A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 510 – Inglorious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds – July 23rd, 2011

We went to see the new Captain America movie yesterday afternoon and after we got home we looked through our movie list for something suitable. Obviously we’d already watched the 1990 Cap movie and I wanted something long. We’ve got a fair number of movies over two hours that we just never feel up to when we get home from work on week days. This one popped out at me, what with it being set during World War II, much like the new Cap movie. Except this one is decidedly less superheroic and more incredibly obviously Tarantino. Granted, since it is Tarantino, there are some comic-y aspects. But that’s the least of its issues.

Back when this movie came out I remember reading a review of it that I found fascinating. All of the marketing for the movie played up Brad Pitt’s role and showcased the whole “killin’ Nazis!” aspect as if the Basterds were the point of the movie. As if it was two and a half hours of a squad of American soldiers kicking Nazi ass in the woods. And there is a bit of that, yes, and the Basterds are in a good deal of the movie. But what the movie actually is, is a tale of righteous revenge. And we all should know by now how I feel about righteous revenge. It’s a not uncommon theme for Tarantino, so I wasn’t at all surprised to see it as a theme here. But I was surprised that the plot that has the most righteous revenge was barely a hint in the marketing. It’s the heart and core of the movie and the Basterds almost fuck it up.

Really, this movie feels incredibly disjointed. It’s presented in chapters, for one, which immediately makes it episodic. And it has two focal storylines that eventually come together, but not until well into the movie. First there’s Shoshanna’s story. Only after we watch a Nazi officer with the nickname “the Jew Hunter” have her family killed while they hide under the floorboards of a neighbor’s house – a scene that takes a good long time – do we get introduced to the Basterds in the next chapter. Now, while the Basterds are far more what I expect from Tarantino, there is a certain Tarantino quality to the beginning of Shoshanna’s story, such as the switch to English from French based on a fairly flimsy excuse. It just struck me as so convenient and ridiculous and tongue-in-cheek in a thoroughly bizarre way. So we meet Shoshanna and we meet Col. Landa (the Nazi officer who killed her family) and then we’re whisked away to meet the Basterds.

Now, the Basterds are thoroughly Tarantino. A squad of Jewish-American soldiers who hunt Nazis and scalp them? Yeah, that’s Tarantino. And to an extent the Basterds are an example of righteous vengeance on their own. At least two of them were originally from Germany and have returned as American soldiers. The whole idea of this squad and their nicknames – shown to us as comic-book style titles for the couple we get backgrounds for – is exactly what I expected when I heard Tarantino was doing a World War II movie. They’re a team of bad-asses who do bad-ass shit. They’re over the top and they’re apparently unstoppable and they scare the crap out of the Nazis and infuriate Hitler by their very existence. And that’s all well and good, and the ads would have you believe that the movie is entirely made up of this team of bad-asses doing said bad-ass shit. The thing is, it’s not. There’s a single scene of them being bad-asses and that’s really it for the squad as a whole. Individuals from the group get to do stuff later on, but what surprised me about the movie is how it treats the Basterds.

The thing is, the heart of the movie is, as I said, Shoshanna’s story. We meet up with her later on, a few years after the massacre of her family. She’s moved to Paris and somehow obtained a cinema. And she has apparently been living her life quietly until now. Until a young German soldier approaches her and hands her the perfect means to an end she likely never thought she could get. He has a crush on her, you see. And he’s a war hero with a film made about him. And combine those two and you have a gala premier for the film, hosted at Shoshanna’s cinema, with the entire Nazi high command – Hitler included – invited. Of course she will want to do something with this situation. And in any other movie, by any other director, this would have been the A plot. The marketed plot. The story of a woman who has lost everything and who has a chance to do what the entire Allied forces tried and failed to do throughout the war. For me, this is the A plot. Shoshanna, in hiding as Emmanuelle, is a wonderful figure, carefully putting into place everything she needs and sacrificing what she has not just for revenge, but for the good of all the people Hitler has yet to kill. But this is Tarantino. And we have to deal with his Basterds.

It becomes apparent when the British army appears on screen, planning an operation meant to do pretty much precisely what Shoshanna is planning but with less intelligence about the location and the people and more fiddly details, that things might well go wrong. Shoshanna has things well in hand, with a store room full of highly flammable film stock and every reason to be present in the cinema and the knowledge of how to keep everyone inside long enough to kill them. But the Brits have come up with a plan to infiltrate the premier with one of their men and a couple of others along with a double agent from Germany, plant some bombs and blow the place up themselves. Really, given the number of obstacles in their way, it seems destined to fail. And after a rather tense scene in a bar, where the three intended infiltrators meet up with an SS officer and we end up with a thoroughly Tarantino Mexican standoff, it’s clear that the Basterds are way out of their element.

Things only get worse at the premier, with Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine speaking Italian with a ridiculous Tennessee accent. The tension here for me wasn’t so much about Shoshanna against the Nazis or the Basterds against the Nazis. It was about whether the Basterds would fuck everything up so badly that someone would try to leave the theater early, alerting everyone that they’d been locked in before Shoshanna or her lover, Marcel, had a chance to light the place up. Every line they say, every move they make, every action, every look, it’s all nervewracking because they are so not spies. They’re bludgeons, not rapiers. They’re not trained to go in and do espionage work. I struggle to even begin to understand why they’d even be the ones called in to help with this. Couldn’t someone better be found? I mean, look at Operation Mincemeat! That’s a real operation carried off during World War II. And it worked. And here I’m expected to believe that no one better could be found for this mission.

It’s such a strange way of marrying these two plots. The Basterds are a great team of bogeymen for the Nazis and they’re clearly very good at what they do. But they come very close to ruining everything Shoshanna had set up. And they do end up keeping her from killing off the man who killed her family. If they’d stayed out of it all then Landa would have been in that cinema, not off making deals with the Americans to get himself out of the war. And Landa himself is an odd character, embracing his title early on, then claiming to dislike it later. Who on Earth is he? What is his motivation? I could never quite see it, possibly because he is a different character depending on which plotline he’s taking part in at the time. It simply feels as though Tarantino had two ideas for a World War II movie, both involving over-the-top revenge that never actually happened but don’t you wish it did, but couldn’t quite decide between them and decided to stick them together. I can’t fault the writing in each individual scene. The bit in the bar is amazingly tense and the writing is superb from the beginning of the scene to the end. But in the overall context of the whole movie it’s far messier. The parts are good, but they don’t necessarily make a good whole. It’s all very strange. I wish I could like it more. Maybe if it had been two separate movies I would have.

July 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 495 – The Mist

The Mist – July 8th, 2011

Horror is not my genre-of-choice, usually. It tends to make me tense and it’s not really where my interests lie. But for some bizarre reason I do like a fair deal of Stephen King’s books. Not all of them, but enough. And top on my list of King works I enjoy are the Dark Tower books. Now, this may seem unrelated, but it’s not. Because when we meet out main character, David, here, he’s painting a poster for one of them, with an easily-identifiable Roland Deschain front and center. So right from the outset, this movie had way more of my attention than I had expected it would get when we put it in.

I only vaguely remembered this movie from ads when it came out. At the time I hadn’t realized it was based on a King novella and dismissed it as a gimmicky fright fest. But tonight, learning that it was based on King and adapted for the screen by Frank Darabont (also responsible for The Shawshank Redemption), well, that gave me pause. And watching it I found myself thinking about some other works I’m more familiar with. Given how King connected so many of his works together by the time he finished the Dark Tower books, I don’t find it hard to connect this one too. It instantly makes the movie more interesting to me as it becomes part of a much larger universe and makes the mist and the creatures within it more recognizable.

The story here follows David and his son, Billy, after a huge storm knocks out the power in their small town in Maine. Along with a neighbor, David and Billy head into town for supplies. Soon after they do an eerie bank of mist rolls into town, blanketing everything and making it impossible to see more than a couple of feet away. David, Billy, the neighbor (Brent – and I’ll come back to him) and a number of other assorted townspeople find themselves trapped inside the local grocery store, unable to even see their cars in the parking lot. Now, I live in the Northeast, on the coast and half of my drive home is on a road along a beach. I’ve driven in heavy fog and mist coming in off the water. So I instantly understood the townspeople’s reluctance to simply go find their cars and leave. Driving in that sort of visibility (or lack thereof) is terrifying anyhow. So they’re all reticent to leave, but the mist doesn’t lift or dissipate and eventually they decide they’ll just have to go. Until a man rushes in, warning them not to go out there because there are things in the mist and they’ll get you.

And thus we have the actual horror part of the movie. The people inside aren’t sure what to make of the whole monsters outside thing, and many of them don’t believe it. David hears a strange sound in the back room of the supermarket, then sees the loading bay door buckle, but no one believes him until a couple of other men come in to help work on the backup generator and one of them ends up yanked out of the building by spiked tentacles. This is our first real look at the monsters that provide the external threat to our heroes and we don’t even get to see the whole thing. And that, right there, is something this movie does right. The full extent of the infestation isn’t revealed right then and there, just tentacles. Which is a great way to build up the tension. I mean, soon enough we’ll see more, but for now the tension lies squarely on a few people knowing that something horrible is out there and not being able to convince the rest.

Really, there are two points of tension here. One is the threats outside of the market. The other is human nature. Because what the people inside the supermarket do is immediately fracture into groups. First they have the group of people who believe that going outside is dangerous, versus the group of people who think it’s ridiculous and David and the others are either delusional or lying. The leader of the latter group is Brent, David’s neighbor. And here is my first issue with the movie. There’s a fair deal of set-up for Brent and David being at odds and then seeming to overcome their issues enough to get along during this emergency. There’s talk of a lawsuit/property dispute between them in the past and it’s made out to be a big thing for the two of them. And then Brent takes his group out into the parking lot and we never see them again. A man who went with them to try and retrieve his shotgun from his truck ends up coming back as a torsoless set of legs, so it’s implied that they’re dead. Brent makes a lot of fuss about how clearly David and the other locals are having him on and how he’d thought that he and David were getting along now but apparently he was wrong and then… Nothing. He’s built up from the beginning to be an antagonist but he’s just a diversion. Which is incredibly frustrating. I’m also giving this movie’s casting director the side-eye for the unfortunate implications of having the only person of color with a major speaking role (Andre Braugher as Brent) as the antagonist and one who’s bumped off early on.

The real internal antagonist ends up being a religious fanatic named Mrs. Carmody. She’s played by Marcia Gay Harden and given what she’s got to work with I think she does a good job. The trouble here is that once monsters start smacking into the windows of the store and people start dying, she starts preaching. And in less than a day she manages to convert most of the people in the store to her rambling account of this being the end of days as described in the Bible. Now, I get that the point here is that people will panic in an emergency and in such a bizarre and terrifying situation as this they might well lose any sense of reason they had. Mrs. Carmody comes off as bitter and nasty and thoroughly delusional right from the start and it’s stated that she’s known for not being trustworthy. But soon she has everyone bent to her will but David and his couple of loyal friends. And it seems to happen really fast. My hands-down-favorite character, supermarket assistant manager Ollie, does get a good line about how if you put more than two people in a room together for too long they’ll look for ways to kill each other, which is why we created politics and religion. But here we only get the religion, and we get it in heavy doses right from the start.

Pretty soon Carmody is inciting her followers to form a mob and “sacrifice” people to appease the monsters and earn God’s favor (or something like that). She focuses on David’s son, Billy, and a schoolteacher named Amanda, telling her followers to grab them. If this had taken a couple more days I’d have found it slightly more realistic. Mobs form fast, but this wasn’t a mob and wouldn’t have been without Carmody and I just find it difficult to believe that this size group would all go in her direction so quickly. But they do, so our heroes have to escape. And this is why it had to happen so fast. To establish the danger from outside, the monsters have to be terrifying and pose a threat to anyone leaving. But if they’re that threatening, it won’t take long for them to get inside. Which means the threat from inside needs to form quickly as well to force the heroes out but keep them small and vulnerable. I get the structure, I just wish it was built a little bit sturdier.

Overall, really my biggest issue with this movie is that I don’t know if all the characters serve the movie well. We meet a number of different people, since it’s a fairly good-sized group in the market when the mist comes in, but we barely have time to learn their names (or not, in some cases) and maybe a factoid or two about their lives before they’re dead. The whole Brent storyline is indicative of this. There’s a bit with a cashier and her high school sweetheart, and couple of mechanics, and a biker and I feel like I’m supposed to care more about these people than I get any time to. I suspect this has to do with the original story being first person? I could be wrong, as I haven’t read the story, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was right. What I do like is the creatures out in the mist and how they remind me of the illustrations from the third Dark Tower book, The Waste Lands. That and the Dark Tower reference at the beginning make the whole movie feel like it’s a piece of that universe and even if I didn’t enjoy the movie anyhow, it would be that much more enjoyable to me on that merit.

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

Movie 385 – The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect – March 20th, 2011

We’ve had this movie for a while and I’ve been avoiding it. Back when it came out I remember seeing ads for it and thinking that the concept looked right up my alley. I do so enjoy the concept of alternate timelines and how one little difference can cascade into a huge change. But the movie also looked pretty damn dark and I could just never work myself into the right mood for it. It got not so great reviews, people have mentioned it being messy, and well, I just never got around to it. On purpose. It’s not Ashton Kutcher. I have no real issues with him, to be honest. It’s not the acting or the concept. It’s just, well, I enjoyed the ideas the movie presented, but I didn’t enjoy the movie and that’s about what I was expecting but not in so many words.

The thing about this movie is that it’s sort of taking the It’s a Wonderful Life thing and spinning it out into a whole new realm of possibilities that wouldn’t have been allowed on screen in Capra’s day. After all, no matter how horrible things seemed to George Bailey, his wife being a spinster librarian (I know I just mentioned that a few days ago but it cracks me up) is nothing in comparison to a heroin addicted prostitute. Which is what this movie presents us with as a possible outcome of changing a timeline. In order to show us just how bad tampering in the past can get, it has to go pretty dark. And then it has to go darker! It starts out bad to show us why our man character, Evan, feels like he has to go back and change things. And then it gets worse to keep Evan moving and changing more.

The movie starts out by bringing us along through Evan’s childhood where we meet his mother, find out his father’s institutionalized for an unspecified mental illness, and then meet his friends and go through a series of defining events for them. There’s an episode that’s strongly hinted at being sexual abuse at the hands of the father of two of Evan’s friends, Kayleigh and Tommy. There’s a prank gone wrong that apparently caused a great deal of damage and Evan’s friend Lenny in a catatonic state for a while. Evan and Kayleigh kiss. Tommy tries to kill Evan’s dog. Then Evan moves away. And through it all Evan has these little blackouts. He’ll come to and remember nothing of the prior few minutes. Later on, when Evan finds out that by reading his journals he can enter his past and alter his own actions we know that those blackouts signal a time when adult Evan’s been visiting.

It’s a bit of a time travel paradox, since the blackouts happen in the timeline that’s presented as being the original, but in that timeline he hasn’t changed anything so why would he have blacked out? Plotwise, the blackouts serve to tell Evan what the crucial points are that will be useful to him. I can handwave it, really. As a plot device, it works okay. It’s just that the movie gets so very dark as it goes on. And it starts with child abuse, a dead dog and a suicide, so getting worse from there? Yeah. Oh, the movie tries to trick you, initially jumping Evan and Kayleigh into a happy relationship in college where Evan’s in a frat and Kayleigh’s in a sorority and they’re madly in love. But you just know that they’re doomed. And so they are, when Tommy shows up and trashes Evan’s car, then Evan beats him in self defense and ends up in jail where more horrible things happen until he can get his journals and change something in the past. One by one he ruins his friends’ lives, then his own and his mother’s and then his own again. And then he has to figure out how to fix it.

The director’s cut ending for this movie is sort of the anti-It’s a Wonderful Life. Which I understand the point of, but I didn’t really like. Now, the theatrical ending? I can understand why it might feel like a cop out, but given just how bad some of this movie gets, it’s rather nice to see Evan actually get a life, even if it’s not the one he’d hoped to create. Oh well. Like I said, I like the concept of the movie and I liked a lot of the performances. I’ve got to hand it to Logan Lerman and John Patrick Amedori for playing the younger versions of Evan and then playing older Evan speaking through them when he goes back to change things. It can’t have been an easy thing to do and I liked the effect. So I liked the performances and I liked the concept. It’s just that the final product is, by its nature, unpleasant. Which is unfortunate but not unexpected. At least not for me.

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

Movie 369 – The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass – March 4th, 2011

It has been a couple of years since I read the book that this movie is based on and I entertained some thoughts of re-reading it before we put this in for the project. The thing is, I’ve got a lot of books on my to-read list. It’s part of my job. And they just keep coming. Re-reading something is a luxury and this book is a dense one so I never really got around to it. Still, I remember it fairly well. I certainly remember it well enough to watch this movie and feel a definite sense that something is amiss.

I feel bad about saying that, because there’s a lot of care and effort that went into this movie. It’s not a shoddily done film and there are bits that were done quite well. But it’s lacking something and it throws everything in the movie off. I think the trouble is that the book is a fairly intricate work, with a lot of threads of plot woven together and the reveals are done bit by bit, so you learn everything along with Lyra. And the movie can’t do that. It doesn’t have the time or the medium, so it has to simplify. Unfortunately it seems to have tried to simplify while also keeping all of the major plot points. That’s a problem.

The world the movie is set in is an incredibly detailed universe that’s an alternate reality to our own. And that’s set out at the beginning. That’s part of the whole plot. Some of the characters know that it’s just one of many alternate universes in existence. It’s a sort of steampunky neo-Victorian vibe and also has some magical stuff. Such as huge talking polar bears, and witches (who are never really explained but who play a key role in the final battle, but I’ll get to that). Also, and this is key, every person has an external representation of their soul. They’re called daemons and they take animal forms. Children’s daemons change shape, but they settle on one permanent form as a child grows up and their personality becomes more set. Daemons talk to their people and stay with them at all times. It’s taboo to handle another person’s daemon with bare hands and hurting someone’s daemon hurts the person too. This is all very important and it’s one of the things the movie does well. There’s some exposition, but there’s a lot more showing than telling and a lot of nice details with daemons all over the place in various forms. The only quibble I have, really is that once or twice the daemons are very obviously CGI in moments that don’t require it. Like a couple of guards with mastiffs that just stand there. Really? You couldn’t find a couple of dogs to stand there? I guess.

So we’ve got the daemons, and they’re important, but then we’ve got the dust, which is sort of like the physical representation of sin as it’s described to Lyra. But that only comes in later on and is rather clumsily handled up until then. And it’s important! Because it’s the motivation for several key plotlines! And then there’s the gobblers, who are kidnapping kids, but they don’t get a whole lot of time or explanation beyond the most cursory of lines. There are strange and mysterious things going on in the north, but we only know that because the characters all but flat out state “There are strange and mysterious things going on in the north!” Lyra’s guardian, Lord Asriel, shows up at Jordan College in Oxford, where Lyra lives, and he’s an explorer who does mysterious things. In the north. Then he takes off again after some strange and mysterious conversations. Lyra meets the strange and mysterious Mrs. Coulter, who takes her away from Jordan College with the temptation of a trip to the north. It feels like everything that happens in Oxford is all just set up to push Lyra to the north with tons of quick explanations and even quicker character development.

The thing is, once we’re in the north we get bogged down with the bears and what feels like a whole lot of empty space. I know things happened, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how it all went together to get from one point to the next. Time passed, people were introduced and then set aside, one of the witches showed up and then we didn’t really find out anything about her or what makes her important. And then? Bears. Lots of stuff with the bears. The bears fight and growl and oh it’s all very impressive, but in the larger scheme of things in this movie? It’s just plain not important. It’s not like the entire bear army shows up to help Lyra in the end. Just Iorek, whom she already knew.

Once we know what’s actually going on in the north – Mrs. Coulter and her cronies have some scheme to separate children from their daemons – there’s a big battle and well. That’s it. And I know damn well that the book went into more detail here. Leaving aside that it ends in a weird spot that isn’t where the book ends, it just feels like so much of what’s important to the book is glossed over in the movie. Oh, the separation plot point is horrifyingly done and I was genuinely uncomfortable watching it, but the purpose behind it? The grander scheme of things? It’s just not there. Same with the witches. Same with the bears. Same with everything. Because it’s all tossed in there and it’s all given a tiny bit of time. But at the expense of everything else. Everything takes away from everything. The book is a dense brick-like tome and the movie doesn’t even run two hours. So while I enjoyed a lot of the performances, and the cast is full of recognizable names, and the costumes and set dressing and cinematography and visual worldbuilding were lovely, and the daemons were well handled, the movie just doesn’t work for me. Sad, but there it is. I truly wish it had been otherwise.

March 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 332 – Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (2009) – January 26th, 2011

I have been thinking about this movie all day long. After we watched Wrath of Khan we put this in just because we wanted to see it. We’ve watched it several times. We saw it twice in the theaters. We took my mother to see it. We gave it as a gift. It was so much fun to watch tonight that if it wasn’t so late I’d start it again. And while we have three more movies in our two weeks of Trek, I feel like this is a particularly good way to end the true Star Trek feature films. It’s a great place to be sitting and I am eagerly awaiting the sequel. I like that. I like having something to look forward to.

On my review of Nemesis a friend of ours commented about not being ready to say goodbye to the TNG crew at that point and wanting them to live on in his imagination instead of getting such a “lackluster” send-off. And it got me thinking about how TNG ended with an episode planned to be a finale, and that episode leaves us with a possible future trajectory for the crew. And then the TNG movies just veered in another direction altogether after we’d really already been given our goodbye. So really, a reboot of the entire franchise is a fascinating direction to take here. It’s a transition, really, like what I was looking for in Nemesis and obviously wouldn’t have found. Using Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and an alternate timeline creation plot, there is a clear transition here from the old timeline to the new. It’s a transition on a grander scale than just changing over the crew. It’s changing the history. Letting us begin again. And while I do hope do eventually see a nod or two to TNG, I think the reboot of the original crew has plenty of mileage left before we get there.

I will admit, when I heard about the reboot I was nervous. After all, this is my childhood here. This was my introduction to science fiction – something I love dearly. This wasn’t casual for me. This was risky. And every casting decision made me arch a brow, Spock style, somewhat hesitant and more than a little skeptical. Much as I like Karl Urban and Simon Pegg, I had a hard time picturing them pulling off McCoy and Scotty. I enjoyed Zachary Quinto in the early episodes of Heroes but Spock? A superficial likeness wasn’t enough. Okay, I was totally on board for Zoe Saldana because she rocks and I knew she’d make Uhura just as kick-ass as she needed to be. But I was uncertain. And then in the bar near the beginning Chris Pine as Kirk patted a wall-o-muscle cadet on the cheek and called him cupcake and I was sold. Urban’s speech on the shuttle had me staring at him in awe and well, I should have known Simon Pegg would make Scotty his own. All John Cho had to do to convince me he was Sulu was pull out that sword and oh, Anton Yelchin as Chekhov is so earnest, I can’t help but like him. And then there’s Quinto. I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to not see Sylar. And instead I think were I to go back and watch Heroes I wouldn’t be able to not see Spock (and yes, that is a bizarre concept in my head). The cast is brilliant. They are everything I could want and nothing that I expected (except Saldana, of course).

And really, that’s the heart of the movie. The plot is a little ridiculous but the cast carries it all off effortlessly, so I’m willing to buy every single thing they’re selling. So what if the red matter is ridiculously overpowered? Who cares if Romulan mining ships could apparently totally annihilate the entire Federation if the Romulans ever sent them out instead of war ships? I find myself thoroughly ignoring all of that. It’s a combination of the cast being perfect and the writing working them in together as a team so that they’re all able to play off each other perfectly. If they’d been more split up, had less time on screen together, not been working as a crew, I don’t know if it would have felt right and without the right tone the whole thing might well have fallen apart. After all, this movie had to capture the spirit of the original show and movies with a great deal changed between them and it. There had to be a unifying tone to it all that kept it together. And with the fantastic interactions between Kirk, McCoy and Spock, plus Uhura and Kirk, Uhura and Spock (I’ll get to that too), Scotty showing up and immediately working with Kirk, Sulu and Chekhov slotting themselves right into the team, with all of that? It is a thing of beauty to watch.

But okay, I’ve waxed rhapsodic about the cast enough now. Let’s talk plot, because there are some key elements here that play into the reboot-as-transition thing I mentioned. Some time in the regular timeline, a sun near Romulus goes supernova and threatens the planet. Spock vows to try to save it using something called red matter which can apparently create black holes. But he fails, arriving too late to save the planet. Angered by the loss of his planet (and wife), Romulan miner Nero attacks Spock and both his ship and Spock’s ship end up going through a black hole and ending up in a new timeline. By arriving in the past and destroying the ship James Kirk’s father is on, Nero alters history. He vows revenge on Spock and on the Federation and plots to steal Spock’s ship when it appears and use the red matter to destroy every Federation planet, one by one, starting with Vulcan. Now, the changes here end up meaning that Kirk grows up without his father, which alters his course significantly. But things still come back. Pike captains the Enterprise. Kirk cheats the Kobayashi Maru test. Spock is first mate on the Enterprise. Uhura is there along with Sulu and Chekhov (who is only 17 at the time). Things all line back up. The timeline is trying to re-assert itself. There are tons of little callbacks and references (spot the tribble on Scotty’s desk when Kirk and Spock meet him) and Spock says ‘fascinating’ and Bones talks about being a doctor and Sulu’s got a sword and it’s all just so well choreographed without being a copy.

After all, there was no Uhura and Spock romance in the original series, but I love how it was done here and I think it adds some necessary character development for Spock and a little more material for Uhura to work with (plus it means Kirk so isn’t getting the girl in the end). Chekhov wasn’t on the ship at the beginning, but he’s right there in this movie and I think he belongs there. It’s good to see him right from the start. Kirk doesn’t start out as captain, Scotty needs to be retrieved from snowy exile after a wee transporter accident and by the end of the movie there are two Spocks and no Vulcan. And it’s that original Spock who makes this the transition. Ushering in a new era while simultaneously returning us to everything that was fantastic about the old one. It is a wonderful way to end the movies. For now.

January 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 299 – It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life – December 24th, 2010

How does one begin to review this movie? It is a quintessential classic about community and giving and sharing and family and desperation at a time of year when many people surely feel the same way. It’s certainly dated, and I find myself annoyed at it for what was acceptable at the time and is now more than distasteful. But it’s also timeless in its message and story and tone, so I can look past the dated stuff and focus on everything positive about the movie, and there is a lot of positive.

There was a time when this wasn’t a Christmas classic, but that was before I was old enough to really think about it. Now it’s one of the staples of my family. Something we can always put in around this time of year and leave running in the background even if we’re busy baking or wrapping presents or goofing off as we are wont to do. In fact, we watched this with my family this evening after Christmas Eve dinner and we spent much of the time talking and joking and looking up trivia about the movie and pointing out anachronisms and goofs and over-analyzing it and singing Buffalo Gals. I think we probably missed half the movie. I know I wasn’t watching the whole scene at the dance and only caught the tail end where George and Mary are dancing ever closer to the edge of the pool. And yet I can’t really tell where I came in, because I know the movie so well that I know how it all goes.

Do I have to describe it? This might well be the introduction of the concept of alternate universes for most people, or at least the root of other inspired works. After all, we watched a movie just last week that was clearly a take on this theme and I’ve seen it done in many more places. The final episodes of the Highlander tv series used this plot device, even. A man with a full life but also many regrets falls onto desperate times and wishes he’d never been born (thinking that everyone around him would be better off). With a little divine intervention he’s shown just how wrong he is when he sees the world as it would be without his existence. People are harsher, meaner, lost, dead, thoroughly changed in unthinkably sad ways. The world is worse off. It’s all about showing how one person can make a difference in the lives of others and not even know it.

In this, the classic version of the story, George Bailey is the main character. He’s lived his whole life in a small town and seen all of his friends leave and make big lives for themselves. He sacrifices and gives and works himself sick for the people in the town of Bedford Falls. He gives up a trip to Europe that he’d saved for. He gives up college. He gives up his honeymoon. He never gets to see the world or get out of his home town. Instead he stays and puts every ounce of energy he has into his father’s old Savings and Loan, which he is adamant the town needs so as to not become thoroughly beholden to the stingy and cruel Mr. Potter (who runs the bank). George falls in love with Mary, who’s always had a thing for him, and they set up house right there in town. But it’s one of those situations where it feels like no matter how much you give, you never get anything back and nothing goes right. We get to see George’s life and how desperate he’s been to leave and how conflicted he is about staying. When everything goes to hell and he thinks the S&L’s lost eight grand and he’ll be going to jail, well. It’s just too much. He wants to die. Worse, he wants to never have lived.

From there you know how it goes. He meets his guardian angel, who shows him Bedford Falls without him. His old boss spent time in jail since he wasn’t there to fix a mistake he made. No one knows him. Potter owns the whole town and everyone lives in shacks and slums. Violet, a woman who flirts with him outrageously in the regular world and is usually all dolled up but a nice gal at heart, is a drunk without George around. His mother is a bitter old widow who lost George’s brother as a boy since George wasn’t there to pull him out of a freezing pond. His friends are nasty and mean. And his wife? Well, Mary is… a LIBRARIAN! (Cue the gasp of horror – she even wears GLASSES!) Truly, everyone is suffering without George. And so he returns and everyone shows up to help him the way he’s helped them in the past and it all turns out just fine.

It’s a nice message, that if you give aid to others they’ll give it back when they can. It seems to me it’s a wonderful bit of Christmas spirit and puts me in mind of an incident that happened this year on this awesome blog where people started donating to other people just… because they needed it. And people who got more than they needed turned around and donated it to others. It’s that sort of message. True, in real life there are plenty of people who toil and work and give and give and give and don’t get recognized in any way. And that, I say, is a fucking travesty. Because when someone is a George Bailey, they should be recognized. But in this movie there is this wonderful ideal of community and friendship. True, it would be nice if the people who came through for George at the end had maybe been there for him more before that, but they showed up when it was needed. At Christmas. And George didn’t say he wanted to world to go back the way it was because of himself. He wanted it to go back because he knew while he was miserable, he’d truly made a difference, and other people would be happier. Again, idealized, but a nice message.

Now, there are some negatives here. The movie has a couple of racial stereotypes that make me wince, and George’s brother’s actions towards the family’s cook (an African American woman) are reprehensible at best. While there are some great lines and bits between George and Mary after the dance, his refusal to give her back her robe when she’s hiding in the bushes, ostensibly naked, makes me cringe. And his off-hand comment about the police being on his side is exceedingly gross. And Mary’s tragic alternate life as a spinster librarian always makes me laugh at its dramatic sting. But, well, time period, you know? It doesn’t make it okay, but it does explain some of where it comes from. And there are some bizarre bits that don’t seem to fit the time at all, like Mary’s line to her mother, snappily telling her that George “is making violent love to [her]” when her mother is snooping, which seems so out of place in the time. But as I said I pass over it and focus on the good stuff, like the fantastic plot and Jimmy Stewart’s amazing acting. I love him in this role. I love how desperate he is through the whole movie. How trapped he is and how he conveys it with facial expressions alone in several scenes.

It’s one of those movies people just know. It’s grown hugely in popularity to the point where it’s a cultural touchstone, and I like that. I honestly think, unfortunate racial and gender implications aside, that it is an excellent movie with wonderful acting and a fantastic script and plot. It’s quotable and easy to reference. It teaches a nice lesson that could be for Christmas or could be any time. And so it is our penultimate Christmas movie for this year. Sweet and heartfelt and a joy to watch.

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

Movie 240 – Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie 196 – Richard III (1995)

Richard III (1995) – September 12th, 2010

Would you believe that with all the Shakespeare I’ve read and seen and studied and written about, I’ve never had any contact with Richard III aside from the passing mention in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)? I’m not sure how I’ve passed it by in all the literature classes I’ve taken, but there it is. I know it’s a history and a rather nasty one. I’ve read the Henry plays (IV, V and all three parts of VI), so I’ve got a good deal of the background. And yet this is all new to me.

Really, we should have held off on this one until Tuesday night. We had plenty of time tonight and, knowing this is a long play and working off of last night’s movie, Andy was very enthusiastic about putting this in tonight. And then I checked the running time and found it’s under an hour and a half by a good deal. Damn. It’s rather put me off my game tonight, which is incredibly frustrating, mostly because this movie deserves true attention. It’s an interesting interpretation and an excellent performance with an impressive cast. So I wish I’d been more in the mood for it tonight. I’ll do what I can, regardless.

Once more we have Ian McKellen in the starring role, but this performance is far and away a different creature from the 1978 Macbeth. There are similarities in the plots, certainly. Both Macbeth and Richard III would like the throne. Both do away with those who stand between themselves and the crown. Both are ambitious. But Richard comes across as more ruthless and almost completely devoid of guilt until the very end when it manifests as paranoia. A lot of the pathos in Macbeth comes from the tolls that Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s actions take on their emotions and mental states. They break down completely, and last night’s performance showed those breakdowns in intimate and horrific detail. Richard III, on the other hand, needs no prompting to instigate his crimes. He has cold enough blood to take some of his more hideous acts in good humor, smirking about such things as his plans to marry Princess Elizabeth after having her younger brothers imprisoned and murdered. It’s a very interesting contrast, especially seeing the same actor in the two roles.

The other big difference between the two productions is the style. Where last night’s was a minimalist performance with only the actors and some simple costumes and props and an unclear time period, tonight’s is a thoroughly realized alternate 1930s England. The time period is clear through some incredibly gorgeous sets, costumes, hair styles and music, and the alternative universe aspect is shown through the obviously fascist-themed military uniforms and trappings of the kingdom. Once Richard comes into power, the visuals of his party are an obvious reference to Nazi Germany. Even the architecture is altered to a more stark look, with Bankside Power Station standing in for the Tower of London and similar other replacements. It all makes for a very rich setting that is at once historically recognizable and not of our world. A fitting alteration for a theatrical adaptation of real historical events.

I do enjoy seeing Shakespeare done by an excellent cast. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve seen some poorly done Shakespeare before. Most notably, when I spent a few weeks in England while I was in high school I saw an unfortunate version of The Merchant of Venice performed by a boys’ school. They’d chosen to place it in the 1980s and all of the boys in the cast had given themselves fake tans and adopted horrible Cockney accents. We did not stay through the performance. So it’s nice to see a truly excellent cast perform a modernized version of a play and do such an amazing job. I liked the decision to make Queen Elizabeth and her family American and was amused to see Robert Downey Jr. as her brother, playing what appeared to be an ancestor to Tony Stark. Maggie Smith delivered some really impressive lines as Richard’s mother and Kristin Scott Thomas did a wonderful job with a difficult role as Lady Anne, whose husband is murdered by Richard and who later marries him and falls into a haze of self-loathing. And then there is a host of familiar faces as the dukes and lords and knights around Richard. Tim McInnerny, Nigel Hawthorne, Jim Broadbent, Edward Hardwicke and Bill Patterson (whom I am so proud of myself for recognizing) being the ones who come immediately to mind. All of them truly inhabit their roles and the time period at the same time, lending real believability to it all.

Reading about this movie, I saw that it was based on a stage production Ian McKellen starred in and that he did a good deal of the adaptation. There are also a lot of clever little nods to the time period used and to Shakespeare (the band in the opening have music stands that read WS for William Shakespeare, for example). Of course, if Ian McKellen was deeply involved with it all, then I’m not surprised. He is an amazing and engaging actor who certainly knows the Bard well. The whole conceit of the movie is an interesting one, and while I’m sure a lot was cut out, given the length of the movie, the story itself flows quite well. It’s not at all difficult to follow and I credit Ian McKellen with making it all enjoyable. In his hands, Richard is utterly loathsome, but at the same time fascinating to watch. So in conclusion, we need more Ian McKellen movies.

September 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 54 – Watchmen (Director’s Cut)

Watchmen (Director’s Cut) – April 23rd, 2010

I will say it right up front: The thing that affects me the very most about this movie isn’t even the movie proper. It’s the opening credits montage, showing the alternate timeline the movie is set in and how the world has come to the point it’s at by the time the movie starts. I have a thing about times that have passed by. Viewing the golden years of something from just beyond it, when everything’s in decline. It’s a melancholy thing. I cried in the theater when I saw the credits for the first time and I cried watching them tonight. It was beautifully shot and beautifully edited and Bob Dylan was the perfect choice of music for it.

Beyond the credits though, there’s the rest of the movie, and that’s a little harder for me to pin down. Some of it rings true for me and some of it doesn’t. That being said, when I first saw this movie, I was dubious about the whole damn thing. The book it’s based on is so dense, it seemed like an impossible task to put it on film without destroying it. It’s a story, a history, that was a perfect fit for its original format. The backstory for the characters, the history of the world, the primary documents (news clippings, psychiatric reports, novel chapters, not to mention the Black Freighter comics), it’s all so much. The book presents everything in a sort of collage that gives the reader the big picture. But as Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. A movie is a far different medium than a graphic novel, and so it’s going to affect its content. I honestly can’t decide what I think about the effect the medium has had on the message here. It’s not bad, but it’s not the same.

All that being said, I think the movie does an excellent job with some things. It does tell the story well. A story of imminent nuclear war and heroes made powerless to stop it. A story of lives in turmoil. I’m afraid my plot summary will be sorely lacking, because there’s so much to it all. The setting is an alternate timeline where a man caught in a radiation accident was granted super powers and ended up turning the tide of the Vietnam war. So many things are different and yet close to our own timeline. The events of the movie involve a plot to bring the world together and dispose of the masked heroes who might stand in the way of the specifics of that plot. But more than that, there’s the story of Rorschach, who sees the plot for what it is, but can’t convince the others to act. There’s Dan and Laurie, both former masked heroes, and Laurie’s mother and the Comedian, members of the previous generation and they’re all connected in some way or other. And Adrian Veidt, a superhero who went public and now runs his own empires of media and energy and everything else. And there’s the story of the man caught in the nuclear accident, Dr. Manhattan, and his disconnection from humankind. Dr. Manhattan’s story is the one that hits me hardest. Him and Rorschach.

Dr. Manhattan’s story is why we picked this tonight. His backstory, narrated in first person present tense, is set to Prophecies and Pruitt-Igoe from Koyaanisqatsi. And it is perfect. The sense of impending disaster and the industry and destruction and the power mankind has at its fingertips but doesn’t truly control? It’s painfully spot-on for Dr. Manhattan and his whole arc. Next to the opening credits, it’s my favorite part of the movie. It’s beautifully done. The other two parts I love are Rorschach, Dan and Laurie in the prison, which is spot on from the graphic novel, and the very end with Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan, which has an enormous impact in just the way I want it to.

But then there are parts that leave me feeling meh. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that they’re not great. They don’t hold the spirit of the source material in quite the same way. The translation from medium to medium didn’t work so well. Part of it, I think, is that what feels like a cohesive collage in the graphic novel doesn’t feel quite as cohesive. I don’t feel like the pieces patch together to form a big picture. There are many smaller stories, and they do fit together, but it’s more like a braid where each strand remains distinct while being part of a whole. It’s hard to describe. It’s not an easy movie to watch at times, but I do enjoy a lot about it. The casting, for example, is amazing. The soundtrack, even Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, is fantastic. And like I said, there are scenes and sections that I find to be excellently done, with true emotional impact. It just doesn’t come together as well as it should. As well as the graphic novel does. It’s a pity, but I can’t say it’s unexpected. To be honest, I’m really rather thrilled that any of the graphic novel translated to film well at all.

April 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments