Sunday, January 29, 2023

Delta Space Mission (1984).

Can we all just admit that the 1980s was the last great decade for art?  I know I've painted a target on my head for saying that.  Anyone who wants to can accuse me of bias in this regard.  However, I don't think that's something I have to worry about all that much.  From what I've been seeing and hearing lately, all I've done is spoken a near unanimous opinion.  The best about saying something like this that it isn't an idea confined to just the 80s kids like me who lived through it.  It's easy to got on the Net and find countless testimonials by Millennials and Zoomers who are willing to share in the sentiment.  I think the best tribute to the decade I've heard is from someone who said: "I didn't live it, but I do miss it (web)".  I guess that makes me kind of lucky, in a sense.  I got to enjoy as much of it as I could before the curtain was wrung down on that entire aesthetic period.  I was born in the year that Orwell made famous, which means I was sort of ideally situated in the middle of that decade.  So it meant I was just in time to enjoy all the best that era had to offer.  In that sense, there both isn't all that much to talk about, and yet there's a lot of everything worth talking about, if that even makes sense. 

My own experiences of the 80s matches up pretty well with those of others.  I saw a lot of the same shows and movies growing up back then.  Two of my first childhood memories involved being introduced to a music composer with the curious name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and then finding out a funny yet cool looking car known as a Delorean that could travel through time.  The ones that really stuck, however, was being introduced to a Galaxy Far, Far Away, and following along as a young immigrant mouse tried to relocate and reunite with his missing family.  Bare in mind, I must have been like four or five when I was allowed to watch all this, so I guess you could say I had some pretty cool parents in that regard.  I think all of those films, when taken together can serve as a useful barometer for what helps that decade stand out from all that's come after it, at least.  It really does seem that it represents one of the last great flowerings of creativity on a grand cultural scale, one with enough talent and inspiration to it that it makes sense to declare it as the last great period of Romanticism in the field of the Arts.  It's a mindset that I think we should try and recapture a lot more often when we can.











For me, one of the great things about having an 80s childhood is that in addition to the the usual standbys of that decade, there was also plenty of room for experimentation and risk taking in the arts that just doesn't exist in the current artistic climate, no matter what anyone else may try and tell you.  I'm talking now about artistic products that were and are well out of the mainstream, yet still somehow manage to carry this quirky sense of genuine, popular appeal.  This is the area of the 80s where you run into your cult classic offerings like Brazil, Time Bandits, and The Dark Crystal.  I've known, and have been able to get some kind of enjoyment out of all of these films.  However, I'm also sort of talking about stuff that's further on and sometimes more far out than the usual standbys.  I'm starting to think I may have been more lucky than most 80s kids.  Yes, it's true I got to experience stuff like Garfield and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  However, for whatever reason, I was also able to find entertainment in films and shows that were a lot more out of the mainstream, even to this very day.  I'm talking now about the types of films that remain obscure even by the standards of the 80s, and yet they remain just as defined by that whole period as any of its most famous products.  This was my childhood years.

Most everybody knows about Transformers or G.I. Joe.  How many out there are familiar with The Mysterious Cities of Gold?  Yes there were The Smurfs and Fraggle Rock.  Now who here has ever heard of shows like Count Duckula, Belle and Sebastian, or Spartacus and the Sun Beneath the Sea? Here's where I think I got a really lucky 80s childhood looking back on it all now.  I was given a chance to wade further out into obscure waters of entertainment that remain relatively uncharted to this very day.  I'm talking about shows and movies now that are so obscure they have no choice except to be labeled as under the radar type gems.  In other words, no matter how objectively good their quality may be, it's almost like they will always have the deck stacked against them because they never got enough attention from the pop-culture of their time.  We're talking the kind of material that no one in the mainstream will ever hear about in any great quantities.  We've entered the realm of obscure animated specials like Dot and the Kangaroo, Twice Upon a Time, or maybe even the film up for discussion.

I came across Delta Space Mission by pure accident.  It was just there one day on the 366 Weird Movies website.  Perhaps the fact that I was even there in the first place should be the real clue to some of the more "out there" aspects of my cinema going tastes.  I'm not as die-hard about it as the folks who run that website are.  I'm afraid I'm a bit too comfortable with the mainstream of entertainment.  However, that interest in the quirky and the off-beat is still there, and sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll stumble across something from your childhood, or else just the past in general, that satisfies the desire for both the artistic and the creatively tripped out.  Those kind of films, in other words, where everything seems to be going along as normal, and then it all takes a left-field turn into Surrealsville, or else it's just one of those efforts that manage to generate their own trippy yet endearing atmosphere.  What I read about this film at the 366 website made it sound like one of those movies.  The type of obscure piece of outsider animation with far out visuals and a crazy plot to match the film's deliberately weird style.  The review was able to accomplish what any work of that kind should do.  It got me interested in wanting to get a look at this overlooked example of surrealist Science Fiction for myself.  So, after saving up enough to buy a copy, I had a look for myself.  Here is what I'm able to tell you about the movie.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Hidden Figures (2016).

There's a line that's been floating around out there for a while now.  It's often attributed to Winston Churchill, and it goes something like this.  "History will be kind to me, for I shall write it".  Whether or not the former prime minister of Great Britain actually said those words, they do speak to an irony at the heart of all history.  The maxim itself is a play on yet an even older saying, this one totally anonymous.  "History is written by the winners".  There are plenty of cases in which this is true enough.  If George Washington hadn't been such a good combat strategist, would his face have ever wound up on the dollar bill?  If it comes to it, would this country even exist if he'd been a failure?  Since he was the winner in the American Revolution, however, he got a chance to help write the next chapter in the story.  That's a relatively straightforward case, however.  Has there ever been any time in history when things weren't so cut and dried?  Well, there's another irony layered on top of the one observed by Churchill.  The trick is that guys like him and Washington are almost special cases.  The only reason they were winners at all was because they were the ones who are remembered for finding workable solutions to extreme situations.

The catch there, however, is that none of them were facing what might be called everyday, normal circumstances.  Every child in America is taught about who Washington was in relation to the creation of a Country.  Very few of us are ever informed about what an average day for the Father of Our Nation was like, when his back wasn't against the wall.  That's because very little of it seems to matter as far as most of us are concerned.  If it were otherwise, whole college curriculums would be dedicated to every facet of his personality and life experiences.  As things exist, such aspects are relegated to specialist studies.  The final irony is this.  Winners are history's exception, not its norms.  And even here, the punchline is that while we glorify the names of those who go on to make great achievements, this can sometimes come at the cost of all the anonymous background faces that were there to help him along the way.  The figures that director Billy Wilder once referred to as "All the Little People out there in the dark".  People like Washington seem to have avoided this kind of irony, as he's always shown as part of a larger tapestry made up of all the American Founders.  I'm not so sure that Churchill, or even Martin Luther King, has it so well.  We know of King, for the most part, as the face of the Civil Rights Movement, or Churchill has the British face of World War 2.  To be fair, there's a lot of accuracy in both claims.  What it obscures, however, are the faces and voices of those who contributed to a good cause.

This is something that a lot of history's anonymous contributors did not so much in silence.  It's just that the microphone never really got turned in their direction.  As a result, it's fair to say there are a lot of major accomplishments out their that will probably never get quite as much recognition as they will ever deserve.  Sometimes a lucky few have their day in the spotlight, however.  That's what's turned out to be the case for the story of Kathy Johnson, and two of her friends, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.  If you've never heard of them, that's both a shame and understandable.  They aren't the sort of titles that jump out of history books at you.  Then again, when's the last time any of us picked up a history book the minute we left the hallowed halls of academe in our rear-view mirrors?  I rest my case.

The point here is that sometimes a handful of the forgotten history makers strike it lucky, and find some measure of remembrance for themselves.  That seems to be the case with a lot of famous events in history.  Even Churchill had Lord Montgomery and FDR by his side.  MLK, meanwhile, had the likes of Rosa Parks and John Lewis joining him in the fight for equality.  It's also true enough that workers like Johnson, Vaughan, and Parker belong to the Civil Rights Movement, too.  They went on living their lives under the radar for the longest time.  Then, one day, after the dust had cleared (and yet while the battle still rages on) they all found the microphone turned in their direction.  The result is that they each got to tell their shared story at last.  Hidden Figures is the dramatization of their struggle.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

The Lost City (2022)

Not long ago I ran across a surprising, and rather quirky film project.  It's name was Guns Akimbo, and the greatest eyebrow raiser was that it starred Harry Potter as this photo negative muggle version of himself getting forced to participate in a feature-length Hunger Games parody, complete with a nightmare version of Katniss Everdeen.  It's one of those screwball ideas that have at least the potential to be as great on screen as it sounds on paper, provided you do it right.  The unfortunate truth is that the film's director, Jason Lei Howden, was unable to deliver on a full and complete vision that could have been promised by the idea.  The reason that's the case is because of the ironic disconnect between the goal's the director set out for himself, and the final product he wound up with.  The story itself was meant as a satire of, perhaps even a flat out attack on the writings of J.K. Rowling, and their overarching meaning.  What keeps the finished product from working either as a satirical jab, or even just a plain movie, is because in trying to criticize Rowling, Howden makes one, crucial mistake.  If the director truly believes there is nothing admirable about Rowling and her stories, then he shouldn't have capitulated to the very narrative structure and themes that go to make up the story scaffolding that he claims to dislike.  Instead of coming up with a fitting denouement that works as a proper denunciation, he winds up throwing in the towel near the end.

It's kind of a mistake in terms of the movie's overall narrative strategy.  What it says to me is that the director couldn't come up with as complete of a critique as he might have wished.  Either that or he got cold feet at the last minute and pulled his punches.  The final result is a film that degenerates into a confused muddle, with a middling action packed ending that sees the character tread through the same type of narrative arc that can be found in the Potter books.  The difference here is that everything just comes off as hollow, and unmeaning, leaving the viewer with an unfulfilled sense of dissatisfaction.  One gets the sense that the filmmaker wasted all that effort over nothing.  The curious thing is that he even got Daniel Radcliffe to agree to be a part of it.  At the time, it came off as little more than an amusing anecdote.  The kind of thing that might become a punchline afterthought for a brief span of time, and then is quickly forgotten about.  For a while there, I even thought I was just looking at a one-off.  Just a case of an actor made famous by a book having a bit of a lark poking fun at himself, and there was an end of it.  Instead, here we are now, watching another movie with a similar premise. 

Once again, Radcliffe is taking part in a film that seems to be acting as a running commentary on the role, story, and above all, the author that made him famous.  I'll admit this is not something I was counting on to happen.  Then I realized it's perhaps the sort of thing I should have expected, when you think about it.  When you become a target, after all, you'd better learn how to suffer what Shakespeare referred to as "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".  It's no secret that J.K. Rowling is now one of the biggest targets in the public square.  I guess I just didn't expect Radcliffe, of all people, to take such a concerted effort in pursuing something like an actual, ongoing critique of the writer and the meanings in her stories.  That was another left field surprise, however for the sake of argument, I think I'll roll with it.  Let's assume, for the moment, that the film under discussion today is meant by Radcliffe as a further satire of Rowling and her books.  What does this say about a film like The Lost City?