Space Cowboys (2000)

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I can’t fill up a spaceship with geriatrics.  In 1958, the members of Team Daedalus, a group of top Air Force test pilots, were ready to serve their country as the first Americans in space. When NASA replaced the Air Force for outer atmospheric testing, they were pushed aside for a chimpanzee by nemesis Bob Gerson (James Cromwell). The team retired, but the dream of going into space has never died. Forty years later, Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood) is called into NASA to see Gerson who’s now a NASA project manager. A Cold War Russian communications satellite is freeflying and out of control and the archaic control system is based on Frank’s old SKYLAB design. He gathers the old guys from the Right Stuff days – widower Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland) and pastor Tank Sullivan (James Garner) and they go through the rigorous  training of any young team,  trying to do in 30 days what would normally be done in 12 months. Then Frank is told he can’t go up but he also finds out one of his team has cancer. When he finally assembles everyone and they’re joined by Ethan (Loren Dean) and Roger (Courtney B. Vance) the younger astronauts supposedly there to do the real work, he sees that the satellite is nuked, a violation of the Outer Space Treaty You don’t need to be putting foolish notions in the head of a fool. From a screenplay by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, star and director Eastwood fashions an old geezer take on the men on a mission movie, with a nostalgic harking back to the test pilot days when the moon was still a dream in the sky. Gathering a cast of veteran actors (Jones has a big role, Sutherland some comic moments, Garner is poorly served) they literally go through the motions of contemporary space flight and have to face some difficult home truths as well as the inevitable jeopardy.  That the premise’s hook is that the KGB stole the designs in the first place tells us a lot about what might really been going on all this Hot Non-War time with those lovely Russians. There’s all the technology and the moon yearning to consider but really this is about a bunch of ageing flyers achieving their ambitions and getting to their final destination with some romance provided on the ground by Marcia Gay Harden with medical advice from Blair Brown. The coda of course is a tribute to Dr Strangelove and you can’t say much better than that in the original geriaction movie that is quite literally the final frontier. An amiable, charming work, filled out with the smooth sounds of regular Eastwood collaborator Lennie Niehaus. They were around when rockets were born

 

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Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

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Aka Hollywood’s Brightest Bombshell.  The story of Hedwig Kiesler aka Hedy Lamarr, the daughter of assimilated Austrian Jews who started acting as a teenager; achieved infamy for the Czech film Ecstasy in which she appeared naked and simulated an orgasm; married a Jewish arms dealer who traded with the Nazis; and eventually fled Europe as World War 2 approached. Her dealings with Louis B. Mayer at MGM and the dissatisfaction she experienced at the studio with her roles are offset by the revelation that she kept an inventing kit supplied by friend Howard Hughes (to whom she suggested aircraft design modifications) in her dressing room and at home.  She wanted to help the war effort any way she could. Eventually she would team up with composer George Antheil to invent a frequency-hopping system to make Allied comms elude detection by the Nazis:  the US Navy had already given her idea for radio-controlled torpedoes short shrift. She was told to go out and be a good obedient little woman and sell war bonds instead. It was decades later that she realised the military had taken the idea for wireless communications and ran with it, birthing bluetooth, GPS et al, without giving her credit or a cent. By the time she found out it was outside the statue of limitations;  Antheil had died in 1959. She produced two films with Jack Chertok which was verboten for actors in Hollywood in the immediate post-war period;  both made a small profit. Her marriages to older men repeatedly broke down, she adopted children and gave birth to children, and moved from city to city; her stardom disappeared by the late 1950s and she was hooked on the drugs the studio had been supplying to keep her going for those long six-day weeks. She wound up in court in 1966 for shoplifting $80 of goods – she had $14,000 in her purse at the time. Or rather, she didn’t go to court because her son was injured in a car crash – she sent her body double instead! She then put her name to a memoir she didn’t write and went on the chat show circuit. She was upset by the ‘almost use’ of her name in Blazing Saddles and sued.  She attempted a comeback but it coincided with another shoplifting incident. She was still staggeringly beautiful yet she became a recluse, having more and more facelifts to fix the preceding mistakes boosting her bust and distorting her looks … Alexandra Dean’s film about arguably the most beautiful star in Hollywood is a mixed bag – not in a bad way, but because Hedy Lamarr’s life was complex and interesting with her scientific bent obscured by her beauty and her devotion to her father mirrored in her regular marriages to much older men who abused her. The ease with which she dispatched one adopted son (only admitted  latterly to her daughter who didn’t recognise a boy in a photograph) first to military school and then to a different home is shocking:  they didn’t speak for another forty years but today he doesn’t blame her (albeit he sued to control her estate – he lost). He had hit her across her face and that was that. At that point Lamarr was hooked on the speed the studio had been giving her and it showed in her appearance. Her later years were mired in one cosmetic surgery after another – to repair the previous damage:  but even in this she was on the frontier of change as she instructed surgeons where to make incisions (behind the ear, the knee, wherever there were naturally occurring folds of skin). Her first adopted son transpired to be her actual biological offspring by her third husband, John Loder, whom she married after divorcing then-husband, screenwriter Gene Markey. The first third of the film deals with her background and her years as an actress in Hollywood;  the middle section deals with her inventions. The final third is primarily about the multiple marriages and decline, looking at the way her celebrity was prized by cheap magazines and Andy Warhol and how she was so cruelly mocked by Lucille Ball. The coda to her invention of wireless technology stolen by the US military and now valued at in excess of $35 billion is her son’s appearance at an event in 1999 broken up by her phonecall to him as he accepts an award on her behalf. She declared she had no regrets;  she died shortly thereafter. This, then, was no dumb actress:  a product of a terrible time for women during which she paradoxically found personal liberty by becoming involved in the arts and cinema, she stifled her own true voice as an engineer and inventor and wound up becoming the helpmeet to one incompatible husband after another. She had no idea what she was doing during the shoot for Ecstasy – she recalled being asked to move her arms together over her face. That’s how the director achieved her famous orgasm on film. She was filmed naked on long lenses hidden behind trees. Her son James bemoans the fact that no man was ever worthy of her. Fans of her films will be disappointed at the lack of attention given to her performing style and her impact on cinema outside of her physical allure – we see photo after photo of Hollywood actresses who changed their style after she arrived with such a breathtaking bang in Algiers, a Mitteleuropäische sophisticate from the most elegant city in the world afloat in a sea of shopgirls and waitresses, refusing to sign autographs and happiest on her own. She played historic women with verve and sexual threat – Empress Sissi on the Viennese stage, Helen of Troy, Empress Josephine, Genevieve of Brabant:  it never translated into her place in cinema. Forever a fish out of water, Lamarr was never happy in any of the roles assigned to her, denying her Jewish origins, her true talents and criminally treated by the powers that be who took advantage of her inventions to feather their own research nests. Her ashes are buried in the Vienna Woods:  she finally came home to her beloved Austria, decades after the jackboots had been stopped from stomping all over. In 2014 she was admitted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her creation of broad-spectrum technology. This is a salutary tale, told in a beguiling mixture of photos, newsreel, film clips and interviews, from a solid base of audio recordings with the redoubtable Lamarr herself. It is practically a refutation of the glamour of celebrity and the idea that we can ever truly know the stars of the silver screen. Hedy Lamarr changed the course of the twentieth century and we are only now beginning to catch up with her staggering achievements. This laudable film is just the latest addition to a burgeoning industry of books and shows and movies about a woman who was completely misunderstood in her own time. You could say she was lost in translation.

The Dam Busters (1955)

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Every time one of these Lancasters fly over, my chickens lay premature eggs.  At the start of WW2, British aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) is struggling to find a means of attacking dams in Germany in the hope of crippling the country’s heavy industry. He is working for both the Ministry of Aircraft Production and Vickers Engineering trying desperately to make practical his theory of a bouncing bomb which would skip over the water to avoid protective torpedo nets. When it came into contact with the dam, it would sink before exploding, making it much more destructive. Wallis calculates that the aircraft will have to fly extremely low (150 feet (46 m)) to enable the bombs to skip over the water correctly, but when he takes his conclusions to the Ministry, he is told that lack of production capacity means they cannot go ahead with his proposals.  Frustrated, Wallis gets a meeting with Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris (Basil Sydney) the head of RAF Bomber Command who is reluctant to take the idea seriously. Eventually he takes the idea to the Prime Minster who authorises the project. Bomber Command forms a special squadron of Lancaster bombers, 617 Squadron, to be commanded by Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) and tasked to fly the mission. He recruits experienced crews, especially those with low-altitude flight experience. While they train for the mission, Wallis continues his development of the bomb but has problems, such as the bomb breaking apart upon hitting the water. This requires the drop altitude to be reduced to 60 feet (18 m). With only a few weeks to go, he succeeds in fixing the problems and the mission can go ahead and the bombers attack the dams … Paul Brickhill’s account of this daring strategy and Guy Gibson’s own memoir East Coast Ahead were adapted by R. C. Sheriff who himself had written some brilliant tales of WW1 derring-do. Redgrave and Todd are superb as the principals in an exciting biographical account of ingenious engineering and aeronautical bravery which was first released 63 years ago today and which is re-released as part of the RAF’s 75 year anniversary. The Dam Busters March by Eric Coates is justly famous and Erwin Hillier’s aerial cinematography is magnificent. Dedicated to director Michael Anderson who died just a few weeks ago.