might just be a late 70s aesthetic.

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Akira. Tokyo Movie Shinsha 1988.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve heard the title of this movie thrown around a bit, but I never really understood much more. I didn’t know if it was a movie or a series or what, probably anime but maybe not. I assumed it was action, and probably grim and gritty, and that’s about the end of what I thought I knew, until I saw it called out as being extremely influential on Eastern and Western animation alike, and as the referent of that one motorbike slide that’s everywhere in animation.

It turns out this seems to also be the source of that “Neo-Tokyo” I’ve heard about. And this is probably why some of the names I hear come up a bunch in Anime circles come up so much, but I don’t know what Japanese names are more generic versus more unique.

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The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells. Les Armateurs 2010.

Before watching the movie:

For a long time, I thought that this movie was Japanese in origin, I think pretty much entirely due to first observing it in a collection of animated movies that seemed to otherwise be exclusively Studio Ghibli movies. I had a vague sense that it was a story of Ireland, and likely concerned a fantastical adventure with nature spirits, but barely even that. I pictured something like Fern Gulley with the Irish forests. The box art was not very descriptive at all, and I’ve chosen a poster I haven’t seen before that gives more of a sense of story over mood, though I grant the other version is more visually appealing.

Having so little to go on, I think the main thing that kept me less than interested for so long was the design style of the boy and girl characters not being one of my favorite looks. I’m also not sure if the title is meant to convey more than I’m picking up. I’ve only ever heard of Kells as in “Celtic knots inspired by the Book of Kells”, so for a long time I thought the Book of Kells was a book cataloging design. For a bit, I entertained the possibility that Kells might be another name for Celtic knots.

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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Warner Bros. 1993

Before watching the movie:

I have vague memories of watching Batman: The Animated Series as a kid. It was a thing that was on, sometimes I would watch it when it was available, but I don’t remember really making a habit of it. Even so, it defined Batman for me as a kid. I was aware of the live-action movies of course. I definitely remember at least one McDonald’s Happy Meal tie in that I got a Hot Wheels-size version of the best Batmobile out of, but I’m not sure the timelines actually sync up, since it would have been the 1991 promotion and I may have been a little young to be as aware of it as I remember.

Regardless, as for many my age, this is the definitive version of Batman to me. I’ve probably watched more episodes as an adult seeking them out, but the series brought as much plot and emotional complexity to half-hour episodes as was possible. It introduced characters and interpretations so compelling they were imported to the comics and other versions, it was the keystone to a shared-continuity animated franchise, and had two direct continuation series.

I’ve gotten around to Batman and Mister Freeze: Sub-Zero before, but I never made it to the first movie spinoff, the one that actually got released in theaters before. And it has taken me entirely too long to get here.

After watching the movie:

Batman busts a meeting of Gotham’s biggest crime lords, and in the ensuing chaos, Chuckie Sol gets accosted by a hooded, masked figure claiming to be his agent of death, who tricks him into crashing his car through a parking garage wall, leaving him dead. When bystanders look up at the commotion, they see Batman at the hole in the wall trying to understand what just happened, and news spreads fast that Batman might have graduated to murdering mob bosses. Councilman Arthur Reeves, in the mafia’s pocket, vows to finally have Batman arrested. Ten years earlier, in Bruce Wayne’s earliest days of crime fighting, before he figured out how to intimidate the criminals, he met Andrea Beaumont in the cemetery talking to her mother’s grave close to where Bruce was talking to his own parents, and they quickly bonded. Bruce became torn between the vow he made to his parents to avenge them against all crime in Gotham when he realized that plan never included having someone waiting for him at home, and their relationship ultimately ended in heartbreak. Now, Andrea is returning to Gotham, and Batman realizes that the gangsters getting killed all share a link with Andrea’s businessman father, but his investigation is hampered by Gotham law enforcement hunting him down for the same murders, while the next don on the Phantasm’s list has gone to a former mook and friend from the old days for help, now in business for himself as the Clown Prince of Crime.

When a movie gets made from a tv show, especially one still on the air, one of the important questions to answer is what can this do that an episode can’t. Aside from the corny early 90s CGI fly-through of Gotham skyscrapers right at the beginning that doesn’t contribute much except to show “look what we can do with a movie budget!” the answer is that I think this story plays with lore too integral to the Batman mythos to trust to a 30-minute story. It doesn’t just rehash Batman’s origin story, it goes inside the often-elided time when Bruce was still trying to figure out how to be a vigilante and tells us the love of his life we never knew about was there. It dangles the Joker’s life before he was the Joker in front of us. It shows us that Gotham once hosted a World’s Fair. And it does it all with incredible care, so that it feels like they’re sharing secrets instead of polluting an established story.

They also take a lot of time to explore the tragedy of being Bruce Wayne. For the first time here, he really has to wrestle with the conflict between what he feels he owes to his parents and a chance to let himself just be happy, and the weight of that dilemma is keenly felt. Of course, in a more realistic world, Bruce would be better served by getting therapy and realizing that maybe he took a flying leap from his parents getting accidentally shot in a mugging gone wrong to a duty to them to clean up all the crime in the city with only wits, fists, and gadgets, but this is not the world he lives in, and regardless of what he wants, becoming Batman is the destiny he cannot escape. And in this story, he rages against that.

Involving the Joker feels almost obligatory. The Phantasm may have unacceptable methods, but the motives are too sympathetic to be satisfyingly defeated alone, so one of the regular villains has to come in the last act to raise the stakes and be properly thwarted in the end. There’s really only one good reason it had to be the Joker, and one could argue that some of the other rogues could be made to make sense too (isn’t the Penguin a crime boss?), but he’s mostly just the one brought into the game late because he’s Batman’s most iconic antagonist, and this is this version of Batman’s first movie. It can feel about as lazy as making Moriarty the surprise mastermind behind every Sherlock Holmes mystery. A version of this story could probably be wrapped up with a dire fight against a well-prepared mob boss and his goons instead of against one of the Usual Suspects while on the run from the law. But Mark Hamill’s Joker is too charismatically sinister to be too upset about.

While this was shown in theaters, that was a relatively late decision, and it could’ve stood to have more production time to make it ready for cinemas instead of just a surprisingly good direct to video feature. I felt I was watching really good storytelling, but I didn’t quite feel like I was watching a real movie. Whatever it is or isn’t, even by the standards of Batman: TAS, this is masterful.

Across the Universe

Across the Universe. Revolution Studios 2007.

Before watching the movie:

I remember this being huge and then pretty much disappearing. I was actually a little confused for a while about whether this and Moulin Rouge were the same movie, because that is how little I knew about the story, and I know not much more now. I think I’ve seen one clip that has the romantic leads singing in a trippy cosmic setting that’s probably not diegetic, so I can rule out a space movie and probably a fantastical movie.

Essentially, all anyone will say about it is that it’s the musical that’s all Beatles music (though it seems it actually also includes Beatles-adjacent music, but I always thought Wings sounded like The Beatles anyway). Nobody really said much about what Mamma Mia was about either, and it’s not like the familiar music being the draw left it a disappointment, but this movie hasn’t had the impact that Mamma Mia did, so I’m not sure what I’m going to get, but it will probably look pretty and sound familiar.

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Wings. Paramount Pictures 1927.

Before watching the movie:

The machinery of the Public Domain has shuddered back to life and as with last year, new works are transferring ownership to the people. Perhaps most notably, the copyright on the final Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories finally expired, so it will be entertaining to see what shaky legal argument the Doyle Estate will come up with to try to continue to get money out of Holmes now. Also joining the Public Domain is The Jazz Singer, which has an enduring technical legacy and, I hear, little else to recommend it.

But the member of the PD class of 2023 that I’ve heard the most praise for is Wings. While I don’t recall hearing of it before now, it has not only a good reputation in story but also very impressive aerial cinematography for its time. I’m strongly reminded of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, so much as I remember anything about it. While that movie was set in the first world war but made in the 1960s, it will be interesting to see how the 1920s retold WWI.

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The Thing (1982)

The Thing. Universal Pictures 1982.

Before watching the movie:

This is one more legend that’s a bit of a black box. I know there’s a monster besieging a research station in the Arctic or Antarctic, and that’s about it. I think almost the entire movie goes without showing the monster? It might be an alien but it’s left ambiguous? The poster is as much of a masterpiece as the movie, they say, and it is a fantastic poster.

I dimly recall a TV special about practical and visual effects in horror movies in general that may have touched on this movie, but I’m not sure. The images I’m remembering could be almost any horror movie, but they could fit a frozen research station for all I know.

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Movies of my Yesterdays: Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

I had intended to do another movie on the basis of a current meme, but I didn’t really feel up to that and then the week got away from me, so instead I’m going to share my thoughts on rewatching one of my favorite Christmas movies.

I vaguely remember when this was new, even if I don’t directly remember it coming out. We got around to it eventually on video, probably the next year. Movies are available at home the next month now somehow, but they still had a very long embargo then, and of course they wouldn’t release a Christmas movie in the summer, so I’m sure I saw it the next year. I do recall reading the novelization a few years later, though while I remember it being the first time I noticed scenes in a novelization not from the book, I don’t really remember more than that. I especially like to watch this toward the beginning of the season since it begins with the end of the Thanksgiving Parade. I wouldn’t say it’s ever been a foundational tradition of the season, but it’s almost always been there, and it carries innocent nostalgia in my mind, so it’s time to see if it holds up to a modern cynic.

Miracle on 34th Street. 20th Century Fox 1994.

Dorey Walker is a very guarded and practical single mother and teaches her young daughter Susan the same, including that there is no Santa Claus to put any childish faith in, something their neighbor friend, lawyer Brian Bedford, finds concerning. Dorey’s employer, old fashioned department store Cole’s, prepares to go into an incredibly important holiday shopping season, as if they don’t make enough to pay off the debts they incurred evading a hostile takeover from Victor Landburgh’s soulless megacorp Shopper’s Express, they’ll default and Landburgh could buy up the company for cheap. This year, Cole’s will have a new Santa at their flagship 34th Street store thanks to an emergency hire of a charming old man named Kriss who was very particular about the portrayal of the character for the Thanksgiving Parade. Dorey, Susan, and Brian soon discover that this man, isn’t just a very good Santa, he believes he is the legendary Kriss Kringle. Brian and Kriss make it their mission to make believers out of Dorey and Susan, but while the family wrestle with their personal faith, Kriss’s unexpected habit of giving parents advice on what other stores have items Cole’s doesn’t have or charges too much for is paying off in brand loyalty and inspires Cole’s to introduce a dedicated “find it for you” concierge service, pulling in an unprecedentedly fantastic sales season and foiling Landbergh’s plans, unless he can scheme a way to get Kriss out of the way. Also Dorey suggests that doubting Susan can test Kriss with the kind of Christmas wish she’d never ask her mother for, and Susan tells him her most impossible private wish: a father, a brother, and a big house upstate.

I’m coming back to this movie with a lot more context. I’ve since seen the original movie, and I had thought this carried through the old real life rivalry between Macy and Gimbel. Of course, few remember Gimbel’s anymore, or anything of that rivalry. It’s actually a pretty clever translation into an outmoded business from a friendlier time fighting for its life against the modern mercenary corporate raiders. While the pacing and tone is much more approachable here, I do have to say I prefer the resolution of the earlier version, in which the judge decides to uphold the decision already made by the US Mail to accept Kriss’s identity, rather than taking the extra leaps of “if the government can trust in God on faith to the point they print it on their money, this court can accept on faith that Santa Claus exists”, and further “Santa Claus exists and therefore this court trusts that Mr. Kringle is who he says he is.” But then, better legal experts have torn these movies apart on the court proceedings.

I had always taken the narrative intent to be that Kriss is indeed Santa Claus, so I was surprised a year or two ago to see someone arguing that the point is that we don’t know and it shouldn’t matter. That might be more the case for the earlier version, but this treatment gives us every reason to believe Kriss short of seeing him do a scrap of supernatural magic. My current take is that, while anyone can embody the spirit of Santa Claus, Kriss has so dedicated himself to it that he might as well be the man in the flesh, but the most important thing is the spirit he inspires in others, and which the public reciprocates in the support that is unfortunately nerfed down to not much more than a montage of signs in this telling, moving to the audience but not to the plot.

The warm feelings of this movie persist. It’s the inspiring story of a man who gives himself to the world, and most of the world, on learning he’s in trouble, responding in kind. It’s a lesson in open minds and open hearts, and the joy and wonder that can result from being the one person to insist on caring for and loving everyone in spite of the hostility of the societal machine running as usual.