THE MANDALORIAN

(lotsa spoilers)

Back in the day, when I was a new member of SFWA, we issued the SFWA Handbook, and in it we advised all SF writers to avoid the “space western.” It might be popular on TV (Star Trek was called “Wagon Train in space”) but the genre’s print editors weren’t interested.

It’s still popular on TV as evidenced by the acclaim for The Mandalorian on Disney+.  John Favreau, the writer and showrunner, has dipped into both the western bounty-hunter genre and the Japanese ronin films for inspiration.  The title character is a masked bounty hunter who does a good imitation of Clint Eastwood’s voice and wears a cape instead of a serape.

In the first three of the eight episodes we’re treated to a saloon shootout, some alien bronco busting, a desert town shootout, and the successful capture of the objective: a fifty year-old alien child you have no recourse but to call “Baby Yoda” (he’s not) who is terminally cute.  By the end of chapter 3 the Mandalorian has decided to take the child under his wing, which lands a price on his head and sets all the other bounty hunters after him.  (John Wick, anyone?)  I watched him stride along with the floating basinet beside him and said, “Lone Wolf and Cub.”  My daughter and grandson were watching with me but had no idea what I was talking about.

Episode 4 is a cut-down version of The Magnificent 7 (or Seven Samurai).  I say “cut down” because there are only two gunslingers (The Magnificent Duo?) – the Mandalorian and the hot but very scary Gina Carano.  I could go on but I won’t.  I must, however, mention the arrival of Gus Fring in the guise of Mof Gideon, and the very cool salute to the finale of The Wild Bunch in episode 8.

I’m not complaining about the homages (?) because I had fun identifying them, but going forward I hope for more original plotting.  I do see a problem with the Mandalorian religion forbidding him to show his face to another human being.  It’s a big drawback in that it’s so distancing.  This character is carrying the series but the helmet makes it very difficult to engage with him.  Even old Mount Rushmore Eastwood gave us something as the Man with No Name (he could do a lot with a squint).

 

 

 

 

THE ENDLESS

This is a lesson on how to convey cosmic horror, which needs to be experienced rather than explained. Most attempts at cosmic horror fail because of the human need for an explanation. You can’t explain the unknowable. Once you concretize and categorize a thing, it loses its ability to spark awe and wonder. No Cthulhus and Yog Sothoths wandering through here. The Endless stumbles toward the end when we learn the destiny of the cult, but it’s a small stumble that doesn’t mitigate the the pervasive, growing unease that permeates most of the film. This is the kind of film that frustrates hidebound imaginations because it doesn’t lay everything out for you tied up in a pretty ribbon. The viewer’s need to infer helps create the horror and is what makes it work. (As opposed to works that never really knew where they were going in the first place.) I’m hardly an elitist. I like jump scares and gross-outs as much as the next guy, but if you need those to define a horror film, skip this. It’s not for you.

CADILLAC RECORDS

I watched this blues docudrama for the 2nd time and loved it all over again. It’s the story of Chess Records, founded by the Chess brothers, two Polish immigrants who introduced Delta Blues and the original rock n’ roll to the airwaves, and thereby to the Rolling Stones who brought it to the masses. (Ever hear the instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue”? That’s the Chicago address of Chess Records.) The film mainly concerns only one of the Chess brothers: Leonard. Phil is barely there. (I don’t know why.) Jeffrey Wright is good as Muddy Waters but doesn’t look much like him. Mos Def and Eamonn Walker nail Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf. And Beyonce owns Etta James. It’s narrated by Cedric the Entertainer as the great Willie Dixon. If you’ve ever liked a Delta blues or Chicago blues song (and who hasn’t?), you owe it to yourself to see this film.

THE VAST OF NIGHT

I love this kind of film. It’s a microbudget sci-fi period piece (1958 New Mexico) that breaks no new ground but the dialog and acting and camera work are topnotch. Echoes of “Twilight Zone” and Pontypool abound but not to its detriment. Not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I found this a pure pleasure to watch, to sit back and drink it in. On Prime Video. Do not miss.

CHERNOBYL

Well, I didn’t intend to see this but people kept saying how good it was. Glad I did. It’s a gripping tale of rampant incompetence and the dangers of statism. I was struck when, with a reactor completely destroyed, one of the scientists was told that nuclear disasters simply don’t happen in the Soviet state. I immediately flashed back to “Citizen X” when the psychiatrist investigating the child murders was told “There is no serial killer in the Soviet state.” Party affiliation trumps competence – the head of the nuclear energy department didn’t know how a reactor worked, and on and on. You have to ask yourself: How could a disaster NOT occur?

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940)

Enjoyable, involving, suspenseful, unpredictable. Hitchcock is hitting his stride here. The only quibble is the somewhat incongruously light tone compared to the grim subject matter. This might have something to do with Robert Benchley being one of the screenwriters (and actors). As usual for the time, Hitchcock preferred to shoot indoors for outdoors and the sets have a wonderful hyper-real effect, especially the interior of the windmill. The Escheresque quality of its crisscrossing stairways is fascinating (even though this preceded Escher’s most famous works). Very much worth a look.

A BLUEPRINT FOR MURDER (1953)

With Joseph Cotten, Jean Peters, and Gary Merrill. I’d never heard of this film but I’ve cast a wide net during my current noir binge and I’m glad I found it. Despite two glaring (at least to me) plot holes, this tight, cerebral thriller is riveting. Not one of its 77 minutes is wasted. IMHO a lot more films could benefit by being edited down to a similar running time. (I was impressed by the way Catherine McCleod steals all her scenes as Gary Merrill’s pulp-writer wife)

TOO LATE FOR TEARS (KILLER BAIT)

I watched this 1949 noir thriller without knowing its tangled history. Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea, and Don Defore (eventually of “Hazel” fame) star in a screenplay that’s a lot busier than most noirs of the period (i.e., the plot keeps accelerating instead of plodding). Typical noir situation of one bad decision leading to another and another until someone is murdered. Lizabeth Scott isn’t the most expressive actress, but love that voice! I won’t go into the copyright travails here. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Too_Late_for_Tears)