Five Cool Things and Two Jules Dassin Films Get the Criterion Treatment

Last week, I noted that for the month of September I was going to try to watch space-based science fiction films. I love creating themes each month for my movie watching as it helps me to find films I might not otherwise watch. As it turns out, space-based science fiction films are hard to come by. At least they are on the streaming services I subscribe to. My hopes were to find some classic films that fit that category that I haven’t seen before. Turns out, I’ve seen most of the great ones. Or, and I say this again, the ones that are available to me. So I’m not sure how long this theme is going to carry me along this month. Also, next month is October and I’m really itching to start watching horror films. I watched a little of both of those this week plus a few more. And here we go.

North by Northwest

I love this movie so much. It is Hitchcock’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yes, I get that it is a few decades too early for that designation but bear with me. From the first scene come the thrills and it never lets up until that train goes through that tunnel in one of Hitchcock’s most obvious sexual allusions. It is full of action, suspense, romance, and comedy.

The plot doesn’t hold up under scrutiny and it doesn’t have the depth of films Rebecca or Vertigo but God, is it fun to watch. Cary Grant is at his charming best. Eva Marie Saint is a wonderful mixture of sexy and vulnerable with just a touch of menace. James Mason is the perfect gentlemen villain. It is packed with great scene after great scene. From the dust cropper to Mt. Rushmore to Cary Grant making great innuendo, there isn’t a dull moment to be found.


My eighth-grade social studies teacher was also a football coach. Like a lot of coaches forced to teach, his head was much more into the game than the classroom. He was a nice guy and I do think he wanted to do a good job but he wasn’t very good at it. Somehow, the class talked him into letting us watch this Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick from 1987. I think we told him it was about the Vietnam War. The guy who concocted this scheme had obviously seen it many times as he’d always block the screen during the gorier moments and say something loudly whenever a character dropped a few curse words, although he did tell the coach he had to let us hear Schwarzenegger utter the infamous “you’re one ugly mother fucker” line. In the coach’s defense, this was during the last week of school when we would have been watching a movie anyways, less we destroy the classroom.

I watched it several times in my younger days but until this week I’d not watched it in at least a decade. I recently found a very cheap boxed set of the Alien + Predator films at Goodwill and decided to check Predator out again. I’m letting it count as one of my sci-fi/space movies this month.

The film is utter nonsense and ridiculous in the best possible way. Schwarzenegger plays Dutch, the leader of an elite group of commandos (including Shane Black and Jesse Ventura) who are tasked by Carl Weathers to fly into some unnamed South American country to rescue a diplomat. When they arrive, they find a group of Green Berets hanging by a tree with their skin cut off. Something more than what they’ve been told has been going on.

That something is the Predator, an alien whose species likes to fly to other planets and hunt the locals for sport. Lots of big guns, silly one-liners, and pretty gruesome gore follows. It is a big, dumb action film from the 1980s. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m not much for big action flicks anymore but this one still gets me in the nostalgic feels.

Solaris (2002)

I saw this film in the theater when it was released in 2002. I had been a very big Steven Soderberg fan since I watched Out of Sight in 1998. I no longer remember the reasons why but I remember being very disappointed in this film. Years later, I saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of the film. I liked it quite a bit more than this one but it felt overlong and way too slow. I read the Stanislaw Lem book at the beginning of last year and really liked it. From there, I revisited the Tarkovsky film and this time I liked it even more but it is still the least favorite Tarkovsky film that I’ve seen.

Since I’m supposed to be watching space films this month, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the Soderberg film. I can’t say I liked it that much more. This film strips away most of the metaphysical, philosophical stuff from the book and the Tarkovsky film in favor of a doomed love story. That’s being a little harsh on this film as the love story contains philosophical concepts it’s just that the heavier stuff from the book and the Tarkovsky are skipped over.

Solaris is a planet in which a space station has been orbiting. They’ve sent some odd messages back to Earth and so George Clooney is sent in to investigate. He arrives to find his old friend has committed suicide and that the two surviving members of the station are acting very strangely. After a little investigation, Clooney goes to bed and awakens to find his wife lying next to him. This is strange because she didn’t come to Solaris with him and she committed suicide several years prior. The planet seems to have created her. It created other clones for the other crew members too. The clones are all replicants of people who meant something to the crew and who are dead. Clooney at first wants nothing to do with his wife clone, but after a time, he comes to love her. Or at least care for her. Or at least she brings back his old feelings. Also grief and guilt. He wants to make right how he left her before she killed herself.

It isn’t a bad film. Clooney is good as is Natascha McElhone who plays the wife. Jeremy Davies is doing the same schtick he did on Lost. He plays one of the surviving scientists and he’s all tics and hand waves. It gets real annoying real fast. Viola Davis is fine as the other scientist. Soderberg’s direction is good and the cinematography is excellent. But somewhere it just doesn’t quite do it for me. It runs about an hour and a half but still feels long. Tarkovsky’s film runs about an hour longer yet somehow feel shorter. Well, it still feels long but it is designed to be more contemplative. Soderbergh’s film looks like it should be an action-packed sci-fi thriller but then moves thoughtfully. Which maybe is why I feel so disconnected to it.

Doctor Who: The Ark

Millions of years in the future, the First Doctor along with his companions Steven and Dodo land on a giant spaceship. It is filled with Earthlings and some creatures with a giant eye where their mouth should be. They are called Monoids and they apparently fled to Earth when their planet was dying. Earth is now dying and both humans and Monoids are fleeing to an Earth-like planet, which will take approximately 700 years to reach. Most of the humans have been shrunk into something that looks like microfiche; only those needed to run the ship remain out of stasis alongside some Monoids who are treated like servants.

Dodo has a cold and she gives it to one of the Monoids. Colds were eradicated on Earth many thousands of years ago and so this one causing quick and lasting harm. Some of the Monoids die and the human captain of the ship gets very sick. The Doctor and companions are arrested and sentenced to death. But the Doctor convinces the captain that he can help and he cooks up some medicine for them.

Hurrah and goodbye. Except, wait, that was only two episodes and I know this story has more episodes to go. It is a very nice fake-out, but just as you think the story is over, the Tardis reappears in the exact same place only 700 years in the future. Now, the Monoids have taken control and plan to destroy humankind once they land on the new planet. Ah, but the new planet is inhabited by super-beings who also happen to be invisible. Yada yada, the day is saved and humans and Monoids agree to live together in peace.

Dodo was only a companion for a season and most of her stories have been lost. This was my first time watching her and I can’t say that I’m sorry she didn’t last longer. She’s a good-natured teenager, which is fine but she doesn’t really add much to anything. Steven is older and wiser but also not that interesting.

I always love Hartnell’s stories. He can be so patronizing and sexist at times, which is such a sharp contrast to how the Doctor gets played in NuWho. Only Peter Capaldi comes close to his crotchety-ness.

Overall, a very decent episode and I loved that mid-story fake-out.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

I watched this back in college I think. It was a long time ago anyway. I’d always heard it was good. I didn’t like it then. But it is streaming on Amazon so I decided to revisit it. I still don’t like it. But I’m still drawn to it. I think I just like haunted house movies and wish there were more of them.

The story is your basic haunted house stuff. The Lutz family (James Brolin, Margot Kidder) move into the Amityville house. The previous family that lived there were brutally murdered by a dude that looks a lot like James Brolin. Unlike a lot of haunted house stories, the Lutz’s are actually told about the murders before they move in.

Slowly, very slowly, this story takes a long time to get going; strange things start happening. A priest (Rod Steiger, phoning it in) comes to bless the house. He doesn’t bother talking to the family who are outside playing with the children but rather marches upstairs and prepares the blessing. Before he can utter the enchantments, he’s attacked by flies (yes, actual houseflies because those little buggers aren’t just annoying but terrifying) and a voice yells at him to get out. He does. Later, some burns on his hands show up like stigmata and he gets the hot sweats. He’s pretty much useless after that.

The whole Catholic Church bits of this film feel very tacked on (even though they are in the original book, I believe). It’s like the producers realized that Catholocism was a big part of The Exorcist and The Omen and figured they need a big-named actor to play a priest, stat.

The little girl gets an imaginary ghost friend who likes to sit in the rocking chair. At one point, she locks the babysitter into the closet. The babysitter screams and screams and bloodies her knuckles, all the while the little girl sits on her bed and does nothing. Lights flicker, the dog barks at something downstairs. The toilets clog with dark goo. Etc. and so forth. Basic haunted house movie stuff happens, but none of it is particularly scary. James Brolin starts going the Jack Torrance route, getting homicidally scary by the scene.

It really isn’t a good movie. But I still kind of love it. Maybe Margot Kidder kindles tingly feelings in me from my memories of her in Superman. Or maybe James Brolin and all that manly hair tingles some other part of me. Probably I’m just a sucker for haunted house stories.

The Naked City / Brute Force

The Criterion Collection released these two film noirs from Jules Dassin this week and I was all over it. The Naked City follows the homicide division of a New York City police department as they try to solve the murder of a young woman. It’s documentary style influenced hundreds of TV shows and movies including Dragnet and Law & Order. Brute Force is a prison break film starring Burt Lancaster as a guy no longer able to stand the brutal conditions of his imprisonment. Both films are excellent and Criterion has given them a great new HD look and filled the Blu-ray with lots of great extras. You can read my full review here.

Mat Brewster

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