A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 560 – Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! – September 11th, 2011

Given that the running time for this and the original turned out to be so very much shorter than we’d been counting on, it really ended up being not a big deal to watch them back to back. And Andy really wanted to see them together. So we popped it in the night after watching the original. It really does qualify as its own movie, given the nature of the editing done to it. Which I find kind of fascinating. It’s the same story, but restructured a tiny bit and with a brand new character added in. Oh, it’s not a seamless addition. Whenever new guy Steve Martin talks to Emiko, for example, it’s painfully obvious that he was cut into other scenes of her talking, or that he’s speaking to a double whose back is always kept to camera. But that aside, there was an obvious effort to make him a part of the story instead of just a bystander narrating it all.

Now, making this new guy, Steve, the center of the human story is not without problems. For one, he’s a big white American lunk (sorry Raymond Burr fans, it’s true). For two, in order to make him central to the plot he has to be inserted into the relationships that were in the original. Instead of Emiko, her suitor, Ogata, her father, and her friend, Dr. Serizawa, you’ve got the four of them and Steve. And he just seems so out of place. I kept thinking grumbly thoughts about him, like “Why are you there? Leave Emiko alone! She has enough to deal with without worrying about some random American reporter! They figured it all out just fine without you in the other version!” And really, he’s not that bad. He just feels shoehorned into the plot, perhaps because in the original there was no need for a fifth main character. His purpose really seems to be to provide a US “voice” and presence in the movie to make US audiences more comfortable with it somehow.

Otherwise, the movie’s story is largely the same. The monster still attacks boats first, then the villages on the island before moving on to the mainland. People still testify as to the monster’s destructive powers. The monster still kills many and the results of its rampages are still shown. There are still the same main characters – no one’s missing. No one was excised in order to make room for Steve. The major plot points are all in there too. The various attacks, the determination of how old the monster must be. The professor’s desire to study the monster to learn about how it’s survived this long and adapted in the ways that it has. The insistence of others that it must be stopped. The eventual answer – the horrible weapon that might kill it, but also cause untold horrors as a side effect. It’s all there. But truncated.

It should be noted that this movie is a full 16 minutes shorter than the original. And that’s with all the extra US reporter stuff added in. I’m sure someone has done a scene by scene comparison between the two movies but there’s no denying that there’s material that’s been cut out. I suspect a large part of it is in the editing of each scene. Where the original lingers over shots, letting the visuals have time to speak for themselves, the US edit flips between shots much faster. It doesn’t change the pacing of the whole movie all that much, since everything still happens in the same order. But it is noticeable. What does change the pacing more for me is the addition of scenes of American reporters talking to Steve and trying to get details on the story. Those made me feel like the movie was both rushed and interrupted at the same time.

While the US edit didn’t shy away from showing the horrors of the monster’s attacks, it did feel as though less time was spent on it all. What’s frustrating about that is that it diminishes the power of the allegory. I suspect that these edits were done strategically, but I don’t have to like them just because they were done with purpose and intent. That being said, there were things I did like about the movie. Amazingly enough, it really does serve many of the same purposes as the original and I’m very glad that the allegory wasn’t lost in the editing room. Yes, it was diminished a little, but not lost. And that could easily have happened if the additional character had been handled clumsily or if key scenes were removed without much thought. But that didn’t happen.

A whole hell of a lot was kept the way it was in the original, such as the fantastic music. Bizarrely enough, they even kept the large majority of Japanese dialogue, but didn’t dub or subtitle it. Not that I like dubbing or think it would have been a good choice for this movie, but I could have seen it happening. But no, there’s a lot of Japanese, and left with no translation. What strikes me as odd there is that there was an effort to make this movie relate-able to a US audience but then vast swaths of Japanese language lines were left in without any way for people who only speak English to know what, specifically, is being said. I suppose it could have been because it was all deemed not quite important enough to subtitle for, it just struck me as odd. Still, even with that and Steve and the editing, it’s a far better and more serious monster movie than most that came after it.

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

Movie 559 – Gojira

Gojira – September 10th, 2011

When we decided to undertake this whole big project Andy and I had to first create a list of everything we owned. That on its own was a huge task. We had to ferret out all our DVDs, and since we have a small apartment with limited shelf space we’d stashed them wherever there was space. That took a while. Then we went through and made a spreadsheet for it all. Title, running time, whether each of us had seen it or not, where it lived in the apartment, date of review, etc. For the most part we took the running times off the DVD cases. A couple of them didn’t specify a running time so for those we looked online. And most of the time? It worked out a-ok. The trouble is that there seems to be no real regulation for how these things are listed. And so this movie was noted in our spreadsheet as having a 176 minute running time. That’s actually the combined running time for both this and the edited for the US Godzilla, King of the Monsters! included in the same set. Oops.

For that reason, we’d been putting this off a bit. Andy wanted to do the original Japanese version back to back with the US edit and that running time was a bit of an obstacle. Finally we buckled down and put it in. And it was good! Really dark and really interesting and really well done. But as the movie went on I started to wonder about the pacing. I mean, I’ve watched a lot of movies. I’d watched a lot well before we started this project but I think now I can definitely state I’ve seen a lot of movies. And the pacing just didn’t feel right. Here were the two male leads putting on diving suits, preparing to unleash a deadly weapon on the monster after several failed attempts to kill it. There’d been mass destruction and death and a fight between the male leads and a tearful revelation by the female lead and it all pointed to the movie ending relatively soon. And yet we were at just under an hour and a half. So I looked it up. 98 minutes. It’s more than a little disorienting to realize a movie is over an hour shorter than you expected. But it does mean that there’s nothing wrong with the pacing!

My background with Godzilla isn’t remotely the same as Andy’s. He grew up watching monster movies. I grew up watching stuff like Solarbabies. I think he got the better end of the deal, much as I love Solarbabies and will love it forever. But I think it’s important for me to note that my family wasn’t a movie-going family and we also weren’t too much of a movie-watching family outside of a few particular favorites. I really started getting into movies in high school and I admit, monster movies weren’t something I sought out. I saw quite a few through MST3K and I didn’t try to go any further. I was quite aware that Godzilla had been edited for western audiences and that while the newer movies in the franchise were, sometimes, on the silly side, the original was far more serious. I just hadn’t ever made the time to watch it.

Silly, really, because this is a classic and well deserving of its status as one. This is a far cry from the cheese of something like Godzilla vs. Megalon. The story is the introduction of the titular monster, but also more a parable of destructive force causing tragedy and the morality of using greater destructive force against it. As an allegory for nuclear war it’s pretty obvious. At least to me at this point in history. But that doesn’t mean it’s poorly done. Just the opposite, in fact. Because it’s a good story and a good monster movie, regardless of the allegorical implications.

The story begins with a series of mysterious attacks on boats. There are no survivors found until one washes ashore on the beach of a nearby island and only lives long enough to give a few vague details. As the monster continues its periodic destruction the people of Japan begin to realize just how bad it can get. The locals on the island that’s first affected have some inkling of what’s going on, having had legends of a monster from the sea. Everyone else has to learn the hard way: By seeing the monster destroy their homes and families. Once it’s clear that there’s a real threat here the folks in charge start to talk about just how they’re going to deal with it. Many want the monster killed, but a few, such as paleontologist Professor Yamane, believe the monster should be studied as well. The professor’s daughter’s suitor, however, believes the monster must be killed. So that right there puts them at odds. And then there’s Dr. Serizawa, who has created a weapon that could destroy the monster, but could then be co-opted by others for less necessary purposes. This all creates a good deal of character tension in the midst of the horrific disasters and that makes for a more solid story.

If there wasn’t much in the way of character interaction then the whole allegory would just fall apart. The allegory is rooted in the interactions. Because it’s clear in the movie that there is no good answer. That either the monster will continue wreaking havoc or a terrible weapon will have to be unleashed to stop it. There’s no right answer there. There’s no good answer there. Of course the destruction has to stop, but the cost of stopping it is so great. This movie doesn’t pull its punches. It lets you know just how bad it got, from scenes of devastated cities to children crying over their dead parents. And the effects and cinematography are still fantastic, even now. The music too, adds to the whole mood of the movie. It’s somber and grave. This isn’t a monster movie you watch for fun. It’s a thoughtful commentary on arms escalation and morality, but told with explosions and a huge monster and all the trappings of monster action flicks.

September 10, 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 398 – The Natural

The Natural – April 2nd, 2011

I’m going to say this up front so there’s no beating around the bush: I don’t enjoy baseball as a game. I find it interesting as a cultural phenomenon, but well, I don’t watch it and I haven’t ever really felt a desire to. It’s slow and I don’t find it particularly engrossing, the same way other people would probably find my favorite video games boring. Different tastes for different folks. So when I watch a movie that has baseball as its foundation, well, it’s got to have something to draw me in other than the game. Oddly enough, a few months back Andy (who also does not watch baseball or particularly enjoy it) decided we should get some baseball movies. So we got this, which I had never seen, and three others that I had. I could have dealt without this one.

I know, I’m a horrible person for saying so. I mean, this is a classic, right? The score is iconic, as are more than a few shots and moments in the movie. It’s Robert Redford and Barry Levinson! How can I not be entranced by this movie! But I’m not. It’s not bad. I didn’t dislike it. But it just didn’t capture me. Even looking at it from an allegorical perspective, pulling in meaning from the talk about Homer and making connections with mythology as well as Arthurian legend didn’t really do it for me. I mean, I like those things, but the allegory here is using baseball as its vehicle. The appeal of allegory is to present one story in the guise of another. What would be the point if the guise wasn’t as interesting as the original? It’s not like we’re talking religious stories that need to be communicated in a time of censorship here.

It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, to be honest. Set in 1939, it’s the story of the meteoric rise of a baseball player, Roy Hobbs. We get a little backstory, seeing how he grew up being taught how to play by his father. We watch him make his own bat. We see him head to the city to play ball and meet up with a mysterious woman who later shoots him for no reason that the movie sees fit to explain (it’s hinted that she was responsible for a string of athlete shootings but the movie doesn’t bother to elaborate). And then we pick back up with him in his 30s, over the hill and starting out as a rookie with the down-on-their-luck Knights. Everyone thinks he’s just a benchwarmer, sent in to ruin the team even more thanks to some shady dealings with the majority shareholder, the sinister Judge. But of course he’s not. He’s amazing. He’s downright magical.

The rest of the movie plays out fairly predictably. I won’t say that’s a bad thing, because it’s using some well known tropes and that just means it’s been put together by people who know how to build a story. But it does mean that I felt very little in the way of tension. As soon as Roy meets femme fatale Memo? I knew he’d start striking out. As soon as his old sweetheart, Iris, showed up to give him moral support from the stands? I knew he’d start doing better. When she said she had a son? Come on. Did anyone need a reveal there? From the moment we meet the Judge in his darkened room it’s a sure thing that someone’s going to either try and take Roy out (again) or get him to throw a game. This is not a movie full of unexpected twists and turns. It tells you everything that’s going on, plain as day.

Fortunately, it’s well acted and well shot. Visually, it’s a lovely movie. And I did enjoy Robert Redford’s performance. He gets the vast majority of screen time. I wish I could say more about the women in the movie, but they’re all fairly one-dimensional, which I found thoroughly disappointing. I would have liked a little more than a villain in black, a sweetheart in white and a temptress who flips back and forth and I would have liked some more well-developed parts for Barbara Hershey, Glenn Close and Kim Basinger. I also would have liked things to move a little faster. As it is, the movie plays out much in the way I’ve always seen baseball itself. A whole lot of standing around, punctuated by some actual playing every so often. It felt like this movie took hours and hours and hours to play out. Sure, there were moments I enjoyed and I appreciated the cinematography and the acting and definitely the score. But overall it just didn’t speak to me.

April 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 397 – Manos: The Hands of Fate

Manos: The Hands of Fate – April 1st, 2011

There’s been a lot of talk about this movie over the years. We first found out about it through MST3K, which is how I expect a lot of people found out about it. After all, it truly epitomizes the concept of indie filmmaking. Made by a fertilizer salesman on what amounts to a shoestring budget, it’s famous for being thoroughly unwatchable without riffing. The problem is that most people who watch this movie aren’t watching it in the right way. With the proper background, this movie takes on a completely different character.

The trick to this movie is interrogating it from the right perspective. As a horror movie it’s lacking a little something, but as a mythological allegory? It’s truly fascinating. Watching it with the MST3K jokes is all well and good, but it means that a lot of the little things get lost under comments and singing. And much as I love MST3K, that’s really a shame, because it’s given this movie a reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve.

You do need to look closely to see the mythological implications in this movie, but once you look you can’t help but note them. And who wouldn’t think to look into the mythological content here once you know that the character of Torgo is a satyr? Really, I don’t see how anyone could miss it. It’s sort of like The Matrix, though, in that it’s not one single allegorical story. It’s combining many different elements from a number of myths. Which is really pretty masterful, when you think about it.

The story follows a couple and their daughter, lost in the desert and stranded at a remote house where the sinister Master lives with his brides and Torgo, his satyr assistant. The wife, Margaret, is clearly a Persephone figure here, wanted as a bride by the Master, who is the Hades figure. He represents death and fate and is inescapable and invulnerable. And yet he also seems to have elements of Zeus, what with the number of women he’s seduced. One of his wives is clearly Hera, loudly proclaiming her authority over matters when the Master appears to be contemplating taking Margaret for a wife. Just imagine if Hera had been let loose on all of the women Zeus impregnated over the course of Greek mythology. This movie poses that precise situation, set in what is clearly Hades’ realm, a remote realm only reachable by some.

The whole movie incorporates themes from the Persephone myth, which I mentioned, quest tropes like in the Odyssey, a touch of Orpheus. It’s fascinating to pick through the representations to see how they’ve all be recombined to relate to each other in what was at the time a modern setting in the desert outside El Paso. I wish I had more knowledge of the area at the time so I could look into Warren’s possible allegorical connections between his own personal experience and the mythology he was so clearly drawing his inspiration from. I hope that in the future more people will be able to look at this movie with a fresh perspective.

April 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 315 – The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded – January 9th, 2011

Ah, it’s sequel time. I have to admit, I’ve only seen the Matrix sequels a few times. I’ve seen the first movie countless times, but the sequels, while pretty, lack something. It’s a pity, what with the promise the first movie had, but then that’s how it goes. I don’t dislike the sequels, but they disappointed me, so while I do enjoy watching them, and I certainly had moments tonight when I found myself grinning, the spark that made the first movie so uniquely fantastic is missing.

I think part of it for me is that this movie seems to embody the concept of trying too hard. With the first movie to live up to where do you go? More fight scenes, more bad guys, more chases and machines and tech and Neo doing impossible things and oh yes, lots more symbolism. And it’s all crammed in there so tightly none of it really has the space to breathe. There are these wonderfully tantalizing bits and pieces but before we can really get a sense of them there’s another fight scene, and it makes me wonder if the tantalizing bits are cut off because there are too many or because none of them were ever truly thought through.

We rejoin Neo and Trinity and Morpheus well enough after the events of the last movie that they’ve already been back to Zion enough times for Neo to gain a somewhat unwelcome following. People gather at the door to his quarters, waiting for him to come home. They give him offerings in hope that he will somehow be able to protect their family and loved ones. The messiah plot is very clearly carried on here, with Neo knowing he is this figure they’re looking to but not knowing what to do about it. He has horrible prophetic dreams of Trinity falling out of a building and dying (which is the opening scene, so twice now the movies have opened on Trinity kicking ass) and it’s made clear he has no idea what it all means. And I’ve got to give it to Keanu Reeves. For all the disparaging comments made about him and his lack of emotion, there is one moment in this movie where he somehow manages to convey the helplessness and sense of being overwhelmed through a single facial expression. The man can act!

So the ship returns to Zion and there’s a big orgy before the whole place prepares for war, since it’s been discovered that the machines are digging in to reach Zion and destroy it. Morpheus is waiting for word from the Oracle, defying orders of the military commander, Lock. There are meetings of the various ship captains and meetings in Zion with the council and Morpheus has a vaguely Cassandra type role here, being the true believer but being disbelieved himself. There’s a lot of arguing about whether or not they need to talk to the Oracle and whether they can afford to go back into the Matrix when the machines are so close and they need ships but of course they do go back in and the Oracle sends Neo on a quest to find the Keymaker and that leads them to an obsolete program named the Merovingian and his cadre of dangerous goons and meanwhile Agent Smith is replicating himself out of control and that’s not even touching on the new upgraded Agents who are also after them. So basically there are three different groups after Neo and his friends in the Matrix, a crapload of machines tunneling into Zion in the real world, and lots of little conversations about the nature of the Matrix and the programs within it.

It’s so very messy. And I haven’t even gotten to the Architect. I find it frustrating because there are all of these very interesting little moments. Neo’s conversation with the Oracle about how programs do what they’re intended to do and you never notice them. The Merovingian and his group of werewolves and vampires and ghosts and the implications of his cause and effect mentality. His wife, Persephone and all symbolism going on there. The Keymaker and Seraph, programs with very specific purposes. And as soon as they’re touched on there’s a fight scene. The Oracle spouts a lot of stuff about purpose and then buggers off just in time for a mob of Smiths to show up. The Merovingian rambles about causality and then kicks them out. Persephone shows up to give some more little clues and then we get the staircase fight scene with the goons, none of whom are ever really given much in the way of purpose or character. And then there’s the chase scene. And all the while there’s stuff going on in the real world that I’m sure is very important but it’s all chopped up. Oh! And there’s a traitor! Because we’ve got to have a traitor. And his name is Bane. Of course. Because Cypher wasn’t obvious enough.

And that’s my other problem here. The symbolism isn’t symbolism anymore. It’s flat out telling you what to think about the people who get introduced. Bane? That’s not a metaphor, that’s a label. But I could deal with that. It’s not like Neo and Morpheus were terribly subtle in the first place and there are things I like, such as the names of the various ships (Mjolnir, Osirus, Logos, Caduceus, Brahma, etc.). Some things are done well. I really like Zion, which is a giant bunker of a city. I just think there’s too much packed in, so by the time you reach the Architect and he starts in with the SAT vocab test of an explanation of what the Matrix is and Neo’s place in it, it’s just more noise. And essentially he tells Neo what Agent Smith told Morpheus in the first movie: Humanity is flawed and needs suffering. There needs to be a rebellion and a release valve. He just takes ten minutes to say it.

Seriously, I don’t dislike this movie. I just went into it hoping for more answers than I got. It felt like this movie was a lot more style-over-substance than the first one was, which made me sad. Oh, I still enjoyed the gorgeous visuals and the fact that both Trinity and Niobe (one of the captains, played by Jada Pinkett-Smith) get to kick a hell of a lot of ass. I do love the highway chase scene with the evil twins. I love the possibilities and I love the concept. I enjoy the little clever bits like references to Bible verses and classical literature. I just wish there had been some editing done. Maybe instead of three factions trying to get Neo and his pals it could have been two. Maybe a fight scene could have been taken out (the one with Seraph comes to mind – what’s the point there, again?). Maybe the scenes with the real world could have had less back and forth and political wrangling. I don’t know. It’s a lot of fun and has some great stuff in it, it just feels overloaded. Like the Wachowskis came up with so many cool ideas they couldn’t bear not to include them all. It ends with a fantastic revelation about Neo and his power in and out of the Matrix and it’s fantastically fun overall. But it clocks in at over two hours and I refuse to believe that at least fifteen minutes couldn’t have been cut to make it a tighter, sharper, cleaner and overall better movie.

January 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 314 – The Matrix

The Matrix – January 8th, 2011

This is a movie that got massively overhyped to me when it came out. People literally told me it would be a religious experience for me (and I’ll get back to the amusement value that statement holds later) and, well, that turns me right off. I never saw it in theaters and it took me months to get around to seeing it when it came out for rental. And then I did see it, and while it wasn’t the sort of religious experience I’d been told it would be, it was indeed impressive. Full of little holes and promising more than its sequels could deliver, but impressive nonetheless.

In a way, I already wrote a review of this movie. I wrote it back in college when I was taking a class on allegory. We read some of the classic allegorical stories like Pilgrim’s Promise, which bored me to tears, I admit, and then when we were done with those our professor told us to pick an allegorical work to write a paper and give a presentation on. Most people stuck to the classics. I went with sci-fi. And in doing so I believe I ruined the movie for several of my classmates, who weren’t huge fans of it to begin with but who claimed they’d never be able to watch it again without thinking of the allegorical possibilities.

I got a good mark on the presentation and the paper and I amused myself in the process. I call that an all-around win. Alas, a good amount of the specifics of my analysis have been lost to time and updated technology. It’s entirely likely that my paper and presentation notes exist in some form, perhaps on a CD backup of Andy’s old computer. But I’m not really interested in digging for them just to recover how I explained the link between Morpheus and the name Nebuchadnezzar. The fact of the matter is that the movie is a pretty clear messiah plot with plenty of symbolic names and phrases dropped in to boost the idea that there’s more going on than meets the eye.

I don’t really think I need to go into specifics for the plot. Hell, wasn’t this movie handed out with DVD players when they were new tech? The story follows Thomas Anderson, a young programmer who uses the handle Neo and who has been searching for the answer to vague and unsettling questions he has about the nature of the world. And he finds them, or rather they find him. It turns out that the world isn’t real. It’s all an elaborate virtual construct, in place to keep humans complacent and mentally functional so that in the real world the machines that have taken over can use them as a power source. Neo is disconnected from the network by the mysterious Morpheus and his crew of rebels. They have a sort of hover submarine they use to float around the sewers of Earth and on board is a complex rig that allows them to plug themselves back into the virtual world. Morpheus believes that Neo is the prophecied One who will be able to destroy the machines once and for all and free humanity from their enslavement. And so the movie goes, with Neo trying to come to grips not only with the revelations but with his supposed role in it all.

It’s a fun plot, but it’s nothing revolutionary when you look at the bones of it. But the movie sets it in this fantastic dystopia, with menacing enemy programs who whip through the virtual world by taking control of body after body. They’re the men in black, always appearing to take control of a situation and threatening our heroes. They’re inhuman, which is the whole point. The concept of it is great and the movie executes it beautifully. The visuals are gorgeous, with the real world’s bleak and grimy surroundings and the greenish computer screen cast over everything in the Matrix itself. The heroes all look impossibly cool in the Matrix, with their billowing coats and vinyl pants, yet in the real world they’re all dirty and wearing tattered sweaters and scraps. The machines are the slick and smooth ones in the real world, as dangerous as their Agent counterparts inside the Matrix.

And oh, oh the special effects. I probably need to describe those as little as I needed to describe the plot. This movie has the iconic “bullet time” shots where the camera pans around a slowed down or stilled moment. The rig for this is absolutely fantastic and I remember watching the making of materials for the first time and being blown away by it. The fight scenes would have been great stuff even without that particular trick, but that trick elevates them to something truly amazing. And they’re not just effects for the sake of effects. The whole bullet time thing really does play into the development of Neo as a messianic figure. He can do things the bad guys can do. That’s a big moment. Nicely played, Wachowskis, nicely played indeed.

There are some great performances in this movie. Not Academy Award material, but really fun for the movie. Keanu Reeves does a nice job, really, playing a slightly confused but then determined Neo. I loved Carrie Ann Moss as Trinity (who starts the movie with a kickass fight scene, which I’m all for – more movies should start with a kickass woman in an action sequence) from the moment I saw her. Laurence Fishburne is fantastic as Morpheus and Hugo Weaving is incredibly sinister as the evil Agent Smith. And then there’s Joe Pantoliano as the movie’s Judas, Cypher (look up the meanings of that word some day – I got a lot of mileage out of it in my allegory presentation). It’s a great cast and they come together nicely to present the world of the movie just enough to satisfy while still leaving questions. Alas, the sequels we’ll be watching tomorrow and Monday, well, we’ll get to their lack of answers then.

This movie wasn’t a religious revelation for me really, despite the massive amounts of religion-themed allegorical material. There’s the messiah storyline and references to a wide variety of faiths and beliefs. But really, for me, it’s a cinematic revelation. It was such an amazing feat of special effects and wardrobe and cast and writing (plot holes and all – I tend to ignore them) that I found it truly awesome in that it inspired awe in me.

January 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Matrix

January 8, 2011

The Matrix

So we’ve already reviewed one laughably bad sci-fi movie about computer hacking starring Keanu Reeves. Today it is my great pleasure to review the polar opposite. This movie is beautiful, clever, intricately layered, fun to watch and, for me at least, revelatory. It’s not a flawless movie, but it is something that doesn’t come along very often: a smart action movie.

There are so many ways to view this movie. You can, of course just enjoy it as a rip-roaring sci-fi action movie. You can just watch the story of mild mannered computer programmer Thomas A. Anderson who has a second life as a computer hacker using the handle of Neo. Neo has been searching the ‘net for a person calling himself Morpheus because he believes that Morpheus knows… something. Something that he needs to understand. Little does he know that Morpheus is also seeking him out, and when they finally do meet Neo discovers that his world, our world, is a construct. Everything he’s ever known has just been a computer simulation in which he and almost all of humanity is trapped. Morpheus, and his small cadre of freedom fighters, are some of the only humans who are “awake” any more, and he’s seeking a savior he calls “The One.” The One will, Morpheus believes, be able to save humanity from their enslavement by the intelligent machines and programs that constructed the Matrix and trapped all of humankind inside it.

Or you could enjoy the presentation. Siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski (Larry at the time) have masterfully filled every frame of the movie with a slick style that is distinctive and impressive. Of course everybody is familiar with the infamous “bullet time” that they used – a trick using multiple cameras to do slow-motion moves that were at the time impossible. It would just be done with computers nowadays but this was the late nineties and at the time it looked like nothing that anybody had seen before. They also appropriate all kinds of imagery and visuals from other action genres that American audiences might not have been as familiar with at the time. In the making-of and commentary materials they talk a lot about the inspiration they drew from anime. And of course there are the kung-fu wire work fights choreographed by Chinese kung-fu legend Yuen Wo Ping. The art design of both the “waking” world and the Matrix is fantastic and this was one of the first movies I saw that used extensive digital color timing to heighten the other-worldly look. There are so many iconic action scenes in this movie such as the fight in the virtual dojo or the classic firefight in the government building entry corridor – scenes that alone would make for a great movie even had nothing else worked.

Or you could view the movie as allegory with its clear Christ imagery and tale of the resurrection. There are hints and allusions to Neo being a messiah throughout the movie. “You’re my savior, man,” says one character at the very start of the movie “My own personal Jesus Christ.” Of course the allegorical layer is only one of myriad references heavily dolloped onto the sci-fi premise. Sometimes the movie is clever with its script, such as with the brilliant scene when Neo meets the Oracle. She tells him “You’re waiting for something. Maybe your next life.” Then there are parts that are heavy handed but still enjoyable, such as all the references to Alice in Wonderland (and Alice through the Looking Glass since the two are interchangeable for some people.) Sometimes the movie tries to be more clever than it actually is (Neo being the One – Trinity being his love interest) but that doesn’t make it any less impressive that a summer action film should have so many layers of meaning packed inside it.

Or you could enjoy the great cast. Everybody here, and I’m including Keanu Reeves in this, is perfect for the role they’re cast in. Keanu is fantastic as Neo, his sort of blandness being just the thing for an average guy caught up in a world beyond his understanding. He does a lot of looking confused and bewildered here, and it works for him. Then there’s Larry Fishburne as Morpheus, absolutely oozing panache and style our of every pore. Carrie-Anne Moss is the badassed hacker turned freedom fighter Trinity. Not only does she get the first big action sequence of the movie but she repeatedly saves Neo’s bacon throughout the film. I love a chick that can take care of herself and look great doing it. For badguys we have the sinister looking Joe Pantoleano (who also worked with the Wachowskis on their movie Bound) and Hugo Weaving who replaces his Australian accent with a clopped and precise but slightly alien diction as Agent Smith – one of the programs tasked with policing the Matrix.

This movie completely rocked my world, I have to admit. From the very opening scene when Agent Smith ominously declares “No, Lieutenant, your men are already dead” to Rage Against the Machine screaming “wake up!” over the closing credits this is an action movie that fills the screen with amazing imagery and fills my mind with subversive thoughts about the nature of reality. It’s a rare almost impossible to replicate gem of a movie. There was virtually no way that any sequel could possibly be as good – but we’ll get to that tomorrow.

January 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 237 – District 9

District 9 – October 23rd, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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