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Monthly Archives: June 2010

King Rat—A Movie Not Based On A Lie Like The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

Recently, my claim that Black Hawk Down is the best war movie ever was challenged by a regular visitor to the site who asked if anyone would remember BHD after a number of years had passed, while pointing to The Bridge Over the River Kwai and The Great Escape as examples of “better” war movies, ones that have stood the test of time.  Obviously, we can not know how long people will remember BHD, but we can look at a movie that is head and shoulders above both The Great Escape and The Bridge Over the River Kwai and yet is not as well remembered:  It is King Rat.

King Rat (1965) stars a young George Segal who plays “Corporal King” AKA the King Rat.  King Rat is based on a 1962 novel by J.B. Clavell.  Set during World War II, Clavell’s novel describes the struggle for the survival of British, Australian, and American prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Singapore—a description well-informed by Clavell’s own three-year experience as a POW in the notorious Changi Prison camp.  Peter Marlowe, a significant character, is based upon Clavell’s younger self.  Even some of the actors in King Rat were POWs in the World War II.  Denholm Elliott, (who played Lt. G.D. Larkin) while serving in the RAF, was shot down and taken prisoner by the Nazis.

These P.O.W.’s were given nothing by the Japanese other than filthy huts to live in and the bare minimum of food needed to prevent starvation.  Officers who had been accustomed to native servants providing them with freshly- laundered uniforms daily were reduced to wearing rags and homemade shoes.  For most, the chief concern is obtaining enough food to stay alive from day to day and avoiding disease or injury, since nearly no medical care is available.  But, not so for King, who is well fed and struts around in a uniform that looks like it came straight from the dry cleaners.

Corporal King, not a very likable character, becomes “King” of the black market/underground economy, trading with the enemy for food, cigarettes, currency, etc.  As the “richest” man in the camp, Segal becomes the most powerful prisoner, controlling even the highest ranking officers through his economic muscle and having virtually everyone on his payroll, except one, seemingly incorruptible British Provost, Lieutenant Grey (Tom Courtenay).  Grey has only contempt for the American and does his best to bring him down, but with no success.

Eventually, the camp commandant informs the prisoners that the Japanese have surrendered and that the war is over.  After overcoming their shock and disbelief, the prisoners celebrate – all except King, who realizes that he is no longer the unquestioned (if unofficial) ruler of the camp.

Unfortunately, King Rat does not appear on any popular “top” lists of movies must-sees.  In fact, the reason I watched it was because I was forced to.  In my high school economics class, Dr. Kardsky made us watch the movie as an example of how scarcity affects economic markets that are virtually unregulated.  Now, having seen the movie several more times over the years, I have only grown to appreciate it further.  So. if you are interested in a not-so-glamorous account of soldiers in the war of the century, do take a very worthwhile look at King Rat.

By the way, the Rat in the movie’s title “King Rat” is revealed at the end of the film when King feeds his fellow prisoners rat meat, for which they are grateful.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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Some More Support Why Black Hawk Down is the Greatest War Movie Ever.

Recently I was reading Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics (2007) and came across this passage from Chapter 2 “Movie Maker Mathematics–How Hollywood Shoots from the Hip.”

Getting Gunfights Right:

“Some movie makers do get gunfight scenes right, as in, for example, Black Hawk Down.  The movie depicts 123 elite US soldiers fighting a desperate battle in Mogadishu, Somalia on October 3rd, 1993, on a mission to capture a renegade warlord’s key associates.  In realistic manner the characters rarely fire anything from the hip, even when firing fully automatic weapons.  Large machine guns are actually reloaded and tend to be fired in short bursts lasting no more than a few seconds at most.

One scene lends an unusual touch of realism when the hot, empty cartridges eject from a rapid firing minigun in an overhead helicopter shower down on a hapless soldier, giving him minor burns.  These weapons look like old fashioned, hand cranked multi-barreled Gatling guns, but that’s as far as the comparison goes.  Unlike Gatling guns, miniguns are rotated at high speed by an electric motor, which gives them an incredible firing rate.  Their multiple barrels are needed to keep them from melting.  Even at that, empty cartridge cases ejected from them are too hot to touch.

[For the most part ed] Movie makers are intelligent, talented, and well funded.  They can hire a busload of top experts for the price of a single supporting actor, but it does little good unless the experts are granted some power.  In Black Hawk Down, the moviemakers didn’t just pay experts, they paid attention to them.”

Such recognition by a book dedicated to exposing Hollywood’s “best mistakes, goofs and flat out destruction of the basic laws of the universe” only adds to the pageantry of Black Hawk Down.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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I Have Not Written About Some Garbarge In A While: Thunderbirds

It has been too long since I have talked about some good quality crap, but I found a solution to that little problem: Thunder Birds (1990) “starring” Tommy Lee Jones and Nicholas Cage who play helicopter pilots waging war against the evil drug lords of South America.  Well it is not too hard to see that we a have tired and predictable plot before we get even 20 minutes into the movie.

In this poor man’s Top Gun, Cage plays the role of the arrogant, yet talented Maverick pilot, while Tommy Lee Jones serves as the cagey veteran/mentor.  As expected in this formulaic waste of time, Cage must overcome one hurdle before he can be considered a full fledged pilot–a test called the “bag” where the pilot uses certain technology to fly the helicopter using one eye while taking in data with the other.  Naturally, he fails two out of three times, but with the expert tutelage of Jones, Cage passes muster so he can continue through the program to defend America against the (allegedly) better financed and equipped Cartels.

Not only does Cage do some of his best over the top cornball acting in this one, but if you listen to Jones, it almost sounds as if he is laboring to say his lines—almost like he knows they are bad while he is saying them.

Naturally, like Fire Bird’s predecessor Top Gun, in the end Cage comes through with some superhuman flying to take down the enemy.  Oh yeah, there is (of course) a love interest between Cage and some old flame who just happens to be a reconnaissance pilot attached to the task force as well.  Are you kidding me?

A word about Cage—yes he has done a couple of good movies Lord of War and Leaving Los Vegas, but otherwise I find his choice of roles and his ham it up style of acting to be dreadful.  Moreover, don’t try and tell me that because he changed his name from Coppola to Cage so that he could “make it on his own” in the movie business was some great sacrifice.  If you think Uncle Francis Ford Coppola didn’t kick open a few doors for him (whether explicitly or implicitly) your kidding yourself and would probably like this time wasting movie.

I think the cliché clips help say it all.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Business of Movie Theaters–Helps to Explain the Crap

I found this article by Edward J. Epstein who wrote a book on the economics of the movie business:

Once upon a time, movie studios and movie theaters were in the same business. The studios made films for theater chains that they either owned or controlled, and they harvested almost all their revenue from ticket sales. Then, in 1948, the government forced the studios to divest themselves of the theaters. Nowadays, the two are in very different businesses. Theater chains, in fact, are in three different businesses.

First, they are in the fast-food business, selling popcorn, soda, and other snacks. This is an extremely profitable operation in which the theaters do not split the proceeds with the studios (as they do with ticket sales). Popcorn, for example, because of the immense amount of popped bulk produced from a relatively small amount of kernels—the ratio is as high as 60:1—yields more than 90 cents of profit on every dollar of popcorn sold. It also serves to make customers thirsty for sodas, another high-margin product (supplied to most theater chains by Coca-Cola, which makes lucrative deals with theater owners in return for their exclusive “pouring” of its products). One theater chain executive went so far as to describe the cup holder mounted on each seat, which allows customers to park their soda while returning to the concession stand for more popcorn, as “the most important technological innovation since sound.” He also credited the extra salt added into the buttery topping on popcorn as the “secret” to extending the popcorn-soda-popcorn cycle throughout the movie. For this type of business, theater owners don’t benefit from movies with gripping or complex plots, since that would keep potential popcorn customers in their seats. “We are really in the business of people moving,” Thomas W. Stephenson Jr., who then headed Hollywood Theaters, told me. “The more people we move past the popcorn, the more money we make.”

Second, theater chains are in the movie exhibition business. Here they are partners with the studios. Although every deal is different, the theaters and the studios generally wind up splitting the take from the box office roughly 50-50. But, unlike the popcorn bonanza, the theaters’ expenses eat up a large part of their exhibition share. They pay all the costs necessary to maintain the auditoriums, which includes ushers, cleaning staffs, projectionists to keep the movies in focus, and the regular replacement of projector bulbs that cost more than $1,000 each. The way they can squeeze out more profits from this business is to cut expenses to the bare minimum. Not uncommonly, theater owners delay changing projector bulbs even if they do not produce the specified level of brightness on screen. Or, rather than using a separate projectionist for each film, multiplexes use one projectionist to service up to eight movies, an economy of scale that saves seven salaries. While these projectionists are able to change reels for one film while other movies go unattended, this practice runs the risk that the other films might momentarily snag in the projector and get burnt by the lamp. To prevent such costly mishaps, projectionists slightly expand the gap between the gate that supports the film and the lamp, even though this puts a film slightly out of focus. This is often considered an acceptable trade-off to the financially pressed chains. “I’ve never heard a teenager complain about PQ [picture quality],” one movie chain executive said. “If they find it too dark, they still have the concession stand.”

Third, the theaters are in the advertising business. They sell on-screen ads. And some advertisers are paying more than $50,000 per screen annually, especially to theaters willing to pump up the volume to near ear-shattering level so that seated customers will pay attention. Since there are virtually no costs involved in showing ads, the proceeds go directly to the theater chains’ bottom lines. But to fit paid advertising into the gap between showings, multiplexes have to cut down on the length of the studios’ coming attractions (which are free advertising), a decision that hardly pleases studios. (Often, getting the coming attractions shown involves the studios “leveraging our goodwill,” as one studio executive explained. The studios will threaten to hold back a popcorn movie, such as the new Harry Potter or Star Wars sequels, unless the chain agrees to play a full reel of trailers.)

To keep their people-moving enterprise going, theater owners prefer movies whose length does not exceed 128 minutes. If a movie runs longer than that, and the theater owners do not want to sacrifice their on-screen advertising time, they will reduce the number of their evening audience “turns” or showings from three to two, which means that 33 percent fewer people pass their popcorn stands. Even so, if a long movie promises to bring in a big enough audience—a promise King Kong made but did not deliver—the theaters will play it. Indeed, the ultimate test for the popcorn economy is: Will a movie attract enough consumers of buckets of popcorn and soda to justify turning over multiple screens to it? Theater owners know that the popcorn audience is mainly teens. And, since the observation of teen test audiences over many years has demonstrated that they prefer action to dialogue, expect a salty, supersize portion of amusement-park movies this year.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Big Lebowski–Big Fun

Once again the Coen brothers produce an outrageous movie: The Big Lebowski.  The movie is cast flawlessly for the unique characters appearing on the silver screen.  Sam Elliot narrates certain parts of the move but the “big three” actors John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, and Steve Buscemi in each of their roles have a certain je ne sais quoi about them that is lacking in most dark comedies.  Goodman’s portrayal of Walter, the Vietnam vet with a short fuse is a riot.  Jeff Bridges takes a break from his customary serious persona to portray The Dude, a character who  is quite possibly the laziest [person] in Los Angeles county and Steve Buscemi is as entertaining as ever in his depiction of Donny, the guy who rarely speaks.  The cameo by John Turturro as “the Jesus,” king of the bowling alley, puts the movie over the top.

The Coen brothers created an odd array of marginalized characters that fall ass-backwards into center of an improbable situation.  The Dude is an unlikely hero living in the city of Los Angeles who becomes embroiled in a dilatant’s kidnapping.  Be advised that The Big Lebowski is not your average “zany” kidnapper comedy thrust upon us a thousand times before. The Coen brothers take a fresh look at this old tired story.  The story they have created is intriguing and entertaining, while the unique characters and subtle (but hilarious) dialog set the movie apart.

Although Bridges and Buscemi do an exceptional job of becoming their characters, Goodman steals the show in my opinion.  An early scene, for instance, involves a conversation about The Dude’s urine stained rug; it becomes clear that Walter is losing his mind.  In the early part of the conversation Goodman puts on a stone face to show that Walter is steadfastly tied to his position.  The Dude begins to agitate Walter as the conversation about the rug continues.  As Walter becomes more and more frantic he starts to furrow his brow, leaning forward when talking and turning increasingly redder.  As Goodman continues, his speaking becomes more staccato and flustered.  When The Dude refers to one of his attackers as “the China man,” Walter continues on his tirade then for a moment quietly addresses The Dude’s politically incorrect statement.  Changing from this erratic manner of speaking to the more politically correct and toned down discussion clearly shows that Walter is carrying around some serious baggage leading to sudden mood swings and a short fuse as he returns to his rant quickly.  Not long after his conversation with The Dude about the rug, Walter pulls a gun on a bowling league opponent for crossing the line and then trying to score 8 points because “nobody respects the rules anymore.”

The movie starts in a bowling alley where Donny, Walter, and The Dude are sitting at their lane discussing a mistaken attack on The Dude by some hired thugs who urinated on his rug.  The Dude is approaching the situation in a lackadaisical way but is by no means your average confused old stoner.  Bridge’s expressions during this scene show that The Dude is actually quite anxious about the loss of the rug “which really tied the room together.”  This brain trust concludes that since these thugs were after another wealthy person named Lebowski, The Dude should be compensated by him for the rug.  Thus the adventure begins.

On a side note, A.N., a friend of mine, found out I was reviewing the Big Lebowski, she said that the first time she watched it she didn’t like it, “the movie had been over hyped and I was expecting something that was overtly funny.”  When she sat down to watch it again and actually paid attention to the subtle (and not so subtle) humor she “loved it.”  We continued our conversation trying to decide which clips to post and were overwhelmed by choices.  Knowing we had to narrow it down, as you can see, these are the ones we thought of.

You would be a fool not to watch this movie.

 
19 Comments

Posted by on June 4, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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