A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Pacific Rim

When I was in second grade all the children in the yard during recess were Jedis, Smugglers or Princesses. This year I predict that every second grader at recess will be a Jaeger Pilot. Fantasy/horror artour and filmic visionary Guillermo Del Torro has wonderfully crafted the perfect fantasy adventure for this generation, and it was a delight to see what he can do with a truly big budget summer blockbuster. 

Like Star Wars back in my youth this is a familiar feeling fantasy adventure that takes fondly remembered tropes and vividly re-creates them with a giant budget and the best visual technology of the modern day, except that whereas Star Wars was an homage to the sci-fi serials of bygon days (particularly Flash Gordon) with a smattering of Samurai thrown in (mostly The Hidden Fortress) this movie takes its inspiration from the Japanese Kaiju monster movies that I so loved as a child and the many Mecha anime that came from that same country. It’s easy to see Godzilla, Rodan, Neon Genesis, Big O, and so many other familiar things that contributed to this movie.
The whole project has a familiar and well worn feel to me. The plot (involving a dimensional rift under the Pacific Ocean that unleashes giant monsters on the world and the giant mechanical warriors the world builds in response) offers nothing particularly revolutionary or new. The one gimmick that really sets it apart is a clunky bin of whimsy that has it established that piloting a giant robot (a Jaeger in the world’s parlance) is too taxing a job for a single human being so two or more pilots must work in tandem to fight effectively. This makes no logical sense, but it drives the plot and stresses the whole “only together can we win” feel of the film. Really, if to demand logical sense from a movie about giant monsters and robots beating each-other up this might not be the movie for you.
It IS, however, the movie for me. For anybody who wants a simple summer smash-em-up with a kind heart and a familiar tone. It’s very appeal to me lies in its simplicity.
Amanda and I have a large collection of “comfort movies” that we can turn to after a stressful day. Films like The Princess Bride or Buckaroo Banzai that we can put on any time and watch again and again. So simple and familiar are the plot and characters of Pacific Rim that I felt as though it was a comfort movie on my very first viewing. All these people are so instantly familiar. The hard-nosed military commander with a heart. The capable but insecure co-pilot with a mysterious past. The head-strong young pilot who fights with the protagonist but will come to depend on him. Even the characters themselves at times seem to know exactly how the world they inhabit works, as when the disillusioned pilot who is Earth’s last hope flat out asks his commander why he is not paired with the candidate that is CLEARLY most qualified.
Even on that first viewing this movie felt like coming home. It’s like Del Torro drifted into my mind and made a movie for that seven year old kid who used to try to use the force to move rocks on the playground. A riotous delightful celebration of everything that epitomizes cool and awesome. I mean. Giant monsters fighting giant robots. What more do you need?

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July 13, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

Movie 529 – Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone – August 11th, 2011

Honestly? I’m not even sure how to start to review this. Mostly because it’s a re-do of a series that I would never have attempted to sum up in a short space. But also because I feel like there’s no possible way I have anything new to say about this. The series this is based on has been around for a while and it’s rather famous for its bizarre ending and heavily allegorical plot. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said a million times before by hundreds and thousands of anime fans? Nothing, that’s what.

It just feels silly, trying to recap the plot here, but then that is something I do have to say about this. It’s been a very long time since I last watched the Evangelion series but while watching it I remember feeling like there were always things I was missing. Meaning I should have gotten but which turned out not to be revealed until much later on. At first it’s basically a monster of the week sort of deal, and only later do we find out that there’s a hell of a lot more going on. In this movie remake the same events take place, but with more of the overall plot incorporated into them. Or at least that’s what I’m assuming. Like I said, it’s been quite some time.

I first watched the Evangelion series when I was in college. I’m fairly sure it was during my sophomore year, because I can remember the apartment Andy was living in at the time and the way it was set up. We grabbed the episodes two at a time from the video store we were working at and watched them every night for a while. It’s not one of those series that went on and on forever, but it’s not a concise miniseries either. To be honest, it’s very much like The Prisoner to me: Full of lots of allusions and messages and purpose, then ending in a blaze of what the ever loving fuck. And I don’t dislike what-the-ever-loving-fuck endings, but the series seemed to have spend so much time on the build-up that it just felt odd. I can’t speak to how this movie series will play out, but at least the beginning feels a bit more cohesive.

As in the series, our hero here is young Shinji, who’s been away at school for a while and is pretty convinced his father doesn’t care about him in the least. He’s wrong, but not in a comforting sort of way, because his father does care but as far as this portion of the plot is concerned he only cares that Shinji has the ability to pilot a giant mech called an Eva. And the Evas are needed in order to defeat a series of giant attacking monsters called Angels. So Shinji’s father cares that Shinji is now useful, but other than that he’s pretty distant. Which leads to the immense amount of whining Shinji does throughout the story. Shinji is famous for his whining. And you know, if the fate of the world wasn’t at stake, I’d be a lot more forgiving of his daddy issues. His daddy is a remote jackass and at least in the series it becomes clear he’s also pretty creepy. So I’d totally let Shinji’s whining go, but it’s so ever-present that it feels egregious, and this is not something that this movie fixes. Even knowing that a lot of what Shinji is whining about is perfectly valid, I still rolled my eyes.

So Shinji shows up in Tokyo and is immediately told that he’s not there for a loving reunion with his father but is needed to pilot a giant mech he’s never seen or heard of before and oh yes, he needs to do that right now because an Angel is approaching the city. The only other Eva and pilot in the area are disabled due to an accident and so it’s up to him. Is it any wonder that he has trouble piloting the damn thing? The Angel kicks his ass, at which point his mech goes berserk and freaks out, giving us a clue that maybe the Evas aren’t really just big suits of armor. There are other clues by the end. It’s made clear that there’s a much deeper game going on, with something imprisoned deep down under the city, even below the fortified underground space where the city exists when it’s all been retracted during an attack. It’s clear that Things Have Happened and will continue to happen. And it’s clear that there’s a lot that isn’t clear.

Really, I’m not sure what else to say here. I’m watching this movie somewhat tainted with a years-back experience watching the series it’s based on. Of course that’s bound to color how I see the movie itself and I freely admit that I am a biased viewer. I know a lot of what isn’t revealed in this movie, so perhaps my knowledge of what’s to come is affecting how I see what was revealed. I know the natures of some of the characters a little better. I know the ending, such as it was when I watched it way back when. Ultimately, I came out of this movie having enjoyed it, and it was certainly nice to see a good quality version with what were likely updated effects. But I also came out of it wanting to rewatch the series to check myself and my perceptions of it. I don’t know how someone with no prior knowledge of the story and universe would react to it. Perhaps it would be an easier sell than the series. Or perhaps it’s just as incomprehensible, just in slightly different ways, and if you’re going to enjoy it you’ll enjoy it either way and likewise if you’re not going to enjoy it. I wish I could review it better, but like I said, I’m sure other people have already done so.

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

Terminator Salvation

June 24, 2011

Terminator Salvation

Well this is an appropriately titled movie. After yesterday’s disappointing mess I was ready to give up on Terminator movies for good. The second movie was fun but didn’t hold to the spirit of the first as much as I would have liked. The third was a re-hash that desperately wanted to revive the franchise but instead completely destroyed it in my mind. This movie is the salvation of the series, no doubt about that.

This is one of those movies, from a pre-production and writing standpoint, that should not have worked. Anything with this many people brought in to polish and adapt the script before it starts filming is almost guaranteed to be awful. Neither was I much excited by the “from the director of Charlie’s Angels” pedigree. Add to that the negative press from Christian Bale’s infamous on-set tirade and you have all the ingredients of a film that is doomed before it’s even in the can. So how on Earth does it work so well?

I think this movie succeeds on two essential and contradictory levels. It manages to take the series in a new direction while still paying homage to its roots. The new direction is into the post apocalyptic future. This movie follows the adventures of John Connor after the bombs have already fallen. Judgement Day is now the past and the war between the machines and man is well under way. This movie takes place ten years before the first time travel that sends a terminator and a human back in time to attempt to kill John’s mother before he is conceived. Connor is not leader of the resistance, he’s just a lieutenant, but he is a strong voice and respected throughout the organization. During a raid on a Skynet facility the resistance comes across a potential tool that may help them gain an edge on the machines – they have discovered what they believe is a signal that can disrupt Skynet’s controlling signals so effectively that they may be able to actually remotely shut down the H.K.s and other threats that endanger human kind. Naturally John wants to be a part of testing this new weapon.

At the same time John is concerned because he has not yet met the young man who he knows he will one day send back in time to defend his mother. Kyle Reese – when he grows up – will be John Connor’s father in the past. Somehow Skynet knows this (the movie never makes it clear how) and the machines are bent upon finding both John and Kyle because they fear that if they don’t stop John soon he will turn the tide in the war. The machines know that if they can find and kill Kyle while he is young and inexperienced and before he goes back in time that will eliminate John Connor as well – thus altering the course of the entire war. It’s a twisted kind of logic but I suppose it works.

Then there’s the third player in this film. There’s a convicted criminal who was put to death by lethal injection back before the war. A murderer named Marcus Wright who had donated his body for medical research to Cyberdyne. At the start of this movie he inexplicably wakes up in the wasteland. Clearly he is a terminator, but he’s a strange new kind. One with human organs who actually believes that he’s not a machine. The mystery, and what really sets this movie apart from its predecessors, is just what purpose he serves. Why did Skynet build a terminator that thinks it is a man?

I enjoy all the little nods to the earlier films. Even the third movie, awful pile of stupidity that it was, becomes more bearable in hindsight when Connor’s wife Kate appears, linking this movie to that one. The movie manages to acknowledge the earlier films with little in-jokes like the repeated lines “I’ll be back” and “come with me if you want to live” without descending to the level of camp that Rise of the Machines sank to. It even has a young Schwarzenegger doppelganger for Connor to do battle with – which is pretty awesome.

What a great cast too. I’m still not convinced that Christian Bale was the perfect casting for John Connor as he rises to meet his destiny, but he surely is fun to watch in the part. He’s able to wonderfully portray the angst and uneasiness that comes of knowing his entire life that he will somehow lead humankind to victory in this war but not knowing how. At the same time he’s a capable action star, taking the fight to the machines and proving that his lifetime of training was effective. Sam Worthington is the actual heart of the film as Marcus Wright, the tortured man who discovers that he is a machine. In supporting roles there’s Anton Yelchin as young Kyle, Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate and the awesomely named Moon Bloodgood as Blaire Williams, a resistance fighter who befriends Marcus. I even got Tim Burton flashbacks with Helena Bonham Carter’s cameo role and Danny Elfman’s score.

This movie works surprisingly well on so many levels. It’s got some fairly heavy-handed stuff about what makes us human (which feels layered on a little thick but works with the tone of the movie.) It’s got plenty of action and car chases and shoot-outs and explosions. It actually shows a part of the story of John Connor’s life that hasn’t been done to death completely already. I’d say that in just about every respect it is my favorite terminator movie since the first one, and now I’m actually looking forwarded with guarded optimism to the next movie in 2014.

McG – I apologize most of all to you for underestimating your action film-making talent.

June 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

June 23, 2011

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

I bought this when it first came out on DVD but never watched the whole thing. It’s not that it’s a bad movie – it’s just a pretty stupid movie. And a wholly unnecessary one. It’s full of ludicrous physics, convoluted plot machinations (necessary in order to force a sequel) and self-referential jokes based on the other two movies in the franchise.

This movie spends a lot of time feeling like a re-hash of the first two films. Once again a pair of warriors are sent back through time, one of them with the mission of killing the leaders of the future human resistance and one with the mission of defending them. John Connor in this movie is a wandering vagabond, living on the road and staying off the grid because he doesn’t really believe that Judgement Day has been averted (even though the movie takes place in 2004 and Judgement Day was supposed to happen in 1997.) Skynet doesn’t have an established location for him so it sends its new terminator (a T-X this time) to assassinate John’s lieutenants.

By amazing co-incidence one of those lieutenants is a mild mannered veterinarian who in her youth used to be in the same high school class as John, and he actually breaks into her clinic to steal medical supplies (since he’s all about staying out of hospitals and stuff) right before the T-X and T-101 show up to kill/save Kate Brewster. The movie makes some noise about how this meeting was “fated” to happen – in the same way that Judgement Day is inevitable and was only postponed when John, Sarah, Dyson and the T-101 blew up the research facility in the second movie. That’s just sloppy writing in my opinion. Part of what made the first movie so cool to me was that things weren’t fated to happen – they happened the way they did because it was a single coherent time loop – the future had already happened by the time Reese and the T-101 came back to set it into motion. John Connor is the savior of human kind because his mother raised him to be that, and she never would have raised him that way if she hadn’t been turned into a hardened warrior by her brush with the first terminator. I enjoy a self perpetuating future. I do not enjoy “fate” quite as much.

I didn’t finish writing this review last night before going to bed, meaning that I’ve had an extra twelve hours or so to ponder the movie after watching it, and the result is that I’ve found myself coming to a strange realization about this movie. It is a prequel. It is an origin story that explains how the war between man and machine came about. Like most prequels it thrives on references to the movies in the original time line and cameos. In some cases this is pretty annoying – such as when the naked T-101 goes in search of clothes after arriving in the past, or when Earl Boen reprises his role as Dr. Silberman from the first two films but mainly as comic relief and not as an actual character. In some cases it is kind of fun, such as when we see prototypes for the H.K.s of the future being developed by the human military. Ultimately, though, this movie has that big problem which is common to so many prequels, which is that is is more concerned with shoe-horning the origin story into the movie than with actually developing the characters we’re watching. (I will point here to the recent X-Men: First Class as an example of the exception that highlights the rule.) If the main reason your whole movie exists is to re-start a franchise, then it had better have something compelling to add to that franchise and not be, as this movie is, a loose collection of action scenes intended to lead up to one (admittedly kind of cool) twist at the end.

The movie had a pretty major hurdle to overcome right from the very start because Linda Hamilton had chosen not to return as Sarah Connor. Sarah was the best part of both of the first Terminator movies with her arc from unambitious waitress to female warrior and then her descent to near murder before her eventual redemption. Without Linda this movie suffers a great deal (and to add salt to the wound her character is relegated to an ignoble off-screen death.) I do appreciate the casting of Claire Danes as Kate, but although she does have a kind of similar evolution to Sarah (from veterinarian to machine-gun-toting bad-ass) the movie doesn’t give her enough motivation to really explain why. Sarah defeated a terminator and lost her true love – Kate just gets kidnapped and thrown around a lot.

I also felt absolutely no connection to Nick Stahl as John Connor. It’s not really his fault I suppose. The movie has a bad case of telling instead of showing and his character is introduced mostly through a couple voice over monologues that simply fill in what’s been up since the last movie. He spends the entire movie whining about not wanting to be the savior of the human race and not understanding why it’s his responsibility. The movie tries to answer that question to some degree, but mostly he comes across as an annoying twerp.

Then there’s the T-X. I suppose that if you’re going to follow the formula established by the first two movies you need to create a new and more dangerous terminator to do battle with, but the super powers of this one push the boundaries of credulity. I had issues with the way that the T-1000 in the second movie could supposedly copy anything it touched (such as when it copied a security guard in the asylum from having contact with the sole of his shoe.) It was an ability that didn’t make any sense, but since the whole point of that villain was to push the boundaries of modern special effects (because apparently that’s James Cameron’s thing) I was willing to overlook it. The magical ability of the T-X to convert police cars and ambulances into remote-control vehicles, however, completely threw me out of the movie. It’s not even remotely believable. I can buy a time-traveling killer robot with a meat disguise. I can even overlook a liquid metal machine that needs to touch something to morph into it. I can’t accept remote controlling a car without installing servos or anything.

So, yeah, this movie was sad and disappointing for me. It’s a big stupid action movie that feels cheaper than its predecessors (although it supposedly cost almost twice what the second movie cost.) It relies too heavily on being cute or funny and not enough on being cool. Most of the action has a very been-there-done-that feel to it, since they are re-hashes of better done action scenes in the first two movies. (Really, the graveyard escape is the same scene as the research lab escape except that it has fewer cops, no explosion and no helicopter. Why do I want to watch that?) There are a couple interesting ideas in here – such as the shocking revelation that the T-101 in this movie is the very one that killed John Connor in the future after he had already won the war – but they are buried in all this uninspiring and poorly written garbage.

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

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

June 22, 2011

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

I have to admit that I’ve never liked this movie as much as the first Terminator. I know it has more than five times the budget of the first movie and much better special effects and bigger action, but I’ve always felt that it lacked the edge of the first movie. It’s more of a summer blockbuster popcorn flick and less of a tightly wound sci-fi thriller. I was, in fact, pretty astonished when looking at the info for the movie as we watched it tonight and found that it was rated R – in my mind I remembered it as being a more family-friendly PG-13 type movie: ideal for drawing the maximum possible audience. It also irritates me that my favorite part of the forst movie – its circular and self fulfilling time line – had to be sacrificed to provide the motivation for the second act of this movie.

What this movie does have, and what mostly makes it worth watching for me, is Linda Hamilton reprising her role as Sarah Connor from the first movie. This movie picks up nine years after the first one. Sarah is in an insane asylum because she can’t stop ranting about the impending end of the world and the terminator that killed the father of her child. Even worse, her nine year old son John is living in foster care, un-protected out in the world with foster parents who are kind of dinks. Being raised by an apparent crazy woman who taught him his entire life about strategy, weapons, demolition and militias has left John somewhat mal-adjusted himself. For all his knowledge though he’s just a boy and he doesn’t really believe the fairy tales his mother told him in his youth about Skynet and the terminators and judgement day. He’s not prepared, therefore when a second terminator is sent through time to kill him.

This time it’s a more advanced machine – a living metal beast that can morph into any form and is even more indestructible and unstoppable than the old 101 model Terminator from the first movie. I think that the mimetic poly-alloy T-1000 is my first problem with the movie. It makes for a whole lot of very cool special effects, but it’s a little cartoonish when compared with the brutal and gritty first Terminator movie. Robert Patrick’s performance is creepy, but he never feels menacing in the way Arnold was in the first movie. Maybe it’s that he has eyebrows. I don’t know.

The corresponding problem is that now the T-800 played by Arnold Schwarzenegger is now the good guy. I love the concept of two terminators going toe-to-toe because it’s a great way to amp up the action of the series, but to make the implacable and emotionless foe of the first movie into a surrogate father figure and at the same time make him the obsolete and the under-dog really weakens the whole franchise in my opinion.

So I just ignore all that. I ignore the FX for FX sake. I ignore the now mortal terminator. I concentrate instead on the explosions and the action and on Linda Hamilton. This is her movie, as far as I am concerned. She is unbelievably buff. She is so invested in the character. The best moments in the entire film for me are when she knows that a second terminator is out there hunting her son and she is suddenly all determination and terror. She even is able to sell the notion that Sarah is practically a terminator herself. Once she and the terminator have managed to get John out of danger she hies off to attempt to change the future herself, trying to turn the tables on Skynet and prevent its birth in the way that it tried to stop John’s.

I might be giving the impression that I don’t like this movie, and I don’t want to do that. It’s a fantastic action movie. It has explosions and shoot outs and car chases and time travel, just like the first movie. It may have some problems that result in my not liking it quite as much as I like the first movie, but then again the first Terminator is one of my favorite sci-fi films of all time. This movie, well it’s just good fun. It’s better than most action movies and it’s one of those oft-lampooned iconic action milestones with all its digital effects, it’s just not as good as the first.

June 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Terminator

June 21, 2011

The Terminator

This is one of my favorite sci-fi action films of all time. I was way too young to see it when it came out in 1985 – I was a sensitive thirteen year old and the blood and gore of this movie would have been too much for me. When I finally did see this on VHA, probably about three years later, it was mind blowing for me. Oh, I was still pretty freaked out by some of the gore (such as when the Terminator cuts into its own arm and removes its eye) as this was probably only the third or fourth R-Rated movie I ever saw, but I simply couldn’t look away – the movie is so incredibly awesome.

This movie has everything a sixteen-year-old boy could want in an action movie. Explosions, gunfights, car chases, time travel, an apocalyptic future, and a sex scene. How could it not leave an indelible impression on me?

The plot of the movie is fairly straight forward. Two warriors have come back from a post-apocalyptic future where machines have been trying to wipe out humankind. One is a T-100 series Terminator – a machine built by Skynet to infiltrate human colonies and wipe them out. It has a flesh and blood exterior, but inside it’s an unstoppable killer with only one purpose: to kill Sarah Connor. Her unborn son John, you see, is the leader of the human resistance which is on the verge of wiping Skynet out once and for all after decades of war. The other time traveler is Kyle Reese, a fighter hand-picked by John Connor to protect his mother and preserve the future. That’s pretty much the whole movie right there (except for some cool time-travel stuff that is revealed at the very end.) A simple man trying to defend an unsuspecting waitress from the most single-minded killer of all time.

I think that part of what makes the movie work so well is that it’s so brilliantly simple. We get a little plot exposition here and there – a few glimpses into Reese’s past (which is in the future) – and there actually is some romance and connection between Kyle and Sarah – but it’s mostly just pure action. This is the movie that proved that James Cameron knew action blockbusters better than just about any other director in Hollywood. It’s amazing to think that this was his first big break-out hit. (Though we still have the first feature film he directed waiting in the stacks here to be reviewed.)

Cameron knows how to build to a crescendo. He knows how to do an action set-piece (like the iconic police station shootout.) He knows how to inject just the right amount of humor (the gun merchant for example) or pathos (Reese’s recollections of the future.) And of course the stubborn refusal of the Terminator to stay dead at the end of the movie is the very blueprint from which many future movies would be drawn, including Cameron’s own Aliens.

Amanda commented on how well the special effects in this movie have aged, and she’s right. This movie uses every trick in the effects grab bag of the pre-digital era including miniatures, animatronic puppets, fantastic make-up (Stan Winston of course) and stop-motion animation. Sure most of the time you can spot the tricks, but they still look good enough to be believable. Part of the charm of the movie for me is figuring out how it was done anyhow.

The script is extremely polished, with the time-travel aspects better handled than just about any other movie with the possible exception of 12 Monkeys. It’s just so perfectly put together, from the photograph of Sarah that Reese has in the future to the very concept of the terminators themselves, and the explanation for why no futuristic technology could come through. I love absolutely every performance in the movie too. Michael Biehn would of course work multiple times with Cameron again in the future. Arnold Schwarzenegger was already well known at this point of course for his iconic performances in Hercules in New York and Conan the Barbarian, but this was the movie that established him as an action super-star complete with catch phrase. And Linda Hamilton gave the movie a much needed human touch as the girl being hunted who has to figure out in a very short amount of time how to defend herself.

From Brad Fiedel’s percussive score to Arnold’s accented monotone to the above average special effects to the tightly written plot everything about this movie raises it above the average eighties action movie fare. No other action movie before or since in my experience has done everything so perfectly right. Though James Cameron sure has tried a few times. We’ll look at one of those attempts to replicate the success of this movie tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

May 4, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie 405 – Appleseed: Ex Machina

Appleseed: Ex Machina – April 9th, 2011

After last night’s talk-fest I admit I was nervous about tonight’s movie. I didn’t have any time today to look at the books (I barely had time to breathe today, it was so busy at work) so I didn’t have that to quell my fears. Fortunately, they turned out to be unfounded. This movie is everything I wanted from the first one and didn’t get and I’m hoping that it’s a more accurate representation of the world and feel of the books on which it’s based.

The movie starts out with Deunan and Briareos on ES.W.A.T. already and we aren’t treated to endless static exposition. Instead the vital information about the city of Olympus and how it’s this bastion of hope for humanity and inhabited by engineered bioroids as well as regular humans is delivered quickly and succinctly with additional details being included in the story itself. It’s a hell of a lot more elegant and certainly more interesting to watch. Honestly, I think I could have watched this one first and gotten as much information about the world as I did last night.

One thing I really enjoy about this movie is that the emotional thread is woven into the plot right from the start and it has to do with Briareos and Deunan. Last night one of my criticisms was that the amount of plot exposition impeded the rest of the movie’s story. It ended up making the emotional impact decidedly weak and the character of Deunan unexplored. Here? We see her having some nice interaction with Briareos right from the start, so when they’re split up when Briareos is taken down in a fight I felt like it really was a big deal that ES.W.A.T. assigned Deunan a new partner. Even more so when said partner turns out to be a bioroid made with genetic material from Briareos, so he looks like Briareos did before he had to go full cyborg. That right there gives the movie some emotional tension and character dynamics that play out through the whole thing while never taking it over.

The rest of the plot focuses on the security of cyborg parts and a mad scientist’s plan for uniting the world through mind controlling bits of tech. I’ve seen this sort of plot before several times but I still like how it’s done here. Of course, both movies had a Chekhov’s Gun situation going where something seemingly innocuous was prominently introduced and mentioned so you know damn well it’ll come back later. But I can forgive that. I liked how the whole issue of control over one’s body and what makes someone human and worthwhile was all worked into the larger action plot. I liked that it figured directly into the relationships between Briareos, Deunan and the new partner, Tereus. It certainly made the movie more engaging to watch.

The action’s fun too, and a lot more involved than the first movie. It’s nothing totally new, and the final battle seemed to crib a bit from the Matrix movies, but the dynamics of the characters involved made it interesting. And it’s well done. I don’t mind some stylistic mimicry if it can be done in an engaging way, which this was. All the battles were. The fight between Briareos and his stand-in partner, Deunan facing off with a construction mech, it was all fun and I didn’t feel like it took a year of dialogue to get from scene to scene.

I feel like I’m doing a review by comparison, but I also feel it’s necessary. If you’re going to pick one or the other to watch, this would be the one I’d suggest. The story’s basic and it’s been done before but that doesn’t make it less entertaining. It’s not going into any super deep issues but it’s also not entirely shallow. There’s some nicely done world building and some excellent character interaction. The animation is smooth and visually appealing and overall it was just plain fun to watch. Of course, after it was over I immediately felt like watching some Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, but I don’t think that’s a criticism so much as an acknowledgment that this movie got it a lot more right than the first.

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

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

December 6, 2010

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I was not feeling particularly well when we put this in tonight. Just a little woozy and slightly nauseous. This was, perhaps, not the best condition to be in when watching this movie. Surprisingly I’m finding that this movie isn’t quite as horrible as I had heard that it was, but it is pretty awful. I just wish I were watching it in better health than I am.

The problem this movie is that it is pretty much everything from the first movie, just turned up a notch. The Transformers are bigger. The climactic battle is longer and more full of explosions. The entire movie feels about seven hours longer. And the “comedic” bits are more painful.

It takes about an hour for the movie to even begin to get going, which is frustrating. There’s a whole lot of junk at the front end of the movie that should have been jettisoned. They could have cut easily half an hour of the movie if they had skipped Sam’s adventures in college. There he picks up an annoying and totally superfluous sidekick and wigs out because he touched a sliver of the All-Spark which has caused him to start seeing mysterious Cybertronean script. There’s a stupid scene where the All-Spark sliver brings everything in his kitchen to life and Bumblebee destroys the garden (again) and half the house trying to kill the animated vacume cleaner, toaster, waffle iron etc. There’s a terminator in human form sent by the Decepticons to seduce Sam… or something. Sam’s mother eats a pot-laced brownie and instantly becomes totally mental. Ugh. You could skip the entire first half of the movie and not miss a thing because it isn’t until Sam gets caught up in a firefight between a resurrected Megatron and Optimus Prime that anything worthwhile happens.

Megatron manages to actually kill Optimus Prime this time, and that’s really the start of the movie. Megatron’s master – an evil robot who was once a Prime like Optimus until he decided to wipe out all life on Earth and was exiled by his Prime brethren to be “The Fallen” – shows up on Earth and demands that the humans surrender Sam because somewhere in his brain is the location of a key called The Matrix, which will activate a device designed to create the Energon needed to create new generations of Decepticons and in the process extinguish Earth’s sun. Whew. All of this plot exposition is explained to us by an ancient Transformer called Jetfire, who is probably the coolest thing in the movie, even if he is a doddering fool who farts parachutes. (Oh, Michael Bay, how I loathe you.)

Honestly. Somebody tell Michael Bay to stop trying to be funny. It’s killing me. Things this movie could have done without include: the tiny Decepticon that humps Mikaela’s leg worshipfully. The wrecking-ball testicles of the Constructicon beast. Any scene involving Sam’s parents. Any scene involving his roommate Leo. And most of all the pair of horrid harlequin Autobots Mudflap and Skids. I spent the entire movie praying for their gruesome demise and was ultimately disappointed. They were an offense to one-celled organisms and anybody involved in their creation should feel ashamed. I don’t often slag off on hapless animators who are asked to bring to life the half-baked creations of some insane ego-maniac, but really somebody should have stood up to Michael and told him that those big-eared gap-toothed buffoons were the single worst idea committed to film in the last century. I dare you to prove me wrong.

I feel unclean having just watched the portions of the film that involved those two. But with the help of a little brain bleach I’m going to try and forget them and concentrate on the better adventure parts of the movie. Although the climactic battle scene goes on longer than some entire movies we’ve reviewed I have to admit that when Michael Bay concentrates on explosions and military hardware and such his movies are at least entertaining. Testicles aside the Constructicons were awesome and probably my favorite addition to this movie. I always loved the toys back in the day and it was fun to see them re-interpreted for the screen. I also really enjoyed seeing the movie’s interpretation of Ravage – the panther that transformed from a cassette tape which fit inside of Soundwave.

There were parts of this movie that were pretty cool. It’s just a shame that they were buried in garbage and only briefly given a chance to shine. I wonder if anybody has done a “Phantom Edit” of this movie and stripped it down to just the good parts. It would probably be a more reasonable eighty or ninety minutes and it would totally kick ass.

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