Category Archives: ★

King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon)

King of the Rocket Men isn’t a long serial. It’s only twelve chapters and almost one of them is a recap of the first three chapters. The final chapter spends most of its time setting up a big showdown, with the grand action finale–at least the grand action finale not recycling disaster footage from another, older film (Deluge)–less than four minutes. The grand action finale, the one shot for Rocket Men, is just some more fisticuffs. The serial has a lot of fisticuffs.

Incidentally, there are no Rocket Men. There’s a single Rocket Man. The title is a play on the name of his alter ego–Jeff King (Tristram Coffin). Until one of the bad guys makes a wisecrack in the latter half of the serials, “King of the Rocket Men” is the serial’s best joke. Screenwriters Royal Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor aren’t much for humor. They’re also not much for character development. Or logic. Or realism. Rocket Men isn’t about the script, it’s about the Rocket Man. And–for a while–the serial does deliver itself some Rocket Man.

So long as there’s enough Rocket Man action, everything’s fine. The formula’s simple–Coffin observes some trouble, goes to his car, gets the Rocket Man outfit out of the truck, flies off the save the day. Director Brannon and editors Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr build to the “Rocket Man to the rescue” sequences pretty darn well. It’s exciting. At least until it becomes clear Coffin’s a lousy superhero as Rocket Man and a terrible investigator at his day job.

Coffin works at a place called Science Associates, somewhere in Southern California. The location is never mentioned but the filming locations are obvious. The scientists of Science Associates are the finest ever assembled, working diligently to make the world a better place. Sure, they only produce weapons of mass destruction but… well, no. Rocket Men never explains how weapons of mass destruction are going to make the world a better place.

The serial starts with evil scientist Dr. Vulcan killing Science Associates staff; he wants their work for his own evil purposes. The serial doesn’t reveal Dr. Vulcan until the very end, which is way too long a wait. There’s no dramatic impact at the reveal. Until then he’s always shown in silhouette, just a man in a fedora in an office building with two radio towers, controlling his attacks on Coffin, Science Associates, and Rocket Man.

Coffin’s a scientist–who never does science onscreen–and the jack-of-all-trades at Science Associates. It’s his job to get to the bottom of the Dr. Vulcan threat. Coffin’s got a sidekick, House Peters Jr. Peters seems to have less scientific knowledge than Coffin, but he’s in charge of handling public relations. Except the only reporter who cares is Mae Clarke. She’s the only woman in the serial. She occasionally gets to be damsel in distress. It’s infrequent as she’s Peter’s sidekick, not Coffin’s love interest. Coffin’s too busy trying to save the world through weapons of mass destruction.

With Dr. Vulcan a mystery until the end, the serial uses chief henchman Don Haggerty as the main villain. He carries out Dr. Vulcan’s plans, getting in constant fist fights and shoot-outs with Coffin. He usually overpowers or outsmarts Coffin. It’s rare Coffin succeeds in a rescue or attempt to foil the evil scientist madman’s schemes. He’s really, really bad at his jobs. Except making power sources (offscreen) for weapons of mass destruction. He excels at that task.

Even though his character ought to be a complete rube, Coffin’s pretty good in the lead. He’s got no real acting to do–he doesn’t even get to express surprise or distress when Dr. Vulcan pulls one over on him–but Coffin’s sturdy. He makes it all seem a little less absurd.

Most of the serial is Science Associates staff getting picked off and Coffin becoming more and more suspicious one of his colleagues might be Dr. Vulcan. It takes him a while. Like I said, he’s not bright. Then it’s just about him failing to save colleagues from getting picked off. It doesn’t really matter, the most personable one is Ted Adams, who’s only personable because he gets to be a jerk. The rest of the scientists are extremely bland. When Stanley Price gets more material–he’s about the only one–it’s only temporary. He gets a few scenes then it’s back to being a piece of furniture.

At least he’s not second-billed furniture like Clarke. Clarke’s reporter works at a science magazine. And her apartment quickly becomes a hangout for Coffin and Peters in their quest to foil Dr. Vulcan. Oddly, it does not become a hangout for Coffin and James Craven, who are also out to foil Dr. Vulcan, because Coffin keeps his two partnerships separate. Clarke, for example, has no idea Coffin is Rocket Man, while Craven is the one who made the suit. Peters is sort of a bridge, sort of not.

Besides the general competence of the production, Rocket Men is all about the Rocket Man. There are some great flying effects, some exciting cliffhangers (no exciting cliffhanger resolutions, however), and a lot of thrilling action. The Rocket Man flight effects–sure, there’s composite shots, but the Rocket Men effects team also swooshed a life-size Rocket Man dummy around the Southern California foothills on wires. The result is superb. It’s so good it doesn’t even matter when they start recycling the same shots over and over again.

For the first third of the serial, Rocket Men keeps building up good momentum. Then it starts having bad chapters (there are at least two pointless ones in addition to the recap chapter), Coffin’s blaise stupidity gets worse, Clarke stops even getting to be a damsel in distress–she’s just along for the ride–and the picking off of Dr. Vulcan suspects turns tedious instead of suspenseful. The competent production, sturdy (if underwhelming) performances, Rocket Man effects, and Don Haggerty keep it going.

The last chapter is pretty dumb. Maybe if it weren’t so dumb, King of the Rocket Men would have a more royal stature. Instead, it manages to adequately thrill. Some of the time.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


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Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002, Guy Maddin)

To put it mildly, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is narratively erratic. The film–a filmed ballet “converted” to a silent movie–opens with panic over Eastern Europeans entering Britain. At least, the onscreen text implies this panic. It’s quickly forgotten; after doing cast introductions (also with onscreen text–these aren’t intertitles, these are just text onscreen alongside live action), the film immediately becomes about Tara Birtwhistle. She’s not Dracula, but she is–presumably–the title Virgin. She has one of the two diaries in the film, after all.

Birtwhistle’s great, both as a dancer and as an actor. Director Maddin shoots a lot of closeups and it’s during her scenes the film comes closest to fulfilling the concept. There’s a lot of symbolism, like two of her suitors and pervy Van Helsing (David Moroni) giving her a blood transfusion with the three men in frame thrusting at her. When Dracula is toying with the idea of being about Victorian sexual repression and sexual violence, it’s at its best. Or its most ambitious. Well, at least during Birtwhistle’s part of the film.

But Birtwhistle doesn’t get the whole picture. Zhang Wei-Qiang’s Dracula barely shows up, usually just there in insert shots, which don’t match the film stock–though Maddin, cinematographer Paul Suderman, and editor Deco Dawson do such lackluster filters and speedups on the film, it’s hard to say what the film stock should look like. Most of Dracula looks like bad video (it’s apparently not, it’s apparently terribly filtered film).

Anyway, once the action moves to (unnamed) Transylvania, Zhang, and betrothed CindyMarie Small and Johnny A. Wright, the charm is gone. Small can dance, but she can’t act. Zhang might be able to act–he can definitely act–but Maddin doesn’t focus on his performance so much as his presence. Wright has a terrible part–once Small discovers he’s had sexual experiences (maybe he’s the Virgin), she tries to seduce him in a terribly edited sequence. Small being sexual repulses Wright and he abandons her to be attacked by dancing nuns and then Zhang. Luckily, he teams up with Moroni and his vampire hunters.

Except, of course, Dracula spells it vampyr. Because most of the onscreen text choices are obnoxious enough to produce eyerolls. They’re not even pretentious–something pretentious would use better fonts for the onscreen text and far better filters on the film. Dracula is artificially grainy, artificially zoomed (to atrocious effect); it’s like the filmmakers didn’t want to pay for an iMovie filter pack.

Maddin and Dawson try to make the film intense through fast cuts and exaggerated angles, but neither have any grace. The film’s got constant music–natch, it’s a ballet–but the music never really syncs with the onscreen action. The “silent movie” gimmick is the point, not the ballet. It’d probably have been better if someone else had shot the ballet and Dawson had cut it into a silent? As long as there had been some competent iMovie filters.

Instead, Maddin fakes a silent movie style. There’s lens distortion–because the movie’s supposed to be old maybe–and Maddin has no rhyme or reason to which shots get which style. Maddin uses iris shots poorly, then goes to wide shots (Dracula’s widescreen, not Academy), then cuts to a fake zoom shot, then another fake zoom shot. All with weak photography. Whatever filter they used removes the natural grain and detail and instead distorts.

The less said about the sped-up sequences the better.

But Dracula moves pretty well. Definitely during the first half or so, when it’s Birtwhistle’s show. The momentum keeps it going to the finish, even though nothing’s successful in the second half. Zhang ends up playing third fiddle to Small and–even worse–Moroni, who hams it up.

The idea of the film isn’t bad, but Maddin’s not interested enough in creating something singular. It’s a gimmick, a filmed ballet performance, not a filmic ballet. It’s certainly not some great homage to silent filmmaking. Especially not with Maddin’s weak establishing shots. The ballet had great sets–including some set design visuals Georgia O’Keefe would appreciate (or have her lawyer call on)–but Maddin and Suderman don’t shoot them well.

Dawson wouldn’t be able to cut them well anyway.

The film’s cynical at best, craven at worst.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Maddin; ballet by Mark Godden, based on a novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Paul Suderman; edited by Deco Dawson; production designer, Deanne Rohde; produced by Vonnie von Helmolt; aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Zhang Wei-Qiang (Dracula), Tara Birtwhistle (Lucy Westernra), David Moroni (Dr. Van Helsing), CindyMarie Small (Mina), Johnny A. Wright (Jonathon Harker), Stephane Leonard (Arthur Holmwood), Matthew Johnson (Jack Seward), Keir Knight (Quincy Morris), Brent Neale (Renfield), and Stephanie Ballard (Mrs. Westernra).


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The Invention of Lying (2009, Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson)

The Invention of Lying is a 100 minute exploration of a gag. In a world without lying–or any fictive creativity whatsoever–co-director, co-writer, and star Ricky Gervais one day spontaneously mutates and lies. He lies for personal gain, only to discover exploiting people doesn’t make him feel good, so he lies to make himself and others feel good, but it gets him into trouble. It doesn’t get him what he wants and it just ends up making him rich, famous, and miserable.

The film opens with Gervais on a low point. He’s about to lose his job and he’s out on a date with his dream girl, Jennifer Garner, only she thinks she’s too good for him. Because, objectively, his genetic material isn’t good enough to mix with hers. So the other thing this world doesn’t have is any relatable version of love. Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson aren’t even comfortable getting into the lust questions, because once they start down any problematic avenue, they run away as fast as they can. It’s like they release they can’t make the joke funny and hightail it away. So why do the joke in the first place?

The film takes place in a small New England town where there is, inexplicably, a movie studio. Except movies are just filmed lectures of history lessons because there’s no fiction and there’s no concept of it. Gervais and Robinson entirely ignore how the world would function and how history would have progressed without imagination or creative ambition. For a while, they just keep falling back on the gimmick–what if everyone just says what they’re thinking, no matter how awful. There are a lot of flashy cameos–Ed Norton is the best–but they can only distract so much. Eventually, the film has to reconcile itself, because Gervais is in love with Garner and Garner doesn’t want him because of his genetic material.

There’s this scene where Gervais explains how he imagines peoples lives upon seeing them and Garner just sees them as fat, bald, nerdy, losers. It comes right after Gervais telling Garner she’s the kindest, best person he’s ever met, which makes absolutely no sense, but whatever, she’s supposed to be angelic.

Eventually, Garner’s part contracts and the movie moves ahead an indeterminable time, becoming just Gervais moping with buddies Louis C.K. and Jonah Hill. By this time, Gervais has increased the scale of his lying, making up God. That subplot is the best one in the film; Gervais and Robinson don’t have to be subtle about their jabs yet still manage subtely in said jabs. It operates on two levels, something the film never does otherwise.

Sadly, it’s not about Gervais inadvertently becoming a messiah, it’s about him pining for Garner. Conveniently, Gervais’s first act nemesis (Rob Lowe, one note as a successful bully) also has eyes for Garner so there’s a love triangle thing towards the end.

It’s a yawn, partially because Garner and Lowe are extremely limited in their roles, partially because Invention can only handle so much emotion. If people can’t have creative expectation, their emotions are stunted. And even when they aren’t, Gervais and Robinson are focused entirely on characters on hand, not this world they’ve ostensibly created.

Gervais drops out during the third act way too much too. He’s the only relatable character in the film; everyone else is a caricature to be mocked. He’s a caricature too (maybe the thinest one), but he’s not supposed to be mocked.

Okay photography from Tim Suhrstedt covers for Gervais and Robinson’s lackluster directing. There are a lot of songs and song montages–including a criminally atrocious Elvis Costello cover of Cat Stevens’s Sitting–and they don’t make any sense since there’s no music in Lying’s world.

Gervais’s performance is fine. Garner ranges from inoffensive to miscast. Hill is an overblown cameo, while C.K. is an underdeveloped sidekick. Besides Ed Norton, Martin Starr’s probably the funniest cameo. Others are earnest but with limited material.

The Invention of Lying would’ve made a great six part sitcom or something, but Gervais and Robinson don’t have a full enough narrative for 100 minutes. It’s not funny enough to make up for all the laziness.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson; director of photography, Tim Suhrstedt; edited by Chris Gill; music by Tim Atack; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Lynda Obst, Oliver Obst, Dan Lin, and Gervais; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ricky Gervais (Mark Bellison), Jennifer Garner (Anna McDoogles), Rob Lowe (Brad Kessler), Louis C.K. (Greg), Jonah Hill (Frank), Tina Fey (Shelley), Jeffrey Tambor (Anthony), and Fionnula Flanagan (Martha Bellison).


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The Prison (2017, Na Hyeon)

The Prison takes place in 1995. Is it because smartphones would ruin the execution of the premise? Or maybe something has changed in the South Korean prison system to no longer make the premise plausable? I don’t know. It’s a pointless and somewhat distracting detail.

The premise pretends to be high concept. Han Suk-kyu is the boss of The Prison. Not just the inmates, but the guards and the warden. He’s a crime boss, he orchestrates hits, he puts together heists, he just does it all from inside The Prison.

Disgraced ex-cop Kim Rae-won has just arrived. He immediately gets into a fight with Sin Seong-rok’s fourth tier thug. Kim arrested Sin. There’s a number of well choreographed fight scenes between the two of them throughout the film. But it puts Kim in Han’s orbit and pretty soon Kim is slowly becoming more and more important in the prison crime empire.

Sin stays present throughout, occasionally as comic relief, and there are subplots involving the corrupt warden (Jeong Woong-in) and some of Han’s gang. Something is always happening in The Prison. Keeping it busy means writer-director Na doesn’t have to worry about character development. The Prison’s real simple, it’s an action thriller set in a prison, it’s not supposed to be taken too seriously. Han hints at some depth in his performance, but there’s nothing supporting it in the script. Kim has a bigger backstory, but it eventually just makes a mess of the present action. Simply, Na’s storytelling instincts aren’t good. He thinks The Prison needs a gimmick to be engaging. It doesn’t, of course, it has Han and Kim.

Despite a thin character, Han gives a great performance. If the writing were better, Han would be better. Instead of excelling thanks to The Prison, Han just holds it together. Kim’s a lot broader. He doesn’t encourage stability or investment–his writing is bad too. Na’s problem is he doesn’t have any idea what to do with Han or Kim after establishing their both great at their jobs. Han is a great crime boss, Na just doesn’t give the character enough backstory for the narrative to be plausible. Ditto Kim. He was a great detective, idealistic in his corruption, who ends up in jail and finds himself applying his existing skills to help criminals. There’s even dialogue about it in the script; Na can’t figure out how to show it.

The third act feels way too rushed, way too contrived. There’s a lot of varied action; Na and editor Kim Chang-joo do fine with the individual action scenes, just not with stringing them together. Bang Joon-seok’s score doesn’t help matters, especially not in the third act.

Fine cinematography from Hong Jae-sik. Na’s a more than competent director, he just didn’t write well enough to end up with anything at the end of the film. Kim’s likability matters a lot more than it should. Na leverages the whole movie off that likability; otherwise, Kim’d be so thin he’d get stuck on the wall.

Most of The Prison’s solid though. It doesn’t even start to feel long until the epilogue.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Na Hyeon; director of photography, Hong Jae-sik; edited by Kim Chang-joo; music by Bang Joon-seok; produced by Lee Sung-hun and Choi Ji-yoon; released by Showbox.

Starring Han Suk-kyu (Jung Ik-ho), Kim Rae-won (Song Yoo-gun), Jeong Woong-in (Manager Kang), Jo Jae-yoon (Hong-pyo), Sin Seong-rok (Chang-gil), Kim Seong-gyoon (Dr. Kim), and Lee Kyeong-yeong (General manager Bae).


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