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 Omen (1976, Richard Donner)

The Omen is a terrible bit of cinema. It’s a long bit, almost two hours, filled with Jerry Goldsmith’s–shockingly Oscar-winning–chant filled “scare” score. It doesn’t scare. It annoys, which just makes everything go on longer. Director Donner certainly doesn’t help with it. He drags things out too. Like anyone needs more scenes of Gregory Peck failing to feign emotion.

When the movie starts, Peck is the U.S. ambassador to Italy. It’s important because Peck has to be both rich and powerful. He seems to be an ineffective ambassador, who’s just there because his college roommate is now President of the United States. Probably Yale. Plantation Owner’s Tech and all.

Anyway. Peck’s married to Lee Remick, who’s just given birth. Only the baby dies and they call to tell Peck before they tell Remick. Because, even though Peck’s incapable of emoting, failed man emoting is more important in The Omen than any womanly emotion. The film shafts Remick on her part, which is something of a blessing because it means she gets to do fewer terrible scenes. Only a mysterious priest offers Peck a new baby, which Peck accepts, deciding to never tell Remick because ladies are fragile.

Five years later, The Omen occurs. An incredibly public suicide is the single event in the film qualifying as an omen. It’s a very loud omen. A mysterious nanny joins the Peck-Remick household, played by Billie Whitelaw. Maybe when it becomes obvious David Seltzer’s script is going to be really stupid and when no one is going to care–not Donner, not Peck–is when Whitelaw just appears to care for the child without being hired. When confronted, she has the flimiest story–oh, right, the action has moved to England now. Peck got a promotion because his friend is president.

Until Whitelaw shows up, it seems like there might be some chance the film’s going to work out. Sure, Peck and Remick entirely ignore their son–now played by Harvey Stephens, who maybe has four lines and two of them are just “Daddy”–but they’re still beautiful and still getting it on in the middle of the day. Although Peck does look a little like he should be playing grandpa; he’s twenty years older than Remick.

Then there’s a priest (Patrick Troughton) who shows up to tell Peck his son’s actually the antichrist. And photographer David Warner who knows something weird is going on. The film sort of mocks Troughton and idealizes Warner; neither deserve the treatment. Warner’s better at the start than the finish. Peck’s kind of better at the finish, the material’s just far worse.

After Goldsmith’s silly score, Gilbert Taylor’s photography is the biggest technical problem. The action leaves England for Peck and Warner to travel Europe looking for answers and mixes a lot of soundstages and locations. Taylor can’t match them at all. The first action set piece–the wind attacking Troughton–is all right. It’s too long, it’s got lousy music, but it’s ambitious. The rest are either on soundstage made up to be exteriors or just plain interiors. Taylor and Donner butcher the last set piece, when Peck has to try to beat up Whitelaw. Donner’s real bad at the scene. Not even editor Stuart Baird, who does the only consistently solid work in the film, can save it.

The biggest offender isn’t Peck, isn’t even Goldsmith. It’s writer Seltzer. The Omen has a crappy script. It has crappy dialogue, crappy characters, crappy everything.

The film gets unbearable before the halfway point and then it’s just all downhill until the end. It’s like the movie is punishing you for watching it. How ominous.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; written by David Seltzer; director of photography, Gilbert Taylor; edited by Stuart Baird; music by Jerry Goldsmith; produced by Harvey Bernhard; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gregory Peck (Robert Thorn), Lee Remick (Katherine Thorn), David Warner (Jennings), Billie Whitelaw (Mrs. Baylock), Patrick Troughton (Father Brennan), Martin Benson (Father Spiletto), and Harvey Stephens (Damien).


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The Cosmopolitans (2014, Whit Stillman)

The Cosmopolitans opens with some visual sarcasm, but it quickly moves to verbal. Writer-director Stillman is somewhat merciless, introducing characters just to comment on the absurd pretentiousness of the principals. Of course, Stillman doesn’t let the observers off easy either. It just takes longer for them to become clear; maybe the American leads are just too obvious.

Cosmopolitans is a series pilot (which, tragically, did not get picked up) and Stillman does spend time establishing his characters. But he doesn’t have much of an epical structure–they meet, they talk, they go to a party–and Stillman’s got no urgency with divulging. More information doesn’t necessarily make the characters more entertaining or more affecting.

The three leads–presumably–are Adam Brody, Jordan Rountree, and Carrie MacLemore. They’re Americans in Paris. Brody and Rountree have claimed Parisian status and probably need to be treated for intense Francophilia. Rountree’s lovesick, Brody’s affably brooding. Meanwhile, MacLemore is in Paris for a guy who abandons her for his writing. Because Frenchman.

Brody and Rountree take themselves way too seriously, while MacLemore has a somewhat better sense of her situation.

Adriano Giannini plays Brody and Rountree’s older, Italian friend who spends most of his time making fun of the Americans. He’s gentle about it, as opposed to Chloë Sevigny, who’s brutal about it. Luckily, Brody and Rountree are so pretentious, they can’t identify the digs as digs. Lots of funny barbs. Lots.

Freddy Åsblom has the showy part of Brody and Rountree’s rich, native friend. He pokes fun at them without Sevigny’s loathing or Giannini’s bewilderment. He ends up with some of the funniest moments.

Of course, eventually it’s Giannini and Sevigny who get revealed–either to another character or just to the viewer (but only because Brody and Rountree are oblivious). Stillman spares no one. He maintains a light tone, affable characters, and an adoration of Paris throughout. The Cosmopolitans might mock its leads’ Francophilia, but the pilot is delightfully drenched in it.

Beautiful photography from Antoine Monod, subtle, sharp editing from Sophie Corra, a great soundtrack–it’s a technical marvel. Stillman’s composition and direction are fantastic.

MacLemore gives the best performance of the leads. Brody and Rountree are a tad shallow, MacLemore has actual backstory and some sense. It’s a better part. Giannini and Sevigny are great; Sevigny’s deliveries are awesome. And Åsblom is quite good. His role is a little more difficult than it seems at first blush.

Again, it’s tragic The Cosmopolitans didn’t go to series; what Stillman and cast and crew did get done is wonderful stuff.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Whit Stillman; director of photography, Antoine Monod; edited by Sophie Corra; produced by Alex Corven Caronia; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Carrie MacLemore (Aubrey), Adam Brody (Jimmy), Jordan Rountree (Hal), Adriano Giannini (Sandro), Freddy Åsblom (Fritz), and Chloë Sevigny (Vicky).


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