This film, created by Shane Carruth, has a reputation in the science fiction world for being one of the most complex and interesting movies about time travel in the entire genre. I’d wager that no other movie has had more “explainer” material written about it. Indeed, if you want to untangle all the loops and loops within loops, you pretty much do need a cheat sheet of some sort.
But those analyses have come to dominate all the reviews so much that people seem to have forgotten they’ve been watching a movie, and one should spend at least a little time going over its cinematic aspects.
Primer is the first of (to date) two films by Carruth, an indie (obviously) filmmaker from Texas. One usually wants to “be kind” with new works from aspiring artists and give them a large benefit of the doubt, but one also doesn’t want to be unfair to potential viewers.
So, with that in mind…..
When watching movies “of a certain age”, one has to keep in mind the old saw that “the past is a foreign country”. Social and cultural attitudes were quite different in the past, and those attitudes will be reflected on the silver screen. Not just the way people behaved in general (the casual smoking and drinking, for example), but the way people of other races were depicted.
The “Charlie Chan” movies were based on a character created by mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers, who was inspired by newspaper accounts of Chinese-Hawaiian police detective Chang Apana. Chan would appear in six novels, and became so popular that Hollywood would make over three dozen “Charlie Chan” movies.
In this particular film, Chan has been sent to Egypt by a French archaeological society to find out why goods from an excavation they’re sponsoring have been winding up in the hands of private collectors. This quickly turns into a multiple murder investigation, but for our purposes, there’s another question to investigate:
How many ethnic stereotypes can you cram into one movie, without pushing it over the line into blatant offensiveness?
“Colonel Blimp” was a comic character created by David Low in 1934 as a satirical depiction of the Old Fogey who, while sitting in his chair drinking brandy and puffing on a cigar, expounded on all the News of the Day, giving his considered opinion that he knew how to solve everything. Generally simplistic and often self-contradictory, his comments earned derision and the contemporary equivalent of a snarky “OK, Boomer” response. The great moviemaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger took the idea of the character, and turned it into the “Most British” of films, and, by humanizing him, one of the greatest character studies of all time.
We open with Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), an officer in the Home Guard (England’s “last ditch” defense force of retirees and the like), relaxing at a Turkish bath the evening before a set of war games / training exercise with another unit comprised of actual military troops representing the Germans. His bath is interrupted when the “German” forces “attack”. Complaining that the games aren’t supposed to start until midnight, Candy is told by the “German” officer that the real German forces don’t follow rules, so they need to be prepared at all times. After an angry exchange, Candy loudly gripes that they make fun of his appearance, but know nothing of how he got that way. He throws a punch at the officer, and they both fall into a pool. The camera slowly pans to the far end, as Candy’s voice slowly repeats the phrase “Forty years ago….” At the far end, the magic of film has brought us to 1902, and a younger Lieut. Candy emerges from the pool.
Spy flicks (i.e. international intrigue movies) generally fall into one of two major categories. There’s the big budget action adventure type, with gadgets galore, eye-popping stunts, and exotic locations. Then you’ve got the low-key types that rely more on mood and the personal challenges and drama of the characters. The former are the James Bond and Mission: Impossible movies; the latter are the lesser known relics of the Cold War era that are generally treated as more like mysteries than tales of international espionage.
John le Carré is a master of the second type. Like Ian Fleming, he worked for British Intelligence, but rather than write what are little more than glorified “Mary Sue” stories, he got down and dirty in all the more boring and unpleasant aspects of the game.
“Spy” is one of his best works, and was turned into one of the best movies of the genre.
War movies are an interesting genre for the film buff. Not for the action and adventure, or the visual recounting of history, but that the movie reflects the attitudes towards war in the time and place it was made. Movies made during a war tend to be all patriotic and supportive of the troops; movies made near the end of a long and “questionable” (to put it one way) war tend to be dark comedies or biting satires of the military. Movies made in peacetime can be either, but they also tend to reflect the attitudes of the time the movie was made towards the history of the war – historical accuracy be damned.
Zulu is one of the latter. It shows the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in January, 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. A contingent of some 150 British troops at what was basically an outpost consisting of little more than a supply depot, a church, and what could be called a hospital with only the greatest amount of charity held off an assault by around four thousand Zulu warriors. That’s going to be great drama and action, as long as you show it with even modest accuracy and competence.
But what of the politics?
A new dessert sensation is taking the country by storm. Something like a cross between whipped cream and marshmallow sauce, “The Stuff” tastes great and is low in calories. Needless to say, a consortium of business owners want to find out exactly what it is so they can come up with their own version. After all their attempts at analyzing it fail, they hire David “Mo” Rutherford (Michael Moriarty), a former FBI agent, to do some industrial espionage.
Mo meets up with a young boy, Jason (Scott Bloom) whose family has been acting very strangely after he saw a glob of The Stuff moving of its own accord, and Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), an ad agency executive who created the initial ad campaign for it.
It’s off to Virginia and then Georgia to unravel the mystery. The Stuff is more than what it appears to be; and the trio’s lives are increasingly in danger as they get closer to the source….
I’ve watched a lot of low-end sci-fi movies in my time. There’s something fun about either finding a bit of gold in an otherwise forgettable movie, or coming across one so bad that it turns into an unintentional comedy. I get suggestions by reading the many movie review blogs that are out there (most notably The B-Masters Cabal). I cannot recall which of them mentioned the current subject to me, but suffice it to say that whoever it was didn’t have anything really good to say about it. Intrigued by their description, I went looking for it. And I found that someone had posted a crappy (but complete) print of it to YouTube….
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion (1996)
Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999)
After a “golden age” in the 1950s where they produced classics like Rashomon (1950) and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Japan’s Daiei Studios began to decline; mostly due to financial mismanagement. They were forced to declare bankruptcy in 1971 – but managed to get revived in 1974. They had a modest number of releases, to decent success.
I’m guessing they were jealous of rival Toho Studios continued success, especially with their Godzilla films. Hmm… didn’t Daiei still own their own giant monster – Gamera? What if they blew the dust off the old Big Turtle (which by then had become a staple of Saturday afternoon “Chiller Theater” TV programming), and gave him new life with the latest in moviemaking technology?
The three movies really do comprise a trilogy. Though each one is self-contained and you can watch them in any order, they exist in the same universe and the second and third movies each contain references to the ones that came before (explicitly in the third). This is not like the Godzilla movies, where Japan – even though they may have a special anti-Kaiju military agency, seems to have completely forgotten even the existence of the monsters from the previous movie. Actors even play the same characters from one movie to the next; most notably Yukijirô Hotaru, who plays a nervous police official in Guardian, a security guard in Legion, and a homeless bum in Iris. Clearly, the stress of his encounters with Gamera and the other monsters got to him. Continue reading
Jules Verne is widely regarded, and with very good reason, as one of the fathers of science fiction. He built upon the technology of the time, and turned it into some pretty good adventure tales.
Alas, very little of his work could actually be called science fiction. It fits better in the genre of “pulp adventure”, and is mostly forgettable. Seriously, how many of his over fifty Voyages extraordinaires can you remember, or even name? Well, there’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which you undoubtedly know from the movie. Around the World in Eighty Days was also made into a movie that’s much better than the original novel. You may have heard of From the Earth to the Moon because of its use of a giant cannon to launch the spaceship…. But The Vanished Diamond or Facing the Flag? Nope.
Working for American International, Director William Witney took two of those forgettable novels – Robur the Conqueror and its sequel Master of the World – into one, well……
There’s a pitfall for amateur movie reviewers. We tend not to have much experience in criticism (i.e. critical writing), so there’s a tendency to think that pointing out mistakes and flubs and inconsistencies (like Cinema Sins) counts as valid criticism. It is not. While it is true that proper, professional critics do have to note such things, it is not the be-all and end-all of their review.
I fell into that trap when just after watching Swamp Thing. I focused on all the things that made no sense at all to me – from the violation of Conservation of Mass to why the federal government has stashed a supposedly secret lab someplace down in the bayous and mangrove swamps of the Deep South – and they’re not even doing military research there.
But anyway…… Continue reading