A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 240 – Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – October 26th, 2010

The only excuse I can come up with for not having seen this before is that until this project, I wasn’t making time in my days to watch movies and I’d never come across it on television. It has a few actors I really enjoy watching (Jude Law and Angelina Jolie) and the mood is this great mix of noir ambiance, adventure serial and steampunk timeline. Oh, and it’s got Bai Ling. How could I resist? And yet I’d never seen it. I’d only heard the title and heard the Futurama “Welcome to the WOOOOOOOOORLD of TOMORROW!” line in my head and never bothered to put it in. So very foolish of me.

According to IMDB, it was, at one point, envisioned as a serial, in the vein of Commando Cody and Undersea Kingdom, which makes perfect sense to me, since my first reaction to Sky Captain himself was to think of Commando Cody. Fortunately for Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan, he doesn’t have to tweak his nipple knobs to take to the sky. No, he gets a good old airplane to zip around in. There is a jet pack in the movie, but a more awesome character gets it. Everything about this movie is homage to the classic adventure serials and movies and comics of the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. It’s got giant robots (some with awesome tentacle arms), an island full of dinosaurs, a mad scientist, a rocket that will incinerate Earth, a plucky and brash reporter and a dashing and brusque pilot, a genius sidekick and a mysterious villain! It’s got explosions and daring chases and evil plots that stretch around the world. It is everything a pulpy serial could ever want, filmed entirely in bluescreen and starring some big name actors.

Now, I mentioned noir above and the movie certainly has a noir-ish feel to it. Part of it is the overall lighting effects and visual style of the movie, as well as the time period. But it’s also got its opening scenes, with a mysterious package being delivered to reporter Polly Perkins. Her whole introduction feels like something out of a murder mystery smack in the middle of the 1940s, except soon enough there are giant robots in the streets of New York and Sky Captain himself is introduced in his plane, shooting the robots and seemingly saving the day. Hooray Sky Captain! Of course it turns out that Polly and Joe have some history together and of course they need each other to discover what’s been going on with the giant robots and seven missing scientists. So off they go, racing to Nepal to save their mechanical genius friend, Dex, who’s been kidnapped by the robots and taken off to the source of robots’ commanding signal. Adventures abound, as does snarky banter between Polly and Joe.

To be honest, I could have done with a little less period-authentic attitude from Joe. I want to like my heroes, not spend more than a handful of moments in the movie wanting to slap him for being an ass. And Polly’s fine much of the time, but she had her moments too. Really, they deserve each other. Good thing there’s more to like about them than dislike. Polly’s stubborn and certainly brave, if not always thinking ahead about what her bravery will do. Joe’s very good at what he does, which is flying mostly, but also being a hero, which is kind of the point. But they both come across as the sort of people who get into trouble and then get out of it through their own determination and wits. I like that sort of thing in a character (or two). So I can forgive the misogyny, or at least cheer when a certain crack pilot gets punched later on.

After reading that there’d been at least some thought about making this a serial, I started paying attention to it that way and I can see it. There are some episodic bits, going from place to place, plot point to plot point, crisis to crisis. But really, it all flows very nicely. It feels cohesive, and has a great overarching plot that ties everything together. No, it’s not anything astounding that will make you gasp or surprise you in any way, but that’s not the point. Going into this, you’re supposed to expect the mad scientist planning on destroying Earth. That’s a given. Very little here is shocking at all. But fun? Oh yes. The huge flying airstrips (where we meet Angelina Jolie’s Franky), the tentacle-armed robots, the tiny elephant? All fun. Same for the plot and the script. It’s the sort of movie that makes you grin because it’s so obviously in love with its source material and thrilled to be presenting it in a new light.

Given how this movie was made, with the blue screen work and all, and its main cast of known names, mixed with its odd modern take on classic serials, I’m not surprised that it’s slipped through the cracks for some people. It’s really too bad. I’d love to see a sequel, to be honest. But I’m guessing a sequel to this is as likely as a sequel to Buckaroo Banzai. Still, wouldn’t Sky Captain Against the World Crime League be a fantastic idea?

October 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

October 26, 2010

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

The closing credits of yesterday’s movie, which depicted the continuing adventures of Steamboy, reminded me very much in mood and feel of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I’ve loved this movie since before I even saw it. I remember reading articles in Entertainment Weekly about how writer/director Kerry Conran started the project as a demo reel produced entirely on his home computer using publicly available computer design software. How his visuals captured the imagination of Hollywood producers and actors and how it made its way to the big screen. I love the idea of big adventure films made on an independent film budget. It gives me hope that some really wonderful and experimental movies that are nonetheless epic in scope could see the light of day.

This film itself, however, is not revolutionary. It is a loving homage to every cheesy thirties serial adventure and pulp science fiction magazine cover ever. The film geek in me was squeeling in joy almost through the entire movie. The iconic pointing fingers and flying robots attacking the city of New York come directly from the classic Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. The ray gun that Joe’s plucky gadget-friendly sidekick Dex toys with has a decidedly Flash Gordon feel to it. Every one of the robotic minions that plague Sky Captain look as though they come right off the front of Amazing Stories. Sky Captain himself reminds me of nothing so much as the brave scientist/adventurer Commando Cody.

Sky Captain is an elite English pilot who is sort of Batman but with a WWII P-40 instead of a Batplane. He has gadgets a plenty for his plane provided by gearhead and comic book fan Dex. When giant robots threaten New York City in 1939 the call for help immediately goes out to Sky Captain – the only man who can possibly save us! Accompanied by the hard-nosed Polly Perkins, a tenacious reporter who will not let go once she senses that there’s a story to be had, Joe must unravel the mystery of seven missing German scientists and attacks from giant robots that have happened all over the globe.

This movie is pure 1930s pulp fiction from beginning to end. It has exciting globe trotting (they follow the radio signals that drive the robots to Nepal.) It has fantastic technology (submersible planes and flying aircraft carriers (SHIELD anyone?) It has a brash hero in a leather jacket and a strong willed dame who trades quips with him throughout the entire adventure. The “other woman” is a completely badass female Nick Fury named Frankie who not only has an entire squadron of submersible planes at her command but has a jet pack. Played by Angelina Jolie no less. Dinosaurs! Robots! Tesla coils! And an ending that smacks of Moonraker.

There are very few actors here, and all of the extras were shot alone on green screen sets. Virtually nothing you see on the screen actually existed (with a couple exceptions.) It is entirely a digital creation, which works just fine for the film this wants to be. I must say that I was particularly impressed by Gwyneth Paltrow’s ability to act surrounded by nothing. She takes a whole lot of very corny dialog and manages to bring it to life somehow. Mostly just with a little smirk. Jude Law is fun as the eponymous Sky Captain; rakishly handsome and slightly misogynistic in a sort of 1930s way. And of course Angelina Jolie makes a fantastic Nick Fury – I would recommend her for the role if it weren’t already so well filled.

I loved every minute of this movie. It’s a fun romp and deliberately anachronistic. Funny that so much modern computer technology should be used to re-create such an ancient feel. In a strange coincidence I see that the trivia for this movie lists four other mostly-digital films done on green-screen stages in the same way. This, Sin City, Casshern, and Immortal. Wouldn’t you know that we own them all? I love our movie collection.

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

Movie 239 – Steamboy

Steamboy – October 25th, 2020

When I was in college I avoided most Victorian lit courses, but given that I was an English major and it was a small school well, eventually I had to grit my teeth and do it. I lucked out, though, and the year I had to take the class (it was that or something worse and I needed the upper level credit) the specific focus was on the culture of the time as shown in literature. Victorian Material Culture was the title of the class, and while there were some things I disliked about the class, I ended up getting a good deal out of it. Sure, I had to read Trollope and my classmates were scandalized by my lack of interest in Austen. But I also got an excuse to visit the Mütter Museum, and I got to read about the Crystal Palace, which is featured in this movie. It might not be related in depth to the movie, but I can’t help thinking about that class whenever I see something steampunk-ish.

Steampunk’s a lot bigger now than it was when I was in college and I’ve been mildly interested in it for a while now, but not so much that I know everything that’s out there. I like the concept of it though, and I like the concept of this movie. It’s pretty pure Victoriana steampunk action/adventure, with steam powered everything and a giant flying castle and arguments about whether mankind is ready for the moral issues advanced steam power will inevitably bring up. The main character is a boy named Ray Steam, whose father and grandfather have been researching a way to make steam power more compact and powerful. They manage it, but of course that’s where the moral issues come in, because much like nuclear power in our own timeline, this super steam power in the movie’s timeline will obviously be put to use powering weapons. I won’t go into too much detail trying to describe the various factions and how they shift and align, but suffice it to say that Ray is caught in the middle, trying to decide who’s telling the truth and what that truth really means. What’s one person’s “benefit to all mankind” is another person’s war machine.

Eventually it all comes to a head with a huge battle in the middle of the London Exposition, destroying the Crystal Palace (which was doomed in our timeline as well, alas). There’s a hell of a lot of wrangling between the various figures in power. And to be honest, the movie never really portrays any of them as completely and utterly evil. They’re all men who can see the potential in this new scientific discovery, and who then get wrapped up in how to harness it. It seems inevitable that they’d turn to weapons. But I’m not going to try and read any allegory into it. For one, it has a giant flying castle that freezes the Thames. If I was taking my Victorian class then perhaps I could have horrified my professor by attempting to write about this in relation to real Victorian literature and to the spreading use of electricity. But I’m not. I’m watching this for fun. And it is fun.

This is not a deep movie. The moral issues are spelled out quite plainly for all to see. The characters have sweeping arguments about scientific discovery and furthering mankind’s progress and all that. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. The Iron Man movies touch on it as did Real Genius before them, and I’m sure there are more examples I’m not thinking of off the top of my head. It’s not revolutionary. But it is fun. It’s got lots of great animation, both hand drawn and computer generated. It’s got fun action scenes and flying machines and the castle itself. There are gears and pipes and gauges and levers. There’s humor, like when one of the steam-powered amphibious suits can’t climb steps. There’s a steampunk version of Asuka from Neon Genesis. And it’s all put together quite well. But, well, I’ve got a problem.

The closing credits are a series of minimally animated images that show some of what comes after the movie, and I found myself wishing that this hadn’t been a full feature film but a series instead. Perhaps with the events in this movie worked into the background as flashbacks and backstory for Ray’s superhero persona. It feels like an origin story without the hero it’s an origin for, which is too bad, really. I would have loved this as a feature film explaining the history behind a character I’d come to love in series. It feels like it’s leading up to something, and the credits hint that the creators of the movie wanted to show where it was leading to. So why don’t we get more than semi-stills and tantalizing tidbits? The movie was great fun, but there should have been more to it. It should have been part of something bigger in scope so those credits don’t feel like such a tease.

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

Steamboy

October 25, 2010

Steamboy

In 2004 I saw ads for a grand new adventure from Katsuhiro Otomo. “From the genius that created Akira!” blared the previews. Naturally I was intrigued and had to pick the movie up. And just as naturally it could not hope to live up to the extraordinary level of Akira. I mean how could it possibly? It is, however a fun steampunk adventure story set in late nineteenth century England.

The movie begins when child inventor James Ray Steam receives a package from his grandfather, who is supposedly in America, containing a mysterious orb. It transpires that this orb is one of three super steam batteries constructed by Ray’s father Eddie and his grandfather Lloyd. Contained within these compact spheres are unimaginable amounts of ultra-high pressure steam which may be harnessed to drive practically any invention. Grandfather Lloyd has stolen the steam ball from his employers – the nefarious O’Hara Corporation – and his son Eddie who plan to use this power to drive the ultimate collection of war machines, which they will sell to the highest bidder. After a very cool chase scene involving a nasty steam locomotive that chases Ray through the streets of Manchester and a diabolical zeppelin with giant red mechanical claws Ray and the steam ball are captured and returned to his father. There is a clash of philosophies between Eddie, Lloyd and the English inventor Robert Stephenson, and Ray is caught in the middle. Ultimately there is open war at the grand English Exhibition with Robert Stephenson and the full might of the English navy on one side and Eddie Steam’s collection of dastardly steam powered inventions on the other. Ray must choose sides and figure out to what use his father’s and grandfather’s inventions should be put.

The movie has a lot of simply astonishing animation of course, which I always love. There are constant jets and plumes of steam which I suspect were hand animated. There are colossal mechanical devices rendered in detailed cell-shaded 3-D. Even the backgrounds are more dynamic than in your usual animated film because the film makers managed to do some 3-D sets that look for all the world as though they were hand painted (a clever blending of hand painted textures with computer animation.) Probably one third of the film is given over to the extended battle and climax to the movie, and visually it does not disappoint.

However… I found myself somewhat thrown by the world building, and the characters in particular. Perhaps it comes from being a native English speaker. I think that many of the references and jokes that were somewhat heavy-handed to me would appear like clever homages to Japanese viewers. There’s the family name of Steam for one thing. Then there’s the annoying privileged heir to the O’Hara fortune, Scarlett. (Yes, Scarlett O’Hara.) Robert Stevenson would seem to be a reference to author Robert Louis Stephenson (indeed there’s a Jekyll and Hyde reference very briefly in one of the establishing shots.) Furthermore it took me quite a while to get used to all these British people in period British garb and in the heart of London speaking Japanese. It’s just odd.

I also really hate the character of Scarlett. She’s completely odious and I know that by the end of the movie I’m supposed to care about her, but I don’t. She hits her dog at the start of the movie, and from that moment on I was totally done with her. There’s no redeeming somebody who would ever hit a dog. Besides, she’s a spoiled, self-obsessed, oblivious brat for pretty much the whole film. At times I think her complete ignorance and naivete is intended to be comical, but I just found it irritating.

I enjoy the tech of this movie though. The multitude of steam powered suits, submarines, flying machines, tanks, walkers, and of course Steam Tower itself are all cool and fun to watch. If I turn my brain off and just enjoy the spectacle there’s a lot here to like. Let’s face it, steampunk is just awesome stuff.

One of the best parts of this movie is the series of images over the closing credits. They depict the further adventures of Ray at the start of the twentieth century. We see him deploying some mysterious lightbulb like weapon over the trenches of WWI. We see him and some others using steam-powered packs to fight and evil fleet of zeppelins. We see a colossal mechanical gargoyle that looks like it’s going to destroy the Eiffel Tower. (or maybe that’s a trick of perspective.) As Amanda says it seems that there’s a whole series of adventures of Steamboy that take place after this movie which might have been cooler to watch than this was.

Maybe in some nearby universe there’s an entire anime series based in the world of Steamboy (just as Steamboy itself is in a universe not too much removed from our own.) Sadly in this universe we only have this one movie and fun as it is it fails to fully grip me. I love the spectacle of the movie but it still feels empty to me. Unlike Akira which seems more amazing to me every time I watch it. Still – that’s a standard no movie should be asked to live up to.

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

Movie 238 – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – October 24th, 2010

Watching this movie tonight I was put in mind of Emperor Norton. Now, Norton was a real person, but he created a persona and a world around himself where he was the star. And for some reason, people went along with it. His personal currency was accepted by businesses in trade for goods and services. Tens of thousands of people showed up for his funeral. Yes, he was delusional, but there was something about him that made people willing to run with his delusions, at least for a bit. And so we have Baron Munchausen, a real historical figure with a wealth of tall tales built up around him – many of which are apparently at least partially based on tales Munchausen himself told. And in this movie he manages to charm a number of people into believing in him, pulling them along with him for a series of fantastic adventures.

We begin in a theater, with a troupe of players performing a version of Munchausen’s adventures. The city the theater is in is under siege, with the sounds of battle clear from outside. Munchausen himself appears, striding on stage and denouncing the performance before commandeering it to tell his own version. And here is where the movie makes a departure. This is the point where we go from slight magical realism to full-on fantasy. It’s a little difficult to describe, mostly because the ending leaves it to the viewer to decide just how much was real and how much was imaginary and whether it matters in the long run. Because it seems to me that the whole point of it is that the power of one’s imagination is greater than anything else.

Much like in Time Bandits there is a child at the center of this movie. Yes, it’s all about the Baron, but it’s also about young Sally Salt, the daughter of the lead player. Sally is played by a very young Sarah Polley and is the driving force behind much of what happens. She’s determined to save her father and friends and the town and prods the Baron into helping out even when he’s more interested in other pursuits, like sex. Or death. Sally, as the child who hasn’t yet lost her imagination, insists that the Baron not give up. In the movie it’s literal in that the Baron sometimes gets carried away with a woman, or allows himself to be drawn into a game of cards with the grim reaper. But it’s also figurative in that at the beginning Sally demands the rest of the story. And she continues to demand that, even as the story happens around her.

The adventures in the story are suitably outrageous. The Baron and Sally head off out of the town in a hot air balloon made of ladies’ undergarments. They go to the moon, fall into a volcano, get swallowed by a giant fish and eventually – after meeting up with all of the Baron’s old friends – defeat the army besieging the town from the beginning. What’s fascinating about it all is how it begins close to home, in the theater, with a battle raging outside, then travels far away, and then pulls back again. Making things go from realistic, to semi-realistic, to fantastic and then back in reverse. While defeating an army with a small group of elderly adventurers is certainly unlikely at best, traveling to the moon and climbing down from it on a braid of the Queen of the Moon’s hair is an entirely different level of unlikely.

There’s a sort of layered reality going on here. Yes indeed, the town is under siege and ends up saved, with the besieging army mysteriously destroyed. Was it the Baron, who appeared to have been telling a tale all night? Did the act of telling the tale transport everyone in it, putting some of the players into dual roles within the story (like Uma Thurman playing both one of the players and the goddess Venus) and affecting the reality a level below? Or was it something else? The movie doesn’t really bother to tell you. The movie doesn’t seem to want you to know. And the movie doesn’t seem to want you to care. It happened. The how and the why aren’t as important as believing in the story and in the extraordinary.

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

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

October 24, 2010

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

I did see this movie during its original run in the theaters – on opening night. I remember meeting some friends of mine coming out of the movie while I was in line waiting to go in and how they enthused about it. Many of my high school friends were Python and Gilliam fans, and I had been reading about this movie (well mostly about its production problems) in the weeks leading up to its release and was very much looking forward to it. I enjoy it a great deal, and always have done, but I’m also slightly unsettled by it. I’ve just never been able to express exactly why.

Part of the problem is the movie’s steadfast refusal to ever tell the audience what is real and what is fantasy. I realize that this deliberate confusion is most of the point of the movie but it always leaves me feeling a little discombobulated. I have a strong fondness for fantasy. I love to visit other worlds and learn to understand them. It’s like Terry Gilliam too the “It was only a dream – but maybe not” ending from Time Bandits and did an expanded riff on it. This is a movie about tall tales and the fantasies that have faded from our world, but it has a sort of undertone of belief that if you want the stories to be true hard enough they actually can be.

Another part of the problem is that the movie has some pretty rough edges. I’m not talking about the extensive miniature work and occasional moments where you can see the wires. I find the technique used to bring the fantasies to life in the movie charming – especially after the fantastic stage show at the start of the film with all its clever practical effects you get the feeling that it’s okay to know how the fantasy was created. No, I’m talking about a couple parts of the movie where the humor is so broad and strange that it makes me wince a little and throws me out of the fantasy mood. In particular there’s the “Torturer’s Apprentice” opera that the Sultan plays on his musical torture device and Robin Williams’ almost vulgar performance as the king of the Moon. The torture/organ has always stuck out to me as too dark for the kind of tale that Munchausen is telling and taking part in. In the same way I completely understand the dichotomy between body and mind that defines the king and queen of the Moon here but as the king’s body Williams is given complete freedom to be as crazy as he could want to be and I just don’t want to see him with fruit smeared all over his face burping and farting. It’s nasty and I just want to skip ahead to the absolutely breathtaking scene at the end of the Moon sequence when the Baron, Sally and Berthold descend through the heavens on a silvery strand of the queen’s hair.

For the most part this movie is a “getting the band back together” movie. It starts out in a little walled town sometime near the end of the eighteenth century that is under siege by a vast army of Turks. In a decrepit tumbledown theater an impoverished troupe of actors are amusing some of the townsfolk with a tall tale of the adventures of Baron Munchausen when a doddering old man claiming to be the actual Baron himself shows up and demands to tell the story his way. (There’s a fantastic moment when the story takes over and one of the actors is shooed from the wings of the theater onto the actual palatial Turkish harem where the Baron’s story starts out.) We get treated to a grand tale that introduces each of the Baron’s miraculous companions and their abilities. Then “reality” bursts in as the theater is destroyed in a volley of cannon fire and the elderly Baron sets out (with a young girl who stows away in his airship because she believes his stories) to find his lost companions and return and lift the siege.

There follow a series of episodes as the Baron slowly finds each of his old servants. He flies to the Moon. He falls in a volcano and encounters Vulcan and Venus. (This is probably my favorite sequence because I’ve always loved the tragic cuckold character of Vulcan and his impossibly perfect wife.) He is swallowed by a colossal whale. Ultimately he and his companions arrive back at the town and lift the siege. Or maybe not. The movie is very deliberate in its refusal to offer any answers about how much of what you just saw was “real” and how much was “fantasy.” Ultimately that’s most of the point – that the two are interchangeable in this universe. Maybe they’re interchangeable in Terry Gilliam’s brain, which must make it rather interesting to be him.

I have never read any of the many adaptations of the tales of Baron Munchhausen. Nor am I familiar with the fold tales they’re based upon. I do love this kind of magical universe though and this kind of story. Tall tales and folk stories and legends and myths are all fascinating to me. The problem is that although there are parts of this movie that capture that spirit of wonder there are other parts that spoil it for me.

There are so many things about this movie I love. The soundtrack is a fantastic celebration with blaring trumpet refrains that stir the blood and raise your spirit. The effects are full of charm and style (I want to play with some of those miniatures or visit those forced-perspective sets.) The cast is superb, especially John Neville as the Baron himself and Eric Idle as Berthold, his speedy companion. I love how the actors and audience find themselves getting caught up in the Baron’s ridiculous stories. Ultimately however I never love this movie as much as I think I’m meant to. It loses me somehow and leaves me wanting more. I just wish I understood why.

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

Movie 237 – District 9

District 9 – October 23rd, 2010

As a general rule, I do not watch movies that will make me feel worse coming out of them than I felt going in. I’m a pessimist by nature. I don’t need movies to reinforce my pessimism. The world does that on a regular basis. My entertainment choices are usually made with an eye towards at least giving me an uplifting ending so I don’t feel like I’ve been kicked in the gut after the credits roll. Sad I can handle. Bleak is another story entirely. And this is bleak. It’s a movie that presents all but maybe a handful of humans as being either outright cruel or willing to turn a blind eye to cruelty. Nice.

I feel ill-equipped to review this movie in a sociological and cultural manner. And I feel like I should be doing just that, but I don’t know enough. I have some touchstones. I can see references to colonialism, apartheid, and every single episode in history where one group of people has marginalized and separated out another group. It’s pretty blatant. This movie isn’t just drawing parallels, it’s highlighting them with neon orange spray paint. The thing is, I am a middle class white woman living in the United States. I grew up in a suburb of Boston and went to a fancy private school. What the fuck do I know about apartheid beyond a handful of history classes in high school and college (and those were focused in other directions than South Africa) and a rather fuzzy memory of seeing The Song of Jacob Zulu on Broadway in middle school? Not much. But I do know when I’m being shown A Message in big blinking neon lights. I might not have taken many courses in African history in college, but I did take enough courses in film criticism and allegory to recognize this movie for what it is.

Of course science fiction is prime material for allegory in that it’s already removed from our own reality. I think I permanently ruined The Matrix for several of my classmates my junior year of college when I gave a presentation on its allegorical content (I probably still have my notes so my review for that one’s all but done!) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a classic example of allegory in film. So I’m not shocked by the allegorical stuff here. I’m not really clear on how anyone could be. The segregation of the aliens into a fenced off ghetto patrolled by armored cars and men with guns, the forced relocation, the callous and casual killing of the aliens and their children, the enforced poverty, the crime, the marginalization and the assumptions. This is all applicable to so many situations, but is clearly meant to point back to South Africa’s own history.

But see, I’m getting all bogged down in the allegory. This is how I ruined The Matrix for people. Because while the allegory can’t be denied, the movie is also a science fiction action film. I could try and comment on how I do find it curious that the factions in the movie are so clearly racially segregated, with the gangs and criminals taking advantage of the ghetto almost uniformly black and the bureaucrats and mercenaries almost all white. But I’m not really versed in the culture this movie is coming from. Was that an intentional move? Was it commentary on social roles in South Africa right now? Traditional/expected roles? Stereotypes? I don’t know. I kind of wish I did. But since I don’t know, I can’t comment on it more than note my noticing it. And that’s a lot of this movie for me. I saw things. I saw horrible things and was able to see the connections I was supposed to see on a superficial level. But on a deeper level I’m just not well enough educated.

So okay, let me try, for a paragraph, to step back from the direct allegory stuff. Let’s look at this from a wider perspective and take it as a science fiction action film with a message about humanity in general. According to this movie, the vast majority of humanity is pretty shitty. The humans we see are either the folks who take advantage of the aliens in the ghetto or they’re the MNU employees, who are just as bad, but in different ways. There are only a handful of people in the movie who aren’t shown to be utter scum. Since a good portion of the movie is told as a documentary about the events that take place within it, we’ve got some sociologists and the like doing interviews and giving opinions (they’re all white, by the way, just thought I’d mention) and they’re pretty neutral. They seem to care, but not be involved in any meaningful way. There’s our protagonist, Wikus, but he doesn’t give much of a damn until he himself is one of the marginalized. His wife, on the other hand, remains stubbornly faithful to him throughout the movie, believing in his innocence despite everything. His potential replacement at MNU, Fundiswa, eventually exposes some of the atrocities MNU has been perpetrating on the aliens. And that’s it. The aliens are persecuted and vilified and trapped and it is horrific. This isn’t a post-apocalyptic movie, but it does have the trappings of a dystopia, it’s just a dystopia for the aliens more than for the humans. A nice little twist on the trope.

Overall, I think I found this a depressing movie because I found the dystopian aspects far too close to reality. The allegory wasn’t removed enough, what with the movie being set in the present day. I understand the movie. Not on the historical level that others probably do. Not the way someone from South Africa might. But I see what it’s saying. I see it and it makes me thoroughly depressed. Depressed enough that it makes the science fiction and action aspects a little too difficult for me to enjoy as cinematic pieces. Even if something doesn’t make me happy I can usually appreciate it and enjoy it as a piece of art. But this was hard. This was a tough one for me to get through and now I need a bushel of puppies and some reminders of the good things humans can do for each other or I won’t want to face the world tomorrow.

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

District 9

October 23, 2010

District 9

This movie is dark. It’s a sci-fi film with a look and feel to it that is unique in my experience. It has a huge Hollywood level budget and tons of amazing special effects but it is as far from Hollywood as you can get. It’s bleak and upsetting and fascinating on a number of different levels. It depicts a world that is altogether alien to me and yet which is utterly real except for the presence of aliens in it. It’s a movie that generates conversation. I first saw it in the theater with my father and we left the dark confines of the auditorium with our minds racing. Tonight after watching it, and before we could even start our reviews, my wife and I had a lengthy discussion about how difficult it is to review something so clearly based in very personal experiences so far removed from our own, about privilege and perception, and about allegory and metaphor. These are not the kind of discussions we tend to have on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

If I had to sum up this movie in a word I would say that it is an examination of inhumanity. People’s inhumanity towards other people as well as the issue of how difficult interaction between humans and an alien intelligence would be. I’ll start with the latter because that was what first captured my imagination when I saw the movie in the theaters. I have seen the complaint leveled at this movie that it doesn’t give many answers about the aliens. There are a whole bunch of mysteries set up at the start of the film that are never solved. Big questions like “why, exactly, did the alien ship come to rest above Johannesburg?” “What were the aliens doing here?” “What went wrong for them, and why are they so unable to do anything?” In the movie a single man and alien, with some alien weapons which have been around in the world of the movie for twenty years, are able to defeat hundreds of human soldiers. So why, in those twenty years, have the aliens allowed themselves to be pushed around and degraded so much?

There are no real answers to any of these questions in the movie, but there is one implied: they’re alien. The “Prawns” don’t do anything that makes sense to us because their evolution, culture, technology and society don’t have anything in common with our own or even with anything in our world. On the one hand it’s a bit of a cop-out and writer’s crutch. The writers can have the aliens do absolutely anything nonsensical and say “well, sure, we just don’t understand their motivations.” On the other hand – this is exactly the kind of disorientation I would expect in the event of actual first contact with an extra-terrestrial species. Until we understood something about who the aliens were or where they came from I would expect that their decisions would appear non-sensical to us.

I was also really tickled by the notion of the aliens in this movie. It very deliberately and consciously turns most of the conventions of alien invasions on their heads. The massive alien ship in the movie appears over Johannesburg in South Africa and not over Washington or New York. It is a massive derelict full of impoverished workers who seem to have only the most base impulses and urges. They are animals with weapons and language incapable of living peacefully in a human way. (My one gripe would be that they are too human in appearance – bipedal with two arms and two eyes – they even use audible language within our range of hearing for communication. It’s less than realistic, but I suppose necessary when you’re trying to depict aliens in a movie.) Once transported to a “temporary” refugee camp in District 9 they simply stagnate there. They are vilified and reviled by the local populace. As this movie begins they are so disliked by the humans they come into contact with that the government of South Africa has hired a huge mercenary independent contractor called MNU to re-locate the entire alien population into a new internment camp thousands of miles away.

So, yes, the aliens in the movie are easy for the humans in the movie to hate. They are seen as beast and as sub-human. But the movie also paints most of the humans in very broad and less-than-flattering terms. There are the Haitian gangsters who feed parasitically off the Prawns. They are depicted as superstitious and primitive in their own way with their witchcraft and their belief that by eating the aliens they can gain some part of their power. And there are MNU – who are a sort of caricature of a multi-national heartless corporation who care only about profit and covering their own asses. There are really only two human characters in this whole movie and one of them is an alien while the other starts out as a petty, pompous, self-obsessed jerk.

I’m not going to even bother reviewing the plot of the movie I think. The plot’s not what captures me here, it’s the entire world. Very briefly the movie concerns the mis-adventures of Wicus Van der Merwe, the man who is promoted by his father-in law to command the MSU re-location efforts. His story arc is almost ludicrously broad. In the beginning he is so callous that he laughs and jokes as alien babies are roasted on his command. By the end he is fully involved in the plight of the aliens and the plans of one in particular to escape from Earth. Not that I am unimpressed by Sharlto Copley’s performance. Almost the entire movie rests on his depiction of Wicus and he does an admirable job. You really do feel his horror and revulsion and desperation as he descends into the alien world, and you are relieved and elated when he eventually attempts to be a hero.

The film is also odd in its refusal to conform to any genre expectations. It starts out as a documentary style expose then becomes a horror film, then morphs into an action buddy flick. The fact that it flows through all these stages so organically and fluidly is impressive, but I’m just saying that the plot is kind of broad and only really works if you don’t spend too much time thinking about it.

I do love the spectacle of the movie. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp has done an astonishing job integrating the special effects into the world of the film. The aliens are entirely digital creations but I never once failed to believe that they were simply part of the world the movie is taking place in. There are some flashy big action scenes, particularly towards the end, but even they had a kind of hyper-real feeling to them. Part of it is the constant shaky hand-held camera technique (which I understand gave some viewers nausea although it never affected me in that way.) Part of it is the level of detail in the computer models and the way they are lit and inserted into the movie – they just seem to be part of the world. And no matter how often they used it in the movie I never tired of seeing people blown into liquid giblets and sprayed over the landscape. It was a bit like the first time I got a hold of a rocket launcher in Doom. It never stops being fun.

Then there’s the setting of the film. Neill chose to put the entire conflict in his native home of Johannesburg, which adds a whole other dimension to the film. I had to realize as I watch this that the destitute slums that the aliens have been exiled to actually exist in the real world. The plight of the aliens, demonised and dehumanised, is an entirely real depiction (or so I understand) of refugee people in South Africa. Listening to Neill’s commentary track is a fascinating experience in itself. He talks about the divide between the teeming poor and the privileged rich who live in heavily defended enclaves in the city. He talks about how he feared for his health filming in the slums which were built on unsanitary landfill – and where real people live in the real world. He talks about the “smilies” that Wicus is so disgusted by – sheep’s heads split in half and sold at roadside vendors – which are a real thing that people sell on the street. He talks about how one of his set dressers could go out and find him the corpse of a dead cow on a moments notice because that kind of thing was just lying around the slums. This completely alien world is terrifying and fascinating – all the more so because it is not fiction.

Amanda was thoroughly depressed by this movie, and I can clearly see why. It depicts the absolute worst depths that humanity can sink to. It is full of despicable and deplorable acts. But it’s a big-budget sci-fi action movie that forces you to think, and that’s the kind of thing that I love. It’s not uplifting or happy. It’s a dark, bleak story in a dark, bleak world which just happens to be our world. But damned if it doesn’t start my brain going every time I see it. I appreciate it for that.

October 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Movie 236 – The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski – October 22nd, 2010

I admit, I kind of don’t want to write this review. I’m tired and my head hurts and there’s a lot of yelling in this movie so that didn’t help the head. So I’m not in the mood to write a review at all, but I’m also not sure I’m up to reviewing this movie. I’m kind of cranky about it, to be honest. Because I don’t find it to be a flawlessly brilliant Coen Brothers masterpiece. I know it has a following. I seem to recall reading about a convention somewhere for people who dress up like characters from the movie and know it all by heart. So I know people love it. Enough people to get together for an annual event. That’s cool and all. But I’m not one of those people. When I want to put in a mystery/action/comedy full of quirky characters and quotable lines I’ll go for Buckaroo Banzai. And when I want a Coen Brothers movie I’ll go for Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou? It just doesn’t strike enough of a chord with me to get me past the one thing that makes me cringe for a large portion of the movie: Walter.

I really really don’t like Walter. I’d have to say he makes this movie really unpleasant for me to watch at times. I find it hard to enjoy a lot of his scenes because, well, I’ve met guys like Walter. They are terrifying to be around. So yeah. I love Jeff Bridges. I love a lot of stuff in this movie. But I cannot stand Walter. He makes my fight-or-flight instinct kick in, and no non-horror movie should do that to me. He yells, he rants, he waves a fucking gun around and threatens people for supposed bowling infractions. He gets all riled up and pissed off and having worked retail and had guys get riled up and pissed off for incredibly minor things that are only problems because of something they did? I can’t really see him as a comedic figure. I don’t find him funny in the least. I find him cringe-inducing. When he starts yelling over The Dude, I want to leave the room. That’s no way to watch a movie.

It pisses me off, to be honest. Because Walter kind of sits at the root of most of the situation. The Dude gets mistaken for another guy with the same name (Jeffrey Lebowski) and some thugs piss on his rug and that’s just not cool. That much? Totally not Walter’s fault. Walter did not urinate on The Dude’s rug. He wouldn’t have done that. It really tied the room together and Walter knows that. But it’s Walter who gets The Dude all riled up about it and urges him to go find the other Jeffrey Lebowski. And when the other Lebowski’s trophy wife goes missing and he hires The Dude to drop off the ransom money to her supposed kidnappers, it’s Walter who comes along and fucks up the drop. Sure, he’s right about the kidnapping in the end, but The Dude wouldn’t even have gotten mixed up with the Big Lebowski and his wife, Bunny, or the pornographer and his thugs, or the Nihilists, if Walter wasn’t an angry jackass running his mouth off. He even pisses off the relatively calm Dude eventually. I can see how he’s supposed to be this over the top caricature and his out of control antics are supposed to be amusing in an astonished-at-him sort of way. I just can’t see him as caricature. Sorry. When you’ve encountered people like him in real life – multiple people – it ceases to be caricature and becomes reality.

Anyhow, if I could get past Walter, or if he didn’t show up nearly as much as he does, I think I’d really enjoy this movie. Which is what pisses me off about him. My reaction to him ends up overshadowing my reaction to everything else. Maybe he’s like cilantro. Lots of people love the stuff. But if there’s one leaf of it in something all I can taste is soap. So let’s get rid of the cilantro. Let’s just assume he plays a role in putting things in motion and otherwise roll along with the rest of the movie. And you know what? That’s actually pretty cool! It’s a mystery, really, with a kidnapping and family squabbles and two possible culprits and a dismembered toe in an envelope. It’s noir without the noir. All the plot, none of the ambiance. If you don’t really look at the plot itself you might miss it amongst all the White Russians and rug obsessions and pot smoking. But seriously. Look at the plot.

Wealthy Jeffrey Lebowski’s trophy wife, Bunny, has apparently been kidnapped. He hires our hero to drop off the money to the kidnappers and secure her safe return. The drop goes awry and soon our hero finds himself in trouble with Lebowski, the kidnappers, folks the wife owed money to, and then he meets Lebowski’s daughter. She’s sultry and mysterious and doesn’t get along with her father or the trophy wife. She wants the money back. But the money is missing. The kidnappers want the money. But the money is missing. The folks the wife owed money to? Want the money. But? The money? It is missing. And so The Dude, our hero, has to find out what happened to the money. And he never asked to get involved in all of this. It’s all because of a case of mistaken identity. That right there is a great little mystery setup. And then the hero is this aging hippie who’s happiest when he’s stoned, drinking a White Russian, or bowling. He peppers his speech with lots of filler, dudes and mans and fucks. He sprawls when he sits down. He’s not a private eye – in fact he has an encounter with one who thinks he is and disabuses him of that notion right quick – he just wanted his rug replaced.

The whole movie is this bizarre melding of genres, which the Coen Brothers seem to do rather well. Taking something classic and plunking it down in a time and place it never belonged before works rather well for them. They certainly seem to have had fun making this movie, as did Jeff Daniels, who does a fantastic job with The Dude. He’s utterly incomprehensible much of the time, and yet you always know what he means. I really like him, and I like a lot of the rest of the cast, and I like the mystery and I like the concept. I like the bowling and the bizarre dream sequences. I just don’t like Walter. It’s not that John Goodman does a bad job playing him. It’s that he does too dedicated a job. To the point where I fully believe him. I would just rather believe him a little less so I could enjoy the rest of the movie more.

October 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Big Lebowski

October 22, 2010

The Big Lebowski

Back to Coen Brothers territory tonight! It’s another quirky comedy this time, but a quirky comedy as only Joel and Ethan can do it. I enjoyed this movie the first couple times I saw it but didn’t really grok it until I looked at the special features material on the disk here. It’s filled with crudity, drug humor, and a slew of irritating and unlikable characters. It didn’t quite gel for me, what with its kidnapping mystery, screaming rants, delirious dream sequences and completely tangential narration. It had moments I really enjoyed and I loved the character of the Dude, but on the whole the movie made no sense to me until I watched the special features which involve the Coen Brothers talking about the inspiration that drove them when they wrote the screenplay. Then it suddenly clicked into place for me and made perfect sense, and my enjoyment of the movie was vastly improved.

They explain that what they were creating was a Raymond Chandleresque mystery movie but with a completely inappropriate modern character taking the lead role. Instead of the tough as nails hard boiled Philip Marlowe caught up between the various factions represented here we have simply the Dude. The Dude who is introduced in the opening narration by Sam Elliott as possibly the laziest man alive. The Dude who glides through life in a pot induced haze with no ambition or goal until he finds himself thrust into the twisted plot of mystery and intrigue that is the rest of the movie.

It’s like a bizarre collision between to completely different genres. On the one hand the stoner comedy about a guy who just wants to bowl with his pals and on the other this serious Big Sleep style detective story. With some strange Coen Brothers surrealism thrown in for fun.

The truth is that I like the detective story more than the comedy buddy part. I’ll agree with Amanda, who finds John Goodman’s character Walter (the instigator of most that goes bad in the movie) almost unwatchably irritating. But the mystery, even though it is a spoof for the most part, feels remarkably faithful to the source material. Just look at what happens to the Dude in the course of his adventure: he gets abducted by the cold and mysterious daughter, he gets abducted by the shady porn producer, he gets slipped a mickey, he gets roughed up by a crooked police officer, he confronts a private detective who has been tailing him… it’s just a series of hard boiled movie tropes played out one after another. He even eventually gets the girl (in a strange sort of way.) What I find most delightful is that by the end of the movie, and against all possible expectation, the Dude turns out to be a pretty good detective. He starts to understand the rules of the strange world he’s been thrown into. When he finds his apartment ransacked after being drugged at the palatial home of Jackie Treehorn he instantly knows who it was that did it and why – without even having to think about it. He actually solves part of the mystery. You begin to get the sense that under different circumstances the Dude would make a pretty darn good Marlowe. (Maybe it’s just that he has the innate ability to find the path of least resistance and in this case that means finding his place in the narrative he’s in.)

There are plenty of things to love about this movie. Like the delirious dream sequences that the Dude falls into when he’s knocked unconscious. Like the witty soundtrack (which in an odd coincidence uses two songs from a mix tape my friend Christine once gave me – adding a whole other layer of nostalgia to the movie that the Coens could never have intended.) Like the great performances of the entire cast. Sure Goodman’s character is a complete asshole and fuckup, but he plays him with dedication and conviction. Jeff Bridges so embodies the Dude that he almost seems to have been typecast into that washed up hippie role ever since. Julianne Moore and her terrific Katherine Hepburn accent is a hoot to watch and steals every scene she’s in. Coen Brothers regulars Steve Buscemi and John Turturro both give unforgettable performances as the poor innocent doomed Donnie and the creepy Jesus. I think this was the first movie I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in and I instantly loved him (he was probably my favorite part of Magnolia too – but that’s another review.)

This is a difficulty movie to like sometimes. I appreciate its unique and strange genius. I enjoy many of the stranger moments in the movie. I hate Walter, but I can mostly get past that. Watching this tonight has made me aware once again of some of the gaping holes in our collection. I wish we had The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, and To Have and Have Not. So many great movies out there we don’t have yet!

October 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments