A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 201 – Ed Wood

Ed Wood – September 17th, 2010

Being an MST3K fan, I have seen quite a few Ed Wood movies, and not the ones that spring to mind when you hear his name. I’m talking about the ones that aren’t even campy enough to laugh at without professionals making fun of them for you. To be honest, we don’t even put in the two MST3K episodes with the “cautionary tale” type movies very often. They’re really pretty boring. Give me monster movies and cardboard gravestones any day. And that’s why movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space are the ones people associate with Ed Wood. That’s why people know his name now. That’s why this movie was made.

It is ostensibly a biopic of a period of Ed Wood’s life. Between his initial meeting with Bela Lugosi and the opening of Plan 9, to be specific. Wood, struggling to bring the stories he wants to tell to an audience (any audience) meets Lugosi by chance one afternoon. That chance meeting leads to Wood finding ways to work Lugosi into whatever projects he can. Wood makes Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 in the course of the movie and the challenges he faced to make them are really a lot of the story of the movie. The trouble was, Wood wasn’t really a great writer, director or actor. That’s a high hurdle to jump.

Watching this tonight, I felt genuine regret that I haven’t seen Glen or Glenda. Not because I’m sure it’s a fine piece of cinema, but because I have seen the other two movies featured and it’s fantastic to see what this movie does with them. Watching the filming of the octopus scene in Bride of the Monster is fantastic, and knowing that scene? It’s even better. It really does look like that! It really is that obvious! Seeing one of the cops in Plan 9 scratching his head with his gun? Yeah, that’s a common affectation for the character in the real movie. My favorite bit is the scene between the female lead and the file clerk in Bride of the Monster. Watching the movie itself, that scene is so stilted and the two actresses are so odd together. Putting it into the context of Wood’s girlfriend getting shunted to the file clerk role when Wood thought the actress who played the lead could give him some funding? It’s just great to see these moments played out. And everyone involved really nails the scenes from the movies.

I remain thoroughly impressed with every performance in this movie. Johnny Depp played Wood like a puppy who thinks that back yard desperately needed a hole dug in it and aren’t you glad he dug it for you? And you look at it and go “Holy crap, that is one horrible hole in the middle of my yard.” And you look at the puppy and go “… awwwwwwwwww.” That is Johnny Depp as Wood. Making his movies and loving every moment of them and utterly convinced the world will love them too! And as played here, you feel for the guy. His vision surpassed his skill by far. There are also some great performances by Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lisa Marie and Jeffrey Jones (and Juliette Landau, playing her role as Loretta much like Loretta plays the role of Janet, which is awesome). I love all of them. But the best of them all is Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi.

Up until his death and the filming of Plan 9 From Outer Space, the movie is more about the end of Bela Lugosi’s life than about Ed Wood. At least it is to me. Martin Landau’s performance as Lugosi is absolutely heartbreaking and his performance elevates so much of the story for me. I don’t presume to know the true nature of Wood’s and Lugosi’s friendship. I’d like to believe it was genuine in real life. But whatever the truth is, in the movie it is a friendship. Sure, Wood won’t pass up an opportunity to use Lugosi in a film, but Lugosi wants to work with him. As far as the movie’s concerned, Ed Wood cared about Lugosi as a person, as one of his idols. As a friend. And every moment between them is magic. I’m not ashamed to admit that Landau’s performance makes me tear up whenever I watch this movie. He won an Oscar for it and it’s well deserved, because he was amazing. Landau as Lugosi is vulnerable and feisty at the same time. He can hold his own on set, but he needs help at home. The scenes where he calls Wood late at night and the one where he checks into the hospital are truly emotional, which is fascinating in a movie so rooted in Wood’s own style.

The whole movie is done in black and white, which I think was a fantastic choice. It sets the mood and time period and style so perfectly. Never once did I question the setting of the movie. It all feels so perfect. So spot on. The music, done by Howard Shore, adds a lot to it all and Tim Burton really nailed the ambiance, even if it is all much smoother than Wood’s own style. But delving too deeply into Wood’s style would just have ended up looking cheap, and that’s not the point. The point was to capture the essence of it all in an upscale way. Depp’s enthusiasm as Wood, Landau’s amazing performance as Lugosi, a cast and crew who were obviously dedicated to recreating some iconic movie camp, it all comes together to create something funny and sad and cheesy. Perfect for Ed Wood.

September 17, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Ed Wood

September 17, 2010

Ed Wood

What self respecting fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 doesn’t love Ed Wood. Not this movie (though they’d probably love that too) but Ed Wood the infamous writer and director of some of the worst movies ever made. Sure there’s plenty of worse directors out there, and there are movies far worse than Bride of the Monster and Plan 9, but there’s a special charm to this schlock. And it’s a delight to see the reverence with which Tim Burton treats the source material of his somewhat farcical biopic.

Tim Burton here presents the adventures of a young Ed Wood as he makes three of his first movies and starts out his illustrious career. (For the sake of brevity it skips over Jail Bait and Night of the Ghouls in a rush to get to his grand opus – Plan 9. Which we very briefly reviewed way back near the start of our whole movie project.) The whole movie is a big sloppy transvestite kiss to all the misfits, weirdos and strange people that gather in Hollywood. In the movie (and I suspect in real life) they gather around Eddie because he’s got such passion and charm. Throughout the film he’s constantly discovering new friends in strange places. It starts with him running into Bela Lugosi and striking up what starts out as hero worship but quickly develops into a wonderful friendship. The Amazing Criswell, the most successful part of Ed’s entourage in the movie, seems to instantly understand the bizarre world that Ed inhabits. There’s Tor Johnson the Swedish wrestler who would go on to star in a real contender for worst movie ever made in The Beast of Yucca Flats. There’s Ed’s friend Bunny Breckinridge, an old queen who is by Ed’s side from the very beginning. When the whole crew is together it’s like a celebration of everything that is off-kilter in Hollywood, with the manic and enthusiastic Edward D Wood Jr. at the lead.

What really sells the movie is the collection of astonishingly talented people Burton has collected to portray this parade of freaks. Bill Murray seems to be really enjoying camping it up as Bunny. Johnny Depp is so wonderfully charming as Ed himself that you want to drop everything and be a part of his world. He’s got charisma, determination, and an almost complete inability to see what kind of movies he’s making. Of course the Oscar winning performance Martin Landau as Bela is a wonder to behold. Bela in this movie is a washed up has-been and morphine addict with no career and no friends. Since so much of the story is played for laughs it’s all the more impressive that Landau and Burton are able to insert such a tortured and tragic figure into the film.

At times I feel like Burton is cheating a little bit. So much of the humor in this movie comes from re-enacting scenes from Wood’s movies. The toppling gravestones, Tor’s complete inability to read his lines, the hilarious sets, the sad inanimate rubber octopus… these all can be seen in the original movies, and I found them funny there too. The alien’s line in Plan 9 “Your stupid minds! Stupid, stupid!” got a great laugh when we saw the Rifftrax live version of th movie in the theater. Burton even uses Criswell’s prologue to Plan 9 as the prologue to this movie. (Albeit edited down so it doesn’t include the “the future is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives in the future” bit which is heard later in the movie.) I guess it shows a kind of dedication to shoot duplicates of all these moments, providing a slightly different perspective, since in this movie we’re presented with background and motivation for this silliness. I would love to see side-by-side comparisons of the Ed Wood versions of these scenes and the Tim Burton versions.

I suspect that the real Ed Wood was not so naive about what kind of films he was making. He probably knew that his movies were not quite up to the caliber of those produced by other Hollywood directors and producers. But that never stopped him from making them. Did he have the passion and dedication shown here in this movie? I don’t know, and really I don’t care. It makes for a wonderful escapist movie. You see this and think to yourself, however wrong you may be, “hey, I could make better movies than this.” I’m almost tempted to challenge myself. In this movie Ed Wood writes the screenplay for Glen or Glenda in three days. If I had three days off in which to write a screenplay, just what would I come up with? I dare not try. My own efforts would only come off as amateurish and disappointing. I have no hope of reaching the lofty heights of camp awful that Ed was able to attain.

September 17, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Producers (2005)

August 27, 2010

The Producers (2005)

I wish we owned the original Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder Producers. I’ve seen it before of course, but it has been many, many years since I last did. I see the echo of Wilder’s performance in Matthew Broderick here (particularly when he’s shouting) but I can’t really address how this show works as an adaptation. Neither have I seen the musical on the stage, so I can’t even review it as an adaptation of the stage show. Maybe I can summon some thoughts on it as a film musical in general instead.

The plot of the musical echoes that of the movie it is based on. Max Bialystock is a down on his luck Broadway producer whose productions are famed for being unbelievably bad. Leo Bloom is an accountant who shows up one day to examine his books and comes to the realization that given a sure-fire failure a producer could raise all the money he could want and just keep the extra when the play flops. So the two of them find the worst play they can find, the worst director and the worst actors they can. The play, of course, is Springtime for Hitler, an ode to Nazi Germany during World War Two, and the rest is history. Probably the most memorable part of the original movie is the big Springtime For Hitler musical number, so it almost makes sense that Mel Brooks would re-visit the movie thirty years later to create a huge Broadway hit musical about making Broadway hit musicals.

What’s odd about the movie is that it’s a strange kind of hybrid of a stage show and a movie musical. It clearly has a much bigger budget than even a Broadway show would, but it also has a sense a lot of the time that it would rather be a stage play than a movie. For example: Max’s office, where a great deal of the action takes place, has the feel of a stage set. There is no fourth wall. Director Susan Stroman makes an effort to move the camera around and cover the room from several angles, but it never really feels like a room, because the side opposite the window is never shown. (Because it never existed in the set, I suspect.) All the furniture in the room is arranged facing towards that non-existent wall.

Some of the bigger dance numbers in the movie also feel as though they would be better on stage. In particular Bloom’s big “I Want To Be A Producer” number with the chorus girls emerging from file cabinets in his work place and the transition to the brightly lit Broadway of his daydreams is cool, but would have been cooler live.

Another example: Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick play their roles with the well-oiled ease of people who have read these lines and crafted these performances over the course of hundreds of shows. If you listen to Susan Stroman’s commentary you hear about how some of the gags in the movie evolved from flubs and ad-libs on stage that the actors chose to keep because they got a laugh. One result of this is the way they play to the camera, breaking the fourth wall to encourage a laugh. It’s a very live theater thing, and it feels odd and out of place sometimes in a movie format. Another result is that their timing is sometimes strangely… off. It was only as I was watching it again tonight that I realized that this is because they are pausing from time to time, probably subconsciously after months of practice getting the maximum audience response to their portrayals, for laughter or applause that are not there in a movie.

On the other hand you have clear attempts to make the show more Hollywood. There’s a big soundstage set of Broadway and the theater marques which is used in the opening and closing numbers and the “Break a Leg” number. And of course a few of the larger parts in the movie have been given to Hollywood talent. Will Farrell hams it up wonderfully as Franz, the author of Springtime. Uma Thurman looks to be having a terrific time playing the oversexed Ulla. Both of them are so very, very tall. Susan Stroman also tries to make the movie more movielike by shooting a couple scenes outside in the real New York and Central Park.

The end result is a movie that feels strangely fractured. At times it’s almost as though they brought a camera onto the stage at a performance of the play. At other times it feels as though it’s trying to be something bigger. I found the mix of styles distracting, which is sad because the musical itself is so much fun. I almost wish they HAD just filmed a stage show. There’s more wonder in cool practical props and mobile scenery than there is in special effects and clever editing.

I cannot find flaw with the play itself though. I can clearly see why it won all those Tonys. I bought the soundtrack right after watching the movie for the first time, and it lives on my iPod. It’s funny, irreverent, silly and basically an ode to everything Broaday. If you need more proof of Mel’s love of the theater you need look no further than the number sung over the movie’s closing credits about how there’s nothing like a Broadway show. (And once more I must admonish viewers to stay right to the end of the credits because Mel has a fun little ditty in there after the credits are over and a cameo appearance for himself.)

As a movie I can’t say if this is truly a success. It’s an odd mix of styles and at times I wished that I could have seen real Broadway performers in the roles that were given to big name Hollywood folks in an effort to make the movie more commercial. (It was a little bit like watching Ellen Degeneres dancing Alex Wong’s part in the last episode of the most recent season of So You Think You Can Dance.) If, on the other hand, this movie is intended as a love letter to Broadway and it’s supposed to make me want to turn of the DVD player and go buy a ticket for a live play or musical, well then it succeeded in that.

August 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide

August 17, 2010

When Worlds Collide

We continue our theme of celestial bodies today with the classic sci-fi adventure When Worlds Collide. This represents yet another movie that I bought on a whim in spite of never having seen it. I knew, of course, that it was a major milestone in science fiction, but I had only the most vague notion of what the movie was about.

What was odd for me was that my reaction was so colored by other films I’ve seen. In 1998 this movie was re-made as Deep Impact (one of two end-of-the-world-meteor movies that summer.) Only it wasn’t until I was watching this tonight that I realized that Deep Impact was a re-make. So I kept comparing the two movies in my head as I watched this, and had to keep reminding myself that THIS movie was the original and the other was the knock-off. The other movie I found myself comparing this one to was This Island Earth, which I have only ever seen in its MST3K form. This Island Earth came out four years after When Worlds Collide but it shares some of the same fifties technicolor sci-fi feel.

Just like in This Island Earth our hero today flies a plane. Only this time he’s no scientist (a major plot point in the movie.) He’s international courier and womanizer David Randall. Randall is tasked with bring to America a set of observations from an observatory in South Africa where a group of astronomers fear that they have discovered something dreadful. In America Randall meets Joyce Hendron, her fiance Tony Drake, and her father Cole Hendron. Joyce and Cole confirm the findings of the scientists in Africa: a pair of rogue planets are headed to Earth, and our planet is doomed.

There are a lot of plots here, all mixed up in this end of the world scenario. Dr. Hendron and his colleague Dr. Fry have a plan to build a rocket ship to bring some people from Earth to colonize the planet that is set to destroy our own. To do so he has to seek financial help, and ends up going cap in hand to the nasty industrialist Sydney Stanton, who eventually agrees to fund the expedition only so that he has a way to survive the coming apocalypse. Joyce unaccountably falls in love with David, which seems kind of odd (I guess he just has a kind of animal magnetism.) Then David actually turns out to be a reasonably nice guy, his earlier carousing and womanizing apparently having been cured by a desire to save some little part of humanity. Of course this doesn’t sit well with Tony, who also turns out to be a nice guy.

I was particularly impressed with the way that this movie attempts to be a little multi-cultural. Oh, sure, all of the lead characters and all of the technicians and scientists enlisted by Dr. Hendron to go to the new world are pasty white, but Hendron first brings his plea to the United Nations and there’s a lengthy scene where people of many races and languages debate the nature of the threat to Earth. Then as the apocalypse approaches we’re treated to news reel footage of the attempts to evacuate coastal cities accompanied by newspaper headlines in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese (I think.) For a movie made during the fifties at least there’s an acknowledgement that the rest of the world exists outside of the U.S.A.

The effects in this movie also stand out. I’ve seen a LOT of fifties sci-fi in my day, and this movie clearly had a budget to dwarf your average film of the day. There’s a couple very impressive sets for the rocket ship itself, as well as an absolute ton of great miniature work. You can clearly see the seeds of the work of Roland Emmerich here. (It’s not much of a leap from this movie to the ludicrously silly 2012.)

The movie also manages to work in some cool speculation on how people would react to such a disastrous event. The character of Mr. Burns, I mean Sydney Stanton, acts to represent the mercenary dog-eat-dog contrast to the self-sacrificing good-guys in the movie. (Note that near the end of this movie, as people are storming the spacecraft and panicking because they realize that they’re being left behind to die, there’s a considerable amount of material that Emmerich would blatantly steal for 2012.) The whole constructions and provisioning of the Arc is very quickly touched upon, but is interesting nonetheless. (Amanda was particularly pleased to see a large detail of women being put to work transferring selected books to microfilm for preservation in the new world.)

I do enjoy a good end-of-the-world movie, and this is the grand-daddy of them all. As such I’m really glad that I finally got a chance to sit down and watch it. I can easily state that its reputation as a classic and important part of the genre is well deserved.

August 17, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 160 – Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss

Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss – August 7th, 2010

I feel a little bad reviewing things like this and The Norman Conquests. This movie and those ones are favorites of my family, obtained ages ago by some means that no longer exist, and now difficult or impossible to find. But since my family loves them so, we’ve babied our copies long enough for me to grab them and include them in the project. So I’m sorry. I apologize wholeheartedly that such treasures are so hard to get, and that I am pretty much taunting you by talking about how much I love them.

I am going to guess that most people reading this have seen the classic Christmas movie A Christmas Story. You know, the one with the leg lamp and the the Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle and the pink bunny suit and Scut Farkus? Yeah, you’ve seen that. Everyone’s seen that, or at least heard of it. You can buy those lamps now every Christmas. Well, what isn’t as commonly known is that there are other movies about Ralphie and his family, based on the writings of Jean Shepherd. I’m pretty sure we happened upon this one by accident on PBS, but we were so taken with it, it became an instant classic in my family. Every year it must be watched or the summer isn’t complete. This is the story of Ralphie when he’s fourteen and how he spends his summer. It was made for tv and it stars a young but post-Stand By Me Jerry O’Connell as Ralphie. And I love it dearly.

This is a very episodic movie. While it has an overarching plot and focuses around a specific time period, it moves from vignette to vignette within that plot and time. Ralphie is fourteen here and old enough to get working papers so he can get his first job. That’s vignette number one, but set within the context of said job making it impossible for him to go on the traditional family vacation to the lake. Of course said job is horrible, and intercut with scenes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It inspires horrible nightmares and Ralphie hates it passionately. Meanwhile, the family dog goes missing and Ralphie’s mother declares that she’s not going on vacation either unless the dog is found beforehand. The dog’s name, by the way, is Fuzzhead, and the search for the dog involves Ralphie’s mother screeching it over and over. It’s not sophisticated humor, but it never fails to make me laugh my ass off. Dorothy Lyman, who plays the mother, really does a fantastic job. Much as I love the mother in A Christmas Story this version is great too. Her voice is instantly hilarious and recognizable.

I’ve always felt like the first section of the movie, with those two stories, takes a huge amount of time. Not in a bad way, but it feels like a lot happens, so it must take a lot of time. But the movie is only an hour and a half and there’s a whole later section full of little bits too. The family does end up going on vacation to the lake, staying at Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (where the cabins are named after the Dionne Quintuplets), but you don’t really see the lake. The point is the road trip to it. Along the way there’s a truck full of chickens, a motorized mini windmill, a bee in the car and some cows. But every single encounter is quietly humorous (or screechingly, if Ralphie’s mother gets excited). Everything in the movie is presented in lovingly mocking nostalgia. It’s a tribute to the classic family road trip, complete with the overpacked car full of items you’ll never use, car sickness, roadside attractions, detours to nowhere, car trouble and the inevitable sibling bickering.

The movie as a whole feels a little patchy. It moves from bit to bit not entirely smoothly, but it’s all great fun, so I’ve never so much minded that. There’s an attempt to wrap the two sections of the movie together by showing the family waking up to get on the road to Ollie’s, then backtracking to describe how the vacation almost didn’t happen. It’s a valiant effort, but ends up not really doing a whole lot other than making the movie lap itself. What really does a better job of tying everything together is Jean Shepherd’s narration. If you’ve seen A Christmas Story then you know the sort of feel it has to it. There’s a fondness for the events combined with some self-deprecating humor. The sort of humor that only comes with distance from one’s past actions. It’s told both as a heartfelt story about youthful summer vacations and how they exist as perfect in our memories even if they were anything but, and as a collection of anecdotes. It feels like the sort of thing that happens around the table at holidays in my family. Sure, we were all there that year when we rented the house with the lumpy beds and the roaches and the closet full of Nancy Drew books and the dogs got into the fridge and ate the leftover pizza. But we tell the story anyhow, because we enjoy it, and we enjoy remembering it.

Watching this with my father this evening, on my second to last day of vacation, I am reminded of many summers of my own childhood. I know my parents love this movie because many of the things in it speak to their own childhoods, even if there are a bunch of anachronisms like crock pots and mentions of Mario Andretti. I love it because it’s incredibly funny and because it’s part of my family’s summer tradition, itself a part of stories we tell and references we make (favorites include a great line about a bathmat and the bee in the car dance). Rather fitting, I think, even if it’s ushering out my vacation instead of ushering it in. It’s a nice way to remember that summer’s still got a few weeks left.

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

Ollie Hopnodle’s Haven of Bliss

August 7, 2010

Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss

Amanda and I are spending some time on Cape Cod this weekend, so it’s time for some traditional annual movie viewing. Everybody has, of course, seen A Christmas Story (which TBS shows literally twenty-four hours a day on Christmas) but not everybody has seen this other movie, also written and narrated by Jean Shepherd. As with Christmas Story this is a series of anecdotes about growing up in the fifties, this time centered on summer vacation. The irony is that the vacation spot mentioned in the title of the movie is not actually the location where most of the film takes place. Instead Ollie Hopnoodle’s is a sort of idyllic destination – the goal for which every action in the movie brings the hero’s family a little closer. It’s very much a case of the journey being more of the point of the vacation than the destination.

Just like yesterday’s movie this one is a is a quest story. It’s the story of the same family from Christmas Story (whiny little brother Randy, narrator Ralph and their parents) as they prepare for and make their epic journey to Clear Lake and the little rustic cabins of Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss. Before they can even make the trip however there are adventures to be had: Ralph gets a gruelling job hauling furniture for a beastly boss (played by writer Jean) and the family dog Fuzzhead runs off and has to be found. The family doesn’t even set of on their road-trip until the movie is about half way over.

What makes the movie great is the feel of a homespun narrative. Jean Shepherd’s homespun tales are so easy to relate to, even when the action is set in the fifties. Who hasn’t crammed so much stuff for a short vacation into a car that the vehicle could barely move? Who hasn’t gone on a long car trip with a whiny car-sick little sibling? Who hasn’t wondered about what sort of person actually buys lawn ornaments from roadside vendors? Sure the narration is the ultimate example of telling rather than showing, but that’s sort of the appeal of the movie. It’s like a guided tour of Jean’s childhood.

There are a few quotes from this movie that Amanda and I use on a pretty frequent basis. The delivery that Jerry O’Connel (as Ralph) gives to the line “Boy is it early” when the family is trying to get up to beat the traffic is perfect for just about any early morning endeavor. Ralph’s father at one point claims that he is “just resting my eyes,” which is almost a running gag with Amanda’s entire family. And for some bizarre reason neither Amanda nor I can mention a bathmat without quoting the conversation Ralph’s parents have when they’re packing the car. “Did you remember the bathmat?” “Bathmat? What do we need a bathmat for?” “I don’t know… it might be nice.” Indeed I’d say that my favorite performance in the movie is that of Dorothy Lyman as Ralph’s mother. She over-acts like crazy, but the chipper cheerfulness she displays in the face of every setback and her shrill voice never fail to amuse and charm me.

Amanda and I have watched this movie every summer since we first started dating in 1995 (and I gather that it has been a family tradition for her to watch it almost since the movie first came out in 1988.) As such the whole thing has a feel of warm familiarity to it. Knowing that I was going to be watching it again tonight I started to anticipate favorite bits in the film. The nightmare that Ralph has of the looming refrigerator. The bee in the car. The windmill and the truck full of chickens. Jean’s stories are fun tales of every-child growing up already, but when you’ve seen and heard them every summer for fifteen years or more they almost become a part of your own life. Just as for Ralph summer vacation doesn’t begin until he and his family reach Ollie Hopnoodle our vacation seems incomplete without revisiting this movie.

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

Movie 149 – Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia – July 27th, 2010

I have extremely fond memories of Julia Child from my childhood. My parents both love to cook and were always in the kitchen. Cooking shows were regular viewing in my house. Julia Child and Jeff Smith come immediately to mind, though my mother informs me now that she wasn’t too fond of Jeff Smith, he was my father’s choice. You see, I’m spending the night at my parents’ summer house and I watched this with them both tonight. I wish we could all have watched it with Andy too, but work makes things like that so difficult! I admit, my review might well be colored by my parents’ reactions to the movie. They loved it, by the way.

The book this movie is based on enjoyed a good deal of fame when this movie came out and it passed across my desk more times than I could count. Eventually a copy came through and it didn’t need to immediately head out to someone else, so I grabbed it and read it on my breaks over the next couple of days. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it as much as I did (overhype), but finding out that Julie Powell not only made references to mutant powers, but also expressed a rather hilariously dirty sense of humor immediately endeared her to me. Unfortunately, a lot of what made Julie’s voice in the book so fantastic was lost in the movie. It’s a pity, because there are glimpses of it in the Julie portions, but then, it was also unavoidable given the way the movie was put together, with half of it being given over to the story of Julia Child moving to Paris with her husband, falling in love with French food, and eventually writing a French cookbook for Americans with two of her friends there.

Through the expanded role of Julia Child’s life there’s an effort to make Julie’s life and Julia’s life mirror each other a bit, with the rises and falls moving somewhat in sync. Of course it isn’t perfect. It’s contrived. But as a movie contrivance it works okay. The only real problem with it is that, well, in the presentation of the movie, Julia’s life is simply so much more exciting than Julie’s. Let’s face it, no matter how much fun it is to watch Julie melt down over her ruined stew and floor-chicken, it’s far more fun to watch Julia experiment with making a foolproof mayonnaise. And it’s not just a matter of attitude. While Julie’s frustrated at her cubicle job, Julia’s frustrated at being stuck learning how to make hats. While Julie hates her crummy Queens apartment, Julia hates being forced to leave Paris and eventually move to Oslo. How can an ordinary woman with an ordinary life compare? Even if she is embarking on a somewhat epic quest to cook everything in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

What all this eventually does is make Julia the focus of the movie, not Julie, which changes things from the book quite a bit. Like I said, it’s unfortunate. Mostly for Julie. Sure, she has her moments in the movie, some of which are pure acting and some of which are aided by the soundtrack, like The Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’ during the lobster-murdering scene. Amy Adams does a good job with what she’s given, some of which is very cute indeed. She’s a lot cutesier than I imagined Julie being (Julie in the book is a good bit drier and not so much with the adorableness), but that’s clearly how the part was constructed. Julia, on the other hand, is, well, Julia. It was hard to remember I was watching Meryl Streep playing a role, to be honest. She had everything down, from Julia’s voice and intonation to her posture and mannerisms.

So in the end, the stories mesh well, and I have no complaints whatsoever about any of the acting. It’s a fantastically fun movie and well worth watching for Julia alone, but I can’t discount Julie. Watching it with my parents, who enjoyed it so very much, I decided to take an open-minded view of Julie’s role in the movie. Instead of looking for her as the starring role, I viewed her as how Julia is in Julie’s book: As chapter introductions and accents, bits and pieces to highlight the story the viewer/reader is focusing on. That might not be what was intended, but I think it works well that way.

July 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 128 – Back to the Future II

Back to the Future II – July 6th, 2010

Okay, so let’s address something first. Yesterday, word swept through Twitter that it was the day Doc Brown set the DeLorean for at the end of the first movie. So we said “Hey, cool, let’s put in the trilogy.” And we did. And when we got to the end we thought “Huh, that’s not right.” So I poked through the wikipedia article and found the year 2015. Yeah. In this one (and at the end of the first one) they go to 2015. Turns out it was all a mistake. Oops! But we’ve already started the trilogy so we’re just going to motor on through.

So this time we’re not going into the past, we’re headed into the future of Hill Valley. Marty, Doc Brown and Jennifer head into 2015 to keep Marty and Jennifer’s kids from going to jail. Of course, Jennifer’s only there because that’s how the first movie ended when they didn’t know they were going to be making a sequel. So she gets knocked out early on, then again later, and misses the vast majority of the movie. Lucky her.

Granted, it’s supposed to be goofy, but it’s all just a little too goofy for me. It’s also hilariously dated, given that this is 1989’s view of what 2015 would be like. I guess we’ve got five years to get hoverboards, hovercars, personal fusion engines, telephones back on street corners and 3D movies… Oh, wait. It’s just that it doesn’t work terribly well for me. This has always been my least favorite of the three. There’s the whole physical comedy aspect of it, and then there’s the retro-future thing, and then Marty’s new obsession with not being called a chicken and then there’s the convoluted back-and-forth time travel plot involving a sports almanac and Biff and changing the future. See, here’s my problem. For all of Doc’s high ideals about using the time machine to witness events and see cool stuff, he’s perfectly willing to go changing the futures of Marty’s kids for the better. So changing things is okay, but only the things Doc wants to change. But even that isn’t the big problem. The big problem is that the plot is just plain messy.

Marty goes into the future and finds out that his son and daughter are headed to jail if he doesn’t stop it, which is what Doc brought him to 2015 to do. So he stops that, but in the course of doing that, he meets up with a now-elderly Biff who sees the time machine. Jennifer wakes up and ends up back at the family house and sees that her and Marty’s future lives kind of suck. Biff steals the time machine and goes back in time to give his past self a sports almanac which will allow him to get rich, thereby altering the future. Marty, Doc and Jennifer go back to the present, but Biff’s fucked it up already and so they need to fix all that while also fixing the future. It’s got this bizarre mix of pop-fluff and dystopia. The present as ruled by Biff is pretty hateful. Like, not just unpleasant, but loathsome and full of domestic abuse and coercion. It was more than a little uncomfortable to watch.

Marty and Doc end up back in 1955 eventually, giving us the past, two presents, a future and eventually even more past to deal with. I do like an alternate timeline, but it’s all just so muddley in this. Fortunately, there is some good stuff. Michael J. Fox is, as always, fun and having a great time as Marty. And Christopher Lloyd gets to do the mad scientist thing again as Doc Brown. Truly, the very best bits of the movie are his. Thankfully the bits in 1955 are fun, like they were before. I think the root of the trouble is that they had to work off of the ending of the first movie, which established that they were going to the future, so they got stuck with that. But then they wanted to go back to where the heart of the first movie was and that meant using Biff to tie it all together. Since I find Biff odious on a much deeper level than I think the movie really intended, I’m not that thrilled with that.

And then Biff gets ditched and things don’t get tied up and there’s a cliffhanger and the promise of a part three in the old west. As if we didn’t have enough plot to follow.

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

Back to the Future II

July 6, 2010

Back to the Future II

As with many sequels this movie tries too hard. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on, and it doesn’t all make much sense. Actually I’ve always felt that this movie is three movies. Which is why it feels so convoluted and uneven.

First there’s the future – which was set up at the end of the previous movie. Marty and Doc go into the future to stop Marty’s son from going to jail. There are a whole lot of jokes about what the future will be like, which were goofy at the time but are even stranger now, just five years before 2015, which is the year they go forward to. We don’t have hoverboards or hover cars. We don’t have universal thumbprint identification. We do have 3-D movies but they’re not holographic.

There’s also an awful lot of product placement in the future segment of this movie. Pepsi, Nike, Pizza Hut and Texaco all get big promotional plugs, and they don’t feel subtle or understated either. It’s almost as bad as the Taco Bell plug in Demolition Man (famous for being re-shot in different markets to promote different products.)

It’s all played for laughs of course, but the plastic fantastic future of the movie was never my favorite part.

Then we go to a horrific apocalyptic 1985. This is the real set up for the movie. It’s also where the movie starts to suffer from sequelitis. In the first movie Marty is trying to get his parents together to keep from going out of existence. In this movie his motivation is to prevent this awful alternative present from coming into being, so the film makers have to sell us on just how much is at stake. I understand that perfectly well, but even so I think they go a wee bit overboard. The “bad” 1985 is a war torn gangland full of biker gangs and armed school proctors where Marty’s father is dead and Biff has married his mother. It doesn’t have many laughs, and even those that they try to insert don’t work too well. (Such as Lorraine’s grotesque fake bosom.)

Which (finally) leads us to the third portion of the movie where Marty and Doc go back to 1955 to steal back a sports almanac from the future that Biff has back then. This is when the movie actually begins to get good and work as a proper follow up to the first movie. The final act of this movie takes place in and around the climactic events of the first movie, and all the best parts involve action from the first movie happening in the background and foreground as we see things from a slightly different angle. It’s very much Robert Zemeckis in his own element as he does all sorts of clever green-screen and split-screen setups to get multiple versions of Marty, Biff and the Doc all to meet up with each other.

I do enjoy the whole quest for the almanac with its twists and turns and back and forths and bits of misdirection. Ultimately however it is all too quickly over. After all the build up of the first two thirds of the movie the payoff seems almost too short. And of course the last few minutes of the movie are all the set-up for the final movie in the trilogy with Doc Brown trapped in the old west. So even after the climax of the movie when the major trouble with the alternative present have been solved you end up feeling let down.

There’s some cool stuff in this movie, but ultimately it’s just not as fun as the first or third films. Second movie syndrome.

I am, however, very curious about the implied missing time with Doc Brown between the first movie and the second. It’s intimated through things like his “emergency money” fund (a briefcase with bills from all sorts of different times) that the Doc has been busy exploring all over the place before coming back to get Marty. I’d kind of like to see the “Doc Brown Adventures” as he goes from time to time correcting wrongs and being generally outrageous while doing it. It could be a whole television series. I think I’d really like that.

Oh, Wait. They already have that show. It’s Doctor Who. And, yeah, I love it.

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

Movie 127 – Back to the Future

Back to the Future – July 5th, 2010

I am going to begin by promising I am not going to go getting mired down in paradoxes and plutonium and all the nit-picky things that are obviously going to come up in a movie about time travel. Too easy and also too complicated and I don’t want to spend the whole review going “But wait, if Marty… huh…”

So, obviously this is the 1985 time travel classic starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and the coolest DeLorean ever built. Fox plays Marty McFly, a teenager whose eccentric friend, Doc Brown (Lloyd) invents a method of time travel and who accidentally ends up getting stuck in the past, messing up the future, and then having to fix it. The conceit of the movie isn’t just the time travel and Marty being totally out of his element in 1955, it’s the whole thing with Marty meeting his parents as teenagers and getting all mixed up in the beginning of their relationship.

You can’t think too hard about the whole thing. It’s a movie about a time paradox, what with Marty messing up how his parents met and slowly erasing his and his siblings’ existence. Which we’re shown through the oh-so-clever device of a photograph of Marty and his siblings in which each member of the family fades out from the top down. Very specific paradox, you see. And as I said, I’m not going to get mired in the specifics of it. If you poke it too hard, it’ll pop. This isn’t supposed to be hard sci-fi full of nuts and bolts and real scientific theory mixed in with the technobabble. It’s supposed to be a fun movie about a kid meeting his own parents and having to get them together, with a ridiculous and over-the-top time machine as the gimmick. And it succeeds at that quite admirably.

Most of the movie takes place in 1955, with a good deal of humor coming from Marty’s “futuristic” 1985 clothes and his requests for Tab and Pepsi Free, and his utter shock at meeting his parents and then his horror when his own mother falls for him. It’s the whole fish-out-of-water routine, and Michael J. Fox plays it to the hilt. Of course, he’s given some fantastic – if cheesy – stuff to work with, like the bit where he invents the skateboard and when he plays guitar at the dance. But through it all he has this great look of wonder and horror and confusion on his face, like he can’t quite decide between the three. The whole middle chunk of movie is pretty much played for laughs, but also some light tension with Marty and Doc Brown trying to fix what Marty messed up as well as time things right to get Marty back to 1985.

Now, Doc Brown is really the star of the movie. Aside from the DeLorean, of course. Christopher Lloyd does a good bizarre character (and I’ve got to note here that the Oscillation Overthruster from Buckaroo Banzai – which Lloyd is in – was modeled after the Flux Capacitor in this movie) and Doc Brown is one of the best. Wild-haired and all big over-blown gestures and impossible ideas, Doc Brown is the quintessential friendly mad scientist. When confronted with Marty in the past, while he’s initially skeptical, once he’s brought around he throws himself completely into the whole thing. There is no half way for Doc Brown. How on Earth did Marty even make friends with him in the first place? Well, probably because Doc Brown looked him up, right? After all, they met in 1955.

Remember, don’t think too hard about it. It’s a paradox. But it’s also a fluffy paradox. In this, the first movie of the trilogy (which wasn’t intended to be a trilogy at the point when it was made), the dire consequences of time travel are all dealt with in under two hours of screen time. Sure, the end hints at something horrible in the future but as far as the bulk of this movie is concerned, time travel makes everything fan-fucking-tastic! Marty’s father has been transformed from a weenie who lets his supervisor push him around at work into an author who gets things done. His mother’s drinking problem is non-existent and she likes Marty’s girlfriend all of a sudden! His siblings are productive members of society and he’s got his very own 4×4. Time travel will solve all your woes! But only if you’re Marty McFly.

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