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Archive for the ‘Robert Hornak’s film reviews’ Category

frank-1

by Robert Hornak

Mary Shelley’s original novel was born in the long wake of the western world’s great unshackling from regal tyranny. The American and French Revolutions were still visible in the rear view mirror, being free was the lingua franca of the day, and by the early 1800s, a de facto requirement for progress and individual happiness. Meanwhile, Shelley’s own mother had been a force for gender equality, working to break women away from the tyranny of male power structures. It’s no wonder that Mary, whose blood must have pumped with the assumptions of freedom, would push her imagination into the ultimate realm of tyranny, death itself. Her impromptu story that fateful stormy night in Switzerland, having first captured the imagination of the small group of literary souls that surrounded her that weekend, has grown tall, unconquerable, and endlessly re-built into a myriad combinations from horrifying to hilarious. It’s immediate popularity spread even further in play form, needfully limiting the scope of the novel, and adding elements – like, eventually, the right-hand lab assistant – that might help keep the stage-bound version as captivating as was her globe-trotting tale of a man and his philosophically-minded creation. By the age of film, the story was already ubiquitous, and generally known as much from its ancillary versions as its original incarnation. Thus, by 1931, the ground was ready for the tilling, and Universal, seeking to recapture Dracula‘s lightning in a bottle, leapt upon Shelley’s story, setting it before a new audience, one for whom the bright optimism of the Enlightenment had long since been dimmed by the most bloody, spirit-rending war the world had ever seen, the dark memories of which moved alongside the despair pulsing up out of a brand new, worldwide economic catastrophe. It was tyranny of another kind, a spiritual and psychological one, as well as economic, and all steeped in the relative newness of Freudian self-awareness. Man, whose 19th century take-away was that science, not God, would rescue them, had crawled through the mud of war and poverty to conclude that not only would God not rescue them, but that God wasn’t even there, and that it was time for the great human DIY project. In this spirit, director James Whale framed his version in pitch-black bolts of shadow and delivered the ultimate story of man-as-God to a world that could now embrace the creature rescued from death in the mold of these new, early 20th century tyrannical shackles, and would watch him burst forth into the new world – a place where the chance to live forever could be crushed by the ever-adapting forces of hate and fear. (more…)

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pota-1

by Robert Hornak

There are two basic gears in Planet of the Apes: adventure and allegory, and it’s stuck fast in both from start to finish. First, its bullet-straight story rarely lets up. Charlton Heston makes sure of that – if the story slows to take a breather, it’s doing it by giving him a paragraph to chew on with those great, headstone teeth of his. The way he grinds through dialogue with his growling staccato is tantamount to a chase scene you can’t look away from. Second, it’s a fit for any reading you want to give it re: human-on-human oppression. Its running time is especially jammed with allusions to the racial tension that was raging across the country upon its release – the same tension that makes the movie relevant still. The first Apes film is an unmistakable parable of America’s racial divide and the persistent social death it metes out, but looking ahead at the sequels that followed, it’s clear producer Arthur P. Jacobs intentionally drew that material ever closer to the top. The last two sequels especially (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes) jump headfirst into the fray, moving the series from a mode of mere commentary to outright rallying cry. But equally effective is the movie’s strong punch of religious satire, illustrating how a very human strain of oppressive fundamentalism was inherited into this future ape society completely intact and undimmed by time, wielded to maintain order among the castes and as a progress-bludgeoning dismissal of the possibility of human agency of any kind. The repression of knowledge to maintain this status quo is manifested as a society of apes that can never advance beyond the most rudimentary dwellings or the most primitive, nearly medieval of governmental systems. Yet with all this meaning packed into the narrative, it’s still wall-to-wall fun. The movie is simply one of those titanic science fiction achievements that can stand as a litmus for all stripes of discontent without sacrificing so much as a picked nit of its entertainment value.

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ET - 1

by Robert Hornak

Note/confession: E.T. is one of my favorite films of all time, and not just from a nostalgic point of view, though that is indeed an unquenchable part of it, but from a pure cinema, pure demonstration of skill point of view… and yet, for all that love, I won’t at all be giving it the loving treatment here that it deserves. This will not be an essay equal to my respect for the movie – let’s just say today I’ll be working without storyboards. Trouble is, I’ve had a terrible week time-wise, with unexpected responsibilities and a tectonic shift in my usual schedule. This isn’t a plea for sympathy (unless you just want to give me some), rather a set up to suggest that this is exactly the right time to see, think about, and say a few words about the movie: I believe it’s a story about childhood for adults who are overwhelmed by adulthood and who too often forget what it was like to yearn so purely. When I watch the movie, it stunts and expands in equal measure – an emotional projection of the squashy guy’s bizarro stretchy-neck. It stunts because every time I see it, I’m right back to being 11 and seeing it for the first time – it simply hasn’t lost any of the power of its first run for me. It’s so densely of its time (in terms of mise-en-scène and in terms of its ubiquitous grip on/embodiment of whatever the ’80s were), that I sink right back into its world from the moment Williams’ quiet, weirdly-hollow music plays over the thumb-scrawled title, and I’m with it right through to the still-teary end. But it expands by my life experience since that first viewing, by the fact that I’ve got the baggage of all the hundreds (conservative estimate) of times I’ve lost somebody, was disappointed by a negated desire, got sideswiped by a sudden change of life plans, or simply sank into sadness over a friend long gone by proximity or worse. It’s my movie (and everyone has one or more of these) that lets me be young again and grows into something more meaningful as time extracts its years, precisely because those years are passing. (more…)

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KONG 1

by Robert Hornak

Opening note: More so and forever a fantasy-adventure film before it’s a science fiction film, I can still find a way to live with it on this list if I think hard about its theme of modern technology (of the time, gas bombs and biplanes) overtaking the absolute epitome of natural strength – that is, for the movie to be science fiction, it has to be seen as nature’s final bow at the hands of what is the unstoppable wave of the future. But that’s difficult for me. As you’ll see, I’m beyond emotionally ensnared by this film, and as long as the movie’s had its grip around me, I’ve only ever enjoyed it as the greatest of all monster-on-the-loose films, many of which are clearly science fiction, but this one’s not so obvious. I happily invite anyone in the comments to describe the movie’s relation to the genre at hand – I want to learn – but this paragraph will have to count as my only nod to that branch of the discussion.

KONG 2

King Kong, the debated but still perversely entertaining 1976 remake, is the only movie that I can’t remember not knowing about. Meaning, one of my earliest memories of life is seeing a TV commercial for its theatrical release when I was a little squib of 5 years old. The cracking trees, the writhing woman bound to posts, and the horrible animal scream of the giant gorilla had me so irrevocably hooked on the idea of a giant gorilla that it’s never left my brain. I must’ve thrown a fit, cause my parents actually took me with them to see it. I still have a sort of chest flutter/muscle memory sort of feeling when I think about seeing that huge creature on that huge screen. After that, I drew gorillas incessantly. I imagined I was a gorilla, loping around the house, an action figure in my hand (or maybe my sister’s Barbie). I used to climb on top of fire hydrants and roar while swiping at invisible aircraft. I think I stopped doing that about my sophomore year of college. A year or so after the movie, though unrelated to the movie (so I thought), I bought my first book with “my own money”: Jeff Rovin’s 1977 From the Land Beyond Beyond, detailing all of Willis O’Brien’s work and all of Ray Harryhausen’s stuff up to his then-most-current movie, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (with a quick sentence-long teaser for something in the works called Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head). Of course, I got the book because of the monsters I saw on every page, unaware at first that one of those movies was a very different version of my beloved King Kong. I essentially learned to read so I could read that book. When I finally understood it, over the next few years, I got to love stop-motion with a depth eclipsed by nothing else. (more…)

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ST2 - 1

by Robert Hornak

In the wake of yet another new film (released in July) and much scuttlebutt regarding a new TV show reboot, this movie remains the cleanest, clearest reiteration of the ethos of the original show to date. Creator Gene Roddenberry himself may have wanted the show and films to reflect the more sober traits of his original conception – de facto egalitarianism, benevolent imperialism, the headiness of exploration itself, as exemplified in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and the Next Generation series (1987-1994, plus films) and other recombinations of the franchise through the decades, but what he got, and what fans carry deep in their hearts for the entire Star Trek universe, is much closer to what’s captured in the energy, interpersonal dynamics, and downright fun of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

ST2 - 2

 

When the movie was first released, it was without its numerical signifier. The fact makes me think the animating principle behind its making wasn’t too far from the reboot mentality we see so rampant now, including with its own namesake. So divergent is the second film from the first in terms of tone, look, and character, you can practically hear the movie saying “scratch that, how bout this.” But the way the movie was cooked up doesn’t sound like a formula for greatness – in fact, it smells a lot like low self-esteem. Hire a guy, director Nicholas Meyer (a relative newbie, versus the venerable old-school hero-hire of The Motion Picture‘s Robert Wise), who had no previous love for the TV show, marry him to a budget that was a fraction of its predecessor’s, then cobble bits and pieces from five different commissioned scripts into a makeshift spine for a story – an estranged son here, a world-building bomb there, the death of a friend somewhere in the mix. Sounds like a recipe for something lumpy and slapdash. (more…)

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PICTURE 1

by Robert Hornak

I saw Dr. Strangelove for the first time in my mid-teens. This was the ’80s and my number one preoccupation in life was to not get blown up by a nuclear bomb. It was inevitable as far as I was concerned, the only question was when. The fear may not have been as palpable as, say, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or during the years following, when the psychological terror of coming so close to nuclear winter was metastasizing into the permanent background of daily life. For me, it wasn’t the news so much as it was popular culture that stoked my nerves, buffeted as I was on all sides by the latent nuclear threat in movies like WarGames (1983) and Red Dawn (1984) and, especially indelible, the terrifying, too-close-to-home imagery of The Day After (1983). I was more than once thrown into a homework-defeating panic over being incinerated where I sat. Alongside that, quite salvific given my dark imagination, was my burgeoning love for comedy – Abbott & Costello gave way to the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks gave way to Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis gave way to Jacques Tati, and all of it cinched together with the constant drumbeat of nose-thumbing meta-media like SNL, Letterman, Mad Magazine, and Looney Tunes, all of which encouraged the embracing of an already-sarcastic approach to culture and authority. Into this mix of legit fear and un-won adolescent mockery came Dr. Strangelove… and it was the greatest, most sophisticated, out-of-reach piece of art I’d ever laid eyes on. (more…)

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PRIMER 1

by Robert Hornak

“Meticulous, yes. Methodical, educated; they were these things… Like anyone, they varied. There were days of mistakes and laziness and in-fighting, and there were days, good days, when by anyone’s judgment they would have to be considered clever… They took from their surroundings what was needed and made of it something more.” These lines, which are in voiceover, are spoken by a version of one of our main characters, Aaron, in a voice mail to another version of Aaron, referring to a yet earlier version of Aaron and his friends. It seems to me, Aaron could be describing the activities of the characters, or he could be talking about the making of the movie itself. The two are parallel in more than one way, not the least of which is the time-shuffling of film production, wherein scenes are never shot in the order of the final film, and wherein it’s usually left to one person, the editor, to try and make sense of the jumble. In the spirit of the confusion created during that process, as well as in a time travel story, I re-read all of what follows and note the unmoored, herky-jerky quality of the ideas. Let it be my homage to the movie, when what it really is, is me grappling with a movie I don’t fully understand, and probably never will, but respect and enjoy immensely. I believe my first words upon viewing it ten years ago were: “I would sell all I have and follow this man as a disciple.” I’ve cooled somewhat since that heady day, but the love remains for this often maligned, often dismissed, but just as often overly-adulated little indie time travel experiment.

 

First let me say, time travel movies are a dime a dozen – or cheaper, depending on when you go back to. There’s been a ton of them over the decades, but it seems to me there’s been a tremendous uptick this century. Perhaps it’s the ubiquitous accessibility of movie-making equipment – the same people that would’ve fired up a trusty Underwood in the middle of the last century, today fire up a Red and Final Cut Pro and add their spin to the glut. Sirens of Titan becomes 41. But why so much time travel? Why does everybody, including me, have one or two or three of them that they can’t wait to impress the world with? At the risk of grandiosity, and/or stating the obvious, I can only think it’s some kind of market demand born from the cold tyranny of The Now. Nobody wants to be here… right now. I assume I’m pretty much like everybody, my head a clouded mix of Regret and Hope – that is, the Past and the Future, combining in a constantly shifting ratio. Regretting either the pain of mistakes made or – another kind of regret – wishing for the return of that which was better; meanwhile, hoping the future’s not as bad as I suspect it’ll be, or at least hoping that it remains as good as it is now. However you slice it, of the three – past, now, future – now is the most tangible, yet the most elusive. It’s just easier to want to escape the law that requires every moment we experience to simultaneously build toward a rarely-controllable future and lock into an unchangeable amber brick that’s as irresistible to gaze back upon as a blazing pillar of salt. And, for now, fiction is the only means we have to break that law. (more…)

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