A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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

The X-Files: Fight the Future

July 11, 2011

The X-Files: Fight the Future

I’ve never been a rabid X-Files fan. I’ve known a couple, and I’ve seen my fair share of episodes over the years, but I never really made a concerted effort to catch the show when it was on. As a result I might not be the right person to be reviewing this movie, since it is clearly aimed at fans. I enjoy this movie well enough, I suppose, for a longish big budget episode of the show, but I also have issues with this movie.

If you are unfamiliar with X-Files you’re probably going to be pretty lost watching this movie. It purports to answer long unanswered questions that had simmered in the show for years before this movie came out. The whole thing about the show was the slow simmer and the hints of an over-arching plot behind the scenes. By the time this movie came out it was pretty well established that there was some kind of conspiracy involving aliens. Reoccurring characters like the Cigarette Smoking Man have something to do with this conspiracy. We know that Fox Mulder’s sister has been missing since they were children and that he believes that she was abducted by aliens. We’ve seen the black oil that somehow corrupts people. This movie attempts to answer some of the questions from the series, but not too many of them.

The biggest problem I have with this movie is the way it goes about presenting its answers. This is a film with a lot of exposition. Partly this is because some attempts were made to explain what was going on to people unfamiliar with the show. There’s a lot of scenes where Dana Scully explains to Fox Mulder why she’s a skeptic, why she was assigned to be his partner. Then a crazy conspiracy theorist spends a bunch of time explaining to Mulder that some people who were found in the rubble after a terrorist explosion were already dead before the blast (because it’s part of a cover-up by those masters of global conspiracy FEMA.) Mulder and Scully follow a hunch to a hole in the ground that had “fossils” (they’re bone fragments from the last ice age – so they’re not fossils) tainted by the same mysterious virus that turned the corpses from the FEMA offices to goop. They then drive off into the Texas desert where they find transgenic corn crops and deadly bees tainted with the alien virus. (Yeah, it doesn’t make any more sense in the movie than it does when written down.)

Then there’s another expository scene where one of the conspirators explains to Mulder what exactly has been going on with the whole conspiracy. They’ve been working with the aliens on a delivery method for the virus in hopes that they could on the sly create a vaccine. Or at least that’s what the Well Groomed Man says.

I told Amanda that I felt like the movie did more telling than showing, and that I was frustrated that Mulder doesn’t actually discover anything for himself and was pretty much led by the nose. She says that her impression is that this is typical of the show itself, so maybe it’s supposed to be that way. I don’t know. I’m not really invested in this movie. It talks a lot about the aliens and the impending invasion and the horrifying black oil virus that turns people into aliens… but it doesn’t actually show any of that cool stuff. Mostly, I suspect, because the producers and the executives at Fox wanted to have something left to keep the TV series going. Nothing is resolved, and we don’t really even get to see many aliens or anything. Maybe if I was a rabid fan of the series this would be an important turning point in the overall plot arc, but as a stand alone movie it is pretty underwhelming.

July 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

June 13, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It is with a little trepidation that we set out to watch this movie tonight. It does not have a good reputation. Indeed there’s an infamous episode of South Park inspired by this movie where George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg take turns raping Indiana Jones. Based on this and the generally negative word of mouth on the internet I had braced myself before watching this for a Star Wars Episode I level of disappointment. I was prepared for something on a par with Highlander II or Star Trek V. In short I thought that this was going to be a painful experience that sullied my memory of the Indiana Jones movies.

I’m quite relieved to say that I need not have feared. This is my favorite Jones movie since the first one.

Part of the criticism of this movie stems from the fact that Indiana is beginning to show his age. Harrison Ford turns seventy years old next year, and that’s pushing the credible age limit of an action hero. This movie takes place in the 1950s, which means that the character of Indie must be in his fifties or sixties. Then again, Indiana Jones was never really about being a young man. It’s about overcoming ridiculous odds and refusing to stay beaten. In that regard this older, wiser Indie is perhaps even more exciting to watch. The movie makes it clear that he’s a tired old man at the beginning, mourning the loss of his father and his friend Brodie.

The opening scene, which re-introduces us to Indiana Jones twenty years after we last saw him, does a couple of things. It freely admits that he is showing his age. He’s still an adventurer, albeit a reluctant one, but now he’s clashing with kids one third his age. At first, when we see him facing off against his captors I thought that it would be hard to believe that this older man can hope to hold his own against a flight of stairs, mush less a squad of Russian storm troopers. It’s a little startling to see him at first looking so tired, but what’s cool is that this movie does such a good job of aging the character to match the actor. There are all these hints about the adventures Jones has been having in the twenty years we’ve missed. He’s been a spy. He’s worked under cover. He’s been on many missions against the Russians (who, in the nineteen fifties, are the boogeymen of the cold war.) It makes me wish for a new television series – the Middle-Aged Indiana Jones Chronicles.

When he fails to stop the Russians capturing a mysterious artifact from a US government warehouse and it is revealed that his old partner from MI5 is now working with the Russians Indiana comes under suspicion of being a double agent himself. He’s blackballed and forced out of his tenured position as a professor and finds himself alone and at loose ends. Until a young boy who calls himself Mutt shows up and tells Indie that an old friend of his, Ox (short for Oxley,) has been abducted. Ox has always been obsessed with mysterious crystal skulls found throughout history. (In much the way Ravenwood was obsessed with the Ark and Jones Sr. was obsessed with the Grail.) Mutt has a letter given to his mother by Ox which she managed to smuggle away from the Russians ans which he believes only Indiana Jones can translate. (Apparently Mutt’s mother has some history with Jones and believes that he will help her and Ox.)

So off to South America go young Mutt and the aging professor Jones, where Mutt is astonished to find out that Indiana is somewhat of an unorthodox professor. The two of them soon find the legendary crystal skull that Ox had discovered, and they are promptly captured by the Russians again. That’s about the halfway point for the movie. The Russians, led by a sinister woman named Irina Spalko, have Ox, Indie’s traitorous partner Mac, and Mutt’s mother in custody already. I’m a little puzzled as to why Indie is so startled to discover that Mutt’s mother is Marion Ravenwood – especially in light of the fact that when Mutt and Indie first meet Mutt tells him that his mother was named Marion. Then of course comes the heavily telegraphed reveal that Mutt is Indiana’s son.

I think that this must have been part of what people found so distasteful about the movie. Not just that Indie is older, but he has a son now who is already in his twenties. The movie gets a lot of great mileage out of this though. There’s all the baggage Indie has from his relationship with his own father, and it’s subtly layered into the constant banter between the two of them. Then there’s Marion, whom Indiana apparently left shortly before their planned wedding. It all works well for me in the context of how alone Indiana is at the start of the movie. It’s a film about discovering that maybe having a family isn’t such a bad thing after all for an adventurer – particularly a family made up of people perfectly capable of adventuring themselves.

The remainder of the movie is pretty much one long chase scene as the Jones family fight off the Russians, escape from killer ants, brave Amazonian rapids, escape from angry natives, and ultimately do the kind of tomb raiding that Indiana Jones is so well known for.

Another major sticking point that some people have with this movie is that it is all about alien artifacts. Yes, aliens. Which some people seem to think is blasphemy in an Indiana Jones movie. I have no idea why. To date the films have involved an ark full of mystical sand, a trio of magic glowing rocks, and a cup that heals anybody who drinks from it. How is a glowing psychic alien skull such a stretch in this universe? It fits just fine as far as I’m concerned. It’s just the magical MacGuffin that drives the plot and allows for a spectacular light show at the end – perfectly in line with every other Indiana Jones movie.

For me it was just a treat to see Indie doing what he does best. Harrison Ford made me believe that this character could still fight toe to toe with a Russian super-man. It was a delight to see Karen Allen back as Marion – the best love interest Jones ever had and the most capable woman he seems to have ever found. Cate Blanchett makes a great sinister foe for Jones to vie with. I am even able to stomach Shia LaBeouf as Jones Jr. Even better – the movie is packed with great actors in smaller supporting roles. Indie’s steadfast protector in the college is played by Jim Broadbent. The insane professor Ox is played wonderfully by John Hurt. It must have been fun just to be on the set with all these accomplished masters of their craft.

You know what? I had fun tonight. It’s cool to catch up with these characters and see what’s happened to them in the last twenty years. It’s a fun adventure with some great chase scenes. It is like an Indiana Jones greatest hits having him back together kicking ass with Marion. And ultimately – even if he doesn’t get to keep the treasure he’s seeking (which he never does) he gets a greater treasure. It gives me hope that even if we never see him again the character of Indiana Jones has a chance at happiness at last, and I really like that.

June 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 430 – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – May 4th, 2011

I realize that today is Intergalactic Star Wars Day, but we’ve done all of our Star Wars movies already and we weren’t about to go track down the Christmas special. So we decided instead to pop in one of our other recent purchases, a classic we somehow hadn’t bought before. It’s got a reputation for being one of the best science fiction movies ever made. It’s certainly well known. Heck, it’s mentioned in Science Fiction Double Feature at the beginning of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I couldn’t stop singing in my head through most of the movie. Which, I admit, is a problem.

I think I’ve done myself a disservice here. I hadn’t seen this movie prior to tonight because, well, did I really need to? After all, I’ve seen a ton of fifties science fiction at this point in my life. And this one is so well known, I didn’t have to see it to know the plot and the intent and so on. There are a whole bunch of classics I’ve sort of bypassed either by accident or design, but I know what they are and what they refer to. On the flip side of that, I’ve seen some truly horrible schlocky 50s science fiction movies. It’s thoroughly ridiculous, but there you have it.

Fortunately, I’ve now got a chance to redeem myself and perhaps earn back some geek cred by watching as many of the classics as we can get our hands on. So it was very nice indeed to finally actually sit down and watch this from beginning to end. It’s been referenced and lampooned and analyzed a million times by now, in a million places, which is why I’m glad I’ve now seen it for myself. It’s not that I never got the references, but I like to have personal knowledge of the callback. And it is an excellent movie that deserves its reputation and actually had a couple of surprises for me, which was nice.

First surprise: While I knew the basic plot of the movie (alien comes to Earth to warn against violence and atomic weapons, implying that the galactic community won’t let humanity endanger anyone else and will destroy us if necessary – alien is persecuted and chased by the military, his warnings unheeded by many and heard by few) I hadn’t caught many of the particulars. For one, the alien, Klaatu, befriends a boy and his mother who live in the boarding house he ends up in. And that by itself isn’t a surprise. But when he asks the boy who the smartest and most powerful person on Earth is, the boy leads him to a scientist. And you know, I like that. The military powers in this movie? Are decidedly not the good guys. They’re not necessarily the bad guys either, but they’re portrayed as so set in their ways and unable to not see a threat in anything unusual. I hadn’t been expecting that. I had expected the anti-atomic message, but the view that the military needed to ask questions first and perhaps hold off on the shooting indefinitely? Interesting. And paired with a pro-science message. I like that anti-atomic here didn’t necessarily mean science as a whole was evil. Instead scientists are shown to be the ones who hold the future of the Earth in their hands.

Second surprise: Holy crap, there are people of color in this movie. Okay, none of them are named characters and they don’t get lines, but there are multiple people of color! On screen! And not in the position of maid or housekeeper or driver or janitor or exotic alien or dancer or the painfully short list of unpleasant stereotypes. No, they’re just regular people in the crowd of onlookers during the flying saucer’s arrival or the eventual chases. And it may seem like a small thing, but I look for things like that in movies from this time period. And part of the movie’s whole point is that Klaatu’s message isn’t just for one group of people. It’s for everyone. And in many movies of this time ‘everyone’ meant white and financially comfortable. There’s a key point in the movie where Klaatu reads about the Emancipation Proclamation. There should be more than middle class white Americans on the screen here and I’d want a hell of a lot more from a modern movie but I’ll take a few non-stereotyped crowd shots in this one.

Third surprise: Tom. Our female lead, Helen Benson, has been seeing insurance salesman Tom for some time now, apparently. And she quite likes him and they go out to the pictures together while someone at the boarding house keeps an eye on Helen’s son, Bobby. Tom is portrayed as pushy and stubborn right from the start. I was fascinated by how obvious it was that he was going to turn out to be a problem. The movie makes no attempt to really get you to like the guy and there’s a good reason for it, since he plays right into the military mindset later on, giving up Klaatu while ignoring Helen’s pleas for reason.

Overall I was really quite impressed with so many of the things I mentioned above. The focus on reason and discussion and critical thinking as opposed to blind reaction and aggression. It’s at the same time pessimistic and idealistic. Pessimistic in that it has a pretty low view of the world as it was in the late 1940s/early 1950s but idealistic in that it seemed to fully believe that things could change so long as reason prevailed. And I like that! I like that this movie has that sort of message. It’s a good one and I quite like that it can co-exist with the religious allegory many see in the movie.

It helps that the movie is also well made and well acted. I loved Michael Rennie as Klaatu. He’s got this fantastically angular face that is certainly human, but different enough that he makes a good humanoid alien. And he carries off the role without coming across as smugly superior or menacing. He’s curious and frustrated and I think Rennie portrayed that well. I liked Patricia Neal as Helen, even if she did admit after the fact that she thought this was yet another schlocky flying saucer flick and didn’t take it seriously. Even so, she has some great moments where she’s putting it all together. Heck, I even liked Billy Gray as Bobby, who has a role I’m more used to seeing in Japanese monster movies (the super kid who befriends the monster/alien). He’s totally not insufferable and he’s got some good lines and interactions with Klaatu. It’s a good cast overall. And then there’s the actual filmmaking, which has some wonderful pieces of footage and classic shots. I was particularly impressed with how well the footage in Washington worked, seeing as none of the main cast was ever in Washington.

Overall I was impressed by the movie. Of course, I expected to enjoy it and I expected it to be impressive in comparison to its contemporaries, but it impressed me in ways I wasn’t expecting and I like that. It’s wonderful to have seen it and I feel silly for missing it for so many years. It’s not like it’s something that passed me by in the theaters. It’s been around a lot longer than I have. So now I’ve seen it and I can even better understand references to it and feel even more confident in passing up any opportunity to watch the remake. Sorry, Keanu, I think the original nailed it. No remake necessary.

May 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 1 Comment

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

May 4, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Last year for Star Wars Day (May the Fourth) we started our week of Star Wars movies. This year we decided to watch another classic sci-fi movie. One of the greatest sci-fi classics of all time, really.

I don’t feel that there’s much new I can say about this movie. It’s been admired and praised by millions over the last sixty years. Everybody and their grand-dad has talked about the obvious allegorical references and the cold war tensions that inspire the plot. There’s a reason, though, that this movie has accumulated so many accolades over they years. It’s a damned good movie, with fantastic direction and visuals, a charismatic hero, and a message that is no less powerful for being so blatantly obvious.

I doubt there is anybody who watches movies that doesn’t know the plot of this movie. Amanda had not seen it until today, and I’m sure she could have rattled it off to you before we even put it in. That’s because it’s an exceptionally simple plot. An alien space craft lands in Washington D.C. and the mild mannered alien Klaatu steps out of it with his menacing robot Gort. Klaatu demands to speak with all the leaders of Earth and is told that the many petty conflicts that define politics on Earth make this ambition impossible. He breaks out of the hospital where he is being held by the army and tries to fit in with some regular human people, befriending a precocious kid named Bobby and his mother Helen. Klaatu decides to attempt to gather the greatest scientific minds instead of the politicians since they are more likely to listen to reason, and as proof of his superior power arranges a demonstration of how completely helpless the Earth is when confronted by his advanced alien technology. Unfortunately before he can attend this meeting of great minds he is killed by soldiers who are desperate after his little Earth-stopping stunt to end his one-man invasion. But it’s okay because Gort fetches his corpse and reanimates it so that he can deliver his warning: stop being so violent or else aliens will turn the Earth to a burnt out cinder rather than let Humanity’s ways threaten the rest of the universe.

It’s a hokey plot. Indeed We’ve already watched a far more cheesy movie that uses the same basic premise – that of re-animating the dead to warn the people of Earth about their “stupid, stupid minds.” Clearly Ed Wood was inspired by this film, as were so many others. (The many references to this movie in pop culture are proof of it’s impact – from the Globetrotter’s ship in Futurama to Ash’s incantation in Army of Darkness.) But where this could have been a cheesy and silly sci-fi romp in other hands director Robert Wise actually crafts a surprisingly well made movie from this hokey premise.

Part of it is in the exceptional special effects and production design. From Gort to the saucer this movie is packed with great visual accomplishments. The scene of the saucer landing, for example, with its shadow sweeping over the trees and the tiny fleeing people below as it approaches the baseball diamond where it eventually settles. Those are special effects decades ahead of their time. The simple menace of Gort’s raised visor and the deadly light within… it not only makes him a sinister and unstoppable force but I can’t quite figure out how they accomplished it in the days long before blue-screens and digital effects.

Another thing this movie has going for it is Michael Rennie’s performance as Klaatu. He’s such a benign and sympathetic alien. It’s so much fun to see him interacting with Bobby – showing his naivete and at the same time his wisdom. Rennie plays his character with such a sly wit. he has a sort of tolerant and long-suffering attitude. He doesn’t really need to say anything about what fools these petty Humans are – we can see it in his eyes.

Then there’s the shot composition and direction in general. I last watched this movie as a teenager and I remembered it pretty much perfectly, but what I didn’t appreciate at that time was the deft way that Wise used light and shadow to tell his story. Klaatu, when masquerading as Mr. Carpenter, comes to a simple boarding house looking for a room to stay in and he is mostly obscured by shadow when the other residents turn to meet him. As he steps forward we expect him to emerge into the light so they can see how inoffensively human he is, but instead he goes further into the darkness, in stark contrast to the well lit hallway behind him. The entire movie is filled with clever set ups like that. It makes me glad that there doesn’t appear to be a colorised version of this movie, since it is so brilliantly using the stark contrasts only available in black & white.

It’s astonishing to me how well this movie has aged. Yes, I grinned a little at the spooky space-age theramin music. Yes the movie clubs the viewer violently with its message. But it’s an important message, I think, and a hopeful one. if only there were benevolent and all powerful aliens that could intervene and force people to be better to each other. If only rational thought could replace petty differences. If only there were more spectacularly well-made movies like this one.

May 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 282 – Men in Black

Men in Black – December 7th, 2010

After the past two nights full of screeching metal and overwhelming effects and painful attempts at humor we decided to head in a slightly different direction tonight. Still got aliens, still got some action, still got a threat against the world as we know it. But the action is less explosive and the effects are less of an assault on the senses and the humor is actually funny.

Of course, this is largely a comedy movie. Sure, it’s science fiction action, but the vast majority of the movie is supposed to be funny. Everything’s played for laughs, from the aliens in disguise to the way the main characters deal with themselves and each other. About the only thing that isn’t flat out funny is the imminent destruction of Earth, but even that’s got jokes made about it. It’s all done for laughs, and it’s all done well.

This is the story of a mysterious agency that’s no longer overseen by the government. They deal with aliens. Specifically they keep track of aliens coming to, living on and leaving Earth, as well as any issues that might arise in relation to the aliens here. They’re secret and they keep it that way by erasing the memories of the people they deal with. They dress in black suits, they drive big cars and they have fancy guns and gizmos to keep things nice and civilized. And when one of them retires (and has his memory erased) they go looking for a new recruit. The movie is pretty much his orientation.

Enter James Edwards, a New York City Police detective who has a run-in with an alien and then with Agent K. Edwards gets recruited just in time for a big alien bug to kill some alien royalty and try to steal a galaxy. What’s great about this is that it really is just an orientation. Even though yes, it is dangerous and yes, it is a big deal, the rest of the agency treats it largely as just another day at the office. The tone here is so pitch perfect I don’t even know how to describe it. Tommy Lee Jones as K delivers every line with just the right combination of experience and humor without once making it seem like he’s milking a bit for humor’s sake. To look at him you’d think he’s the straight man, but he’s not. But then, Will Smith’s James (Agent J) isn’t the precisely straight man either, since he gets to crack smartass jokes all over the place. They play off each other and it works perfectly. They banter while they get shit done, with K leading the way and J making mistakes but catching on quickly, which is why they recruited him in the first place. At no point do you really think he can’t do the job. It’s just a steep learning curve.

Of course, while J and K are at the heart of the movie and they contribute a hell of a lot to the success of it all, there are some great secondary players too. Linda Fiorentino plays Dr. Laurel Weaver, a city coroner who apparently has had suspicions about aliens many times and had her memory wiped repeatedly. I love Weaver. She’s a fantastic character with a couple of snappy lines of her own. There’s Rip Torn as Zed (must be Canadian), the head of the agency who handles it all with gruff ease. And then there’s Vincent D’Onofrio as the bug who’s causing all the trouble. Now, he’s all but unrecognizable by the end of this movie and still I can’t see him on Law and Order: Criminal Intent without thinking that he’s wearing “an Edgar suit” as the bug does in this movie.

Combine everyone together with some great aliens and a plot that’s got just the right amount of doom so as to not overshadow the many humorous moments (and oh, there are so many) and you’ve got a really fun movie. It hits all the right notes for me. It’s certainly comfort viewing and it’s the source of more than a couple of references Andy and I make frequently. And you’ll notice that we’re not going to be reviewing the sequel tomorrow. This is because we don’t own it. This is intentional. I prefer to keep this one on its own. It was just right.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 281 – Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – December 6th, 2010

When I was a kid I had this so-called toy that was actually just a clear plastic box full of iron filings that could be manipulated with a magnet from outside the box. It wasn’t a toy you’d see advertised on television, but I loved it. It was an educational toy. The sort of thing you get when your mother is a teacher. I found it so cool that I could move these little jagged shards of metal around into cohesive wholes with a magnet in the right place, and I could make them align in different directions and mess with them with multiple magnets. Watching this movie tonight I realized that the visual concept of the Decepticons reminds me of those iron filings. I have no idea if this was intentional or not, but I’m going to go ahead and hope that it was.

I’m trying to figure out why I didn’t hate this. I mean, I read stuff when it came out and everything I read led me to believe that this would be the most hideous thing I’d ever laid eyes on. And I’ve got to say? I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen far worse. It’s even more ridiculous than the first movie, with more explosions and special effects and whatnot, but I reserve ‘hideous’ for things that provoke more of an emotional response in me.

To be honest, I think what’s going on in my head is mainly relief. Yes, there were things I greatly disliked about this movie. The entire bit with Sam’s parents dropping him off at college, the sexy Decepticon co-ed, Skids and Mudflap, to name a few. The first was embarrassing. The second was a more egregious eye candy insert than Megan Fox’s casting. The third? The third is probably the closest I get to angry at the movie. I got why Jazz was done the way he was done in the first movie. It was a callback to the cartoons and I understand that. Not, perhaps, the best choice, but I got it. But Skids and Mudflap? No. Just. No. There was no need. They provided nothing but so-called comic relief and it wasn’t ever actually comic. It was intensely uncomfortable and totally unnecessary. But aside from them? This movie sort of just washed over me in a sea of metal and sand and shrapnel. And I expected to be more disgusted. So. Relief.

It’s probably for the best that I watched this slightly ill and not terribly with it. I think it helped, because the movie is pretty mindless, really. It has a plot, with a badass Decepticon who’s been hiding on Earth for ages being reanimated with a bit of the All Spark from the first movie and deciding he’s going to destroy Earth’s sun. I’m sure there was more of a reason than ‘for the hell of it’ but really? It’s for the hell of it. He wants to destroy the sun. Everyone else has to stop him. Bigger and badder Decepticons show up to defend him while he tears apart one of the pyramids at Giza to get to a big ancient weapon and um. Smaller Autobots show up too? Really, the Decepticons get tanks and construction vehicles merged into a sort of evil Voltron with a vaccuum attachment and the Autobots get motorcycles. But then they get Jetfire too.

Taking a moment to talk about Jetfire. I liked Jetfire. I think the movie needed more Jetfire. I think I’d have been really happy if Jetfire had hung around more and been a bigger presence. He’s like Grandpa Autobot, full of piss and vinegar and stories about his glory days and he will so trip you with his cane if you don’t shape up, young man. He’s the only touch of comic relief this movie didn’t suck at and I think it helps that he totally kicks ass.

Back to whatever I was talking about. This movie lost me several times, mostly, I think, because it doesn’t much care about its own plot. There’s story and all, but it’s sort of like a pizza crust under a pizza with everything on it. Including the kitchen sink. By the time you’ve dug your way through all the toppings who gives a shit about the crust, right? That’s the plot here. Buried. And while the first movie was much the same in that the point was a simple plot that would allow Michael Bay to make things go boom, this movie did it more.

There’s an attempt at a message and a meaning. Sam sort of grows up and he somehow earns the Matrix of Leadership from some Autobot spirits he meets when he gets blown up and there’s stuff about humans making choices and really? The movie does not care enough to make me care. All the plot and dialogue and bits with Sam not telling Mikaela he loves her? It’s all just to carry us to the next action scene. And I didn’t hate the action scenes. The action was exactly what I expected it to be and like I said, that iron filings thing? I really hope that was intentional because it’s cool and the visual effects are cool. But there is so much you have to get through to get to those bits. Perhaps Michael Bay should stop making movies and just make visual effects reels and action shots. Stick with what he’s good at and ditch the rest. I shouldn’t have to just let a movie happen. I should want to watch it, not just be relieved I didn’t want to punch it when it was over.

December 6, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 280 – Transformers (2007)

Transformers – December 5th, 2010

As a child I was a casual viewer of the cartoons this movie was based on. I liked them fine, but they weren’t my favorite (that would have been Dungeons & Dragons, which I loved and which got moved around so much it was nearly impossible to find on a regular basis), so I can’t say that this movie was something I was dying to see. I don’t know the cartoon canon and I can’t name more than a small handful of characters. I’m not really in the target audience for this movie. I’m the right age, but probably not the gender they were going for. Granted, I know a number of women in my age range who were massive Transformers fans, so I could give Michael Bay some credit and hope I’m wrong, but when you get down to it? No, this was a movie made for all the men who loved their Transformers as boys.

Just look at the casting. Now, let me preface this by saying that I do have somewhat unconventional taste in physical attributes when it comes to men. I don’t go for big and muscular or underwear model-esque. But Shia LaBeouf was not cast to be a draw for the ladies. Josh Duhamel, maybe, but he’s got a much smaller role. Shia LaBeouf is comic relief, really. Sure, he put on twenty-odd pounds of muscle for this role. He’s still the naive klutz who gets yanked into the whole plot by dint of his great grandfather having discovered Megatron. Megan Fox, on the other hand, was clearly cast to look pretty. The camera lingers, with LaBeouf’s Sam, on her curves and skin and tiny little skirt. No, I’m pretty sure I’m not the one being catered to here. But the funny thing is? I liked Fox’s Mikaela a lot. Like, way more than I expected to. For one, she’s quite capable on her own and has more useful skills to bring to a car-based plot than Sam does. For another, she pulls her hair back.

Why yes, I am going to obsess over this. It’s a frequent issue I have with female characters in action movies. They always have their hair down, whipping around their faces and in their eyes, getting in the way and looking all pretty and crap, but being totally ridiculous in whatever situation is going on. Mikaela has her hair pulled back through the vast majority of the movie. Come the climax? She’s got herself a ponytail, keeping her hair neatly out of the way because it’s all well and good to look pretty, but when you’re driving through a battle you need to be able to see. I don’t know who made that call. I don’t know if it was Michael Bay, the costume people, an assistant director or even Fox herself. I don’t know. And I don’t care. I care that it’s rare enough that I noticed it and I really rather appreciate that a character who’s obviously largely in the movie as eye candy got to do important actiony things and look capable while doing them.

All that being said? This is a ridiculous movie. It truly is a Michael Bay explosion extravaganza. I’m a little worried, after tonight, about what tomorrow will bring. This was a lot of explodiness and I’m told the sequel is bigger. It’s just plain full of machines making things go boom. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s shiny. There are the Transformers themselves, yes, and they are very pretty examples of the current level of computer effects. And then there’s all the stuff the humans fire at the Transformers. Also computer graphics, yes, but it hardly matters. Things go up in balls of flames, bullets zip through the air, people scream, metal screeches, explosions rock the entire set. There are plot holes all over the place, likely caused by more explosions and bullets. It was bound to happen, really.

Right. Plot. There was some introductory voice-over at the beginning, but I don’t really remember the specifics. Too many explosions. The Autobots and the Decepticons both came from a planet called Cybertron, but it was destroyed and eventually they all ended up on Earth, looking for a cube called the All Spark which could restore life to their planet. Or something. Obviously the bad guys (that would be the Decepticons, if you couldn’t tell by the name) want it for their own aims and the Autobots want to stop them. Enter Sam Witwicky, a high school student who has a talent for embarrassing himself and a new car that has a habit of turning itself on. And why is Sam our hero? Because his great great grandfather discovered a frozen Decepticon in the Arctic several decades back and the coordinates of the All Spark somehow got imprinted on his glasses, which Sam has and is trying to sell on eBay to get some cash so he can ask a girl on a date. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen! The Autobots fixate on him to get the glasses, as do the Decepticons. And so the movie goes, with the two groups of robots battling it out over the glasses at first, and then the All Spark. Oh, and there’s a secret US government agency that gets involved too and provides some impressive scenery chewing from John Turturro.

See, the thing about the plot is that it’s all just a means to an end, and that end is giant robot battles and explosions. This is a movie that is well aware of its own scale, too, and Michael Bay wasn’t shy about that. His ego seems to be growing quite large, really. Not only are there apparently numerous references to his name and possessions throughout the movie (his dog is in it, one of the helicopters has the same registration as his private jet and IMDB claims that ‘Mikaela Banes’ is a reference to his name), but references to at least one of his other movies. “This is at least a hundred times cooler than Armageddon,” screams a young man as he tries to catch the landings of the Autobots on his camera. That’s not subtle.

Nothing about this movie is subtle. That’s the point. This is a movie made to bash you over the head. It’s a movie for people who have fond memories of the cartoon but aren’t hung up on its canon. There’s at least one really obvious scene where all of the Autobots are showing themselves to Sam and Mikaela and Optimus Prime introduces them all and it’s tailor made for folks who watched the cartoon. You’re supposed to see that scene and be brought back to your childhood and then get ready for some action. That’s the whole point. And if that’s how you go into this movie? Ready for action and some callbacks to the source material? It’s fine. Just ignore the ‘comedic’ human performances and enjoy the effects and explosions.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Transformers (2007)

December 5, 2010

Transformers (2007)

Transformers were a part of my childhood. I remember distinctly going with my father one day to a toy store in search of some Go-Bots. Because Go-Bots were the coolest thing ever of course. The owner of the shop was there that day and explained to us that he didn’t have any Go-Bots left. He did, however, have a big glossy pamphlet that he showed us featuring a line of toys that would, he said, blow Go-Bots out of the water when they came out next year. There was a big truck that transformed, a big pistol, and a tape recorder. The truth was that that shop-keeper was entirely right. That first line of Transformers did totally kick ass. Well, most of them did, anyhow. There were some that were tiny plastic toys that were kind of cheap like the Go-Bots were (Bumblebee for example.) But most of the Transformers that I remember best were the ones like Jazz that were on a much larger scale than the Go-Bots and were much more complex, well made, and cool. Hasbo also did a great job marketing the Transformers line, with the whole cartoon, and the comic books (with their Spider Man crossover) and the stats listed on their boxes. My friend Randy had all but one of the entire first line of Transformer toys, and we spent many an hour playing with those things. We even used the stats on their packaging to design a kind of RPG, rolling dice to determine the outcomes of their battles.

I say all this so that you can understand that even though I never owned a single Transformer I do consider myself a Transformers fan. I enjoyed the cartoon. One of the more traumatic moments of my youth was tuning in to season three of the Transformers cartoon after missing the movie in the theaters and discovering that every character I cared about was dead. I am much less of a fan of Michael Bay. Sure, I enjoyed The Rock, but that’s about it. Armageddon is a complete mess, Pearl Harbor is infamously bad (see the song in Team America) and The Island is notable to a fan of MST3K like myself primarily for the fact that it took its concept from the creepy seventies movie Parts – the Clonus Horror. So I had pretty low expectations for this big budget explody live-action Transformers movie.

This was one of those movies I first saw over multiple showings at Blockbuster. We threw it in the Blu-Ray player and put it on infinite loop around the time that the movie came out and over the course of a week or so I saw the whole film in bits and parts. I honestly don’t remember why I bought it – perhaps just because I was in the habit of pre-ordering and buying three to five movies a week, and this was one of them. The thing is that I really can’t make up my mind what my opinion of this movie is.

The story it tells is fairly similar to the TV series and comic books. After warring for years on their home planet of Cybertron two clans of giant robots come to Earth. The evil Decepticons want to dominate all life and the kindly Autobots befriend the human locals and attempt to save lives whenever they can. This movie adds in a whole bunch of stuff about a mystical cube called the All-spark that it the origin of all Cybertornian mechanical life, but that’s just so there’s something to center all the action around.

The human hero of our movie is Shia LaBeauf, here portraying Sam Witwicky, whose ancestor once discovered evidence of alien mechanical life under the ice in the arctic circle. Sam is an unpopular nervous high-school student who has just gathered enough money to buy his first car – which turns out to be Bumblebee, here disguised as a fairly beat up Camero. Really Monsieur The Beef is the perfect nerdly every-boy. Over the course of the movie he gets caught up in the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons and manages to also get the hottest girl in school. So a little bit of wish-fulfilment there.

There are some things this movie does well. It cleverly re-frames the well known Transformers mythos into an alien invasion story with lots of military tech, a secret government organization and the secretary for defense shouting a lot as things go wrong for the humans. In that regard it’s perfectly watchable – as a big budget summer action movie with a ton of computer generated special effects and such. There are a number of different groups the movie follows such as the team of marines who survive the initial Decepticon attack on a base in Qatar and the NSA agent who thinks she understands what is behind the attempt to hack into the US military databases. Of course all of these people are inevitably going to end up together as humanity battles for its very existence. All of that is part of a fairly descent movie.

But then there are the “comic relief” bits. I don’t particularly mind Shia or his character, but it’s hard to sit through an entire movie worth of him having panic attacks and talking to himself. There’s a fifteen minute portion of the movie where the Autobots are hiding outside his house while he’s trying to find a pair of glasses his great grandfather left to him and his parents are being painfully clueless. Those fifteen minutes are pure torture. From when his pet dog urinates on one of the robots to when his parents ask him if he locked his door because he was masturbating to every shot of the Autobots awkwardly stumbling around the house attempting to hide – it’s in poor taste, it’s not funny, and it seems to go on for hours.

Did I mention that at one point Bumblebee squirts lubrication from his crotch onto the head of well respected character actor John Turturro? Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. My favorite character from the old Transformers cartoon, the mute and extremely cool Soundwave, is reduced to a gibbering bumbling series of pratfalls and rude gestures. Michael Bay should never, ever be allowed to make attempts at comedy.

The transformers themselves are simultaneously awe inspiring for being probably some of the most complex machines ever rendered by CGI artists and completely bewildering in that they appear, when in robot form, to be big piles of scrap metal slapped together and waling around. I understand that during the unbelievably complex transformation sequences the animators made very few “cheats” and that all the bits that make up the robots are the same bits that made up the automobiles. I just wish that their robot forms were less visually cluttered. Often during the climactic fight scenes I had trouble figuring out which jagged collection of metal bits I was supposed to be rooting for.

Perhaps strangest of all is that in a movie full of giant intelligent robots from space and crazy firefights involving aliens and soldiers and helicopters and planes the thing I had the most trouble believing in in this movie was Megan Fox. She plays Sam’s high-school crush and sorta-kinda almost girlfriend. I can fully understand that a summer action blockbuster needs some eye-candy in the form of a gorgeous woman, and I respect that the movie tried to give her some character with her past stealing and fixing cars with her father, but the way the movie tries to get her mixed up with Sam never quite works for me. It’s part of the fantasy of the movie I suppose that this girl who is more perfect than can be reasonably expected from a human being would think that maybe Sam is not such a bad kid. I just never bought it.

I do appreciate some of the nods to the show and such. Right from the beginning it’s great to hear Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime and that goes a long way towards building some credibility for the movie in my mind. But there is too much in this film I want to erase from my memory to really call it good. It’s acceptable at best – an okay attempt that doesn’t completely ruin the Transformers franchise in my mind. We’ll have to see if tomorrow’s viewing of the inevitable sequel changes that impression.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment