A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 153 – Raising Arizona

Raising Arizona – July 31st, 2010

Tonight we decided to go with an old favorite that’s not an old favorite for our guest. She’d never seen it all the way through. Now me, I saw this for the first time when I was pretty young. Under 12, I’d say. I know I was young, because I was still spending Friday afternoons with my grandparents. This is important because that stopped when I hit middle school, and I distinctly remember trying to explain this movie to my grandfather. I was unsuccessful in my attempt.

Because really, this is a weird little movie. It is, as my friend pointed out near the end, a heist movie. But it’s a Coen brothers heist movie starring Nic Cage, and the loot is a baby, and the setting is rural Arizona, and the soundtrack is banjo and yodeling. That makes is pretty much a unique piece of filmmaking. I’ll say this about the soundtrack, even not having seen it in years, I still hummed it from memory when we decided on it for tonight.

As this is a Coen brothers movie, one can expect a certain amount of bizarre humor. It’s partially in the situation, which is that H.I. McDunnough, convenience store thief and repeat offender, and his wife, former police officer Edwina, kidnap a baby after finding out they can’t have one of their own. They settle on one of the Arizona Quints, as there are five of them! Who’ll notice! Of course then things get complicated, with a couple of H.I.’s old buddies from jail showing up and swiping the baby, and a bounty hunter tracking them all down to get the baby and extort money from the family for its safe return.

But it’s also in the performances and delivery. Nicolas Cage (and his hair) do an amazing job as H.I., with some deadpan deliveries of outrageous lines. Holly Hunter, as his wife, plays a character who is consumed by need for a baby to the point that she is willing to do something so very against her nature. Her desperation and determination are played both for sympathy and for laughs, which is a hard line to balance on but she manages. H.I.’s buddies, the Snotes brothers, are played by William Forsyth and Coen brothers regular John Goodman. Both of them play their roles to the hilt, hamming it up and screaming whenever needed. And Randall “Tex” Cobb as the bounty hunter is one of the foulest and most demonic characters I’ve ever seen. And that’s not mentioning the bit parts, like Frances McDormand as a friend of H.I. and Ed, and all the other cons in prison with H.I. Everyone in the movie is fantastic.

Then too, there are some great chase scenes, one famously involving a grocery store, a suburban home, a pack of dogs and a bag of Huggies. All to the same soundtrack, though it changes to Muzak in the grocery store. There are lots of great throwaway bits, like one con talking about crawdads, and the Snotes brothers holding up a bank and getting thrown by their own stupidity. It’s full of throwaway bits, which makes them not so throwaway. They become an integral part of the whole, making up a movie that never leaves you without something to be paying attention to. Hell, even the beginning, where we meet H.I. and Ed on opposite sides of the law, is essential to it all.

It’s a well-crafted movie, from the casting to the script to the directing and the cinematography. And even if I can’t precisely empathize with Ed, who really provides the impetus for the heist the movie centers around, I can find sympathy for her situation. That sympathy makes the movie not just a slapstick comedy full of screaming and exploding dye bombs and Nic Cage’s hair. It makes you care while you laugh. I wish I could have communicated that to my grandfather. He still probably wouldn’t have appreciated it, but I’d have felt better for trying. Because it really is a modern classic, and well worth watching all the way through.


July 31, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Raising Arizona

July 31, 2010

Raising Arizona

Our visiting guest J had not seen Raising Arizona all the way through! Naturally we had to rectify this, so it is with a great deal of pleasure that we find ourselves watching this movie tonight. This movie represents a number of firsts for me. It was the first Coen brothers movie I saw. It was the first Nicolas Cage movie I saw. And in both cases it made a great impression on me.

Right from the start this movie grabs you with its quirky tone and unique style. Indeed the beginning is part of the pure genius of the movie. We have a couple movies in our collection that have beginnings of such power and inspiration that they stick with you – draw you into the movie so deeply that you hardly come up for air until the movie is over. The Royal Tennenbaums. Magnolia. Raising Arizona.

The film starts with a lengthy monologue and montage that introduces us to the lead character H.I. Mcdunnough. He’s constantly in and out of prison and eventually proposes the the nice lady police officer who processes him each time he is newly incarcerated. We get to see him jailed, processed, in therapy in prison, and being paroled. Several times. Then he tries to straighten up and live an honest life. He marries Ed (the woman from the prison) and gets a mind-numbingly awful menial job and they start to make a life for each other. Then Ed discovers that she’s barren and they cannot have any children, so their dream of having a family together is ruined. Until a local furniture salesman has quintuplets and H.I. and Ed strike upon the plan of stealing one of the babies to raise as their own. All of this is accompanied by an otherworldly combination of banjo, whistling and yodeling that is so iconic that whenever anybody speaks of this movie it instantly starts playing in my mind. And that’s just the first ten minutes.

As with most Coen brothers films the plot is not necessarily what you watch for. Sure it’s fun, and it moves quickly and allows for both some great humor and some great action, but what raises the film above most others is the unique style. It’s a combination of the humor, the pathos, the fantasy, and the huge bag of visual tricks that the Coens employ to tell the story.

Can you believe that this is only the second movie Joel and Ethan made? It boggles my mind. They work the medium with such finesse that it’s a wonder to behold. They have so many effective tricks. The wide-angle lens tracking shots that glide over the blue carpet in the babys’ room early on in the film. The way they sometimes dial down the music in the soundtrack for emphasis and then bring it back suddenly to draw you back in. The amazing steadycam shot at the end of one dream sequence that goes up a ladder and right through a window.

This is a little, simple movie (J described it as we watched as a heist film, but with a baby) but it’s also a huge and complex movie. Take, for example, the extensive chase scene about half way through. There’s cars and guns and dogs and screaming ladies with hair curlers and shopping carts – it’s a giant spectacle that builds on itself, and every time you think it’s over it keeps getting bigger. Not quite Blues Brothers level, but it did remind me of that.

It astonishes me what skill this film so deftly displays and so early in the Coen career. It rests near to the top of my favorite movies of all time, and it’s always a pleasure to watch it again. And of course now I have the sound-track stuck in my head again. I’ll be humming it for days.

July 31, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 152 – Incubus

Incubus July 30th, 2010

First of all, I would like to thank my friend J for this movie. She showed a good portion of it to me when I went to visit her at one point and I was totally fascinated, so when she offered to buy it for us for the project I said yes. How could I say no to a black and white 1966 movie starring William Shatner, with the dialogue entirely in Esperanto? I couldn’t. And so this weekend, while J is visiting, we are watching it. I figure that’s only fair.

In a remote seaside village, the Succubi lure men to them and claim them for the devil. But they’re only supposed to take men with corrupt souls. Kia, one of the Succubi, is weary of only harvesting the corrupt and wants to use her powers to get a pure soul. Enter William Shatner as Marc. He’s an injured soldier recuperating near the village, there with his sister. He is, as one might expect, a pure soul. So of course Kia wants him. Her fellow Succubus warns her off, but Kia goes after him anyhow.

All sorts of things happen while Kia is trying to seduce Marc, like an eclipse which ends up blinding Marc’s sister, and Kia and Marc traipsing through a stream together. Unfortunately for Kia, Marc’s so pure, he ends up seducing her instead of the other way around. She goes all faint and he carries her to the local church. Oh no! Bad idea! Kia and her fellow Succubus decide that Marc has defiled Kia with love and goodness and vow revenge, summoning the titular Incubus.

There’s some seduction and ravishing and a black mass and Shatner gets to fight the Incubus, which isn’t as exciting as one might think. And then there’s a fight between Kia and the Incubus, sort of, only he’s in llama-goat form.

To be quite honest, this isn’t a bad movie. I’ve seen bad movies. I’ve seen really bad movies. I’ve seen Lost Boys 2: The Tribe. This is not bad. You just need to go into it with certain expectations. This isn’t Psycho or Rosemary’s Baby – both relatively contemporary with this movie. You have to expect an art film. You have to expect some somewhat stilted acting. You have to accept that given that none of the actors were fluent in the language they were speaking, some line deliveries might be awkward. But if you go in with all of that, it’s really fairly enjoyable.

The story seems to be missing some bits, but I’m willing to let that go as the original print of the film was lost and the restoration required borrowing a print from a French theater. It’s somewhat understandable that some bits might have gotten lost. But what’s there is a story about love and redemption and sin and revenge. It’s a story about souls and heaven and hell. It’s not super deep, but it doesn’t have to be. Everything is laid out simply. The Succubi claim men with tainted souls. Marc doesn’t have a tainted soul. Kia wants him, so she’s got to taint him somehow. That’s not complicated. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s interesting and it’s different, and I really don’t think we own anything else like it, so I’m glad we’ve got it and I’m glad we watched it.

July 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , | Leave a comment


July 30, 2010


Tonight our friend J is visiting from afar and at her behest we are viewing this very high-concept and strange film. I must say that I’m enjoying it so far. Steeped as I am in the deep lore of MST3K I find it easier than some people might to see the good in a movie. I had been told that this film was a cheap and cheesy film worthy of derision, but it doesn’t strike me that way. It was billed as a cheapo sixties horror film in the mode of Carnival of Souls or Night of the Living Dead, but I actually found it to be more. Not to deride those early horror classics and their unsettling spirit, but this movie has more to it than just an attempt at horror.

For me this movie feels like a sort of fairy tale. It’s a little like a mirror-world version of the Little Mermaid. Kia is a succubus who haunts an enchanted well that is rumoured to have healing effects and also to provide youth and beauty. According to the opening narration these effects draw impure and vane sinners to the well. Kia and her sisters then harvest these sinners for the Dark Lord, leading them to their deaths during a final act of impurity and taking their souls down to hell. But Kia is dissatisfied with her lot in life. She’s tired of all these dirty, soiled souls and wants to find a truly good and decent man to corrupt. Her sister warns her not to try – succubi have no right to deal with untainted men.

Kia ignores her sister’s advice and sets out into the world to find a good man to corrupt. Re-inforcing the fairy tale feel of the film she first comes upon three corrupt priests (one an egg-sucker, one who is burying something, and one who is guilty about something and turns a cross so that God can’t see him.) After all of them she comes upon a kind soldier and his sister. The soldier, Marc, is played by a very young William Shatner who seems to be doing somewhat of a James Dean impression. From there you can pretty much see where things are going to go. Marc “corrupts” Kia by falling in love with her and bringing her to a church, and her sisters swear revenge. Which revenge involves raising a greasy gigolo from the underworld to seduce and destroy Marc’s sister.

I enjoy the twist on the traditional cheapo sixties horror film plot. Rather than the inevitable corruption of an individual over the course of the film which is played out as a sort of Greek tragedy we have the inevitable salvation of a soulless demon, played out in much the same way. It tickled me.

By far the strangest thing about the movie, and the thing it is most famous for, is that the entire production is done in the invented language of Esperanto. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this, or even why such a thing would be done, but in the end it added for me to the enchantment of the whole film. I enjoy watching foreign films – they have an otherworldly quality by their very nature. And this film, in a language that has no native speakers anywhere in the world, is foreign to everybody. I enjoy the notion that no matter what country or in what company you watch this film virtually everybody will have the same bewildering experience. It kind of reminds me of Jim Henson’s original concept for the Dark Crystal – which he intended to be entirely in a made up language with sub-titles.

I think I would actually recommend this movie. It’s competently made, well enough acted and I like the concept. It is by no means a bad movie, and kind of nifty in many ways. Maybe it’s not really a great argument that this movie is “not as bad as I had been led to believe it would be.” It’s not essential viewing that everyone must see, but if you find you have the chance, and have an open mind, you could do much worse.

July 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 151 – Home (2009)

Home (2009) – July 29th, 2010

We do enjoy documentaries, and ones about nature and the Earth are always interesting. I don’t think we own nearly enough documentaries, personally, so that’s one of my goals for our collection (along with getting some good Bollywood – any suggestions?). I feel like this is an episode of NOVA crossed with Koyanisqaatsi. It’s beautiful, but then having seen the writer/director Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s photography in books, I fully expected to be mesmerized by the visuals.

So let me start with the positive. Visually, this documentary is amazing. The arial footage is spectacular. The natural world footage, with its amazing colors and fascinating shapes, is almost startling, and I say this as someone raised on nature documentaries. I knew Arthus-Bertrand’s work already, and I knew he would go for arresting shots. There are some beautiful views of the Grand Canyon, and some absolutely stunning shots of salt evaporate islands in the Dead Sea that almost look computer generated. There’s a lot of talk of minerals early on, and so we get some simply astoundingly colored shots with earth colored by sulfur and iron and a variety of others. It’s beautiful. It’s truly a visual masterpiece and even more so when juxtaposed with the shots of human habitations and industry, then shots of the effects the latter has on the former.

To be honest, I think I’d have enjoyed it more on mute, with the Koyanisquaatsi soundtrack playing. The narration is full of information and statistics and science, and that’s all well and good. It’s very informative and certainly puts the visuals in context. But I get the feeling it’s largely preaching to the choir. Who is watching a documentary like this who doesn’t at least know the basics of what’s being explained? Do we need to be told “everything is linked” several times over? I can think of children’s novels that do it more gracefully. I’m not saying there’s not a valuable message here, I’m just saying that I think the people likely to pick this up are people who already know and care. I don’t know how productive it is for the audience for a documentary to be guilt-tripped. Over and over and over, since the narration seems to say the same thing several times in only slightly different phrasing.

We know this stuff. It’s horribly depressing. It’s overwhelming. It’s a morass of anxiety and depression-inducing bad news. And I know it all. Not the numbers, but I know which way the wind is blowing. I try not to dwell on it or I wouldn’t get up in the mornings. Yes, I get it. We’re parasites (Americans in particular). Thank you. The last fifteen minutes is devoted to pointing out that yeah, okay, while we suck and all, we’re working on things. The phrase “It is too late to be a pessimist” is repeated several times, trying to convince me that it hasn’t just spent almost two hours spouting some horribly pessimistic stuff. It’s not enough. It should have been worked into the rest of the movie, with each depressing segment buffered by information about what’s being done and what can be done in the future, but it wasn’t.

I wish there was an alternative soundtrack that gave the information without the guilt. That being said, it is a beautiful movie, as evidenced by the amazing end credits, which go through some fascinating images from all of the locations that were used in the filming, labeling each with the location the shots were taken in. It’s almost worth watching for the end credits alone. It’s really all far more effective to let the images speak for themselves.

July 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 2 Comments

Home (2009)

July 29, 2010


It’s Wil Wheaton’s birthday today, and NASA’s birthday, so we wracked our brains and searched our collection for something cool and space-themed. What we came up with was this: an introspective and mesmerizing documentary about the planet we find ourselves inhabiting. I hadn’t watched it yet, so I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but judging from the cover I took it to be a film in the vein of the Planet Earth documentary by the Discovery Channel. But it’s not quite that.

What it is is, in a word, preachy. Sanctimonious. I think it’s intended to be a wake-up call, but the narration is an almost monotonous laundry list of the ails of the world as brought upon the planet by man. We’re inundated with statistics like “One in ten natural rivers now no longer reach the sea in the dry months.” “Since nineteen-fifty the population of the Earth has tripled.” The repeating refrain drums into our heads the headlong acceleration of human expansion. “Faster and faster.” And my problem is not that I disagree with the central thesis of the film – that the current expansion of the human race is unsustainable – but that the way the message is ceaselessly drummed home is so self righteous and irritating.

I have to wonder what audience this narration was intended for. If to my ears, those of somebody who largely agrees with the bleak message being conveyed, this writing seems overbearing and irritating, then how must it sound to anybody who disagrees with the message? It would be simply unbearable. They’d turn the movie off in the first five minutes. So this self-righteous ranting must be aimed at other people like myself with environmental leanings. So the movie is unlikely to have any real impact, since the people likely to be able to bear to watch the whole thing are already making efforts to live in a more sustainable manner.

Luckily, the film is not irredeemably unwatchable. This is because it is filled with a never-ending sequence of jaw-dropping images captured by writer/director Yann Arthus-Bertrand. There’s also a great orchestral score. For much of the movie I simply wanted to turn the narration off and take in the amazing visuals. These are, for the most part, great wide areal tracking shots. Both of unbelievable natural beauty and of human excess and destruction. In one way it does live up to my expectations before I put it in: it shows a vast variety of different locations throughout the entire world. Every continent is represented and many, many countries. I could just get lost in these pictures.

So I don’t feel like I completely wasted the last two hours, even if I did have Glenn Close preaching on and on at me about how we’re destroying the only home we have and everything’s going completely down the crapper. At least it was accompanied by an amazing array of pretty pictures.

July 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 150 – The Abyss (Special Edition)

The Abyss (Special Edition) – July 28th, 2010

When I was in high school either my chemistry class or the science club managed to convince the teacher (same teacher for both) to let us watch this movie due to the liquid breathing stuff they introduce early on in this movie. We’d found a blurb about how some scientists had managed to get a mouse to breathe in liquid (unfortunately getting the liquid out later on caused… problems) and well, our teacher was super cool and we watched this movie for credit. We didn’t even have to do an analysis of the science involved like we did when my physics class watched Speed. Pretty cool. But I think that was the only other time I’ve ever watched this, and I’m a good ways out of high school.

I guess it’s a good thing I’m fairly good at compartmentalizing my suspension of disbelief away from my scientific scepticism, because this movie is chock full of pseudo-science that’s not the sci-fi part of the movie. I would just like to recount a little exercise they had us do when I did a science program at sea one summer in high school. We had this great rig on a cable attached to a winch, and we could send it down to collect water samples at various depths. We could also attach things to it. So we all decorated styrofoam cups and put them in a net bag and sent them down. And do you know what we got back? Shriveled and twisted little bits of compressed junk. That was just a high school science voyage, so we didn’t send them all that far down. So I admit, I did poke a little at the movie’s handwaving away the pressure issues.

After all, the vast majority of this movie takes place deep in the ocean. That’s the point. It’s called The Abyss for a reason. The Navy (sort of) commandeers an experimental ocean floor oil platform and diving rig to investigate a nuclear submarine that crashed somewhere near Cuba. They send down a group of Navy SEALs to help with the operation as the crew of the rig, led by Ed Harris as Bud, aren’t really experienced with salvaging nuclear subs. With the SEALs comes Bud’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Lindsay, who is apparently the designer of the rig they’re on and who has a very hands-on approach to its maintenance. Of course things go wrong, with a hurricane up top leading to a loss of communication and the guy leading the SEALs gets “pressure-induced psychosis” and becomes more than a little dangerous. But on top of that, something is down there with them, and they don’t know what it is.

Really, a very large portion of this movie is simply a disaster movie with suspense elements thanks to the psychotic SEAL dude. I kind of like that. The reveal is gradual. We see something mysterious reflected on a diving helmet faceplate at one point, but after that it felt like a good half hour or more before we see anything else. It’s the tensions on the rig that drive the movie. Unfortunately, in the special edition? I lost the tension. Around the 1:40 mark I really started feeling the filler. The original release of the movie was 138 minutes, which is almost two and a half hours. The release we’re watching? 171 minutes. It’s pretty and all, and I’m sure a lot of work was put into the diving scenes and I do love underwater stuff, but during what I’m pretty sure was the climax I couldn’t help but look at the clock and think “Seriously? There’s another fifty minutes?” They spend what felt like half an hour doing CPR on Lindsay, which really strains my ability to stay tense and invested. It was beginning to feel like my own personal Rock Climbing scene (I’d include a link, but as YouTube links are rather impermanent, go ahead and look up MST3K and “rock climbing,” if you dare). I’m not really up to going back and watching the 138 minute version tonight to see what was added, but I honestly don’t think whatever it was, was necessary.

Now, this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the movie. I did! It was a lot of fun, just a good bit longer than I think it needs to be. The acting is good – I do love Ed Harris – and so are the effects. Can you believe this movie is twenty years old? I can’t. Well, okay, every once in a while I could, but for most of the movie it just didn’t occur to me. The subtlety of the sci-fi aspect (up until the end) helps there. It keeps the effects limited so they won’t date things too much. I do have some quibbles with how the psychotic Navy SEAL plot is set up and handled. They set up the whole “pressure-induced psychosis” thing right at the outset with a speech from Lindsay and some immediate symptoms from the guy, and yet even once the rig’s crew makes it clear they know what’s up, they still act all hands off with him. Sure, he’s got a nuclear warhead, but it’s cool, right? Sure! But that aside, if you accept that they miss the symptoms and then know he’s too dangerous to take out, fine. It works.

One thing I do love is that while Lindsay, the female lead of the movie (played wonderfully by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), does need rescuing at one point (marathon CPR!) she’s otherwise a competent scientist and engineer who knows the rig they’re working on and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Sure, she starts out in heels and the guys refer to her as the Queen Bitch, but damn if she doesn’t know what she’s doing and is unwilling to let anyone say otherwise (sadly, that’s probably why it’s so realistic that she gets called a bitch). And then there’s One Night (played by Kimberly Scott, who does a damn fine job), one of the submersible pilots working on the rig. She’s an African American woman who kicks ass at her job, and she makes it through the damn movie. Two competent female characters, working at jobs normally held by men and aside from the early labels for Lindsay, long term they’re both accepted and valuable members of the team and both of them make it through the whole movie. Do you know how awesome that is? Awesome enough that I’m willing to forgive the padding and the pseudo-science and the deus ex ctenophora and the year-long CPR scene.

All in all, it’s a good movie with good actors, decent writing, fun effects, lots of great underwater footage, some dubious-at-best science and a somewhat predictable message. But ignore the science and take the message as a given and watch the regular edition and you’re all set.

July 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Abyss

July 28, 2010

The Abyss (Special Edition)

Can you believe that we’ve reviewed one hundred and fourty nine movies before reaching our first James Cameron one? You’d think in a heavily action and sci-fi oriented collection like ours we’d have hit, say, a Terminator or an Aliens before now. (Not an Avatar, because I’m holding out for a extended edition 3-D blu-ray. Which means it’s not worth getting for me until I can afford a 3-D television, so maybe sometime in the next couple years.) Actually, I’m quite glad that our first Cameron movie is this one. It’s easily my second favorite James Cameron movie (the original Terminator is just about one of my favorite movies of all time, so it’s a hard one to beat.)

What we’ve got here is basically Close Encounters of the Third Kind at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with a little Day the Earth Stood Still thrown in for good measure. Sure, there’s a big cold war message about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, which was actually expanded for the special edition, but just because it’s a little dated in its sensibilities doesn’t make it any less thrilling to watch. When a mysterious deep-sea object causes a US nuclear submarine to crash there is no time to get another submarine over to it on the sea floor to investigate it. There is, however, an experimental submersible oil rig (think Deep-Deepwater Horizon) nearby that can be moved near to the wreck. So the Navy sends a bunch of SEALs down and co-opts the rig, sending it on a mission to investigate. Down on the rig we have the hard-assed chief “Bud” (Ed Harris who gets to be both the chief of operations and the romantic lead star of the movie) and his crew of idiosyncratic drillers. Hippie, One-Night, Sonny and all. Then there’s the SEALs, headed by Cameron regular Michael Biehn as Lt. Coffey. I enjoy seeing Biehn playing against type here. Rather than being the hero he’s the intruder military presence, working without orders from the surface and slowly going insane with pressure induced psychosis and paranoia. Also along for the ride is Bud’s soon-to-be-ex wife, the designer of the rig (the divorce, as he points out, is not yet final.)

It’s a great set-up with a lot of plausible but far-out sci-fi tech. The whole notion of the deep-sea rig is cool. I mentioned Deepwater Horizon earlier, and it was kind of in the back of my mind for a lot of the time while I was watching this tonight. The murky, unfocused back and white footage from the submarine cameras was the reality I was comparing to the fantasy of this film. The rig in this movie is pressurised to the same pressure as the water around it so that the inhabitants can dive outside in just wetsuits. It’s a cool idea, but I somewhat suspect that no matter how gradually you bring a human body up to the enormous PSI of a deep underwater environment the organs would be pulverized into a fist-sized pulp. (Have you seen the Mythbusters where they compress an analog human body into a diving bell helmet? Not pretty.) The oxiginated fluid they use to keep their lungs working in extreme pressure is also plausible, but again, at that depth breathing is only one problem. But suspension of disbelief is easy because Cameron is so careful to show all this cool tech in a believable way. He stresses drawbacks to the pressurization, for example, such as the fact that characters in this environment must be depressurized gradually over a weeks-long period and are vulnerable to deleterious neural effects that can cause the shakes, slurred speech and cognitive impairment.

The actual unknown entities themselves are exceptionally cool. They’re these strange luminescent abstract things. A combination of some awesome early digital effects and models I suspect, with a lot of digital processing as well. I should add that the special effects in general are top notch. There is a ton of miniature work here blended with live action footage of actors in cockpits which almost all of the time is completely believable. (There are only a couple shots of the crashing submarine early on in the film that made me cry out “it’s only a model” in my head.)

One thing that really sets this movie apart from your general sci-fi fx-fest, though, is the superior acting. Particularly on the part of the two leads. There’s a real chemistry between Ed Harris as Bud and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Lindsey, his estranged wife. They each have powerful emotional scenes which in the hands of lesser actors could have come off as cheesy and spoiled the movie. Instead they end up providing a lot of emotional power to the movie and raising it far above what it might have been.

I’ll not deny that the movie is heavy-handed in its message, especially in this extended edition which features the threat of war with the Russians and a massive tidal wave which is not in the theatrical version, but I’m willing to ignore that. I choose to concentrate instead on the great performances, cool concept and fantastic special effects. There’s a ton of great action, some well built tension as things get progressively worse for the isolated inhabitants of the oil rig, and a sense of real peril not just for the lead characters but for all Humankind as first contact with a largely benign alien civilization almost goes disastrously wrong.

Looking back now after just having watched the movie I find it amazing just how much goes on, and how much powerful and emotional investment I have in the story, long after the final climactic battle between right and wrong. There’s a big action laden battle with the bad-guy and then the movie drawn in on itself to become a much more emotional and human story… and there’s about a half hour to go between then and the end of the film.

It’s a James Cameron film all the way through, and one of his better ones at that. I recognise some Cameron tropes like the weaselly company man and the not-to-be-trusted hard-nosed military goon. His fingerprints are all over the action and the effects seem a dry run for some of those used in Terminator 2. Sometimes I feel like this movie isn’t given its due by sci-fi fans, and that’s a shame.

July 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 2 Comments

Movie 149 – Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia – July 27th, 2010

I have extremely fond memories of Julia Child from my childhood. My parents both love to cook and were always in the kitchen. Cooking shows were regular viewing in my house. Julia Child and Jeff Smith come immediately to mind, though my mother informs me now that she wasn’t too fond of Jeff Smith, he was my father’s choice. You see, I’m spending the night at my parents’ summer house and I watched this with them both tonight. I wish we could all have watched it with Andy too, but work makes things like that so difficult! I admit, my review might well be colored by my parents’ reactions to the movie. They loved it, by the way.

The book this movie is based on enjoyed a good deal of fame when this movie came out and it passed across my desk more times than I could count. Eventually a copy came through and it didn’t need to immediately head out to someone else, so I grabbed it and read it on my breaks over the next couple of days. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it as much as I did (overhype), but finding out that Julie Powell not only made references to mutant powers, but also expressed a rather hilariously dirty sense of humor immediately endeared her to me. Unfortunately, a lot of what made Julie’s voice in the book so fantastic was lost in the movie. It’s a pity, because there are glimpses of it in the Julie portions, but then, it was also unavoidable given the way the movie was put together, with half of it being given over to the story of Julia Child moving to Paris with her husband, falling in love with French food, and eventually writing a French cookbook for Americans with two of her friends there.

Through the expanded role of Julia Child’s life there’s an effort to make Julie’s life and Julia’s life mirror each other a bit, with the rises and falls moving somewhat in sync. Of course it isn’t perfect. It’s contrived. But as a movie contrivance it works okay. The only real problem with it is that, well, in the presentation of the movie, Julia’s life is simply so much more exciting than Julie’s. Let’s face it, no matter how much fun it is to watch Julie melt down over her ruined stew and floor-chicken, it’s far more fun to watch Julia experiment with making a foolproof mayonnaise. And it’s not just a matter of attitude. While Julie’s frustrated at her cubicle job, Julia’s frustrated at being stuck learning how to make hats. While Julie hates her crummy Queens apartment, Julia hates being forced to leave Paris and eventually move to Oslo. How can an ordinary woman with an ordinary life compare? Even if she is embarking on a somewhat epic quest to cook everything in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

What all this eventually does is make Julia the focus of the movie, not Julie, which changes things from the book quite a bit. Like I said, it’s unfortunate. Mostly for Julie. Sure, she has her moments in the movie, some of which are pure acting and some of which are aided by the soundtrack, like The Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’ during the lobster-murdering scene. Amy Adams does a good job with what she’s given, some of which is very cute indeed. She’s a lot cutesier than I imagined Julie being (Julie in the book is a good bit drier and not so much with the adorableness), but that’s clearly how the part was constructed. Julia, on the other hand, is, well, Julia. It was hard to remember I was watching Meryl Streep playing a role, to be honest. She had everything down, from Julia’s voice and intonation to her posture and mannerisms.

So in the end, the stories mesh well, and I have no complaints whatsoever about any of the acting. It’s a fantastically fun movie and well worth watching for Julia alone, but I can’t discount Julie. Watching it with my parents, who enjoyed it so very much, I decided to take an open-minded view of Julie’s role in the movie. Instead of looking for her as the starring role, I viewed her as how Julia is in Julie’s book: As chapter introductions and accents, bits and pieces to highlight the story the viewer/reader is focusing on. That might not be what was intended, but I think it works well that way.

July 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Julie & Julia

July 27, 2010

Julie & Julia

Amanda and I had intended to watch this movie together with her mother. Last Christmas we bought her a copy of the movie on DVD, and so did Amanda’s father. It’s just so clearly the perfect movie to watch with one’s mother-in-law. Especially with my mother-in-law; a woman who instilled in my wife a love both of public television and of fine cooking. Sadly, I’m not watching this with them. Amanda is away for the night, watching Julie & Julia with her mother, and I am watching the movie alone.

I’m finding it a slightly meta experience to blog about watching a movie that is in part about a blogger. Not that I really think of myself as a “blogger” but there’s no denying that for the past three months my wife and I have been posting a movie review every day. It’s not who we are, but it’s something we enjoy doing. Early on in the movie they briefly show a “days left” counter on Julie’s blog and I instantly thought to myself “Hey! I have one of those!”

I love the fairy tales of Nora Ephron. Even when they are based on true stories (well in this case on two true stories according to the subtitle at the start of the film) they have an otherworldly charm. I am definitely not the target audience but I enjoy them nonetheless. Nora has a knack for creating these very human characters on the screen that people can’t help but love. (I look forward to our “baseball week” when we’ll be reviewing A League of Their Own.) I did, however, find her storytelling a little heavy handed tonight.

In the modern-day segments of the movie Nora uses song lyrics in a couple places to reinforce the emotional impact she’s trying to make, and on some occasions it threw me right out of the movie. Particularly when Julie and her husband are going through a rough patch and the scene is accompanied by the song Stop the Train with the lyrics “don’t throw this away.” I expect to be emotionally manipulated by a Nora Ephron movie (like watching a Stephen Spielberg movie.) I just don’t expect it to be so blatant.

Maybe it’s symptomatic of the main problem that the whole movie struggles with, which is that it’s actually two movies. There’s the story of Julie Powell writing her food blog and cooking all of Julia’s recepies, and there’s the much more griping story of Julia Child and her struggle to publish her magnum opus on French cooking for Americans. A lot of effort has been done to show parallels between the two stories, and they’re inter-cut in such a way that dialog from a scene in one time period often relates to what happens in a scene in the other time period (there’s even a sort of “joy of cooking” montage that tries to drive this idea home) but I couldn’t help feeling that the Julie Powell parts of the movie paled in comparison to the Julia Child parts.

I don’t blame Amy Adams.and her portrayal of Julie Powell. She just didn’t have enough to work with to bring her half of the movie to the level of the other half. The deck is very much stacked against her. Maryl Streep’s sections of the movie are lavish, lush period pieces with exotic locales in Paris. Julia Child as a character is so compelling and vibrant, especially as embodied by Meryl Streep – who is so magnetic and alive in her portrayal that she’s a joy to watch, that nobody could really hope to live up to that standard. Julie’s life by comparison is so mundane and drab that when her life is being portrayed on the screen I couldn’t wait for her segments to end so we could get back to Julia. Indeed I found as I was watching and writing this review I was doing most of my writing during the modern day parts of the movie and watching in rapt attention during the flashback parts.

So, yeah, it’s an uneven movie and not Nora Ephron’s best work. But the parts I liked, being pretty much any time that Meryl Streep was lighting up the screen, were wonderful to watch. I rather wish that I had been watching it with my wife and mother-in-law, because I know exactly what parts they would have been laughing the hardest at, and I would have enjoyed sharing that. And now I’m off to my drab modern-day kitchen to see if there’s anything remotely edible in it.

July 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment