Friday, August 26, 2016

The Films of 1969: Captain Nemo and the Underwater City

Across the various Jules Verne-inspired films surveyed here on the blog the last few weeks, we've seen the classic literary anti-hero Captain Nemo depicted as self-sacrificing savior and anguished anti-hero (Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea [1954]), and Nemo as older (and perhaps wiser?) benevolent benefactor of mankind (Mysterious Island [1961]). 

1969's Captain Nemo and The Underwater City provides yet another interpretation of the character, and to put it bluntly, it isn't one of my favorites.

Here, as played by diminutive, thin Robert Ryan, Captain Nemo is portrayed as a soft-voiced, beardless, kindly, grandfather-type. In this British-made feature, Nemo commands not merely the advanced submarine Nautilus, but serves happily as friendly ruler of a golden undersea utopia, a domed metropolis called "Temple Myra," if I have it right.

More to the point, however, this 1969 version of Captain Nemo is rather toothless, given to the occasionally 'bout of grumpiness, but overall most determined, apparently, to forge a romantic relationship with a castaway named Helena (Nanette Newman) whom he has rescued from a sinking ship. I suppose there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a film dramatizing the softer side of Nemo, but it's still a bit jarring to see such an edgy character rendered so...harmless.

Captain Nemo and The Underwater City (shot by the always-impressive Alan Hume) depicts the tale of six men and women who are rescued by Nemo when their vessel sinks during a storm on the high seas. These characters include the honorable U.S. Senator Robert Fraser (Chuck Connors), plucky widower Helena Beckett (Newman), her young boy, Phillip, a twitchy claustrophobic named Lomax (Allan Cuthbertson) and two petty crooks -- Barnaby (Bill Fraser) and Swallow (Kenneth Connor) -- who comprise the film's egregiously tiresome comic-relief duo.

Nemo transports these survivors to the bottom of the sea and to his gold-plated commune, a domed city of peace and prosperity. 

In fact, Nemo is even planning a construction expansion there: two additional domes are in the offing

Life in Temple Myra is a paradise, but for the people from the surface, it's also a cage because Nemo won't permit the new arrivals to return home out of fear that they will reveal the existence of his amazing metropolis to the warring nations above. 

Soon, Fraser romances a sexy citizen in the city, Mala (Lucianna Paluzzi), which enrages her current beau, Joab (John Turner). We know Mala and the Senator are hot for each other, because she serenades Fraser with a strangely phallic musical instrument that she strokes romantically (and in soft-focus), while Fraser looks on, entranced.

Meanwhile, Nemo becomes a kindly father-figure to young Phillip, and develops a a close friendship with the obstinate women's libber Helena. When offered the choice to betray Nemo and leave the city, or stay with Nemo and form an ad hoc family (along with Phillip's little kitten...), Helena chooses to remain.

As all this soap opera occurs inside the safety of the city walls, a deranged giant manta ray named "Mobula" threatens the peace outside. Fraser becomes a hero after dispatching the murderous beast while in command of Nautilus.

Despite this act of bravery, Fraser plots escape aboard a brand new Nautilus #2 with the help of the treacherous Joab and the avaricious Barnaby...

I first saw Captain Nemo and The Underwater City with my (patient) parents sometime in the very early 1970s, on a drive-in double-bill, as a I recall. As a child, I loved the movie simply because it featured cool submarines, undersea domes, and the giant Mobula monster. 

And did I mention Lucianna Paluzzi in a bathing suit?

Watching the film as a more discerning adult, however, Captain Nemo and The Underwater City doesn't wear quite as well.

For instance, the production design is rather underwhelming. Specifically, the underwater city is saddled with an unfortunate and hackneyed leitmotif: not only is everything gold Futura, but every architectural detail is ridiculously marine-life-centric. What I mean by that is that Nemo makes his announcements through a microphone that is molded into the shape of a fish. And when a siren sounds, the alarm bell features a vibrating lobster figure

Nemo's diving suits are also somewhat silly in appearance. The suits feature transparent shoulder epaulets in the shape of fish fins. This sort of decoration resembles a bad seafood theme restaurant rather than the Utopian headquarters of the world's greatest genius.

The miniature work is also terrible. I should add, this is not a case of the years being unkind to good special effects, to be certain. If you go back to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in 1954 or Mysterious Island in 1961, you can see some amazing and convincing miniature work and optical effects. In both cases, those effect still hold up remarkably well: you believe the Nautilus is a full-sized vehicle ramming actual surface vessels. 

Captain Nemo and The Underwater City's effects never achieve that level of verisimilitude. It puts forward inferior -- and obvious -- model work.

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City also wastes an inordinate amount of its melodramatic narrative concentrating on unfunny comic-relief. Barnaby and Swallow make pests of themselves -- and in one cringe-worthy moment -- Barnaby squirts a stream of alcohol in his face while trying to master an undersea drink dispenser. 

Much more troubling and difficult to accept is the fact that secretive Captain Nemo not only goes out of his way to rescue a few survivors from a passing ship (when in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea he was willing to let Ned and the others die in the sea...), but that he here turns around and bestows upon them his instant and unquestioning trust. 

Specifically, Nemo permits Joab to give the Lomax and the gold-hungry Barnaby and Swallow full access to the city (except for a carefully labeled "Forbidden Area.") Joab obediently and politely shows these visitors everything: the gold repository room, and the pressure control room...the one room in the city that could be sabotaged, and could destroy the utopia.

Frankly, Nemo's insistence that these visitors remain at the bottom of the sea (10,000 fathoms below the surface...) is also more than a little mystifying. The good captain should have just dropped the survivors off on the nearest island, or given them a small raft so they could find help from a passing vessel. Nemo's stated motive for not permitting Fraser and others to return to the surface is that they would tell the world about his underwater utopia.

Yes, but what could they do about it?

I mean, it's not like any nation in the world at this time in history (roughly the period of the American Civil War) boasted the technology to reach the city, let alone attack and pillage it. 

Nemo is the only human being in the world with the capacity to even reach the bottom of the sea at this juncture in time. Fraser and the others could be sent back freely with their wild story, and even if by chance they were believed by the authorities, there would be nothing that could be done about it

In fact, if you follow my logic, the only way malicious forces (or spies...) from the outside world could reach the domed city would if they were...rescued by Nemo and brought down by him as guests. 

Once inside they could then sabotage the city and escape back to the surface in his submarines. 

And that, in fact, is what happens. 

This is purely and simply a case of a narrative scenario without a whit of logical consistency.

A couple more things: it seems to me that if you wanted to write the story of Captain Nemo falling in love and becoming a father-figure, you would want to highlight his sad past, especially his alienation from the world-at-large. 

You'd want to include much information about the family he lost too. 

Captain Nemo and The Underwater City does none of that, providing instead a lukewarm romance between the elder Nemo and one of his much-younger visitors. It is also baffling that the anti-social Nemo, who exiled himself in the sea to escape his past, would cheerfully become the very visible leader of an undersea commune, presiding over school swimming competitions and the like. I'm not kidding, either. That's actually what Nemo is doing (celebrating All-Seas Day, poolside...) when Fraser steals the Nautilus # 2.

I've been rather tough on Captain Nemo and The Underwater City, but in closing, I would like to write something positive about it. 

And that is this: for all the hoary aspects of the movie (from the miniature design to the pedestrian script by Pip and Jane Baker), the film does boast a unique approach to villainy: Not one character is really a "bad guy" in the traditional movie sense. 

Lomax is a sick man, mentally unbalanced. 

Barnaby is simply greedy. 

And opponents Fraser and Nemo come to respect and admire one another, despite the fact they end up in conflict. Too often, movie villains are evil "just because," when in reality we know that battles are waged over ideologies or differences of opinion. 

As childish as Captain Nemo and The Underwater City sometimes seems, it's at least a little rewarding that the characters are occasionally less two-dimensional than the production design is. The movie has a nice way of focusing on character motivations and decisions instead of assuming that all the visitors to Nemo's world would reflexively want to return home.

"Even Utopia has its hazards," one character states in the film, but Captain Nemo and The Underwater City's best quality is that it realizes our world has hazards too. 

And that choosing a "home" ultimately comes down to more than just returning to the place where you started out.

Movie Trailer: Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Films of 2016: Green Room

Green Room (2016) is a terrifying and incredibly gory horror movie of the savage cinema persuasion. It’s a spiritual update -- at least in some ways -- to 1971’s Straw Dogs (from director Sam Peckinpah).

In both (brutal) films, for example, protagonists learn something about themselves -- and their human nature -- while contending with personalities who regularly use violence to dominate others. 

Both films depict fish-out-of-water stories in a sense too, and ones about cultural differences.

However, Green Room boasts a very modern spin. 

Today, the greatest horror we imagine does not involve going to a different country and running afoul of the locals and their “alien” customs there. 

Instead, the great fear of this decade of the 2st century is wandering into “cross-burning territory” here in the homeland, as one character puts it; about crossing the divide from tolerant modernity into hateful, backward nativism.

The cultures at war here are the mainstream, diverse, moral one, which strives towards egalitarianism and justice, and the resentful, backward one, still clinging to racism and race resentment like precious heirlooms from a past generation.

Specifically, Green Room involves irreverent clueless millennials -- and punk rockers -- running afoul of dangerous, militant white supremacists in the Pacific Northwest.

At first, the millennials don’t recognize the danger they are in, despite the fact that all the signs -- literal signs, hanging on walls -- are there.

I call these characters clueless, because despite their hard-driving, anti-establishment musical catalog, they possess “tolerant,” modern beliefs. And they don’t seem to understand that some people, and organizations, have been ginning up race hatred for years and they aren’t about to change. 

And worse, these monsters still exist, still thrive.

Once upon a time, horror films were about traveling to Transylvania, and encountering an exotic monster like Dracula there. By the 1970s, that concept had begun to change. With films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) or The Hills Have Eyes (1977), monsters were not ensconced in castles, across oceans. or beyond mountain ranges. 

Instead, they were just one wrong turn away, on a road trip gone sour.  They were here. They are here. With us.

Green Room duly follows this example, suggesting that even in 2016, civilization doesn’t extend as far and wide in America as many of us might fervently wish to believe.

Given what we have endured in terms of politics this year (wherein we’ve seen a white supremacist candidate support a major party candidate), the concept of Green Room isn't really fantasy at all. As we move into a better, more just future, there are forces of violence, ignorance, and hatred determined to drag us backward.

Green Room shows us just what happens when innocent kids wander into that battle, and must, ultimately, settle the conflict on the terms of the “monsters.” 

“This is a movement, not a party.”

A punk rock band called the Ain’t Rights, travels from gig to gig, not making much money.

After one gig falls through, and the band plays at a Mexican restaurant -- with members making just seven dollars a-piece -- it is suggested that the band could visit a club in the middle of nowhere. They could make a good haul there…so long as they don’t talk politics.

The Ain’t Rights -- consisting of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) -- decide to take a chance for the money  They drive the club, in the middle of the forest, and find it is a heavily populated skin-head club.

To troll their nativist audience, the band plays a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”

It doesn’t go over well, but the band makes it through its set.

But before the Ain’t Rights can collect its money and leave, however, the band mates burst in on a murder in the club’s green room.  The band then holds up in the room while the club owner’s, a malevolent, older neo-Nazi named Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), attempts to lure the group out.

The scene soon descends into bloody violence, as the skinheads release pit bulls into the club to kill the interlopers.

“They knew real war. And they played real war.”

From the first shot of the film (an overhead view of the band’s van in a cornfield), Green Room thrives on the idea of a wrong turn into terror. The Ain’t Rights members live a modest existence, moving from cheap gig to cheap gig. They fancy themselves punks.

At one point, we see the band members siphoning gas from another vehicle, in an attempt to get to the next job.  The idea here is that the band lives off the radar, mostly.

But there’s off the radar and then there’s off the radar, if you know what I mean.

These “babes in the woods,” literally, soon find themselves at a club that not just promotes, but broadcasts race hatred.

There’s a bumper sticker on a car parked at the club that reads: “save our white race.”  There is graffiti on the wall that shouts “KKK.”  On and on, viewers will register signs and symbols of race hatred including the Nazi Gestapo insignia (SS) and the Confederate flag. 

There is also, in the club, a white power flag, and a sign that reads “white pride, worldwide.”

This is a place where people not only hate, but where they are proud of their hate. Hate is broadcast to all comers, a badge of honor.

Most frighteningly of all is the report that this hatred is not a political party, but a “movement.”

At least here, skinheads are ascendant.

The Ain’t Rights, who have made a point of skirting the law, are obviously out of their depth. They are used to thumbing their nose at authority figures, and so play “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” During the song, people in the club spit beer at them.  The band is playing with fire, and it doesn’t realize it.  All the skin-head iconography should give them pause, but there’s the sense that the band -- dismissive of the law and authority -- feels there is nothing to fear by rejecting any establishment.  They suspect that in modern America, they are safe. Just a phone call from police help.

That belief is erroneous.  Instead, the band must hunker down in the green room as it falls under siege from the enemy. This is a change, as the band, thus far in the film, has been defined by its nomadic life-style.  Suddenly, the band must wait, and wait, and wait, as the skinheads try to break in, and execute various strategies to kill them.

As Pat (Yelchin) comes to realize after receiving a catastrophic injury, the only way to beat the skinheads is to go to war with them. With the survivors of his band, and a woman (Imogene Poots) who has left the Neo-Nazis, he launches a counter campaign that is clever, and vicious. At last, he embodies the ideals of “punk” music, one might conclude. 

I mentioned Pat’s injury. I watched this film shortly after the death of Anton Yelchin, and I won’t lie: the scene made me want to throw up. Not because it was gory, but because I knew what had happened to the actor in real life. This is an impact the film certainly could not have predicted, but as a responsible reviewer, I feel it my responsibility to warn you that Yelchin’s character does not emerge from the carnage unscathed, and it may raise unpleasant resonances of his death for some viewers.

Again, I don’t blame Green Room at all. It’s an unintended effect.  But the movie’s many clashes between the band and the skinheads are ultra-violent, and indeed quite gory.  For the most part, these scenes are highly effective, if in a fatalistic kind of way.  Once the siege on the green room has begun -- and the pit bulls have gotten into the picture -- a sense of creeping dread and anxiety blankets the film.

You just know it’s not going to “end well,” as Darcy notes.

The color canvas for Green Room is often a squalid, sickly lime green, and that seems entirely appropriate to the action, as the film presents a world populated by sick, monstrous people. Patrick Stewart is effective as the skinhead leader. The actor crafts here an individual of cunning and intelligence, but absolutely no empathy whatsoever.  That’s the real terror of skinheads, or racists in general, isn’t it?  They are often clever, even well-read individuals, and yet that intelligence and cunning is directed entirely towards hate, resentment, and bitterness.  It is intelligence they boast, but intelligence twisted -- and wasted -- by grotesque ugliness.

How else can I describe the mood and content of the film?

Well, consider this: the Ain’t Rights are in a punk band.  Punk rock is about death and irreverence.  Through the action of the film, the band members are revealed to be poseurs, essentially, who sing punk songs, but know nothing about death at all.  And their cheeky irreverence cannot compete with the fully formed -- if evil -- system of belief they encounter. This idea is reflected in a recurring subplot regarding band members’ choice of a desert isle band.

Each one ends up, finally, choosing not punk rock, but rather an artist outside the genre. These selections unwittingly telegraph their “softness” and innocence, despite their presentation as hipster punk rockers.

I watch horror movies to be challenged; to be frightened. And Green Room is challenging, frightening, and incredibly intense.  Like Straw Dogs it raises questions about violence, and about human nature.  In this case, we are left to wonder at the lost innocence of the Ain’t Rights. These young millennials can never quite believe the nature of the battle they are asked to fight. They can never quite believe that in 2016, there are still such atavistic hatred and forces at work, and in power, in the United States. They say they are “punk,” but they are really coddled innocents. Their eyes are opened in a most unpleasant way.

The tide only turns for the band when the survivors do embody punk ideals, and bring the fight to the skinheads. But even at that point, there are moral questions raised by the film.

When is it right to end the fight?

When one’s safety is secured? 

Or, only when all your enemies are dead?

Green Room’s desert isle movie is likely Straw Dogs, so that may give you the answer you need.

Movie Trailer: Green Room (2016)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Disneyland Record and Book: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Comic Book of the Week: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Classics Illustrated)

Model Kit of the Week: The Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

Pop Art: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Life Magazine Edition; 1954)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea GAF Viewmaster

Board Game of the Week: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Game (Walt Disney World)