Reviews

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

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This entry is far beyond its window of relevance, considering there’s now probably only about a dozen people left on the planet who haven’t seen it yet, but for whatever it’s worth, I really, really enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest entry in the interconnected film franchise that’s come to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was everything I hoped it would be, and everything I’ve been craving for a while: a feel-good space adventure with likable heroes — hey, remember those?! — and a healthy sense of humor, balanced with just enough pathos and epic scope to keep the whole thing from tilting over the edge into outright comedy.

While I enjoyed the story and characters, honestly, a lot of the appeal for me was the environment of this movie. Like its distant ancestor, the original Star Wars, Guardians drops the viewer into a fully realized, busy, populated universe where it feels as if every individual on the screen has some life off the screen. We get the feeling that there are a billion stories in this universe and we’re only focusing on this one handful of characters for a while, that we could easily shift our focus to those guys over there and it would turn out to be just as entertaining. That sounds like no big deal, but it’s a trick very few sci-fi movies — very few movies in general, when you think about it — manage to pull off. I found myself really appreciating the sensation of verisimilitude, the feeling that I could crawl inside this movie and walk around and meet people. And since I had absolutely no background with this property going in, I also had the pleasure of discovering something entirely new. As much as I’ve enjoyed the other Marvel films — Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, as well as the X-Men movies (same comic-book publisher, different movie studio) — I already knew who those characters were and the rough outlines of their most famous adventures, so the pleasure I felt with those movies came from seeing how successfully they brought life to the familiar. Guardians, on the other hand, was a clean slate for me, and I dug the things it filled up with.

In addition, I liked the overall look of Guardians. It’s kind of a weird observation, but I was deeply struck by the way one of the main locations, the planet Xandar, was such a bright and sunny place, where the police aircraft are a shining gold and citizens wear brightly colored clothing. Such a refreshing change from the desaturated, grayscale visuals and perpetual nighttime setting of so many science fiction films in recent years.

I have to mention the soundtrack, naturally, which consists mostly of upbeat, bubblegum-flavored pop tunes from the 1970s. Kudos to director James Gunn for choosing just the right songs to evoke a mood, and for working with that old music I love so much instead of ironically mocking it.

About the only complaint I have with Guardians is one you’ve heard before, which is that the big action scenes are unfortunately cut in the jittery, zoom-in/zoom-out, lots-of-crap-flying-around, which-way-am-I-supposed-to-look style that’s been the vogue for the past decade or so, ever since those damned Bourne movies. I hate to admit this, because I’m fairly certain it’s a sign I’m getting old, but I simply can’t tell what the hell is going on in action scenes these days. Guardians wasn’t as bad in this regard as other flicks I’ve seen, but there were a couple of shots (mostly in the segment involving a dogfight in and around a place called Knowhere) that I had a lot of difficulty following.

Still, that’s nitpicking compared to the overall level of joy I received from this film. Honestly, how could I not love a space movie that references the Kevin Bacon classic Footloose? Am I right? And of course the cameo everybody’s been talking about absolutely made my night. Whoever thought we’d see that guy on the big screen again, in any form?

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And Now for Something…

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When I was about fourteen or thereabouts, my best friend was a kid named Kurt Stephensen, who lived a couple doors up the street from me. I suspect this convenient proximity was the major reason we became friends in the first place, but no matter… we shared a lot of good times at a fairly pivotal age, the time when we’re most open to discovering and adopting new tastes. While I can’t speak to any influence I might have had on him, I know he contributed a great deal to my developing aesthetic, particularly in the areas of music and comedy.

I don’t recall which of us was the first to become seriously obsessed with comedy as a thing, a fandom, to use a modern term that didn’t exist when I was fourteen. Possibly we came to that place independently, and our mutual interest in it was one of the things we bonded over. But however it happened, there was a period when Kurt and I collected and swapped comedy routines like other kids collected baseball cards or comic books. George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams were our heroes, their records and VHS concert tapes our totems. They were our mentors in wordplay, attitude, and innuendo, our spirit-guides to the often baffling adult world we were still grappling to fully comprehend, and frankly they were our relief valves, too. Their irreverent voices and funhouse-mirror perspectives — not to mention their naughtiness and outright vulgarity — were a transgressive antidote to the alienation we often felt growing up in buttoned-down, uptight Mormon Utah.

And then there was… Monty Python.

Kurt was very definitely the one who introduced me to the seminal British comedy troupe. I’d never heard of them; in fact, my ignorance of them was so complete that the first time he mentioned their name, I asked, “Who the hell is he?,” mistakenly believing this Monty person to be a single individual. My familiarity with British comedy at the time consisted of Benny Hill and a couple of decade-old sitcoms that were running on our local PBS affiliate, Good Neighbors (a.k.a. The Good Life) and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (all of which I loved, incidentally). Monty Python’s Flying Circus was on PBS as well (very late at night, I might add!), and at Kurt’s urging, I checked it out.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of the show at first. I’m not ashamed to admit that I flat-out didn’t understand much of it. Many sketches didn’t strike me as funny so much as just plain weird. But the bits that connected… oh, those were good. And the Python movies — Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — were much better, in my opinion, especially Holy Grail, which still has the power to reduce me to tears. Gradually, with time, repeated viewings, and a deepening grasp of British history and culture (not to mention my own), I too became a Python fan… although nothing they’ve done has ever made me laugh quite as hard as the time my old buddy Kurt, with a wickedly mischievous gleam in his eye, recited Eric Idle’s “Penis Song” verbatim.

I’ve been reminiscing about those days with Kurt a lot this week, ever since Sunday afternoon when Anne and I saw Monty Python Live (Mostly), the last of 10 on-stage performances the surviving Pythons delivered this month in London. No, we didn’t hop a plane and go to London in person (although that would’ve been awesome); the show was broadcast in real time to movie theaters all across the globe, so we were able to see it from the comfort of our regular cinema in suburban Utah, which is pretty awesome itself, when you think about it. And more than a little absurd, too. Our species has devised this amazing 21st-century communications technology that enables us to beam a high-definition video signal around the world, and we’re using it to watch 70-something-year-old comedians perform 45-year-old material. Absurd indeed!

As you may have gathered, Live (Mostly) was essentially a medley of greatest hits from the old Flying Circus program. Some of them updated to be a bit more current — for example, the aforementioned “Penis Song” now has new verses that celebrate the female genitalia as well — and the whole thing was stitched together by video clips from the old days and song-and-dance numbers performed by sexy young people. While many reviewers cast a jaundiced eye on the show, complaining that the Pythons were cynically rehashing the same old stuff to make a fast buck off nostalgic fans, I saw it as more a celebration of their legacy. Yes, the guys are old now, a long way from the peak of their powers (a line of 20 dancers performed John Cleese’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” moves, presumably because he no longer can). And yes, they blew their lines from time to time. And I can’t deny there was something ridiculous about seeing these antiquated duffers performing some of this material (John Cleese in drag was never a pretty sight, and it’s far worse now, while Eric Idle’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink routine is… odd… coming from a geezer). But there was also a pleasant warmth underpinning the proceedings, and my overall impression was that they were really enjoying working together again. My understanding is that the Pythons have had rocky personal relationships over the years, and there were rumors going into this show that they never got along and never liked each other, but you wouldn’t have known from the energy they were radiating on this stage. In particular, Cleese and Michael Palin — my favorites of the bunch, for what it’s worth — had the easy fellowship of people who’ve been through thick and thin and come out the other side with a shared wisdom and affection for each other.

A number of surprise guest appearances, from Stephen Hawking to Warwick Davis, enlivened the show, and even the late Graham Chapman, the sixth Python, who died way back in 1989, was present in the form of video clips from the old days. Of the five surviving Pythons, Eric Idle was the most polished, which is no surprise as he’s been more or less constantly immersed in the old material for years, between his solo tours (Anne and I saw him in person a few years back) and his adaptation of Holy Grail into a musical stage show, Spamalot!. Michael Palin retains his boyish demeanor and energy, but occasionally seemed a little flustered, especially during his signature “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. (Honestly, though, that one always had a manic air to it; it’s really not one of my favorite Python routines.) Terry Gilliam seemed rather uncomfortable being in the spotlight after many years behind the camera as a film director, but then, his contributions always were primarily behind the scenes anyhow. (He was the animator behind all the warped little interstitials that have always been a Python trademark.)

It was Cleese and Terry Jones who appeared the creakiest to my eye, and they were the ones who notably blew their lines a few times (causing Cleese to ask “Where were we?” to an uproarious response). But this show wasn’t about getting the lines right; I daresay the audience knows them better than the Pythons at this point anyhow. This show was about seeing the band together again, for one last time. (Supposedly this was the final time the Pythons ever plan to perform together.) Even Carol Cleveland, the so-called “Python girl” who appeared in so many of their classic sketches and, most memorably, played Zoot, the sexy nun who menaces the chaste Sir Galahad in Holy Grail, showed up to do her parts. (She still has fabulous legs!)

In the end, Live (Mostly) was like a family reunion. Hearing “The Lumberjack Song” and “Spam” and “The Dead Parrot Sketch” for the umpteenth time was pleasurable not because of the material itself, but — like those stories of our parents’ first meeting, or Uncle Joe’s war exploits — because we find value in the ritual of telling the familiar old stories, and of spending time with the tellers. And when the show wrapped up with a bittersweet rendition of the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” I was both smiling and a bit teary-eyed. It felt like Anne and I had witnessed something truly historic… the end of an era. The last opportunity we’d ever have to re-enact that ritual. I’m glad we chose to take it.

It’s been a long journey from my old buddy Kurt’s basement…

 

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Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

 godzilla-2014_chinatownI’m not a Godzilla fan the way some people are Godzilla fans. I can’t discuss the three eras of Godzilla filmmaking with any degree of expertise (although I suppose the fact that I know there have been three distinct eras in the history of this long-lived franchise says something about me, doesn’t it?). I don’t know the names of all the Big Guy’s adversaries and allies. And I can’t even keep the titles of all the individual movies straight in my head; the ones I have seen out of the 30 or so produced since the character’s first appearance in 1954 all blend together into a big kaiju-shaped blob in my mind. (Hell, I didn’t even know the term “kaiju” until I saw Pacific Rim last year.)

Nevertheless, Japan’s favorite movie monster occupies a warm place in my heart. I have fond boyhood memories of staying up way too late to watch his adventures on Nightmare Theater, Salt Lake’s local creature-feature show. Later, when the start-up channel KSTU launched its Saturday-afternoon Sci-Fi Theater with a seemingly endless package of cheap Japanese imports, I whiled away a lot of happy hours when I should’ve been outside playing in the sunshine. One of my favorite sweatshirts for a time featured an image of old Gojira (his original Japanese name) in a tuxedo shirt and tailed coat, with a tophat perched on his scaly cranium and a diamond-topped walking stick in his hand, er, claw, all summed up with the caption “Dressed to Kill.” And I’ve had a tiny articulated action figure version him (complete with roar!) sitting on my desk for something like 20 years now. Yes, the G-man and I have a history together.

Which is probably why I approached his latest feature-film adventure with a fair amount of trepidation. The last time an American production company got its hands on this property, we ended up with that god-awful 1998 train wreck that starred Matthew Broderick. Title aside, there was very little in that movie that resembled the Godzilla I know. Not the creature’s appearance, not its behavior or origin, not the rhythms of the story (the formula, if you will)… nothing. And that includes the sheer entertainment factor. Whatever else you may say about the old zipper-up-the-back Godzilla flicks, they were fun. The ’98 movie, on the other hand, was a complete slog. So I was concerned about another American attempt to reinvent this quintessential Japanese character. Would this one understand who Godzilla is and what he’s about? Even more of a worry: given the current popularity of grim, brooding storylines, would this one be any damn fun to watch? It was difficult to tell from the trailers

Well, I’m happy to report that this long-time casual Godzilla fan, at least, was completely and thoroughly pleased by this movie. This is my Godzilla, no question.The protagonists are American, the battlegrounds are on American soil instead of Tokyo, and the special effects are stunningly realistic… but this is recognizably the same creature who stands watch over my keyboard even as I type this.

The storyline will be familiar to fans of the series: a Japanese nuclear plant experiences an accidental meltdown that’s later revealed to have been caused by a gigantic creature of some kind taking up residence in the reactor. Fifteen years later, the creature emerges from its chrysalis and begins journeying across the world to meet up with a mate, leaving devastation in its wake. Human military might and scientific knowledge isn’t enough to stop them. Enter a third giant creature, the “alpha predator” Godzilla, who is hot on the trail of the other two kaiju. The three of them, along with the U.S. military and our various human protagonists, are on a collision course for an epic smackdown in the middle of downtown San Francisco. But is Godzilla on our side, or his own? Is there even a difference?

The film works in large part because of director Gareth Edwards’ skill at building suspense. Even though the story largely adheres to an old formula, he generates a genuine sense of curiosity and dread about what’s happening and where it’s all leading. He also cleverly keeps his titular monster/hero mostly hidden for the first two-thirds of the film, showing only glimpses of his body until a final reveal — complete with a theater-rattling updated version of his signature roar — that frankly brought tears to my eyes because it was just so right.

I’ve read some complaints that the characters are one-dimensional and the human drama is thinly sketched, that in the end this is just another big, stupid, special-effects-driven blockbuster with no heart or brain underneath the pretty wrapping. Personally, I disagree with all of that and wonder if these critics saw the same movie I did, but hey, let’s be honest: this is a Godzilla flick. What did those people expect? What I expected — or at least hoped for — was a fun time at the movies watching some giant monsters duke it out. And I got it. At the film’s climatic moment, when, in true Godzilla fashion, the Big G has finally had enough of getting kicked around and his fins start to glow in preparation for his unstoppable hold-out weapon, the atomic fire breath, I let out an involuntarily “YEAH!,” even as my inner twelve-year-old squealed with delight. And for the record, so did my lovely girlfriend Anne, who has no particular knowledge of or affection for Godzilla beyond this movie. For whatever that’s worth.

That’s what movies like this are really about. Not characterization or dialog, not finely nuanced explorations of the human condition, but simply making us feel for a few fleeting moments like the little kids we used to be, sitting on our knees in front of our giant console televisions on sunny Saturday afternoons, completely absorbed in a story about good guys and bad guys that leaves us breathless and happy. One of the early ad campaigns for Star Wars, way back in the ’70s, used the tagline “It’ll make you feel like a kid again.” And that was seen as a good thing. Somewhere along the line, we’ve become way too serious for our own good.

Bottom line: Godzilla effectively captured the spirit of the classic Japanese series and wedded that to cutting-edge special effects and an American sensibility. It appealed to the kid in me and made me happy. I walked out of the theater feeling completely energized and ready to go on the ride again. Highly recommended.

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Buen Camino

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Every once in a while I encounter a story — most often for me, it seems to be in the form of a movie, although that’s probably just because I see more movies than I manage to read books — that feels so truthful, so honestly revelatory of some ineffable aspect of what it’s like to be human, that I am gripped by an intense pang of envy. I find myself wishing that I had written it myself, and I feel some level of annoyance that I didn’t, as well as a great deal of insecurity and futility because I doubt my abilities to ever affect a reader (or a viewer, I suppose) as deeply as I’ve just been affected myself. This reaction goes beyond merely liking or responding to the story; that happens all the time. No, this is the rare occasion when I feel like the story is in some way mine, that through the telling of it, I’ve somehow lived it personally. Hemingway’s famous short story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is like that for me. Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical movie Almost Famous was, too. And so was Robert Redford’s gorgeous film adaptation of Norman MacLean’s novella A River Runs Through It. And now tonight I’ve just encountered another story like that: a film called The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez (yes, that Emilio Estevez, Mr. Young Guns himself) and starring his father, Martin Sheen.

It’s a simple story about a father who journeys to France to retrieve the body of his late son, who has died in an accident while walking the Camino de Santiago, a.k.a. The Way of St. James, an ancient pilgrimage trail that runs through the Pyrenees to the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela. In a moment of inspiration, Tom — Sheen’s character — has his son cremated and embarks on the pilgrimage himself, carrying the ashes with him so his son can, in essence, complete his journey. Along the way, Tom reluctantly picks up three companions, each of whom are traveling the Camino for their own reasons. And he begins slowly to understand just what it was that made his son tick.

It’s a beautiful movie about fathers and sons, and seeing the world (both literally, in terms of travel, and metaphorically, i.e., “smelling the roses”), and most of all it’s about connecting with other human beings. Sheen delivers an impressive, very moving performance, seemingly without doing much of anything at all. Emilio Estevez meanwhile, demonstrates great skill with visual composition and also pacing… the film is leisurely without ever seeming boring, and it does a handy job of conveying the mental aspect of a long journey, how you gradually let down and let go.

I don’t know what else to say about The Way, except that it’s just plain good. And that I hope to someday write something that’s just a fraction as good. Seek it out.

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Movie Review: Jack Reacher

JACK REACHERJack Reacher is the kind of movie I rarely encounter these days: a tight, comprehensible action/detective thriller with both a heart and a brain, as well as some unexpectedly snappy dialogue that occasionally rivals the great exchanges of a classic 1940s noir. Tom Cruise plays the title character, a former military policeman who now exists as a vagabond, roaming from place to place in search of an understanding of what it is he spent his former life defending (i.e., he’s looking for America, as they used to say), and although he doesn’t invite trouble, it tends to find him anyway in the form of crimes to be solved and innocents to be protected. If that sounds familiar, it’s because this film is yet another variation on the theme that defined so many of the 1970s and ’80s television series I’ve always loved, a dude wandering around helping people, and I thoroughly enjoyed it every frame of it.

In large part, that’s because I was given the opportunity to actually see every frame. Jack Reacher eschews the hated shaky-cam cinematography and Cuisinart school of editing that has ruined other recent action films for me in favor of a more old-fashioned look. Fight scenes make sense, action is sequential and easy to follow (although no less visceral or brutal), and a car-chase scene between Reacher in a vintage Chevy muscle car and some Russian-mobster baddies in an Audi R8 is pure adrenaline-soaked pleasure, with no apparent CGI or editorial trickery, just two actual cars battling it out on real streets.

The movie is adapted from the ninth book in a series of novels by the author Lee Child. In an echo of the controversy when Cruise landed the role of Anne Rice’s Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, many of Child’s fans have been grumbling about his casting — the literary Reacher is apparently a very different physical type — but I thought Tommy-boy inhabited the character well. In fact, this is the most I’ve enjoyed his work in a very long time. The slightly creepy blankness he’s displayed in most of his recent films is absent here, and I was reminded of the talented, charismatic movie star I used to think he was before he became the Church of Scientology’s couch-jumping poster child.

Honestly, I’d love to see him play this character again. I never really got into the Mission: Impossible series, but I wouldn’t mind Jack Reacher becoming an ongoing franchise…

 

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Quick Take: Moon

moon_screenshotI’m a few years behind in seeing Moon, the 2009 indie science-fiction film directed by Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie!), but wow, what a great little movie. Sam Rockwell, perhaps best known for Galaxy Quest and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, turns in a bravura performance (or is that two performances?) in a virtual one-man show about the lone occupant of a lunar mining base who’s beginning to question his sanity as the end of his three-year tour approaches. It’s essentially a character study wrapped up in a mystery story that brilliantly expands on some of the ideas explored in my beloved Blade Runner — specifically questions of identity and whether we can trust our own memories, and what a person might go through emotionally when those things turn out to be… unreliable. I feared for a time that this was going to turn into one of those “mindf**k” stories that I have so little patience for, but in the end all is explained and logical and satisfactory. It’s a moving, very human story with plausible sci-fi underpinnings. And honestly, I think Moon looks every bit as good as this year’s Prometheus in terms of production design and FX, and it was done on a fraction of the budget using old-school miniatures instead of CGI.

Highly — and I do mean highly — recommended.

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Quick Take: Cop Land

I missed James Mangold’s Cop Land when it was first released 15 years ago, but I recall being curious about it, because everyone was talking back then about Sylvester Stallone’s uncharacteristic performance. I finally managed to catch it this morning, and it turned out to be a good movie, if not quite an outstanding one. A story of corrupt New York cops and a small-town New Jersey sheriff who could’ve been one of them but for a chance act of heroism when he was a teenager, it suffers a bit from being somewhat familiar stuff. In fact, it reads like a second-tier Scorsese flick (the presence of Scorsese regulars Harvey Keitel, Robert DeNiro, and Ray Liotta, as well as the grittily realistic East Coast settings, no doubt contributes to that feeling) with a dollop of High Noon thrown in for good measure. But don’t misunderstand: It is well worth your time if you haven’t seen it, a solidly entertaining character study and cop thriller.

As for Stallone, well… all the buzz back in ’97 was completely deserved. I’ve never cared much for the man, to be honest, but this film is a genuine revelation. In Cop Land, he proves that he really can act (and no, I’ve never seen Rocky, which is usually offered up as a counterpoint when I say that). Here he plays a man who is pretty much the polar opposite of his usual on-screen persona. Instead of a swaggering, macho cartoon superhero, Freddie — the New Jersey sheriff — is a regular guy who’s been almost completely beaten down by disappointment and the feeling that he just wasn’t good enough to get what he wanted out of life. He’s overweight, wounded, tentative, complacent, the kind of man who takes a lot of shit and just smiles his way through it, even though something inside him twinges every single time one of his so-called friends cracks a joke at his expense or asks him to look the other way. He’s immensely likable and sympathetic in this part — we all know somebody like this, and I think many of us can identify with him, too. In the memorable words of DeNiro’s character, he’s a man waiting for something to do… and of course we all know that in the end he’s going to rise to the occasion and do it. What a shame this movie didn’t propel Stallone’s career onto another path as a true character actor, and that he’s instead had to pump himself up on steroids and just keep doing the same old schlock…

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Quickie Movie Review: Son of Kong

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Old black-and-whiter for this Sunday night’s entertainment: Son of Kong, the sequel to the all-time 1933 classic King Kong. Obviously made much more quickly and cheaply than its predecessor (Son was in theaters only nine months after the original!), the movie nevertheless surprised me with an unexpectedly realistic portrayal of the consequences of the events of King Kong. As Son begins, Carl Denham, the entrepreneur and adventurer who captured Kong and brought him to New York, is being sued every which way to Tuesday and is up on criminal charges related to the deaths and property damage caused by the giant ape’s rampage, so he splits the country with his friend and sidekick Captain Engelhorn aboard the SS Venture, the tramp freighter from the first film. After various misadventures (read: failures), the two find themselves drawn back to Skull Island in search of a treasure that might pay off their debts…

Of course, much of that thoughtfulness and grown-up sensibility goes out the window once they encounter “Little Kong,” who is played much more for laughs than his daddy was. And then the island spontaneously crumbles into the sea for no apparent reason. Even so, the ending still brought a tear to my eye. Overall, a satisfying little adventure movie that I’ve somehow never gotten around to catching. Fans of Indiana Jones and/or Tales of the Gold Monkey ought to give it a look; if nothing else, you’ll recognize the atmosphere…

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Book Recommendation: Lost in Shangri-La

Looking for something good to read over the long holiday weekend? Well, how about a story that begins like this:

The time is 1945, only months before the atomic bombing of Japan brings about the end of World War II. On the remote South Pacific island of Dutch New Guinea, Allied cargo pilots flying over the island’s largely unexplored interior spot a previously unmapped valley high in the rugged mountains that appears to be cut off from the outside world. Seen from the air, it is lush, beautiful… and obviously inhabited. The press dubs this valley “Shangri-La” after the exotic setting of a popular, decade-old novel called Lost Horizon, and soon bored and curious personnel stationed at the remote base on New Guinea’s coast are taking sightseeing flights over this valley and logging them as “navigation training.”

On May 13, 1945, twenty-four men and women board a C-47 transport plane with the ill-considered name Gremlin Special for their own “navigation training.” But something goes disastrously wrong during the flight, and the plane crashes in the steep mountains surrounding Shangri-La, with only three survivors, two men and a woman. Injured, completely unprepared, and mourning the deaths of their friends, comrades, and, in the case of one of the men, a twin brother, the trio now faces a hike through dense jungle to reach the only place where they can hope for rescue: the mysterious valley below, which they know is populated by stone-age headhunters who have never seen a white person.

And this is only the beginning.

Did I mention that it’s a true story?

Mitchell Zuckoff’s nonfiction book Lost in Shangri-La recovers one of the most fascinating tales of World War II from obscurity — the media of the time did report on the amazing rescue of the Gremlin Special survivors, but the story got shoved off the front pages by Hiroshima, and it was virtually forgotten until Zuckoff ran across a mention of it while researching something completely unrelated — and tells it with the breathless pacing of a pulp-adventure novel. In fact, the story sounds tailor-made for the movies, with an incredible cast of strong-willed, eccentric, and heroic characters; a rescue scheme so crazy, it’s amazing that it worked; and a bittersweet undercurrent of the inevitable changes wrought by one of the last true “first contacts” between modern Westerners and an aboriginal culture.

This is really an incredible book about an incredible story, and it tends to linger with you — I actually finished it over a month ago, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s so many things: an adventure tale with all the elements you’d expect from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, a tale of survival and the indomitable human spirit, and an interesting bit of World War II lore, with a dusting of ethnography and biography. It’s been a long time since I read anything so thoroughly captivating. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Check out Zuckoff’s official site for more information, including photographs and even vintage film footage!

 

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Sunday Morning Movie Review: Stay Hungry

With the DVD format now in its final death spiral leading out of the marketplace, I find I’m buying more of them than ever. What’s happening is that retailers and budget stores that specialize in closeout merchandise are dumping old inventory at ridiculously low prices, in some cases lower than it would cost to rent them, assuming there were still any rental stores around. But of course browsing a video store for back-catalog stuff I haven’t seen is no longer an option, and Netflix’s recommendation algorithms just never seem to generate the same level of serendipity I used to experience as I wandered up and down aisles of actual, physical media. So I’ve taken to rolling the dice and buying el-cheapo DVDs at Big Lots sight-unseen on the off chance they may be something I’ll like. I admit I’ve ended up feeling like I wasted my money more than once. But I’ve also gotten lucky with a few titles that turned out to be really good. Or at least really interesting for some reason. Case in point: a 1976 film called Stay Hungry.

Directed by Bob Rafelson, who’s best known for the Jack Nicholson vehicle Five Easy Pieces — that’s the one with the famous scene of Jack dealing with an unpleasant waitress in his own inimitable fashion — Stay Hungry stars an achingly young Jeff Bridges as the only son of a wealthy Southern family who’s trying to find his place in the world following the death of his parents. Having fallen in with a group of real-estate developers who want to build a high-rise office tower, Bridges is given the assignment of acquiring the last hold-out property on the block, a broken-down old gymnasium. But the situation becomes complicated when Bridges finds himself drawn to the eccentric family of characters who inhabit the place, notably a perky receptionist and a charismatic bodybuilder named Joe Santo, who is in training for the upcoming Mr. Universe contest.

Stay Hungry is pretty typical of early-70s mainstream cinema, an uneasy blend of comedy and drama with a loosey-goosey plotline that sometimes feels aggravatingly aimless, as well as a tone that veers from whimsical to discomforting to downright horrifying, before veering into straight-out farce at the story’s climax. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was even liking the film until it was over — for the record, I’ve since decided that, yes, I did like it — but the one element that kept me going through my uncertainty was the cast. Jeff Bridges wasn’t yet the national treasure he has since become; in certain scenes, he comes off as trying too hard. But in others he was so perfectly naturalistic and utterly inhabiting the character, it’s easy to forget who you’re watching. And of course he’s always been an amiable presence, even in films where he’s played more unsympathetic characters.

The adorable Sally Field made her feature-film debut in Stay Hungry, successfully transitioning away from child-star television roles in Gidget and The Flying Nun, in part by baring her behind in a post-lovemaking scene. But even without that bonus attraction, she turns in a professional, layered performance and it’s very easy to believe Bridges would fall for her hard enough to change his entire life. (Full disclosure: I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Miss Frog.)

The supporting cast includes several familiar faces that are fun to see so much younger than we’re accustomed to, including Scatman Crothers as Bridges’ family butler, a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund, Ed Begley Jr., and Roger C. Mosley, a.k.a. TC the chopper pilot on Magnum P.I.

But the really fascinating presence in this film is the guy playing Joe Santo, a real-life bodybuilder named… Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although Stay Hungry was technically his third film following Hercules in New York and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, this was the first time audiences had heard his true voice and his distinctive Austrian accent (he was dubbed in Hercules, and menacingly silent in the Altman film), so his credit in Stay Hungry justifiably reads “Introducing…” Arnie was at the height of his Mr. Universe days here — Joe Santo’s story is a thinly disguised version of his own biography — and his body is simply a wonder to behold, especially in the film’s conclusion when we see him in competition, flexing and posing alongside a man who is his equal in size, but lacks Arnold’s definition and — just as importantly — his showmanship. He truly was astounding. But far more captivating than his physique in this film is the character he played, so completely unlike the familiar wisecracking action-figure persona he adopted later on in the ’80s. Joe Santo is inhumanly focused on his workouts, yes, but other than that he’s… nice. He’s friendly and supportive of his friends and self-effacing and sympathetic. After a lifetime of “I’ll be back”-style quips, it’s downright startling to see Arnold playing just a guy. And even though I doubt he ever would have become a great actor, certainly not someone on the level of his Stay Hungry costar Jeff Bridges, I find myself a little sad that he didn’t play more regular guys in his acting career.

Anyhow, even with the caveat that this film is somewhat dated and something of a rambling shaggy-dog story, I recommend Stay Hungry purely on the strength of the cast, and especially on the unusual and refreshing performance by a very young Arnold. It turned out to be one of my better Big Lots gambles. If nothing else, it’s worth seeing for the scene in which The Terminator plays fiddle with a bunch of backwoods good old boys:

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