A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 87 – Flight of the Navigator

Flight of the Navigator – May 26th, 2010

Yet again, a movie straight out of my childhood. Not that I had a professional copy or anything. Yup, taped from television. My parents are not big movie buffs. Never have been. Sure, they have some favorites and enjoy a movie now and again but they’re not like me and Andy. They think this whole project is a little weird, to be honest. So we didn’t really buy movies. We rented and when there was something my parents actually liked or that my brother or I couldn’t live without (and my mother didn’t object to it) we usually taped it. Of course, all those tapes are long gone. But this was one of them.

I almost wish I was watching this on VHS. The trouble with a DVD on a nice modern high resolution television is that little things that didn’t show on film or VHS show. Big time. Like the strings controlling one of the little aliens on the ship. It’s a little thing, but this is such a fun movie, I hate being thrown out of it by visible effects tricks. Perhaps surprisingly, the movie holds up pretty damn well for something that’s almost 25 years old. Part of that, I think, is that the movie very firmly places itself in 1986. That’s part of the point of the movie. So you expect the current technology to be more than a little dated and for that, it’s just fine. And then there are the special effects. Except aside from the space ship and the aliens, there aren’t many special effects. It’s deceptively simple that way. And what there is, works fine. Sure, it might be slicker if it was to be done now, but I’m not fussed by it because the rest of the movie – the story and the characters – holds up so well.

On July 4th, 1978, 12 year old David heads off through the woods near his family’s house to fetch his 8 year old brother from a friend’s house. After his brother sneaks up on him and scares him and runs off, David falls down a small ravine and blacks out for a moment. As far as he’s concerned, he wakes up almost immediately and heads home. Only to find people he doesn’t know living in his house. It’s been eight years and he’s been missing the whole time. His family is overjoyed, but everyone’s puzzled as to where he’s been for eight years and why he hasn’t aged. Then tests to see if he can recall anything about his absence turn up some bizarre things, such as David’s brain communicating directly with the computers (EEGS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY!) and producing a diagram of a UFO. The very same UFO that’s just been recovered by NASA. Once NASA finds out they snatch David right up and run their own tests, finding that his head is full of information they can’t decipher. Star charts for areas of space that NASA hasn’t charted and technical specs in a language they shouldn’t have a font for. Eventually, with the help of an intern who’s been bringing him his food, David breaks out of his room and gets to the ship, which welcomes him since he’s got a head full of star charts and the ship has lost its files in an accident. It needs him in order to get home. Seems it took him for study, intending to bring him back in time, but the trip would have been too risky. The head full of star charts was just an experiment to see how much they could fill up a human brain. Good thing they did it, huh? So David gives the ship the charts in his head and the ship’s computer turns into PeeWee Herman (literally, it’s voiced by Paul Reubens) after getting a dose of Earth pop culture and they go whizzing off around the globe at record speeds until David goes home. But it’s not home. It’s eight years in his future and NASA wants to keep him locked up until they can wring every drop of info from his head. So he risks the trip back in time.

But here’s the cool part: He doesn’t forget. Sure, that’s potentially problematic, in that he can’t explain to his parents how he knows that his brother will eventually grow into his teeth and get better glasses. Or why he’s got an alien in his backpack. But he knows he had this adventure. He knows his family missed him and loves him and never gave up trying to find him. He knows what it’s like to fly around the world in a matter of a handful of hours. And when I was a kid? Watching this? I wanted to find that ship and get on it and fly around just like he did. It’s just plain fun. The vast majority of the movie is fun enough that the dangerous bits, where NASA wants to lock David up and he doesn’t know how he’ll get back to his own time, are just tense and scary enough to be a counter note. It doesn’t stop being fun because of the danger. And a movie that involves a twelve year old kid getting to pilot a space ship with a wise-cracking alien computer should be fun. This movie was an early introduction to science fiction for me and a lot of kids whose parents might have wondered if Star Wars was a little too violent. I still came away from this movie wanting to get on that space ship tonight. I could do without going missing for eight years, but I’d take a buzz around the world if I could. That’s some good scifi there.

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May 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Flight of the Navigator

May 26, 2010

Flight of the Navigator

This movie is something very special. Something rare and cool that there isn’t enough of. It’s a hard science fiction movie for children. Sure it has a spaceship with the voice of Pee Wee Herman and a lot of silliness and adventure, but the central premise of a kid who disappears for eight years and has mysteriously not aged in that time because he was taken by a spaceship to a neighboring star is actually based in scientific fact. (Well, okay only loosely… they establish that he traveled 12 light years in 4 hours so it’s actually FTL travel which is not so simple as the Einsteinian “twin paradox,” but at least it has SOME basis in science.)

The movie follows the adventures of twelve year old David who, after falling unconscious in a ravine at the start of the movie finds himself suddenly in the year 1986 – eight years later. He is bewildered to discover that his family has all aged, that the whole world is different, and that his parents had believed that he’d been dead all these years. It plays for the first third of the movie or so as a mystery rather than a sci-fi romp.

I love not only the fact that you don’t actually see a space ship for the first twenty minutes of the movie but that it also teases you about it. The movie makers know that you are watching the movie to see cool flying saucers but they fake you out three times before you even get to see one. And even then the space ship is broken and can’t do any flying because it needs the star charts that are inside David’s brain (where they had been stuck by an alien race as a sort of science experiment.)

Once David and the space ship are re-united it becomes a kind of weird road movie as they attempt to find the way home to David’s family after escaping from a top secret NASA base somewhere just outside of Fort Lauderdale. The ship’s computer is corrupted by interfacing with David’s brain to retrieve the star charts- becoming less of a remote and detached alien computer and more a buddy for David as they have their adventures.

By far the coolest thing in this movie is the ship itself. Sure the CG effects are showing their age, but they still look pretty nifty all these years later, and the interior of the ship is this awesome modular set with things like the chair that rises smoothly out of the floor and all the screens and things that are integrated into its metallic walls. The computer’s interface is a kind of glowing ball on the end of an arm that projects from the ship’s wall. It’s very alien and at the same time has a lot of personality. It must have been fun to puppeteer.

When David takes the manual controls and starts to fly the ship it’s one of those magical movie moments when you’re definitely along for the ride. I love it when a movie can make you feel the pure joy of its characters. I’d say this did it well, and so did Neverending Story (at least for me.) Great children’s movies that have stood the test of time and which I still enjoy watching to this day.

One sad side-effect of this movie is that it made me want to watch a bunch of other movies we don’t own. Things like The Explorers, Close Encounter of the Third Kind and E.T. The Sci-Fi movies of my youth. I can’t believe we don’t have them in our collection already. I mean, I just checked and we don’t even own The Goonies! Time for a shopping spree I think!

May 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 86 – Riverworld (2003)

Riverworld (2003) – May 25th, 2010

When I got home tonight I said we needed a short movie. We weren’t going to be able to start watching until after 10 and I don’t like the idea of finishing the movie after midnight. Thankfully, we’ve been updating our big-ass spreadsheet of doom with runtimes (thanks to friend JP for the suggestion) and I sorted by that column, came up with a lot of shark movies (we’re saving those for later), a lot of stuff we’ve seen, and this. It’s 90 minutes long. Neither of us have seen it. It was made by the SciFi Channel back before it rebranded itself with something trademarkable.

This is a science fiction movie based on a book by Philip Jose Farmer. Unfortunately, I haven’t read it, so I went into this blind. Andy, on the other hand, has read it and started out by immediately making comments about little changes made. It’s not a terribly big budget film and we can easily play spot-the-ad-break. I noticed a couple of scenes that seemed to have been shot on different stock than the majority of the movie, which was odd and jarring. And it’s got an hour and a half to introduce the world and the concept that drives it while also fitting in an actual plot, because while it was a made-for-tv movie, it’s still a movie, not a series. Maybe they were hoping for more, but it never happened and while there are plenty of books in the same world from Farmer, there’s no way to get to everything in one movie. Which is too bad. Having not read the books, I can see the basic idea here, but I’m sure it’s far more fleshed out with more space. It’s a fascinating concept: That all human beings, when they die, are reborn in adult bodies on a world dominated by a river. That all of humanity washes up on the riverbank in random groupings, left to their own devices to build what societies they want. My internet-trained brain immediately assumes this is all a social experiment.

So we start out with our main character, Jeff Hale, dying as his space shuttle is hit by an asteroid or something. A mysterious cloaked figure wakes him in some sort of giant diatom and gives him some visions. Then he and a bunch of other confused folks wash up on the riverbank and find some handily provided clothing that seems to fit everyone, though the men get a mesh panel on the backs of their shirts while the women get a boob window. Cute. Anyhow, they’re quickly set upon by the Vandals, a nasty army led by a dude named Valdemar. But he’s not long for the movie because we need a villain whose name we’ll recognize, right? Right. A small group of core characters are quickly established. In addition to Hale we get Alice, Lev, Mali, Monat and Gwen. Alice is a young woman from the early 20th century, Lev is a young man who died in Auschwitz, Mali is a Yoruban priestess, Gwen is a little girl who doesn’t talk so who knows what her point is aside to be cute and not have to memorize lines, and Monat is an alien. They get dragged off to Valdemar’s fortress where eventually Nero fights him (yes, Nero, I did say we needed a villain we’d recognize) and kills him while our heroes escape. They meet up with Sam Clemens and his merry band of boat builders who are making a riverboat (duh) and plan to head off downriver. Of course there’s a spy in their midst and of course they need to go back to the fortress and of course Nero fights Hale like, eight billion times in the course of the movie.

It’s not bad, as SciFi Channel movies go (we really should get Mansquito). I’m sure it leaves something to be desired for folks who’ve read the books. I can’t say I didn’t mock it while we watched it. There are cheesy lines and cheap stunts and the aforementioned weird stock change and the ad breaks. Since it was made for television, they scripted the ad breaks in. It’s kind of unsettling. But overall, I enjoyed it, cheese included. While it’s obvious that some romantic intent was meant to happen and four of the main characters are supposed to couple up, it never truly goes anywhere and that’s kind of refreshing. Don’t waste my precious science fiction time trying to build up a romance that would just detract from the plot. There’s set-up for a sequel that won’t happen (not with this cast anyhow, there’s another adaptation, and it’s got Peter Wingfield, Tahmoh Penikett and Alan Cumming, so I’m kind of hoping they did better), but I won’t knock it for that. SciFi has expanded upon things before. I should probably go read the books now. At least before I see the newer version.

May 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Riverworld

May 25, 2010

Riverworld

You may recall that when we reviewed Knowing I said that I had no intention of buying that movie until repeated previews declared it to be from “the director of i Robot.” Well here’s another movie I wouldn’t have purchased except for its relationship to Alex Proyas. (In this case he produced it rather than directing it.) Still, I embarked upon this movie with low expectations. It’s a made for TV adaptation of an extremely rich and dense series. Such things are often disappointing. (See: Earthsea.) And yet, I was pleasantly surprised by the two Dune miniseries that were made for SciFi so maybe it has a chance to be good.

The biggest problem this movie has to overcome is also its biggest advantage: the complex artificial world that Phillip Jose Farmer created. I’d say that I’m more of a fan of the world than of the books, really. Farmer posited this world where every human who ever lived was resurrected along the shores of a never ending meandering river on an alien world. They are provided with all the necessities to live. There are “grails” which are magical cups that are filled with supplies when inserted into the grailstones at sunset. The entire world has a temperate climate which is hospitable to human life. But humans being the savage beasts that they are quickly form into isolated warring bands. They enslave each other and hoard the supplies provided by the grailstones. All the old civilizations and rivalries of Earth are reborn to be tragically replayed.

It’s a tremendous amount of exposition that needs to be done in very little time for a made-for-TV-movie, so I was curious to see how they accomplished it all. The truth of the matter is that they did a respectable job. Naturally the sheer scale of the world cannot be contained within so limited a project, but they hit on most of the important points. For the sake of the movie all the action takes place in a very limited part of the Riverworld. The whole mechanic from the books whereby every time somebody dies they are resurrected somewhere else on the planet is not explored at all. Neither is the strange social makeup of the resurrectees – with most people in any one region being from the same general time period and region on Earth, but with a few random misfits thrown in for reasons only the planet’s keepers know.

Overall I would say that the movie does a good enough job of showing this strange kind of afterlife experiment, but that it fails to capture the grandeur of the world depicted in the books. It does make me want to pull out my Riverworld books and read them again, though, so perhaps it’s all okay. In the end it ends up being a pretty standard and somewhat predictable action/adventure tale with a cool kind of setting for a background. I enjoyed watching it, and don’t regret buying it for our collection, but it failed to capture any of the epic feel that the books had for me.

May 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 85 – Bring It On

Bring It On – May 24th, 2010

There are so many reasons why I shouldn’t like this movie. It’s full of embarrassing moments and confrontations, it’s cheesy as all get out, it’s got more than a couple of jokes that are in such poor taste they make me do a full body cringe. It’s about cheerleading. Now, granted, I do enjoy gymnastics, and I’m not going to go slagging off on championship-level cheerleading.

The bizarre thing is, I can’t help but chuckle at a lot of this movie. I’ll stop on it when I’m flipping channels. I’ll go back to it after a commercial break. But I think that kind of explains it. When I’m watching it on television, I can flip away during the awkward and embarrassing bits and just tune back for the non-cringey humor and the cheerleading routines with the jumping and tumbling and bouncing and tossing and kicking and go team go! But this is for the project. We own the DVD (this is my fault, as I bought this and a few others in retaliation for the handful of movies Andy bought that I’m actively dreading) so we have to watch it all the way through, no fast-forwarding. And that means watching through the revelation that our heroes and heroines have unwittingly been using stolen routines, and the confrontation between them and the team their former captain stole from. It means watching as they scramble for a new routine and end up with a bizarre choreographer who’s sold the same routine to at least six other teams. It means watching every line of awkward dialogue and every bad joke to get to the decent and fun bits.

There are fun bits. I promise. You have to like cheese. Or rather, Cheez-Whiz. It’s pretty aerated. But if you enjoy fluffy silliness, it’s got some funny moments. I’ve got a fondness for the B plot, but that might be because the romantic interest is played by Jesse Bradshaw and I’m just amused to see him in something that isn’t Hackers. Quick plot rundown (this won’t take long, promise): Torrance is the new captain of the Rancho Carne High cheerleading squad and determined to maintain the team’s winning streak at the National Cheerleading Championships. Except the new member of the squad, transfer student Missy, recognizes their routines as belonging to a team from Compton that hasn’t ever been able to fund a trip to Regionals. With her cheerleader boyfriend away at college and the former captain out of the picture and the team at a loss for what to do, Torrance is on her own to come up with a solution. Of course her team makes Nationals, as does the Compton team, and the movie ends with a climactic cheer-off where the best team wins. The B plot involves Torrance’s boyfriend cheating on her and Torrance falling for Missy’s brother, Cliff, who is all anti-cheer/punk rock/apathetic/late 90s stereotype. Missy, Cliff and Torrance have some good scenes, which is another reason I like the B plot. Also, Missy is played by Eliza Dushku, and having a Buffy regular and one of the secondary cast members from Hackers in a cheerleading movie makes me laugh and laugh.

Anyhow, this movie makes fun of itself, so I don’t feel too bad joining in. The whole thing with the choreographer is played up for laughs that I’m sure are heartier coming from people who’ve done actual cheerleading and dealt with choreographers like him. So much of the movie is played directly to the target audience: teenage girls who’ve done cheerleading or at least know enough about it to recognize every satirical poke. The thing is, it’s also got Missy, who joins the team because she’s a frustrated gymnast in a school with no gymnastics team. Where Torrance and the team represent all the viewers who know the ins and outs of cheerleading, Missy guides us outsiders through the baffling world of spirit sticks, hairspray and cheerocracies.

Really, though, the best reason to watch the movie is the end. Come in after the Regionals, skip the whole bit about Torrance’s boyfriend not believing in her and watch the team prepare for Nationals, then watch the competition and the closing credits. Sure, it means you miss Missy’s try-out for the squad, and the bizarre toothbrushing scene with Torrance and Cliff trying to out-spit each other. But it’s fairly clear of wince-worthy moments, it’s got fun cheerleading routines to watch, and then the closing credits have some bloopers and the entire cast dancing and lip-syncing to Oh Mickey.

May 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Bring It On

May 24, 2010

Bring it On

When we embarked on this movie-a-day thing we realized that a very large portion of our collection was purchased by me and for me. My wife felt that there needed to be some counter-balance. Some movies that I would never in a million years have bought. Like, for example, Bring it On.

I definitely never would have voluntarily watched a campy teen movie about cheerleaders. So it’s kind of difficult to review it. Not only is it not from any of the genres I regularly view (it’s certainly not sci-fi action or musical or animated children’s film or serious drama or… well anything I’d watch) but it’s pretty much part of the one genre you’re least likely to find me watching: a sports movie. It’s all about the long road to the cheerleading championships and that big final performance. (I suppose there’s a kind of genre that’s all about the final amazing performance when the team pulls together and everything finally goes right. Like Hamlet 2, The Marc Pease Experience or Waiting for Guffman.)

At the start of the movie Torrence (Spidey’s girlfriend Kirsten Dunst, who we’ll be seeing again in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) takes over the captain position in the five-time-champion Rancho Carne Torros. And of course things go all wrong. First she has to quickly find a replacement for one of her squad who gets injured, which brings proto-emo gymnast Missy, who has just arrived in this school and doesn’t really get why cheerleading is such a big deal (here portrayed by local favorite Eliza Dushku, who will always be Faith in my mind.) Then Torrence discovers that all the cheers her squad has been winning with all these years have been stolen from another team, the Compton Clovers. So they have no cheers and a fractured squad full of backstabbing bitches. How are they going to make it to the nationals?

I enjoyed the movie well enough. It’s clearly camp. Torrence’s boyfriend at the start of the movie seems to be channeling Jim Carrey’s character Wiploc from Earth Girls Are Easy. There are lines like the famous “This isn’t a democracy – it’s a cheerocracy.” There are constant jokes about the supposed homosexuality of the male cheerleaders. (One of whom IS gay, which leads to one of the better bits of the movie.) The routines are impressive in a kind of Hollywood way – the frenetic editing and constant jump cuts make it hard to really see the performances – probably a symptom of having to insert the actors into the cheer routine footage.

But what I liked most about this movie is that it’s got a pretty clever subversive twist to it. Yes, it’s a tale of the underdog team that finally wins against all odds – but not in the way you might expect. I don’t want to spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen the movie (because I hate spoilers) but it almost feels like there are two different movies going on here. It’s as though somebody made a typical sports underdog movie but pointed the camera the wrong way. It’s a clever bit of misdirection that added a dimension to the film which tickled me.

I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that!

May 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 84 – Push

Push – May 23rd, 2010

Neither of us had seen this before tonight, so yay new movies. It’s a bit of an X-Men-type knockoff, but then it’s not the first, and while I’m going to avoid making a lot of comparisons with Heroes, since Heroes lost my interest about halfway through season 2 and it’s not quite fair to compare a two hour movie with a network television show, there is a similar vibe going on. We’re told by a short bit of intro narration that Nazi experimentation on creating super human soldiers with psychic abilities sparked the beginning of worldwide research into weaponizing human beings. In the world of the movie there are a limited number of specific power types, including your basic kinetics, clairvoyants, and healers, but also people who alter the look of an object, people who can create high frequency sounds that can kill, and people who can make you believe things and control your thoughts. Unlike in many other humans-developing-super-powers universes, this one has a very limited skill set. Which I kind of like. But I didn’t really need one of the main characters to tell me all about them. They show them quite nicely through the course of the movie. Eh. It only takes what, five minutes? Maybe? I can forgive that.

So the world of the movie is a dangerous one. Whenever you’re set up with Shadowy Government Organizations ™ who kill folks in front of their kids in the movie’s first scene, you know you’re not going to be rooting for the guys with the badges. The Division, as the Shadowy Government Organization in the movie is called, tracks down powered people and carts them off to their facilities to experiment on them. They’ve been trying to create a drug that will enhance psychic abilities. Unfortunately it kills everyone who takes it and that’s kind of a drag. So instead of, you know, trying to make a miracle drug that doesn’t have the nasty side effect of 100% death, they just keep injecting it into people and killing them. Seems like a bit of a waste to me, but eh, I’m not part of a Shadowy Government Organization, so what do I know? Except one subject, Kira, survives, grabs a syringe full of the drug and takes off, her escape aided by a mysterious glass marble dropped by another inmate at the Division facility she was in. But I’ll get to that later.

Kira escapes and the scene cuts and we’re dropped back into the movie two days later where Kira, who now remembers nothing about her escape, is in Hong Kong. Who else is in Hong Kong? The guy whose father the Division wasted in front of him in the first scene. He’s Chris Evans now, but he can’t set himself on fire without a lighter and some alcohol so I guess I’ll stay away from the Flame On! jokes for now. Nick’s a “mover” (the movie’s name for kinetics) but he kind of sucks at it and he’s kind of a loser and he owes people money and blah blah blah. Let’s move on. Little precog (“watcher”) Cassie shows up at his door telling him he’s going to help her find this girl who has something important or everyone going to die. Seems Cassie’s mother was a watcher too and made all sorts of predictions until the Division grabbed her. So Cassie’s got a thing against the Division and dying and thus begins the quest to save Kira.

What makes the movie more than just an extended chase movie with intermittent shootouts is the powers involved. As is appropriate. After all, if the powers were just there and the movie didn’t incorporate them into the plot, what would be the point? Might as well just leave them out and make a non-scifi action/thriller. So the fights are full of kinetic blows and people flying around and the fantastically over-the-top screams of the “bleeders” (those would be the ones with the high frequency sounds, and they get creepy lizard-slit eyes when they do it). And the thriller/suspense aspect of the movie comes from the “pushers” constantly making people do things or think things and leave you questioning for at least a few seconds, as well as the “watchers”, of whom there are two, constantly at odds and trying to stay one step ahead of each other. Because it’s not just the Division who wants Kira. It’s also a family from Hong Kong who seems to be rather powerful in the underground there.

Kira, accompanied by Nick and Cassie and a couple of other powered folks who’ve been hiding out in Hong Kong, gets chased through the city and the pacing of the movie is done well enough that I never really felt like it dragged. There are some decent plot twists and well-executed turns and loops. The gimmick they use at the climax to disguise their movements from anyone trying to predict what they’re doing is a nice touch, and there was only one secondary character who I really felt could have been explored more. Really, my only true complaint about the movie is that it all seems set up to lead into a sequel, or at least a series of comic book tie-in follow-ups. But I don’t know if there was ever the real expectation that this movie could realistically lead to a sequel. I did read that there’s talk about a television series, but leaving things the way the movie leaves them, hoping that a new property that’s really obviously derivative of existing properties will pan out into future works? That’s annoying.

So let’s talk about how the movie leaves things. I mentioned Cassie’s mother early on. She’s supposedly this amazing “watcher” with incredible abilities who’s being held by the Division. But through the course of the movie we meet several characters who mention having met Cassie’s mother in the past and that she told them to be in a certain place at a certain time. It’s heavily implied that she’s the one who dropped the marble at the beginning of the movie, allowing Kira’s escape. She did a favor for the one secondary character I felt cheated by (a healer who seems to just go with the highest bidder but also has a hint of a dark religious overtone and something against Nick for reasons that are never really explained) and told her how to repay it in the future. Cassie talks about how she gets visions of the Division killing her mother if they fail, but it’s never said by anyone else that her mother is at stake. And I can’t help but feeling like it’s not so much that Cassie’s mother predicted all of this so much as that she set it up somehow. I wish the movie had carried through on that. I wish it felt finished at the end instead of like it should have had a “To be continued…” placard.

It’s not a great movie, but it’s not bad overall. I enjoyed it. I’d probably watch it again. I’m actually rather curious about the prequel comic books that are supposedly out there somewhere. If the show gets made, I’d put it on my DVR. I just wish the movie had been itself instead of a setup for more marketing. Then again, I still liked it a lot better than the last few episodes of Heroes that I watched, so that’s a definite plus.

May 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Push

May 23, 2010

Push

“Save the cheerleader save the world.” I do enjoy the modern obsession with real world super heroes. Today’s tale of mutant x-powers takes the form of a gritty story of international political intrigue about Division – a government secret project to study and develop super-powerful mutants. It’s also my first time watching this movie, so I’m dealing with first impressions here.

To start off let me ask, for whom was the entirely unnecessary expositional monologue over the opening credits intended? The movie is very specifically targeted for fans of superheroes and such things – so this opening just doesn’t work. Anybody watching this movie already knows what they’re getting into. And, frankly, I’d rather have spent some time figuring out what was going on. (It’s not like it’s too hard.) I suspect that like the Bladerunner narration it was inserted by some studio exec who couldn’t follow the movie.

And that would be my biggest quibble with the move. It’s a slick piece of world building that presents you with this premise and then just sort of plays in the playground it has created. In the world of this movie there are “movers” who are telekinetics who can movie things, “bleeders” who can break thinks or kill people by screaming, “stitches” who can kill or heal with a touch, “sniffers” who can tell the history of any object they touch and trace the location of people who have had contact with the object… all kinds of super powers like that. But the two super powers that really trump everything else are the “watchers” who can see the ever-changing future and the “pushers” who can put any thought or memory into your head. The whole movie is pretty much about confrontations between very powerful watchers and pushers.

There’s the good guys – an inexperienced mover named Nick and the precocious Cassie – a young watcher who’s mother was captured by Division many years ago. A woman named Kira has escaped from Division and taken a super-drug they’ve developed to amplify super powers, and somehow Nick and Cassie get mixed up with her. There isn’t a government on the planet who wouldn’t kill anybody in their way for that super drug (to paraphrase Sneakers) and so not only do Nick, Cassie, Kira and all the motley crew of underground super folks they interact with have to deal with the evil pusher Henry Carver from Division and all his cronies, but they also have to deal with a local band of super-powered thugs that want the power as well.

So once the stakes have been set and the characters introduced the movie suddenly becomes a heist film. Nick figures the only way to cloud the vision of all these watchers out looking for him is to plan an elaborate scheme, write it all down on letters that his crew won’t read until they need to, and then have his own memory of the scheme wiped. From then on it’s kind of Ocean’s Eleven with super powers as the scheme unfolds – and nobody (audience or anybody in the movie) really seems to know what’s going on. It’s a fun ride, but I suspect that on repeat viewings it won’t really hold up. It’s all so very implausible that Nick’s scheme would work out well… he’s only a mover and not a watcher after all.

The acting and effects are all within the realm of “pretty good for a low-budget action flick.” Djimon Hountsou in particular, as the nefarious Henry Carver, is plenty sinister, though you get the feeling he doesn’t have much to work with. The movie is stolen, however, by Dakota Fanning as the prescient Cassie. She has all the best bits, and absolutely brings the movie to life whenever she’s on screen. Quite a contrast to the only other Dakota Fanning movie in our collection (War of the Worlds) where pretty much all she does is scream.

But like I said before – it’s the world the movie creates that’s the real star of the movie. They very nicely demonstrate the power of the pushers, and from that moment on there’s a certain sense of paranoia in the film. If anybody’s memories and motivations could have been implanted by a pusher then what are the true motives? How much of what’s going on throughout the film has already been foretold? (Characters keep showing up who were told to help in this confrontation by Cassie’s mother before she was captured by Division.)

Sadly the real potential for a compete mindfuck is slightly missed. There’s room for a few more twists here and I was kind of expecting more by the end of the movie. It also ends with a lot of things unresolved, perhaps in the hopes that it would do well enough to warrant a sequel. So in the end I was left feeling a little empty. It was like – “Cool, I’m really enjoying this slick funky movie… wait… that’s it?” Maybe they will make a sequel. I’d certainly like to see more.

May 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 83 – Popeye (1983)

Popeye (1983) – May 22nd, 2010

Where the hell do I even start for this one? I honestly don’t know. I have no idea how to construct this review. Do I mention the cast first? Or the music? Or the ridiculous amount of ADR? Or maybe I should mention how this is another movie I used to own on a battered taped-off-television VHS. Or how about I talk about the disjointed plot? Perhaps the octopus?

Yeah, let’s start with the octopus. That’s as good a place to begin as any, given that it’s at the end. See, there’s this octopus. A big rubber octopus that’s more than vaguely reminiscent of the octopus in Ed Wood. You know the one. The one from the end of Bride of the Monster. The one that was supposed to be powered by a motor but they didn’t get the motor so they just had Bela Lugosi grab the arms and wave them around. It’s that sort of octopus. It’s almost that sort of movie. Almost, but not quite. The production values are too high and the cast is too good (in terms of potential and embodying the parts to a disturbing degree) to put it in Ed Wood’s level. But it is bizarre and it does have a rubber octopus.

I’m rather hard-pressed to explain this movie. Popeye, played by a very young Robin Williams wearing incredibly creepy forearm prosthetics, rows into the town of Sweethaven on a quest to find his pappy. Once in town he proceeds to get acquainted with the Oyl family (Coal, Nana, Castor and, of course, Olive) and lands right in the middle of Olive’s indecision over whether to marry Bluto. Due to their assumed engagement, Bluto’s been granting tax exemptions to the family for years. And okay, this all makes a certain amount of in-world logic and it’s a semi-coherent plot. But then some mysterious woman leaves a baby with Olive and Popeye while Olive’s dithering about Bluto and Bluto sees Olive with the baby and Popeye and trashes the Oyl family home and imposes stiff taxes on them, and then Popeye wins a prize fight against this big dude and then they find out that the baby can predict the future through a slide whistle sound effect and then they go bet on mechanical horses and Wimpy kidnaps the baby and hands it over to Bluto so he can find some sunken treasure that belongs to Popeye’s pappy who is actually the Commodore who runs the town and whom no one but Bluto’s ever seen.

And then there’s a sword fight in a lagoon. And the octopus. Oh yeah, and this is a musical. In fact, the vast majority of it is music. There’s very little non-musical dialogue. Even when people are talking, there’s often singing or the music from the song they interrupted going on in the background. Bluto sings about being mean. Olive sings about Bluto being laaaaaaaarge. Olive also sings about being needed. The entire town sings about food. Popeye’s pappy sings a thoroughly baffling sort-of song about how he hates kids. And Popeye sings “I am what I am!” Of course. It’s practically an opera. And watching it tonight, I realized it’s really very theatrical. I can practically see how the stage set would look and how the opening scenes would be blocked and everything. It’s not based on a play, but it feels like it should have been.

Quite on the contrary, the movie is based on a comic strip. A series of short strips, really, which kind of explains the bizarre nature of the story, going from little plot point to little plot point in a meandering path that seems like it didn’t really have a goal in mind until they realized they needed to wrap things up.

The odd saving grace of the movie is the cast. While the fact that it sounds like every line in the movie was recorded in post does get a little grating, I really do enjoy Robin Williams as Popeye. Yes, even with the creepy arms. The casting in the movie is eerily spot on in many places, from Bluto to Wimpy. And then there’s Olive Oyl. Shelley Duvall has done other things, I know. We have the entire Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre collection where I work. And let me tell you, that is an odd little series in itself. But I know she’s done a lot. I’m sure of it. But she is Olive Oyl. The mannerisms and physicality and look and voice, they’re all perfect. I’m so sorry, Shelley Duvall. You were perfect for this role. So you’ve got this creepily perfect cast performing as cartoon characters, right down to their balloon-like shoes, in a movie with a wandering plot and more songs than dialogue, and it all ends with a rubber octopus.

Seriously. What do you say about that?

May 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Popeye

May 22, 2010

Popeye

What do you think of when you hear the name Robert Altman? M*A*S*H? The Player? Nashville?

How about Robin Williams? Probably Good Morning Vietnam or Aladdin or Dead Poet Society.

Now what do you think of when you hear the name Shelley Duval? That’s right! Popeye! This utterly bizarre mishmash of a musical comedy based on a comic strip. Starring Robin Williams and directed by Robert Altman. Because if ever there was anybody born to play the part of Popey’s wiry love interest Olive Oyle it was Shelley Duval. She will never be any other character in my mind.

What can a guy say about this movie? I mean, I do actually like it, but I’ll be damned if I can tell you why. The crazy overlapping dialog is definitely Altman’s style. Robin Williams seems to be doing a fair amount of his trademarked razor-witted ad-libbing, but it’s hard to tell. He does this crazy dialect and because of the pipe ever griped in his teeth a lot of his dialog is clearly ADR.

Part of what is so strange about this movie is that Altman tries to fill the movie with the same kind of slapstick humor as you’d see in the cartoons. But as can be seen in Home Alone cartoon violence when perpetrated on live action people is creepy and unnatural. I’m pretty sure that a lot of the extras that populate Sweethaven are professional clowns performing some of the slapstick bits they do in their circus routines. Clowns are also creepy and unnatural. All the characters in the movie have big cartoon clown shoes, and of course Popeye has the big bulky forearms that are his identifying feature in the comic and cartoons. Those arms are creepy and unnatural as well. Oh, and like MST3K favorite Angel’s Revenge this movie features Hanna Barbera inspired cartoon sound effects.

Furthermore the movie wanders in a sort of plot-less way. It takes the form of a series of small episodes that are bunched together to form a film. (Not unlike M*A*S*H come to think of it.) I keep looking up at the screen and seeing the capering going on there and thinking “What must have been going through these peoples’ heads as they were giving these bizarre performances?”

Although I am not extremely well versed in the world of Popeye I do suspect that there’s a fair amount of fan service in this movie. You get the impression that most of the townsfolk are indeed characters from the comic strip and you will of course recognize key catch phrases such as “I hate you to pieces!” and “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” There are a lot of little one-off ADR lines like “Remember my dear, today it’s my turn to be tall” which might just be really strange non-sequiturs used to fill any dead space in the film, which I also suspect are quotes or references. Certainly there is never a moment in the movie when there aren’t two or three different gags taking place all at once. It ends up with a frenetic feeling even during slow bits (like the lengthy boat chase – which is almost devoid of any real action, but which is packed with lines, a silly song that’s half stand-up routine, and a lot of jumping up and down and over-acting.)

You know what movie this mess reminds me of? Hook. That was another big ridiculous movie loosely based on a popular children’s property and starring Robin Williams. But whereas Hook just fell flat for me this movie is still fun in a strange way. Maybe it’s that this movie doesn’t at any time try to take itself seriously. It isn’t about growing up or rediscovering the wonder of childhood or anything. It’s just a weird little cartoon done in live action. I guess I respect it for the purity of its vision at the very least.

I certainly do NOT hate it to pieces.

May 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment