A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 508 – Captain America (1990)

Captain America (1990) – July 21st, 2011

Why yes, to celebrate the opening of the new Captain America movie we are watching something so very sub-par that I’m pretty sure it’s on a different scale entirely. We figured hey, we’re not going to be able to go to a midnight opening and we probably wouldn’t get to see it at all until Sunday, so we should do our own thing! And while we had considered watching this the day we go to see the new one, if that’s Sunday then it’s impossible. We have special plans for Sunday and the entire coming week. Because I am on vacation. And we have long movies to watch. Turns out we’re going to see the new movie on Saturday, but that decision was made after we’d put this in and the damage was done.

This is a terrible movie. The first time I watched it was for an online riff chat some of the old AOL MST3K fan community did every so often. We’d all rent the same movie, start it at the same time and gather in a chat room to make fun of it together. And all I remember about this one was that it was absolutely ridiculous. And I remembered correctly! It is ridiculous! It is a bizarre mish-mash of a movie, full of things I suspect are canon and things I am damn sure don’t even have a passing acquaintance with canon. It has a couple of decent concepts that I could have possibly gone along with, but they’re cobbled together into this mess of a movie.

First of all, I would just like to point out that the origin this movie gives the Red Skull is suspiciously similar to the one the X-Men movies have given Magneto. Except where I really think the Magneto origin is done well and I especially appreciate the expansion of it in the newest movie, this movie doesn’t bother with subtlety and therefore it sucks. I mean, yes, the Nazis were, as a party, a terrible force that destroyed so many lives it’s sickening to think about numbers. And within the party there were scientists and soldiers who did even more unspeakably horrible things. And they make really good villains for anyone to go up against in a movie because there is no question that they are Bad Guys. They’re simple and the audience will know, without a doubt, who to root against. But where Magneto’s origin gives him some depth of character because his actions are so clearly connected to his experiences as a child, in this movie the Red Skull is just a guy who was tortured by Nazis and decided to run an assassins club (which I’m sure Martin Blank would scoff at) after the war. What’s the point of giving him any sort of origin there? I’m no Cap aficionado but I did a little poking around none of the incarnations of the Red Skull seem to have this sort of origin story. And it’s a brutal one! Kid’s torn away from his family who are then all brutally murdered in front of him before he’s taken to a secret lab and experimented on.

Not that the backstory for the Red Skull never comes into play again. His initial scene with his family and the piano and all ends up being a key point in the climax. But it’s a key point that comes in unconnected to anything else in the movie between the first scene and the last. How do we make the villain panic? Make him face the trauma of his youth! What trauma? Um… family murdered by Nazis! That’s much better than actually having Captain America defeat him otherwise! And why do we need a trick to make the villain panic when we’ve got a perfectly good superhero right there? Because Cap’s never been able to defeat him before in that one time they faced off just after Cap was given all his super strengths and all before he was buried in Alaska and hibernated for thirty years. So obviously he wouldn’t be able to defeat the villain on his own! After all, why have him spend any time training or anything like that after he’s dug up and revived when we could have a montage of him traveling cross-country by freight cars set to a power ballad ostensibly about his old girlfriend?

It just feels so strange, watching this movie, realizing that some of the most ridiculous things done in it are there because of poor choices very early on in the movie. The whole traveling montage isn’t really necessary to establish that Steve Rogers still thinks his old girlfriend, Bernice, is waiting for him. It’s several minutes of power ballad lyrics about “memories of you, girl!” when something far simpler would have done just fine and that screen time could have been used to establish Captain America gearing up for facing down his hastily-established nemesis. It could have been spent on said nemesis, even! Give him something else to justify that first scene! But no. Power ballad and freight cars.

One concept I really quite liked here, but felt was absolutely horribly done, is President Kimball. Back in the day, when Steve Rogers became Captain America and first encountered the Red Skull and saved the White House from a rocket meant to destroy it, little Tom Kimball sees him and is forever transfixed by this red, white and blue clad figure with an A on his helmet. And then little Tom Kimball grows up to be the president who is then kidnapped by the Red Skull and saved by his childhood hero. I kind of like the idea that Cap returns to this one man’s life. And I like Kimball. He’s the scrappiest president ever, getting into it with his captors and stealing some acid from the lab where they’re preparing him for a brain implant that will give the Red Skull complete control over him. He pretty much frees himself, really. To be honest, Cap’s kind of useless here. His major talent is faking being carsick so he can then steal a car (he does this twice – someone, tell me this is not canon, please). The trouble is that we get a scene of Kimball as a kid, and then we get spinning newspapers and voiceovers detailing his political career and rise to the presidency. It’s not even worthy of the montage label. It’s a demi-montage. More like a scrapbook. Why spend time on that? Why not just go from the kid in Washington, catching a snapshot of Captain America saving the day, to the adult in present day Washington, looking at said snapshot? That would tell us all we need to know along with the same name for the character.

The whole movie is like this. Somewhat decent ideas played out in horrible ways, with montages and power ballads and clumsy writing. Oddly enough, once Cap and his old girlfriend’s daughter, Sharon, get to Italy, I think the movie goes a lot better. Sharon’s clearly the cleverer of the two, speaking Italian, finding information about the Red Skull’s origins, acting as a decoy for the bad guys so Cap can break into the Red Skull’s fortress. What does Captain America do? He feigns carsickness again and then scales a wall. President Kimball and Sharon, on the other hand, are breaking out of their cells and duking it out with baddies, hand to hand. But at least there are no montages. There is a piano on the outer wall of the fortress, which I remembered very clearly but had no real context for this time until hey, there it was! But really, it’s all just bizarre dressing for this sad mess of a movie. I’m not even dignifying the Red Skull’s “fiendish” plot by describing it. The movie’s ending doesn’t even really work (what, the detonator stops working if the person holding it falls down a cliff?) and neither does the rest of it.

July 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Captain America (1990)

July 21, 2011

Captain America (1990)

It’s probably pretty sick of me to admit that I’ve been looking forward to watching this movie for a couple months. We bought it as a kind of gag – something to watch when the new Captain America movie came out in theaters. I hadn’t ever actually seen this movie all the way through though, so the joke is somewhat on me. I had not anticipated quite how impressively bland and mediocre this movie really is.

I’ve been in the room while this was playing. It was (for some inexplicable reason) favoured by one of our co-workers at TLA for a while, so he was in the habit of putting it in the VCR there while we worked but I never paid it much mind. So I’ve seen bits and pieces of the movie, out of sequence, but I had no concept of the whole. It was probably a better way to see the film – the movie that I constructed in my imagination from the bits and pieces I saw was preferable to this jumbled mess.

I have to think that this movie was somehow influenced by the success in 1989 of Tim Burton’s Batman movie. Somebody figured they needed to act quickly to make a Marvel-based super hero movie to cash in on this huge audience for gritty dark comic book films. But make it cheap just in case the formula isn’t such a sure-fire thing. And have some comic book humor. And have some attractive women. The end result is a movie that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.

It starts out cool and gritty and dark. The Nazis in Italy in the 1930s (were there Nazis in Italy that early?) are working to perfect a formula that will make soldiers bigger, stronger and smarter. It’s not quite right yet, however, and has some unpleasant side effects. They decide to go to human trials anyhow and for their first human subject they choose a brilliant young prodigy. They recruit him to the cause by the simple method of forcing him to watch as they slaughter his family. Sure, who wouldn’t want to join them after that? So distraught is the project leader by this behavior that she defects to America.

Three years later we learn from a bit of ADR that the process has been mastered and that the Americans are ready to start human trials of their own. They have chosen for the honor a simple fellow with a slight limp (because the formula is supposed to cure ailments like polio and such) and an aw-shucks kind of wide-eyed naivete named Steve Rogers. So Steve kisses his steady girl goodbye and goes off to become a human guinea pig. Unfortunately a Nazi spy has infiltrated the secret lab (hidden under a diner) and during the experiment he shoots the scientist who had developed the super soldier serum, meaning that Steve is the only super soldier on the US payroll.

Almost immediately Steve, now dubbed Captain America is airlifted off to Nazi Germany to infiltrate a top secret missile base there. And just as quickly he proves that he’s not much of a super soldier as he gets his ass soundly kicked by his Italian counterpart – the super soldier prototype now known as the Red Skull (due to those side effects I mentioned.) The Red Skull straps Cap to a rocket aimed at the White House and is launched away. At the last possible moment Cap is able to bend the tail fin of the rocket enough to divert it so it crashes harmlessly in the frozen north somewhere, and Captain America is frozen alive.

All this is just the pre-amble to the movie though. The real film is about Captain America being defrosted in 1993 and having to cope with the much altered world he finds there. Now that sounds like it could have been a kind of groovy movie. If it had been Austin Powers. But instead the effect is that the climactic battle between good and evil happens about twenty minutes into the movie, evil resoundingly wins, and the whole rest of the film feels like an afterwards.

The only witness to the missile that almost hit the White House was a young boy who never forgot that strange man strapped to a rocket. That boy, through a montage of spinning newspapers, grows up to be Dick Jones, the slimy head of the OCP team that developed the ED-209 President of the United States. His best pal grows up to be a newspaper reporter obsessed with a conspiracy theory regarding a mysterious crime lord called the Red Skull who has been behind every major assassination in the last thirty years.

Here’s where things get a little confusing. The president is attending an environmental summit in Italy, and for some reason the Red Skull (who no longer appears red for some reason, but just looks kind of craggy) and his cabal of evil doers feel threatened by this summit, so they decide to kidnap the President and implant a brain control device of some sort so that they can rule the world. Muhahaha! Meanwhile, Red Skull sicks his psychopathic daughter and her empty eyed companions to kill the recently defrosted Captain America.

Cap is experiencing some culture shock trying to figure out the modern world. His steadfast girlfriend from the forties has moved on somewhat, getting married and having a daughter even though she still carries a torch for Steve. In a somewhat creepy move Steve promptly shacks up with his ex girlfriend’s daughter (which is somewhat okay I guess since the daughter is played by the same actress as the ex girlfriend? I don’t know.) Steve and his ex-girlfriend’s daughter promptly fly off to Italy to rescue the president (which caused Amanda to wonder where Steve got a passport on such short notice.) And over the course of another twenty minutes of faffing about the movie limps to its eventual end.

Clearly part of the problem is the conflicted nature of the movie. How can the same film have the brutal slaying of the Red Skull’s family, and the torture and murder of Steve’s old flame but at the same time contain cheesy attempts at humor like Steve’s repeated attempts to steal cars by feigning nausea. (How I wish I were kidding!) There are all these scenes in Italian with subtitles, which seems to indicate that they were attempting for a more mature audience, but then there’s the rubber American Flag outfit Cap wears that looks simply ludicrous. It’s like watching a battle of wills between studio executives who refused to relinquish power. Not good for a film.

Even worse, the title character is a pretty lame hero. This comes down partially to Matt Salinger’s portrayal. His Steve Rogers is such a big, gullible, lump of a guy that he barely seems capable of thought, much less heroism. He’s supposed to be this big super soldier but he spends the whole film lumbering around getting his ass kicked by flunkies. He doesn’t stop the missile launch. He doesn’t save his ex-girlfriend. He doesn’t even save President Kimball (the President saves himself thank you very much.) He gets shot at a lot and he throws his magic shield around, but as a super hero he leaves much to be desired.

I knew going into this movie that it wouldn’t be particularly good. That was kind of the whole point. And it’s far from the worst movie in our collection. It’s a big ugly mess though, and I found it kind of sad because there was some cool potential hidden in here. Hopefully we’ll go see the new Captain America movie in the theater on Saturday and that will help wash the memory of this one from my mind.

July 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 507 – Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – July 20th, 2011

The other night, at the beginning of Rango, the little Johnny Depp-voiced chameleon at the center of the movie bounces across a highway. He swings off a car antenna, rides a bicycle wheel and smacks into a car carrying a very obvious reference to this movie. And at the time I jokingly said we should watch this next. Then when we were going through our list looking for movies around two hours I mentioned this and we said hey, why not, right? There are a couple of connections beyond the reference, with Johnny Depp and Las Vegas featuring in Rango and in this movie as well. So we put this on and settled in for an evening of hallucinations and monologues.

And really, it’s mostly a lot of Johnny Depp as “Raoul Duke” (a.k.a. Hunter S. Thompson, who based the character on himself) doing a lot of drugs and hallucinating and talking about it. But then there are moments of such depth. There’s the oft-quoted monologue about San Francisco: “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” I mean, damn. That makes me so sad. It makes me tear up every time I hear it and it’s in the middle of this incredibly bizarre drug trip of a movie. And that’s what makes this movie interesting to me. I mean, it’s visually entertaining, with all of the drug trip visuals, but it’s the mix of drug-fueled antics and behavior and insightful commentary on the culture of the time that makes it more than what it might at first appear.

Truth be told, I’ve been struggling with this review. How do I even begin to touch this movie? How do I explain it? It defies true explanation by its very nature. That’s one reason this review is so late. I mentioned in the morning that I might just recount the dreams this movie gave me. It would be about as lucid as the movie itself. But the dreams are now just a hazy memory. I don’t often remember my dreams for long. But I do remember that they were full of Las Vegas and hotel corridors and confusion. Which I’m sure is par for the course after watching this movie.

I have been to Las Vegas, but my trip was full of Star Trek, not drugs, so it wasn’t quite the same experience as is presented here. The thing is, this isn’t really a cohesive experience. It’s not like this is one continuous drug trip. It’s not one journalism assignment for the main character. It’s not one hotel. It’s not one drug. It’s a series of moments and observations, witnessed and recounted through a haze of recreational chemicals and societal malaise. What makes it so fascinating to me is the combination of irreverent and bizarre moments and serious commentary and action. There’s some truly dark stuff going on in this movie and if all you know of it is the hallucinations near the beginning then you’re only seeing half the story.

Given that the story is so wildly all over the place, it’s difficult to really relate the events in the movie. It’s not a story with a beginning, middle and end so much as it’s a series of episodes showing a certain time and place through a certain filter. The fictional characters Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, head to Las Vegas, ostensibly to cover a motorcycle race for a magazine. It doesn’t really matter what race or what magazine. Details like that are incidental to the story. The point is that on the drive down to Vegas the two men take an impressive array of drugs and are thoroughly wasted by the time they get there. And from there the story sort of goes off the rails. But that’s the point. Duke misses the race almost entirely, seeing only the beginning before getting distracted by the LSD and mescalin and ether and the strange world of the Las Vegas strip as experienced with chemical assistance. And I mean, the strip is one of those strange nowhere-else-like-this places anyhow. So the addition of hallucinogens is only adding to the strangeness, not creating it.

Honestly, the series of subsequent events are a blur. And I think that’s intentional. Duke flees the hotel in a fit of paranoia, makes it out of the city without paying for the room (or the damage done to it) and then gets stranded and then goes back and checks into another hotel where Dr. Gonzo has moved to along with a girl he met on an airplane (she paints pictures of Barbara Streisand) and they go to cover a District Attorney convention on drug culture and they do more drugs and eventually Duke wakes up and the new room is a pit and he knows things have gone very wrong. And I’ll be straight here, I’m not entirely sure of the sequence of events. Duke has some flashbacks and I’m pretty sure that the diner scene near the end isn’t one of them but this review has taken me so long to write I could be misremembering. But it’s pretty dark. It’s a very different mood than the earlier scenes of circus-themed casinos full of people who look like fish or whatever. The return to Las Vegas heralds in a very different mood.

I think part of the shift is that it’s a return. That the original trip had been its own thing, fun in a way but ending in paranoia. And the return is tinged with more of that paranoia which is then bolstered by the proliferation of officers of the law. One never gets the impression that Duke really wanted to go back to Las Vegas. It wasn’t an environment he was entirely comfortable with anyhow. And then there he is. The return trip goes down hill very fast, with talk about selling the girl Dr. Gonzo’s brought to the room and then the trip to the diner, where Dr. Gonzo pulls a knife and threatens a waitress with it. It’s a far cry from the beginning of the movie. But at the same time it feels almost like a natural progression. Not a smooth one, to be sure, but a showcase of how things can go from strange to bad to worse to even worse than you ever thought possible. It happens in bits and pieces and part of what the movie does well is to make the audience feel as disjointed as Duke himself is supposed to be feeling. We’re all just along for the ride.

The two key selling points for me here are the cast and the visuals. The writing I take as a given. I’ve never read Thompson but Andy’s been reading the book this is based on since we watched it and he claims it’s pretty much word for word. So what really does it for me are the performances, which are universally fantastic, and the visuals that manage to convey both the reality of Las Vegas and the unreality of the drug-induced visions Duke has at the same time. Johnny Depp is a weird guy, to be sure, and he’s amazing here, but I also have to give a whole lot of credit to Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo. It’s a thoroughly unlikeable role for much of the movie and he pulls it off amazingly. But then the rest of the movie is peppered with bit parts played by very recognizable names. Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, just to name a few. They show up and have their moment or moments and then they’re gone, because really, as I mentioned, the story is Duke’s (or Thompson’s, if you want to go there) and he’s the focal point. It’s about him and drugs and Las Vegas and really, what more can I say?

July 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

July 20, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I’m not quite sure how to start out this review. This movie is one that leaves a lasting impression – I’d even say that it is a major accomplishment in film making – but it feels uneven and disjointed. I’ve never been sure if that’s an intentional choice or if it is an inevitable result of attempting to adapt this source material. I mean, did Gilliam make a disjointed film deliberately because that was his vision or did his adherence to the book force him to make a film that didn’t flow in the way most of his movies do? I suppose it doesn’t make much difference.

I’m a huge fan of Terry Gilliam, as anybody who’s been reading this blog could easily tell, and Johnny Depp is astonishing in this as he is in everything he does, but this isn’t their movie, really. This is Hunter’s movie through and through. It’s a movie full of great quotable voice-overs, but they’re all quotes from the book. Depp’s amazing performance channels the mad energy of the famous gonzo reporter as he brings to life this tale of a drug addled rebel assigned to report on a motorcycle race in the Nevada desert outside of Las Vegas.

I enjoy this movie, in spite of its episodic and uneven feel, but it’s difficult to review it for a couple reasons. For one, this is a movie that is all about dealing with a chemically altered perception of the world. In the story Hunter S. Thompson’s mis-adventures in Las Vegas there is a truly implausible amount of drug use. Acid, cocaine, ether, marijuana, mescaline… just about every hallucinogen known to man and some not invented yet is consumed in mass quantities by Hunter and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo. I wouldn’t say that the movie glorifies drug use, but it attempts to show how deranged a man can become if drug use becomes commonplace. My personal experience with illegal narcotics is virtually non-existent, so although I’m fascinated by the twisted world depicted here I don’t have anything to really compare it to in my own life.

My other problem in writing this review is that although I’ve read excepts from the book this movie is based on (most of which are quoted word for word here) I haven’t read the whole thing. That makes it really hard to talk about the things I’d really like to explore. I’m curious about how accurately Gilliam captures the book, and about how much of the movie is directly from the page, but I don’t really have any answers there.

What I can say is that this movie has a wistful, desperate, slightly sad quality to it. My favorite parts of the movie are the more introspective bits where Depp-as-Thompson reflects on the sad fate of the naive movement of the sixties and the ultimate futility of the San Francisco drug culture. That’s part of the problem with the movie, really. It has this this really touching moment about two thirds of the way through the film that feels like it should be the climax, but then Hunter finds himself returning to Las Vegas to cover a district attorney conference on narcotics and the movie limps on for another drug addled forty five minutes or so. Not only does it feel somewhat repetitive, with Hunter trashing another car and hotel room, but it loses that introspective air and gets more and more crazy and desperate. Much of the final act is told in flashback as Thompson attempts to piece together scattered memories of the past weekend, and it just doesn’t feel as honest as the first half of the movie. I strongly suspect that this is exactly the nature of the source material – but I have no way to tell until I’ve read the book itself.

Johnny Depp as Hunter (as Raoul Duke) is absolutely spellbinding. He’s all profound wisdom and spastic insanity and drug fueled paranoia. I love the way that Hunter has written himself into the story as a character in his own drama. (It makes me want to watch Adaptation.) I suspect that there is probably some root of truth in much of this tale but that it is heavily exaggerated for effect, but that’s part of the fun of it. Gilliam does a great job giving life to the ravings of a drug addled mind. There are only a couple actual special effects shots done in post-production as almost all the madness is captured life and in camera. That’s very Gilliam. Then there’s Benicio Del Torro as the nefarious Dr. Gonzo. His performance is even more impressive than Depp’s in many ways because his character is so much less sympathetic. Dr. Gonzo is an instigator, a trouble maker, given to violence and rudeness. Del Torro commits himself to this character with unreserved dedication and provides most of the fuel that drives the plot, such as it is. He works absolutely perfectly with Depp to bring these characters to life.

There is so much about this movie that I really enjoy. It’s a brave film that does a good job of making something unflattering and pretty scary feel real and important. It’s full of wit and dry humor as well as laugh out loud moments. Even so, it is such an uneven and oddly paced movie that it doesn’t completely work for me. I’m going to try reading the book now to see if it helps me to appreciate this movie more.

July 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 506 – Rango

Rango – July 19th, 2011

I will straight up admit to wanting to see this movie largely because of its marketing. If it had just been advertised as a CG kids film Western parody then eh, I might have seen it eventually or I might have given it a pass. Sure, it has Johnny Depp and he’s always good for a laugh, but I don’t go out of my way for Westerns and it just might not have seemed like it was anything super special. Except for the marketing, which played up how the recording for the voice acting was done, which looked like a blast. Unlike the recording booths I assume much voice acting is done in, this movie was recorded with the cast on a rudimentary set, interacting and wearing costume pieces and using props. Acting out the physical actions for the scenes they were recording for. And that just sucked me right in.

Now, we watched this on our regular DVD player and the regular DVD copy we have has nothing in the way of special features. And that is a crying shame because what I have seen of the filming done during the voice recording sessions is fascinating and I would love to have the option for a split screen (or something similar) between the animated movie and the recording sessions. It just seems like so much fun, with all the actors cavorting and playing around and acting out these things that aren’t meant to be physical. Seeing Bill Nighy act out the part of Rattlesnake Jake is just fantastic. But alas, that option doesn’t exist. We’ll have to pull out the PS3 and check the Bluray version at some point. Fortunately, even without such gimmicks the movie stands up.

It’s a Western. Let’s just put that out there and I will admit that I enjoyed it. In fact, in light of this and a few other things I’ve noted in some past reviews, I think I might have to revisit my position on Westerns. I still don’t think I’m much of a John Wayne gal, but I’ll give Eastwood a go. I’ve absorbed enough of the tropes at this point that it really would be a shame not to put them in their proper context. And I shouldn’t let an enforced viewing of The Searchers while I had a 100 degree fever color my attitude towards an entire genre, I’m sure. Some day I’ll tell that story, but it won’t be in a review for The Searchers. I’ll give Westerns a go. I’ll spend the rest of this review effusing about this particular Western. But The Searchers will always remind me of fever chills and misery and resentment. That being said, this movie is about as far from that as possible.

Sure, some of it seems like a fever dream! But that’s intentional and a heck of a lot more fun than an actual fever. It’s the story of a chameleon who finds himself bounced out of his terrarium and stranded in a desert environment he is utterly unfamiliar with. In his quest for water he finds a town, the town of Dirt, and thanks to his penchant for acting (and he is a chameleon, after all) he spins enough wild tales to impress the locals. When he lucks into winning a match against a hawk he’s made sheriff. And that’s when the real trouble starts, because now he has to live up to all the tales he’s told and stories he’s spun because Dirt has more problems than a hawk hanging around and some rough and tumble critters in the saloon.

Dirt is drying up. Less and less water in the bank. Less and less water out of the giant spigot. Things are getting dire and now Rango is the one the people of Dirt are looking to for help. And he has no damn clue what to do. He knows how to act like he knows what to do, but faced with actual problems and the need for true action, he manages to muck it up every which way. Of course. And of course you know eventually he’ll have an epiphany and figure out what to do and somehow save the day with something clever and unexpected. I mean, this movie is unique in many ways but the basic plot arc isn’t one of them.

There are two things that really set this movie apart from others of its ilk: The animation, which is gorgeous, and the script, which is funny and tight and performed brilliantly. I suspect that the latter is a combination of good writing and the aforementioned recording sessions. Every clip I’ve seen from them shows people collaborating in a way that feels almost like an acting workshop, but since it’s the sound they need, they can edit around bits they don’t want or need. The animation would follow from that too, as I believe it was done after a lot of the recording, with the actions of the cast used as reference points. The visual standards for the animation are high anyhow, with some lovely detailing done in the textures and backgrounds. I found Rattlesnake Jake, in particular, to look fantastic. And this is coming from an ophidiophobe.

Still, I do credit the writing even without the different take on voice recording. It’s a fun script that doesn’t break any new ground plot-wise but does take advantage of all of the tropes before it. There’s narration for the movie performed by a troupe of birds in mariachi outfits, playing music and telling the story but also being inside the story, coughing as dust is kicked up by the animals riding by, which they’re singing about at the time. Every little nuance of the movie, all the jokes based on the setting, they’re all clearly homage and parody both. When Rango announces that he and his posse are going to ride out! Well, that’s a moment of homage to dozens of movies. When he realizes he has no idea where he’s riding to? That’s parody. And it’s all nicely done and well-matched with the animals-as-characters concept, mixing jokes on the setting with the inevitable issues of scale.

I’m also quite pleased to say that while there is a bit of a message to the movie, which is inevitable in a movie about a town in the middle of a drought, it’s not shaped like an anvil or a sledgehammer. The movie is about what the movie is about: An unlikely hero growing into his heroism. And along the way there are messages about the environment and greed and growth at the expense of people’s lives and livelihoods. And it’s all really nicely done. It’s a fun movie and a funny movie and it’s incredibly gorgeous visually and really, my only complaint is the lack of special features on the DVD, which isn’t a complaint about the movie itself so please pay it no mind.

July 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rango

July 19, 2011

Rango

This was a wonderful treat. I had pre-ordered this from Amazon a while back during a small spate of movie buying one week when I had some money to spare (things have been tight lately and we haven’t been able to buy as many movies as once we did.) Then this week it abruptly showed up in our mailbox. I remember when this was in theaters earlier this year and how I really wanted to go see it then, and it’s great fun to finally be able to see it.

Amanda and I were intrigued by the way this movie was made. For ages animators have used reference material of the actors in the sound booths “performing” their parts. Pixar started to break down the walls between voice actors when they made Monsters, Inc, which I believe is the first animated feature film to allow two actors (John Goodman and Billy Crystal) to riff off of each other while recording their dialog. Prior to that each actor would record their lines alone in an isolated sound booth. What Gore Verbinski has done here is take the performance capture techniques pioneered by Robert Zemeckis for his creepily not quite human films like Beowulf and The Arctic Express, and make something looser, cooler and hipper from it. Gone are the mo-cap balls and skintight outfits. In the making of footage for this movie some of the cast are in full costume, and some are just in sweats – whatever they need to get into character. Instead Gore chose to record the movie with cameras and boom mikes as though it was an actual movie, then turn that source material over to the animators as inspiration and direction for their work. So he’s creating a kind of live-action animatic that works almost like storyboards. It’s a fantastic idea, and clearly it worked very well for this movie because it’s simply fantastic to watch and has a very natural and real feel to it in spite of its being entirely computer animated.

It also appears that the movie was animated not by traditional animators (though I don’t doubt that there were many of those employed) but by special effects artists. Of course in today’s film world there’s probably little distinction to be made there, but I think that the fact that this is the first full film produced by ILM is clearly to be seen in the amazing visual detail they cram into every frame. The art design of this movie is a kind of twisted parody of real life. All the characters (except for a couple grotesque caricature humans here and there) are based on real life animals, and all the backgrounds and props are intricately built as well. Every surface is covered in grit, hair and feathers. The whole film has a very organic but also fantastical look to it, which gives it a sense of heightened reality that goes hand in hand with the very natural performances.

But all that’s just the technology behind the movie – what’s the actual film like? It’s a fun sort of western with an unlikely hero. Johnny Depp plays a bug-eyed chameleon with a square face and a crooked neck who, at the start of the film, is a little lonely and stir-crazy in his isolated terrarium. He acts out strange fantasies with the various knick-nacks in the tank with him until he is abruptly cast out of the back of a car though, and finds himself out in the real world. On the advice of a road kill armadillo he heads out into the desert where he comes upon the parched little town of Dirt. Here in Dirt the people are dusty and downtrodden, there’s a mysterious drought, and a sinister mayor who has been buying all the dessicated farms around the town for some reason. They need a hero, and the chameleon needs to figure out how to deal with being surrounded by people. He chooses to blend in by taking on a completely new persona – Rango.

Rango is a tough-as-nails fearless pistolero with a swagger and a drawl. He comes out of the mysterious west to deal with outlaws and n’er do wells. He’s the ultimate western movie badass – except that he’s completely fictitious and a fraud. Even so, he’s exactly what the people of Dirt need, and he soon finds himself appointed sheriff and pitted against a family of water stealing groundhogs.

This is a simple and familiar story but wonderfully fun to watch nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed all the little references throughout the film. This is not a movie for children, even if it is produced by Nickelodeon The chameleon in his tank does the routine with the manequin from “Make ‘Em Laugh” that Donald O’Connor does in Singin’ in the Rain. When he’s thrown into the road at the start of the movie he careens off of the windshield of a car driven by a Hunter S. Thompson. (What kid, watching this movie, will get a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference?) The plot has many references to Chinatown.

This movie was just fun to watch from start to finish. It looks as though it was fun to make too. You get the impression from the making-of material that it was a congenial kind of Pirates of the Caribbean reunion. Johnny Depp brings Rango completely to life with his swagger and his insecurity and his high pitched Kermit the Frog like wails when he’s being chased. Another Pirates alum, Bill Nighy, is fantastic as the sinister Rattlesnake Jake. This is just one of those movies that, once I was done watching it, made me want to start it right over and watch it again. It’s that kind of joy.

July 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 505 – The Deadly Mantis

The Deadly Mantis – July 18th, 2011

For a giant monster action scream-fest this movie sure starts slow. First we get some cartography, then a nice lengthy lesson on radar and how we’re apparently using it to keep an eye on those shifty Canadians up north. Seriously, the first ten minutes of this movie are spent showing us maps of places and talking about the “Pine Tree Radar Fence” on the “unfortified Canadian border.” Then people talk over radios and nothing happens. Not precisely the sort of thing that grabs you by your lapels and drags you forward in your seat. Unless you’re a radar/Canada conspiracy theorist (okay, okay, I know it was Russia we were so worried about, but they’re never mentioned and the movie focuses a lot on “The North”).

We bought this ages ago, back when we worked at the video store in Pennsylvania. At the time we grabbed it because it was a cheap used VHS cassette of a movie MST3K had done. And we were amused by the idea of owning un-MSTed versions of MST3K movies, which is why we own Danger: Diabolik and Overdrawn at the Memory Bank and of course, Warrior of the Lost World. I’d marked it down as something we’d seen, because I know we’ve watched the MST3K episode all the way through, but then watching it tonight I realized that perhaps I hadn’t paid much attention to it. Vast swaths of the movie were brand new to me. Far more than could be accounted for by the editing done for MST3K’s bumpers and commercials. Ah well, I’ve seen it all now!

Truth to be told, I don’t think I’d missed much. It’s not that this is a horrible movie. On the contrary, it has some fairly well done effects for a movie of its kind. The giant mantis is nicely done and really, I can’t fault a movie for having Action Paleontology. It’s fun, really, seeing the military guys sitting around debating what to do and being somewhat clueless about this mysterious threat that’s destroyed outposts and whatnot, and then calling in The Scientist. I love seeing scientists as the go-to heroes in movies like this. Modern movies like The Rock and Jurassic Park do it too, putting scientists in lead roles and making them the ones who know what’s going on, but in older movies, like this and This Island Earth the scientists don’t play second fiddle to anyone. They’re heroes, by virtue of being smart. So I give the movie credit there, though This Island Earth gets slightly more thanks to having female scientists as well as male. Still this movie also has a fairly strong female lead, even if it does undermine her at the end.

As I mentioned, the movie starts out slow. There’s a lot of explanation here to set up the whole concept of the giant pre-historic mantis stuck in the ice in the arctic and freed apparently by a volcanic eruption down near Antarctica. And then lots more explanation for how it would be detected and why we’ve got soldiers stationed up in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. And what’s frustrating about that is that it’s not necessary. Who cares why the ice floe that held the mantis broke off, freeing it? And the soldiers and radar net or whatever? That’s all explained in context later on in dialogue between the various characters as they puzzle over the broken off bit of bug that gets found after one of the attacks. Was that part of the movie just propaganda to inform people about how well we were protected from Commies coming over the North Pole? No clue.

Once everything is explained we get our hero, Dr. Ned Jackson, and his intrepid journalist pal, Marge Blaine up north to encounter the mantis for themselves. Ned and Marge both work at the Museum of Natural History, Ned as a paleontologist and Marge as the editor of the museum’s magazine. Now, this is where the movie lost some of the good will I had towards it for having a paleontologist as the hero. Because once they go up to the Army base to take a look at the giant mantis tracks Marge is reduced to being a walking pair of breasts. The Army guys are all agog at her very existence and she’s treated as if she’s incompetent for the rest of the movie. Of course one of the Army guys ends up romancing her after the mantis is dead, telling her to leave the photography to Ned. Haha! Now that she has a man she doesn’t have to do that silly career stuff!

All in all, I was enjoying the movie well enough as a 50s monster movie but it sort of washed over me at times. It didn’t hold my interest terribly well. I’d look up and realize something was happening. I cheered when klaxons sounded because it meant there were things going on. And then suddenly they were trapping the mantis in a tunnel and shooting it with lots of big weapons and then it was dead. And I hadn’t realized that much time had gone by. I think it was all the talking. I don’t mind that there’s a good deal of discussion here because a lot of it is science talk about drawing conclusions based on evidence and so on. But then there’s other talk that just seemed to pad the film out a bit. Like I said, it’s not really a horrible film, but it is slow. Much slower than a monster movie should be. It’s got its high points and there are parts of it I quite like. But it suffers from all the nothing that happens in between the parts where the mantis is destroying stuff.

July 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Deadly Mantis

July 18, 2011

The Deadly Mantis

Here’s another movie we bought after seeing it riffed on MST3K. I have always been a fan of fifties monster movies, but I don’t know if I would have added this to our collection if we hadn’t had the MST connection. It’s not quite bad enough to be notable for its laughable qualities (like some of Roger Corman’s movies.) It doesn’t feature actors who went on to be stars in small roles (no Clint Eastwood or Peter Graves.) It doesn’t really stand out in my mind from other movies of the day. It is a great way to look at the tropes of the genre though.

As we watched the movie un-MiSTed for the first time we both commented on the fact that it does kind of require riffing. It starts out so very slowly! I think that the problem is that the movie is trying so hard to make it’s monster plausible. The film makers spend a lot of time trying to ground the events of the film in the real world, which makes things very slow to start.

The first shot of the movie is a very – very – slow pan over a map of the world zooming in on a volcano in the middle of the ocean deep in the southern hemnisphere. Then it pans up to the north pole, where it is implied that the volcanic activity has caused the ice on the edge of a vast glacier to fall away revealing a giant preying mantis encased in the ice. (Presumably this is the same iceberg that let loose the megashark and giant octopus in the Asylum film of the same title.)

Before the mantis can make with the killing and menacing though this movie briefly morphs into a documentary about the radar fences that defend our country from a sneak attack over the north pole. It’s an odd decision that makes the somewhat slow opening of the movie feel even more awkwardly paced.

Now Stephen Spielberg has famously said that in Jaws he built the tension by not showing the shark until the third act of the movie. This movie is evidence that this notion hardly originated with Senior Spielbergo – it’s just common sense in a monster movie. The deadly mantis is slowly built up through a series of attacks where we don’t get to see it in action. It breaks into an isolated radar station in the frozen north and devours a couple of airmen left there to monitor the skies leaving nothing behind but a wrecked shack and a strange clawprint in the Styrofoam snow outside. Then it attack a plane in the sky, again leaving not a sign of the plane’s occupants but breaking off a giant toenail clipping.

Then the movie stops following the mantis’ attacks and instead introduces us to a paleontologist who is brought in to figure out what kind of creature is causing this destruction. The reasoning of the colonel in charge of stopping the attacks, and the crack team of scientists he assembles, is that no creature alive today would leave behind this clipping, so it must have come off of a creature that is thought to be extinct. A paleontologist, they figure, is used to reconstructing a prehistoric creature using only the tiniest scraps of evidence. What’s amazing is they’re perfectly right – this guy figures out exactly what the monster is from just its toenail clippings and so he and his plucky reporter sidekick rush off to the north in search of it – just in time to be there when we finally get a glimpse of the deadly mantis, which wrecks the building they’re having a meeting in.

The enormous insect then proceeds to fly in a generally southwesterly direction, followed by radar, fighter jets and ground spotters who have giant charts of known enemy aircraft (Russian I presume) but no entamological charts. It menaces Washington DC very briefly, then it flies off again – impervious to bullets and missiles, until finally a brave airforce pilot rams it with his plane, and it takes refuge in a tunnel somewhere.

I do have to say that although this movie is strangely paced, kind of bland, and prone to long winded lectures when maybe some action and mayhem would liven things up, it does have a very cool monster. The mantis is a series of well done puppets and a couple shots of a real mantis on tiny models of DC landmarks. (It reminds me a lot of the forced perspective work and locusts on postcards in The Beginning of the End which came out in the same year, but this director doesn’t have Bert I Gordon’s passion for the material.) For the rousing conclusion in the tunnel they even have a parade-float sized version of the monster that waves its serrated fore-limbs about and has an articulated mouth.

It seems that a reasonable amount of actual research went into this movie, or at least the writer read a couple encyclopedia articles while dashing off the script. Certainly the movie misses no opportunity to have one of its characters talk at length about the science behind the creature. In the end though it’s just a kind of bland movie that almost completely failed to keep my attention while it was on. With its odd pacing and constant strange digressions from the main plot of a giant insect crawling around on landmarks and smashing buildings this movie simply begs for riffing. I need to find the tape we recorded the MST episode on now.

July 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 504 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind – July 17th, 2011

Tonight we went looking for a longer movie, something over two hours since we had the time. None of the things we hadn’t seen yet appealed but as soon as I saw this on the list I knew it was right for tonight. And so the mad search commenced! Our apartment isn’t that big and we do own a lot of movies and they’re not as organized as we’d like. And we could not find this. Andy searched every stack in every room and it was nowhere to be found. I said I’d look, moved one Simpsons box set out of the way and there it was. I’ll give Andy a pass, though, because it’s one of the ones we bought cheap and it has no actual case, just a plastic sleeve with the disc and the cover and it was stuck to another disc in another plastic sleeve. And you know, I’m really glad I found it because it was precisely what I wanted tonight and I would have been so bummed to have to pick something else.

Within science fiction there are a number of sub-genres. The “aliens come to Earth” idea is one of those sub-genres and it’s an interesting one. It can take place present-day without trying to envision a future for humanity and it provides a whole host of possibilities. Are the aliens friendly or hostile? Do they understand us and can we understand them? What do they want, if anything? What do they look like? Do we even see them? What I like about this movie is that it is so largely grounded not in space but on Earth. It’s about the reactions people have to this unexplained thing that’s happened to them and the people they know. In the end the aliens themselves aren’t so much the point. The point is in the connection and the discovery and the journey and events that lead to them.

When the movie starts strange things are happening. Fighter planes reported missing in 1945 appear in the Sonora Desert thirty years late, missing their pilots. A man nearby says the sun came out at night and sang to him. Air traffic controllers call in reports of something mysterious in the sky, then decline to make any official reports. And in Muncie, Indiana a boy wakes up when all of his toys turn on, only to find the fridge’s contents on the kitchen floor. He walks out of the house, into the night. Elsewhere in town, while the boy’s mother chases him into the woods, another family is arguing over what to do the next night. Their father heads out to help repair some power outages and finds himself having a very strange experience with bright lights and his truck going haywire. It’s all the beginning of a number of mysterious events, with electrical oddities and bright lights in the sky and the strange return of vehicles long missing.

But the bulk of the movie is spent with Roy Neary, the man who left his family to go help with the power outages, and Jillian Guiler, whose son Barry is taken by the aliens mid-movie. We see the two of them struggle with this experience they’ve both had, unable to explain what they’ve seen and unable to convince their families or the public that whatever happened actually happened. Now, in a movie made today? Roy and Jillian would end up in love and half the movie would be a romantic plotline for them. I am pleased to say that this doesn’t happen here. Not really. The two of them bond through the shared knowledge that what they saw was real, but there’s no epic love story being attempted between the two of them. Just the story of two people who’ve been separated from the norm by experiences they didn’t want in the first place.

Now, I do have some quibbles with the movie, in that we learn very little about Jillian’s life aside from that she’s a mother and apparently it’s just her and her son? And on the other hand we learn plenty about Roy’s family and they’re presented as both thoroughly annoying and completely justified in being frustrated by him. After all, he starts out as a somewhat uninvested father, spreading his stuff all over the obviously too-small house, much to the frustration of his wife. He goes out overnight for work, is unreachable all night leading to middle-of-the-night phone calls at his house, waking his wife and kids. And when he comes back he’s ranting and raving about lights in the sky and flying saucers. He becomes thoroughly obsessed and you can tell that not only is he frustrated and confused by it all, but his wife and children are all of that as well as scared. To them it probably seems as though Roy’s had a mental break of some sort. But there’s no resolution there. The wife and kids head off to the wife’s sister’s place, leaving Roy on his own to build a model of the Devil’s Tower in the middle of their kitchen. And I’m left wondering how we’re meant to feel about the family.

In the end Roy leaves with the aliens without a second thought, or so it seems. But what happens to that family? Those kids? They’re not bad people and they’re not portrayed as such, just crowded and loud. And now their father is gone. Not just absent, but off the planet. Much as I love the introduction of the alien spaceship near the end, with the iconic music playing in greeting and all, and much as I want to see the whole thing at the end where they choose Roy as a positive note, I can’t. It’s not as if his family was taken from him. It’s not as if they’re gone for good. And I can’t really see a character who’d walk away from his family after putting them through what Roy puts them through, leaving them likely never to know what happened to him, as someone to fully sympathize with. I want to! I really do! Because if you take away the family stuff Roy’s experience is amazing and wonderful. Put the family stuff in and I’m conflicted about him.

All that being said, the ending to this movie is one of my favorite movie endings ever. After the build-up for the aliens, with the tiny ships zipping by, bright and indistinct, the huge ship coming in to blare its music at everyone is fantastic. The return of the missing pilots and Navy officers? Gets me every time. There’s a touch of this in Flight of the Navigator, which explores more about what would happen when one of those abductees returns after so long away. I love it, cheesy alien costumes and all. I love the set-up, with the government knowing that this is going on the whole time and having people trained for the eventuality of being taken by aliens. I love that Jillian decides not to go but is still clearly enthralled by it, just like her son is after he’s been returned. It’s an excellent climax to a mostly excellent movie

July 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

July 17, 2011

Close Encounter of the Third Kind

As I said to Amanda after watching this movie for our project, this ranks high amongst my favorite movies of all time. It’s intelligent, intriguing and spectacular. I couldn’t possibly have seen this when it premiered in 1977, but I definitely saw it for the first time on the theater, so it must have been for some kind of re-release. Whatever the case, I was instantly captured by this wonderfully constructed tale of first contact with benevolent aliens.

What’s truly astonishing about this movie is that it has no bad guys. There are government operatives and army officers who think they know best how to handle first contact, but they’re never depicted as evil people, just people doing their job. And their job is to initiate first contact with a race that has been buzzing around abducting people for at least the last forty years.

This movie is so expertly and perfectly put together. It has aspects of adventure and action, but it’s mostly a movie about discovery. It’s about realizing that we’re part of a larger universe and how people handle this. It follows several different people influenced by the aliens as things slowly escalate until they reach the powerful, beautiful conclusion.

The chief characters are a young mother and her son in Muncie Indiana, a utility repair man with a knack for getting lost, and a French UFO expert who travels the world trying to understand the strange phenomena that are happening with increasing frequency as the aliens reach out to the planet’s populace.

Melinda Dillon, the mother from A Christmas Story, was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Jillian Guiler, whose son is taken by the aliens in one of the few scary scenes that would have left five-year-old me with nightmares if I had seen this in 1977. (Thus my certainty that I didn’t see this until at least the eighties.) She’s fiercely protective of her son, but at the same time she’s somewhat curious about the UFOs. After one encounter with the flying objects (before her son Barry is abducted) she meets Roy Neary, who is a utility repairman out trying to figure out what is causing a mysterious blackout that has covered the entire town. Roy is chasing after a UFO that flew over his truck when he almost hits Barry, who is standing in the road seemingly waiting for the aliens. Both Roy and Jillian are infected by the encounter with an obsession. They have visions of a shape – a kind of mountain. They have a tune stuck in their heads. They don’t know what these things mean, but they are slowly being driven mad by these implanted images and ideas. (Particularly Roy who started out somewhat disconnected from his wife and children but as the movie progresses drifts farther and farther away from them.)

From the other side of things we have Francois Truffaut (yes THAT Francois Truffaut) as the French scientific expert on the phenomena of UFOs Claude Lacombe. He has been summoned by the US government to make sense of things like long lost WWII fighter planes showing up in Mexico or a missing cargo ship deposited in the desert in Africa. He and his somewhat bewildered interpreter have complete access to the whole puzzle and know exactly what is going on. Aliens have made contact with humankind and are inviting them to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

It astonishes me how little this movie has aged. The shining, tumbling, soaring spaceships are as mysterious and as beautiful now as they were thirty years ago. The special effects are totally convincing with narry a matte line to be seen. The aliens themselves still look fairly convincing (because they were filmed slightly out of focus and heavily backlit. Even the cars and wardrobes of the human characters don’t seem particularly out of date when compared with other films of that era. (Such as yesterday’s movie, Superman, which came out a year later.)

Add to all this John Williams’ absolutely perfect score. The entire notion of communicating with aliens through music is wonderful, and Williams fleshes that concept out beautifully. As this movie builds toward the encounter from which it gets its title the score also slowly builds to a dizzying crescendo that sweeps the viewer away and makes me long to encounter these brightly lit musical aliens and explore the universe with them.

I’m debating now if I should get E.T. for the project. It was a movie that touched me deeply in 1982 (I saw it eight times in the theater and I was the same age as Elliott in the movie) but the last time I tried to watch it I realized just how dated that movie has become.

July 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment