A late summer/early autumn scene at our UMM - morris m

A late summer/early autumn scene at our UMM - morris m
Lots of color can be appreciated around our University of Minnesota-Morris campus. (B.W. photo)

Friday, April 26, 2013

Minnesota Kicks soccer was glorious episode

The popularity of the Minnesota Kicks is something that should be preserved prominently in Minnesota history. The sport is soccer. While it's all the rage around much of the world, it has never become truly high-profile in the USA. But the Kicks were really "big" once. Their heyday coincided with the last years of Metropolitan Stadium, Bloomington.
The "Met" like the Kicks should be remembered with fondness in Minnesota history. History will show that our state ultimately decided its big league sports should move indoors. It seemed logical in many ways.
There were well-grounded fears, though, that indoor sports could be "blah." Kicks soccer wouldn't be able to cut it in the Metrodome. Since Met Stadium closed, soccer retreated to its obscure position.
I saw an article about some sort of Minnesota team just yesterday. But it's nothing like the Kicks' glorious run. The Minnesota Kicks were all about savoring the Minnesota summertime atmosphere. Our stadium may have been called "Metropolitan" but don't be fooled. It was on the fringes of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. It was convenient but it was also detached. That's probably why Mall of America is located there now.
I have to confess I never attended a Kicks game. But I owned one of those orange Kicks T-shirts which I have described in the past as a "uniform" for the young boomers. It's likely I still have the T-shirt stored away somewhere. Would it even be worth a try to see if it fits? Shrinkage might be a factor and maybe even expansion of the human body.
The Harrisons of "Pawn Stars" would know if T-shirts are collectible. I still have my "Final Four" T-shirt that I purchased at the Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas, during the Larry Johnson years with the Runnin' Rebels (Jerry Tarkanian, coach). I also have a "Final Four" sweatshirt from when Clem Haskins' Gophers played in Indianapolis, but I think the NCAA has told us those games never happened.
Ah, the Kicks! My generation did show signs of getting tired of Metropolitan Stadium toward the end of the 1970s. The Twins didn't command our attention anymore, not like they once did. The Vikings surely did. But you had to be concerned about frostbitten toes. The Kicks came along with some novelty value. Young people sensed an allure.
"The Met" was built with the idea of celebrating summer. While the boomers were starting to yawn about the Twins, they were gripped by the soccer Kicks for about five years. Kicks games became an absolute cultural phenomenon. If a young person of today were to step into a time machine and go back to see that, he/she might be astounded.
Soccer is a sport we watch politely and in small numbers today. It's the anti-football. You can strongly argue that soccer's appeal versus football is leaping forward based on the well-publicized health dangers of football. We'll see how that proceeds.
If you're worried about soccer's true potential, take that time machine back to August 25, 1976. It was a Wednesday. The Kicks were closing out their first summer. This is a franchise that moved here from Denver where they were the Dynamos. The Kicks were definitely filling a need here. On that steamy night with the temperature at 86 degrees, the official fan turnout was 49,572! The team suspected the real number was over 50,000. Fans filled every conceivable vantage point. The game was for the Pacific Conference championship.
The Kicks with coach Freddie Goodwin beat San Jose 3-1. The football goalposts were up for a Vikings exhibition. Fans took them down in celebration, a note that I have to share with a wince considering Morris history. (A UMM student was once killed in such a celebration.) The historical record says the posts were "up" meaning they must have been temporary. I theorize that temporary goalposts would be safer to try to take down than the heavy metal permanent ones we had at UMM.
Fans ripped up the Met's sod for souvenirs. A Kicks executive described the night as "the sports story of the year." The league commissioner added: "This is the sports story of the century."
I strongly hope that now we're moving past the Metrodome to totally new venues, one by one, we continue to remember our beloved old "Met."
I have written before about how a Chamber of Commerce guy, Jerry Moore, had a lot to do with Metropolitan Stadium getting built - no routine task. It was five years after construction before the Twins even began playing there, taking over from the Minneapolis Millers. Moore was interviewed by Joe Soucheray at the time the Met was being phased out. Soucheray interviewed several principals. I'll quote Moore here because his thoughts totally reflect mine: "My best memory? I guess it would have to be that pleasant setting. We got a lot of compliments on the place over the years."
I was always struck by that "pleasant setting." And, the reasonably priced Frosty Malts.
The Kicks played in the North American Soccer League. We saw signs of things to come on May 9, Mothers Day, of 1976 for the first home opener. The turnout was about 20,000. The temperature was certainly warm for May 9th: 83 degrees. We should be so lucky in our Minnesota spring of 2013! The fan turnout surprised the team which had just 17,000 tickets printed. The team really only expected 12,000 fans. The game was set to start at 3 p.m. There were already 17,000-plus fans in the seats. Granted, the team had an excellent marketing campaign prior to the season. But this was soccer! It was many rungs below American football, according to conventional wisdom.
The game's starting time arrived with fans still lined up outside at those ticket booths. The team had food company investors. These guys were savvy in "keeping the customers happy." Team Chairman Jack Crocker scrambled, enlisting all available hands to go outside and speed up getting the fans in. Even this wasn't enough. Finally, in a real gesture of accommodation, Crocker decided to open the gates and let the fan hopefuls in. They streamed into the left field section where no reserved tickets had been printed. They watched for free!
Crocker's gesture was a stroke of PR genius. The afternoon was definitely a sign of things to come. Happy Mothers Day! The moms and everyone else learned the soccer field was called a "pitch." We called the players "lads" and "chaps." And we called a score of 1-0 "ace-nil." Our Kicks came through with a victory, 4-1 over the San Jose Earthquakes. (Why would a team out there call themselves the "Earthquakes?" It would be like calling a Minnesota team the "Blizzard." We don't want to advertise it.)
Alan Willey scored two goals in that historic inaugural game. A look at the names on the roster is like a trip back to the 1970s. "Alan Merrick, Steve Litt, Ron Futcher, Geoff Barnett and good ol' Ace Ntsoelengoe. . ." Midfielder Ntsoelengoe had his name pronounced "nitzo-LENG-ay."
In 1977 the Kicks' home opener, played on May 8, drew 35,966. Willey scored all three goals as the Kicks beat Team Hawaii 3-0. In 1978 the home opener turnout was 36,057. Anyone who remembers the Met will remember that any turnout of over 35,000 gave the impression the place was full. It was an odd sort of illusion. There was room for plenty more than 35,000. The Kicks beat Dallas 2-1 in the '78 home opener.
In 1979 the Kicks backed up to April for their home opener, on the 29th, and conditions weren't ideal with rain and wind on this Sunday. The thermometer showed 42 degrees. Still, there were 24,131 fans in the seats. Again the Kicks won, 4-1 over Atlanta.
The Kicks played in a temperature that flirted with 100 degrees on July 19, 1977. The temperature actually did reach 100 during the day, matching a record. The temperature was 95 in the evening when the Kicks took the field at the Met to play a Swedish club called Hammarby. The fan turnout: 24,032. Soucheray described the fans as "scantily dressed even for a Kicks crowd." I can just envision it. The Kicks won 2-1 on a goal by a 17-year-old chap name of Stan Cummins.
A soccer player who was widely heralded at the time was named "Pele," remember? PAY-lay. He played for the New York Cosmos. The Cosmos came here during the Kicks' inaugural season of 1976 to play on June 9, with 46,164 fans recorded. It was very exciting, I'm sure, just to be among so many fans. Pele's background was in Brazil. A reporter mentioned to him post-game that Minnesota gets a lot of snow. After a pause of 3-4 seconds, Pele responded "It did not snow tonight." The temperature was 80 degrees. Pele picked up an assist as his Cosmos beat the Kicks 2-1.
Two years later, the Kicks trounced the Cosmos 9-2 in what Soucheray described as "the first of a two-game quarterfinal series playoff" (jargon, yes). Alan Willey was phenomenal, scoring five goals! Again the Met was filled, this time with 45,863 souls.
Kicks soccer presented an historic "Kazoo Night" on July 16, 1980, near the end of the franchise's run here. The kazoo players established a Guinness record. Though the Kicks' days were numbered and "the Met" was doomed for the wrecking ball, a healthy turnout of 27,167 fans were on hand.
No disrespect to the Kicks, but their wildly popular run seemed to owe to a lot more than soccer. I'm sure many soccer aficionados were there. But as a boomer who followed it all, I'm sure the Met and its expansive parking lot, ideal for tailgating and extracurricular diversions, were a fashionable and fun place for young people to congregate. I might also theorize that Minnesotans didn't have enough entertainment options. No casinos yet.
The entertainment dearth would eventually be solved. But in the meantime, Kicks soccer was an absolute phenomenon. Our historical annals must accent it.
Hats off to our wondrous "Met" in that "peaceful setting" (albeit with a jet going overhead once in a while). The new Vikings stadium will never match it. The new Gophers stadium hasn't.
Sometimes we don't know how good we have it.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Saturday, April 20, 2013

"True Grit" (2010) seems an unimaginative western

The TV commercials promoting "True Grit" showed Jeff Bridges at his rustic best. You got the impression almost instantly that this was a brilliant acting performance. It was a quick knee-jerk judgment. Bridges in fact acted well in this movie. But he was not the slam-dunk standout one would have expected from the promos. He was part of a cast that did well enough telling your basic vengeance story from the old west.
I'm not sure why this story was good enough for not one but two movies. The Bridges role was played in the original movie by none other than John Wayne. It was impossible to upstage Wayne, the "Duke." The 2010 version of "True Grit" has Bridges in competition with young Hailee Steinfeld for attention on the screen. You'd never guess from the commercials, but Bridges ends up in second place.
Is this the same Jeff Bridges who played the hippie photographer in the 1970s "King Kong?" It sure is. He's the son of Lloyd, you know, who ended up sniffing glue in the classic comedy "Airplane." Lloyd learned how to do comedy at the end of his career. Judging by the disparate characters Jeff can play, it's "like father, like son."
You can't tell the players without a program sometimes. So, I wasn't even aware Barry Pepper was in the movie until after the fact. Pepper is a guy I can spot and always say "there's Roger Maris!" I'll always associate him with that role. He played a sniper in "Saving Private Ryan." He does well although I couldn't put aside the association with Roger Maris. That can be a curse in acting: You make such an indelible impression in a role, it sticks. I needed a "program," in effect, to pick out Pepper in "True Grit." He plays "Lucky" Ned Pepper. He's a bad guy. The makeup department concealed the Yankee slugger Maris.
Bad guys and good guys appear on the screen in the standard western format. Boomers like me were bombarded with this when we were kids. It's fascinating how prevalent the western genre was for a time in television. An early standard was set by "The Rifleman." Pepper was good at playing a baseball player but Chuck Connors actually was a baseball player. Connors played "The Rifleman" like no other actor could have. He used the lever-action rifle with the big and distinctive lever, remember? This was a TV western in its most pure form. A sense of right and wrong had to be established with law enforcement often threadbare with its resources. Strong men who were good with a gun were needed.
In the 2010 "True Grit" we have Bridges as the crusty, earthy and presumably smelly U.S. Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn. Definitely good with a gun, even while riding a horse and having the reins in his teeth. You wouldn't want to do that today, not with what dentists charge (LOL).
I didn't see the 1969 "True Grit" with John Wayne but I saw the Mad Magazine satire. The Wayne character loses his teeth (in the satire).
This confrontation appears again in the 2012 version. Bridges is successful taking on the bad guys. It doesn't seem plausible. Four guys on horseback certainly could have overcome one, lest they were hopelessly incompetent. But this is the movies. The Imperial storm troopers can't shoot straight. Does anything ever really change?
"True Grit" is a western that has predictable scenarios like this. One critic observed that it's a classic western in which we see "crime and then punishment." Westerns have a moral to the story. Good overcomes evil. Right trumps wrong.
The problem for us boomers, who were showered with such stories as from "Bonanza" when young, is that we learned the real world could be a pretty harsh place with plenty of bad stuff prevailing. Tops on this list would be the Viet Nam War. Second might be the persistence of the Jim Crow South until finally it could be put down. We saw injustice, illogic and mendacity. Why couldn't our leaders show the same wisdom as the fictional Lucas McCain as played by Connors? Why couldn't we have had a guiding hand as might have been applied by Lorne Greene of Bonanza? James Arness supplied wisdom with his character. But those guys were all fiction. We got alienated by the real world.
Maybe this is why westerns went into decline, seeming passe and dated. My formative years were when the most virtuous thing a young person could do was to protest an official policy of our duly elected U.S. leaders, that policy being to prosecute and escalate the war in Indochina. Morals became something other than black and white to us.
In "True Grit" the delineation is clear. "Tom Chaney" is the baddest guy. He's played by Josh Brolin. It would seem a major actor wasn't even needed for this role. He hardly makes an impression. Central casting could have been tapped. "Chaney" of course meets his just punishment. It's dealt by Mattie Ross who is played by Steinfeld. Steinfeld was reportedly chosen from literally thousands of hopefuls for the role. It wasn't long before I realized she was stealing this movie from the crusty but perhaps overdone character of Cogburn.
Ross is in her mid-teens, precocious and crafty, and sets out to avenge the death of her father. I'm reminded of an old joke about the three-legged dog who hops onto a saloon stool and says, "I'm looking for the man who shot my paw." The joke is inspired, of course, by the tired strain of vengeance stories that fill the old west genre.
The "True Grit" plot is really unremarkable. It comes from the 1968 novel written by Charles Portis. There are countless novels set in the wild west of course. It would be interesting to pick a western novel purely at random and then have a big budget movie made from it.
Steinfeld is effective and charming as she recites lines as if trying to win an award in high school one-act play competition. The script reads like a very formal play. The dialogue isn't close to being spontaneous most of the time. But that's deliberate. It's supposed to add appeal to the movie. That it does. Still, the plot seems tired and undistinctive to me.
"Nothing very startling happens," one reviewer wrote.
I guess what I'm suggesting is that the movie is overrated. Hollywood likes it because "True Grit" had its brand, as it were, owing to the 1969 movie with the legendary Wayne.
Wayne was like a total anachronism to us boomers in the late '60s. We have revised our thoughts about that. He once starred in the jingoistic "The Green Berets." We have forgiven him for that, I guess. Time heals all wounds? We prefer remembering him as the heroic U.S. Marshal Cogburn with the reins in his teeth.
We learn in the new movie that "LaBoeuf" is pronounced "La-beef." Steinfeld intones that nicely, addressing the character who is played by Matt Damon. Damon like Bridges has much better aim than the bad guys. In one scene he shoots a guy off his horse from a very long distance. It's remindful of what Clint Eastwood did in "Joe Kidd." The "Imperial storm troopers" just don't have a chance.
"LaBoeuf" joins Cogburn in tracking down the low-life hombres who have retreated into Oklahoma Indian territory of the 1870s. We were bound to be reminded of the Civil War. Cogburn and LaBoeuf are both former Confederates, one having fought in a formal unit (LaBoeuf in the Army of Northern Virginia) and the other, let's just say, in a less formal one. They have some issues about this.
I guess former Confederates are more interesting characters than those boring Union folks who just did what it took to win. The Confederates were rebels. Hollywood loves rebels. "The Outlaw Josey Wales" was a wayward Confederate after the war. Clint Eastwood brought Wales to life in a movie that was almost stolen by Chief Dan George. The old South was gone with the wind but it sure stays alive on movie screens.
Hollywood has an interesting way of presenting Confederates. They are honorable men, good fighters, who were just products of their culture. They struggle to adapt to losing. Many headed west. They can't be faulted.
Steinfeld as Ross is charming and attractive. At the end there's an adult actress whom we're supposed to buy as the adult Ross. The adult seems a bit sullen and resigned, like a "spinster" (as they used to say), not the plucky and industrious adolescent who charmed us. I'd venture to say it's a mistake for movies to use different actors playing the same character. It may be necessary but it's risky. The continuity is threatened.
As the movie wound down, it seemed dreary. We saw the desolate and raw nature of the old West. We saw considerable suffering in the name of making sure the "bad guy," Chaney, got killed. It seemed like a lot of trouble to go to. It was also vigilante justice - no legal proceedings or conviction. The plot seemed unimaginative. I'm left thinking many other western novels could have been tapped. 
I could be more blunt, suggesting this movie was just a big "sell" by Hollywood. There were plots in the old "Rifleman" that had more intriguing twists, I seem to recall. 
"Big names" were inserted and we're supposed to be enthralled. Bridges as a crusty, cantankerous character was supposed to wow us. A girl acting as if in a one-act play was supposed to wow us. 
Well, yawn.
Wayne ensured that "True Grit" would have its place in the Hollywood pantheon. For my money, I'll take Barry Pepper as Roger Maris.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Winter wonderland in April - heavens to Betsy

A delight in December, maybe not so much in April (B.W. photo)
It's the middle of April and the world around us seems like a snow globe. This isn't just that aberrational snow we sometimes get in April. One could swear it's January. And, more is moving in tonight (Saturday) and tomorrow, word is.
Is this what we signed up for, living in Minnesota? Is it possible that it's a manifestation of global climate change? Don't call it "warming" anymore. This climate phenomenon has to do with extremes such as the intensity with which "Sandy" struck the east coast. Now we're seeing persistent winter-like conditions in the Upper Midwest. If I were inclined to use profanities, this might be the time.
The habit of using profanities seems connected to age and gender. I'm sure you've been in a restaurant and noticed a male over age 60 at a nearby table who sprinkles his speech liberally with such terms. Such men can sit in clusters. They'll talk about the (expletive) snow or (expletive) ice or (expletive) potholes etc. Some of these phenomena might seem deserving of a harsh "adjective." But often there seems no call at all to use such language. Somehow the habit got instilled in these men when young as sort of a cultural norm, in times that presumably had more adversity than today. They need to look real hard at "cooling it" today.
The time may be coming when young restaurant patrons might complain about hearing profanities sprinkled liberally. It might become like cigarette smoke. Carl Moser says of the guilty parties: "They don't even know they're doing it."
The (expletive) potholes are sure noticeable at the entry to the McDonald's restaurant. I have considered putting on a backpack and exploring one of them (LOL). I noticed recently that someone appeared to have taken the trouble to clear out the slush - make that the (expletive) slush - from the potholes, presumably to help motorists spot them and avoid them. Otherwise, "bang," you drive into them. And the colorful language might flow.
Don't assume that any lack of education lends itself to using the kind of language associated with "Sarge" of "Beetle Bailey." Richard Nixon was notorious. It's generational. It needs to get phased out.
Normally by mid-April, we're even past the "snirt" season. You know, "snirt," the combination of snow and dirt that becomes ubiquitous in late winter. Del Sarlette once suggested we have a "snirt festival" in Morris complete with a queen etc. He suggested a certain gentleman dressed in drag as the queen. I have suggested "Dyngus Day" as a celebration we might have in Morris. It would be up to the Catholics to lead. This falls on the Monday after Easter. It's a big deal in some cities around the U.S. Yes there's royalty, including the "pussywillow prince."
Morris has a big push for tourism now. We need to think in terms of events like this.
I'll suggest again we have the "world's biggest" something. Wheaton has the world's biggest mallard. There's a city that has the world's biggest bullhead, so we'll have to scratch that off the list. Maybe the pocket gopher?
I doubt the city of Morris has an appreciable snow plowing budget for the month of April. Our city is gearing up for tearing down the old school. I look at that old decaying hulk and want to utter an expletive. Actually the expletive would be directed at the unconscionable delay in getting the job done. What a (expletive) tragedy.
Sigh.
So, we're in a veritable snow globe now. Del reminds me of a phrase that you might hear out and about as you make your rounds: "Did you order this weather?" I'm wondering if this is one of those unique Minnesota phrases, suitable for attention from Howard Mohr. You might hear someone say "boy, all this snow in April - it's a heckuva deal, isn't it?"
"Heckuva deal" is definitely Minnesotan. Mohr compiles such language for books like "How to Speak Minnesotan." I used to wonder if I should type "heckuva" or "heck of a." "Heckuva" bothered me a little as it sounded like something out of a car dealership ad. But I have come to realize it's a quite accepted construction.
Sports now? Hell's bells, our current weather is throwing a heckuva curve at that. It makes us wonder why we don't have a domed stadium in Minnesota (LOL). I don't follow sports much anymore so it doesn't bother me.
If April showers bring May flowers, what do April snowstorms bring? They bring a grim reminder of the challenges we face as Minnesotans. The question arises: Is it just getting to be a bit too much? It's certainly a "heckuva deal." And we might trot out some colorful "adjectives" too. Let's call on that over-60 male crowd.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Amelia" film has weight of knowing the outcome

History is full of individuals and episodes that would invite fascinating cinematic treatment.
We have historical novels in the field of literature. They can take license in the handling of facts. "Artistic license" ensures there's a captivating story line and interesting characters. The fundamental facts are left intact. A story that strives to follow history literally can be interesting too. As they say, "truth is stranger than fiction" (or can be).
The movie "Amelia" strives to be true to history. The 2009 release reminds us that "aviatrix" is a term.
I'm not sure the movie was necessary. At least, not in the way it was made. The movie could have told us more about what was happening in the 1930s, not just in America but the world. Amelia Earhart died in 1937 as the world was hurtling toward war. That's bad enough but keep in mind America had its own calamity to deal with, that being our teetering economy. It was of course the decade of the Great Depression.
David Stockman is telling us we could be hurtling toward the same crisis today. He's out with a book called "The Great Deformation." We'll see.
In the 1930s we had the "America First" movement which asserted we'd be just fine if we kept our distance from the world's problems. Aviator Charles Lindbergh was very high-profile with the "Firsters." American history has learned to soft-pedal the Firsters and the sentiment they represented. It seems laudable, really, wanting to avoid conflict. But Japan poured gasoline on things. Finally we were in World War II with both feet.
Amelia Earhart's prime was when issues of gravity were felt around the globe. The Japan-China War started in July of 1937. The movie "Amelia" might have been illuminating in many ways. Instead it rather obsesses on the individual Amelia Earhart with an actress who I guess was supposed to fascinate us with her physical resemblance. The novelty of that was exhausted after a few minutes. I could never look at Hilary Swank without seeing Hilary Swank - know what I mean? I wanted to see Amelia Earhart. I guess this means I had a hard time suspending reality. It just seemed like a formulaic biopic.
Earhart is of course famous for having vanished at the end. Thus we have the endless speculation, conspiracy theories etc. Watching a movie about Earhart is exactly like watching any of the Titanic or King Kong movies. Critics needn't worry about plot spoilers. Everyone knows the profound tragedy that is felt at the end. Thus there are limits for how much we can enjoy such a movie.
The biopic about bandleader Glenn Miller - remember Harry Morgan as the pianist? - avoided much of the pain at the conclusion. That's because we saw Miller's plane at takeoff only. He shoots a wave out the window, smiling. We know the rest of the story. We don't see it. (CW today suggests it was friendly fire: an abortive bombing raid.)
With "Amelia" we're dragged through the extended time as the aviatrix and her floundering "navigator," an alcoholic, soar over the Pacific Ocean, no destination in sight. We know there's no hope for them. We're forced to visualize the grim facts of their end.
The movie could have ended at takeoff, not just for this leg of the flight but the whole thing, when optimism and joy were high, never mind there was a reckless element that actually was present in much of Earhart's flying.
The end of the movie could have been a collection of scenes showing how adventurous and pioneering her life was. It was a time when women didn't have a lot of latitude. Society had narrow parameters. Major league baseball was still all-white. World War II would showcase the Tuskegee Airmen. Alas, the movie "Red Tails" didn't get much better reviews than "Amelia."
Roger Ebert's review of "Amelia" was actually more favorable than most. Ebert died just days ago. His review of "Amelia" reminds us that the aviatrix was the first person after Lindbergh to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean. He felt the "period detail" was good. He reminds us that Earhart didn't carry the kind of baggage that "Lucky Lindy" did, as the male hero was "chummy with the Nazis." Yes, this was in the time leading up to the war.
Ebert reminds us that the major biopic about Lindbergh, made in 1957 and starring Jimmy Stewart, was flawed. This movie was "The Spirit of St. Louis." Frankly I couldn't buy Stewart as Lindbergh. The movie focused too much on the long flight when it could have revealed more about "Lindy" the man, Ebert felt.
Filmmakers might have had a problem with Earhart in that her life was "generally happy," according to ol' Roger. Thus there is a "lack of drama." Her final flight might be seen as dripping with drama except for one thing: We all know how it turns out. Earhart was attempting a circumnavigational flight. She was aboard her Lockheed Model 10 Elektra. She and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the central Pacific near Howland Island.
I was fascinated to learn (through Wikipedia, not the movie) that her mother, Amelia "Amy" Otis Earhart, lived until 1962.
One movie critic employed some lame cleverness in saying "I wish biopics like this would get lost at sea." I share the sentiment but don't endorse the word choice. It's ditto with the movie "Pollock" (about artist Jackson Pollock) which I have also written about. Pollock like Earhart dies in a tragic incident. With Pollock, much of the general public wouldn't know about that. But Earhart's disappearance may truly be the most celebrated (as in focused-on) mystery of U.S. history.
"Amelia" suggested that the heroine sort of stumbled through her commercial obligations, as she built her profile in part to get the funding she needed. Reality suggests she took like a duck to water with the commercial and self-promotional stuff. She wasn't so innocent. She was married to a professional promoter.
The movie teases us with two rather oblique scenes that make us wonder if she's a lesbian - who cares? Today we accept such facts in stride. No titillation. It's really none of my business.
I see Swank reciting lines that seem stiff and contrived. It's as if such lines might have been written in a high school drama class. "Let's make Amelia look independent and free-spirited." The image could have been presented in a more understated way, through her actions as much as through her script lines.
A reviewer with "News Blaze" pointed out this shortcoming nicely, asserting that Swank seemed to "self-consciously channel the stilted speech of Katherine Hepburn." This reviewer's name is Prairie Miller. He further states that this movie "barely skims the surface of her life and time." This reiterates what I was asserting early-on in this post, that a panorama of disturbing history could have been shared and been instructive. Like me, Mr. Miller cites "world wars and the Depression."
Reviewer Dennis Schwartz summed up the flick as a "formulaic star-power biopic."
I might be the only reviewer who suggests that Christopher Eccleston as Noonan might have given the most genuine performance. He's an ordinary Joe who shows up with a job to do. Unlike all the other actors in the movie, he doesn't have to put on any special airs. All the other actors have to project such gravity. I'm sure all those other people (as portrayed) felt the usual combination of fears and thrills in their lives. They should have let their hair down.
The dirigible "Hindenburg" exploded in 1937. The Glenn Miller swing band debuted in New York. (Stewart and June Allyson starred in the spot-on biopic.) Social Security was getting formed in 1937. The clouds of war were horribly ominous. Shirley Temple was captivating America.
It's too bad we didnt' get a better flavor of the decade from "Amelia."
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Friday, April 5, 2013

"The Day the Earth Stood Still": It's the story, stupid

"Klaatu" (left) and "Gort"
Whoever thought of that "wavering" tone in the theme music for "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951) was a genius. I wonder how that appears in the sheet music. I've seen "shake" before (as in, apply a shake on the trumpet) but nothing to indicate an eerie sort of wavering.
"Eerie" says it all. After the first time seeing this old movie, I associated that wavering (or quivering) tone with something scary. As a child I'd see the movie again and instantly feel scared hearing the music at the start. (Wasn't the wavering effect replicated in "Mars Attacks?")
Scary? Yes, I think a child could genuinely be scared seeing "The Day the Earth Stood Still." That mute, menacing robot could stay stuck in one's thoughts. He was menacing for good of course. He was here from another world to scare the heck out of us about developing nuclear weapons. It was quite the timely meme for 1950s America.
"Gort" was the name of the robot. I would suggest the special effects were barely good enough to be convincing. But they were convincing. The black and white approach no doubt helped. Color is more likely to reveal special effects as cheesy. "Gort" might have come across as some little kid's art project using aluminum foil.
Gort's entrance was one of the highlight scenes in the classic 1951 cinema release. First we had the humanoid type of character, played by Michael Rennie, coming out of that saucer which in terms of special effects was as crude as Gort. The citizen gawkers in Washington D.C. were all assembled. No cable TV cameras of course. I have read it was wise for the moviemakers to settle on someone like Rennie, at the time a relative unknown, to play the humanoid. A big name might distract from the mystery factor. Other movies have found it a blessing in disguise to enlist a low-profile actor. It's about believability. Given the special effects limitations, believability was an issue. Then again, you might just want to shake your head and say "regardless, you just can't beat a good story." Amen and hallelujah.
Fear and mystery provided the guiding atmosphere in this sci-fi story. I had fear about "Gort," humiliating as it might seem now to admit it. I'll also admit I was scared of the Morlocks in "The Time Machine" (1960). It might be necessary to keep the light on in the bedroom for a new nights.
I remember Rennie appearing in another significant sci-fi release, "The Lost World," which I assume appears later in his filmography because it was in color. (Then again, "The Longest Day," among the most classic of WWII movies, making us believe Paul Anka could be a soldier, was a black and white release in 1962.)
Just as "The Day the Earth Stood Still" was barely good enough with special effects, "The Lost World" came close to being silly. The 1960 release used real reptiles and filmed them in a way to try to make them look like giant dinosaurs! The year 1960 was fruitful for sci-fi fans. These movies turned up on network TV often in the years ahead. They are burned into boomers' memories I'm sure. We don't need to keep the lights on in the bedroom now.
The Rennie character was both benevolent and threatening in "The Day the Earth Stood Still." The benevolent part seemed to stand out most. But at the end he gave us "earthlings" a firm ultimatum. He said Gort could be unleashed with incredible destructive power. We weren't informed how "Mr. Aluminum Foil" would do this. In my opinion this was a master stroke of the movie. Gort's potential destructive power was left to the imagination.
Cinema is often at its most effective when it plays on the imagination of the moviegoer. The later re-make (or "re-imagining") of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" did not employ that subtlety. The re-make showed us how Gort would be deployed. He would become a cloud of nano particles. I didn't find that to be either scary or fascinating.
I remember reading about a third of the way through Michael Crichton's novel about nano particles. This concept of sci-fi doesn't captivate me at all. Crichton was a talented writer but I didn't finish this book. Imagining nano particles just makes me want to go get a dust pan.
We got to see "Aunt Bee" in the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Of course this was the actress who would go on to play the matronly character of "Andy of Mayberry." She was at the boarding house when the Michael Rennie character ("Klaatu") checked in. One of the classic scenes was where Klaatu is silhouetted in a doorway, seeming mysterious, when he first arrived to check out a room. The "Aunt Bee" actress' name: Frances Bavier.
The arrangement seems quaint. The people are so trusting of each other. The widow lets her son accompany Klaatu around town even though the acquaintance doesn't seem that firm yet. I'm reminded of "Miracle on 34th Street" in which the divorcee is all too willing to let her daughter spend time with the John Payne character. Those were different times. The media hadn't scared us into so much mistrust yet. This isn't to say there weren't dangers in the world. But our behavior wasn't guided so much by fear of those dangers.
We had recently come out of the conflagration of World War II. We knew what real calamity was. The widow character had lost her husband in the war. Eventually we got the calamity of the Viet Nam War. Too bad "Gort" wasn't here to scare us all out of that war. But Klaatu explained that the powers he represented didn't care if we could fight with our primitive weapons. We'd only become a nuisance in the universe if we got carried away with the nuclear stuff.
In the 2008 re-make starring Keanu Reeves, the threat us earthlings presented was with global climate change. Earth had to be preserved for the sake of the universe.
The inspiration for both stories was a short story entitled "Farewell to the Master." Perhaps the genius of the story is what obscured the special effects issues in the original movie. A good story transfixes. Moviemakers, take heed.
Remember when the flying saucer (in the '51 release) first appeared and then landed on the Ellipse in Washington D.C.? It seemed pretty cheap. The compelling nature of the story caused us to forget that. Klaatu emerges from the craft and is then shot by an overly nervous soldier. As he is attended to, the people suddenly look up at something new that is getting attention. It's Gort! The scene was gripping.
Klaatu takes on the name "Mr. Carpenter" as he blends in with the civilians, joining his fellow boarding house members in breakfast-time chatting about the news. He is befriended by Patricia Neal in the role of the widow. You might not guess this is the same actress who went on to play the mother in "The Waltons" TV series. It's much easier to recognize the boy actor Billy Gray as the same kid whom we'd see in "Father Knows Best." Billy plays "Bobby" in the classic movie.
Bobby takes Mr. Carpenter out and around in the nation's capital. Mr. Carpenter shows the diamonds which are the currency in his world. Klaatu/Carpenter is dismayed by us earthlings taking our first steps into space. Would our penchant for violent conflict follow? At the end, in an atmosphere of total gravity, he says "the decision rests with you."
I give this movie the full five stars.
The 2008 re-make wasn't quite as well-received. I have watched the whole thing although not all in one sitting. I have caught the various parts when it's on cable TV channels.
I think the re-make came very close to being effective. My opinion of it has actually gone up some. One problem at the time of its release, I think, was that global warming had an air of controversy about it with political conservatives, tea party types, expressing skepticism. You know, Glenn Back vs. Al Gore. Just as the tea party and its sharp, in-your-face edge seems to have waned, the disputed nature of global climate change has dissipated. Now more than in 2008, we're willing to acknowledge in a sober and realistic way that environmental damage is happening. Hurricane Sandy is an exhibit. And, our endless Minnesota winter of 2013?
Rather than Washington D.C., the spaceship arrives in New York City's Central Park. I have to sigh because once again we're fed the New York-centric world. The robot disarms the military but in a different way than in the original movie. The original Gort, "Mr. Aluminum Foil," used a sort of ray emitted from his face. The new Gort uses intense sound waves that paralyze.
I was extremely touched by the scene that had Reeves as Klaatu meeting James Hong as "Mr. Wu." Mr. Wu has been assigned by the group of alien civilizations to live with us humans for 70 years. Wu knows he is to be exterminated like all the other earth people. Though he could escape, he has developed a bond with earth people, having seen "another side" (other than the ignorant one) that promotes fondness. He isn't leaving.
There is an old wise professor in both the original movie and the re-make. With Reeves we have John Cleese as Professor Barnhardt. The female hero, "Helen," takes Klaatu to meet him.
Gort begins his process of destroying humanity (yes, even Cher - LOL). The sky is filled with "locusts" (nanites). Klaatu is able to intervene just in time, having been persuaded to show sympathy. He decides mankind can change. Klaatu's body is destroyed but not his spirit. It wasn't his real body anyway. He apparently found the humanoid body disgusting.
Reeves is very convincing in the role. While the ending seems a happy one, the closing stages of this movie seem a little too dark and depressing. We wish the locusts hadn't been released at all. The nanites just seem irritating, not captivating. Which is why I didn't finish that Crichton book.
Maybe someday we'll have a new version again, of "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Maybe bring the wavering-tone music back?
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com