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?

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

Hercules (1983)

May 13, 2012

Hercules (1983)

When Amanda and I attended Pax East last month we were treated to a new episode of Moviebob’s Big Picture that featured a movie we desperately needed to add to our collection. Go ahead – watch it for yourself. Before we even left the theater I had gone online to order this movie so it would be waiting for us when we got home. Today we found the perfect opportunity to watch it while visiting our friend A.

Even with Bob’s summary we found ourselves overwhelmed by this movie’s cheesy glory. As the movie began we were astonished and delighted to discover that the Peabody Award winning MST3K episode “Outlaw of Gor” blatantly stole its soundtrack from this movie. It adds so much to the experience of watching this when the music reminds you constantly of a Mystery Science Theater episode. Indeed I think a familiarity with MST Hercules movies in general enhances the viewing experience. As does a modicum of knowledge about the actual Greek myths that have virtually nothing whatsoever to do with this movie.

I’m used to movies playing somewhat fast and loose with mythology to make them more cinematic. I enjoy things like the Clash of the Titans movies for example. This film however only uses some names from Greek mythology and sticks them in a silly Italian Eighties sci-fi fantasy.

This film takes a long time to get going. Mostly because there’s so much unnecessarily silly mythology to explain. The prologue explains at length about the creation of the universe from chaos and the gods who live on the moon manipulating the world of men.

Lou Ferrigno stars as the mighty Hercules, who in this version of the tale is not son of Zeus but a kind of avatar of godly power transported into a human child and raised by adopted mortal parents. (I think it is cribbing from the very successful Superman movie there.)

When Herc’s parents are killed (one by a bear and one by a giant robot locust) he sets out into the world to find out why he is cursed with super strength and hunted by monsters. He eventually wins the love of the princess Casseiopea, who is promptly kidnapped by Areana, daugher of nefarious King Minos of Atlantis. Minos and his minion, the sexy alien Daedalus, are trying to overthrow the gods with science – or something.

One fantastic trait of this movie (one of too many to individually highlight) is the delightful level of acting on display. Lou is not by any stretch of the imagination a great actor, but his pure enthusiasm for the role is infectious. The collection of scantily clad Italians he is surrounded by deliver exactly the kind of heavily dubbed over-acting I’ve come to expect from such films. Add to the crazy wide-eyed capering some wonderfully Eighties costumes (some of which the ladies barely fit into) and some of the most delightfully cheesy “special effects” and you have a magical wonderland of a movie. The monsters Herc fights are all stop-motion-animated robots clearly designed for their appeal as toys for children. Everything in the movie sparkles and flashes with effects added in post. There’s a heavily over-used electronic synthesiser foley effect that is meant to imply that something magical is happening but which gave our friend A flashbacks to Xanadu. You can almost hear producers Golan and Globus in the meetings that the movie came from. “Superman is popular – let’s make our movie look like that. And have lots of Star Wars stuff in there too – like a glowing sword fight. The kids today love robots – lets have some of those in there and we’ll make a fortune selling little plastic toys!” The result? Hilarity!

Honestly I am astonished that until this year I didn’t even know this movie existed. It is so astonishingly and hilariously bad. Everything from the writing to the acting to the design to the effects is laughable. It has instantly become one of my favorite movies ever. Thank you Bob.

May 13, 2012 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 593 – Green Lantern

Green Lantern – October 14th, 2011

This movie makes me sigh. I want to like it. I want it to be good. But I also want to live in a magic flying houseboat. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. And I admit, I don’t hate this. It’s just that I don’t hate it even though it’s a total mess. There is so much wrong with it that it’s hard to even begin. When it came out I learned that my mother – my mother who seemed to pooh-pooh comic books all through my childhood – loved Green Lantern as a child. We mentioned the movie and she was all “Oh! Hal Jordan!” and she recited the oath and everything. Who knew, right? Even her own brother – the rightful owner of all of the Green Lantern comics she read – had no idea. We told him the other day and he was shocked. And amused. And yet we could not recommend this movie to my mother. At all. It’s not that she has a problem with action, and clearly she liked the comic book character, it’s that I couldn’t bear to see her watch something so bad based on something she apparently loved so much. It’s bad enough for me, and I know absolutely nothing about the source material beyond the most basic of basics.

I’ve seen a lot of superhero movies by now and you know, some handle backstory better than others. Iron Man? Fantastic. X-Men and X-Men: First Class? Yeah, they did a decent job, especially given that they were dealing with ensembles. Batman Begins says right in the title that it’s an origin story and it should go without saying that a crapload of time is going to be spent on backstory. That’s the thrust of the movie. Comparatively speaking, I’d say Iron Man and Batman Begins are doing roughly the same basic job, introducing a person, showing their personal crises, then showing how they become masked heroes and deal with their first real challenges. And this movie? Wants to be one of those. It wants to introduce a person – Hal Jordan – and take him through the process of becoming a hero and facing a crisis and dealing with a bad guy. Except it’s so damn muddled.

Part of the movie’s problem is that it does a heck of a lot of telling and not nearly enough showing. Movies are visual media. They should be showing. I’ll point back to my review of Macross Plus, which has two different versions. In one, the character of Isamu (a hotshot fighter pilot – sort of like Hal Jordan here) is introduced through a lot of dialogue about how he’s lazy and takes risks and whatnot. In the other? He’s introduced by a dialogue-less scene where he stands outside and plans his flight path with his hand before getting in his experimental jet and painting a picture with his exhaust trails. This movie? Picked the dialogue. It should have painted a picture. That right there is indicative of a movie that feels like it needs to spell everything out for the audience. And that’s a pity, because there are some really strong visuals here. They’re just not being used to their highest potential because every time something could be said visually, it instead gets a whole lot of expository dialogue vomited all over it.

The other major issue I have with this movie is that it’s just plain messy. And I don’t mean visually. Obviously it’s a superhero action movie, so there’s a lot of action going on and that’s fine. Sure, sometimes it feels like everything is green and therefore it’s hard to focus on the important green things and not the green background and green unimportant things, but the movie is about a dude who makes green things out of pure will. I expected the greenness. No, when I say it’s messy I mean it’s all over the place. We’re in the past and we’re watching Hal do a jet fighter test and we’re meeting his proto-adversary and we’re in space seeing a bunch of guys we don’t know get their souls sucked out by the big bad guy and we’re watching Hal train and then he’s back on Earth for some romance and then he’s back in space again and then he’s on Earth and oh right! Adversary grows a giant brain! Then the big bad is there and there’s romance too but we can’t linger on that too much because Hal has to make good on Chekhov’s Gravitational Pull! There is so damn much plot in this movie it’s leaking out the edges, which is probably why none of it quite works. I think my favorite bit of pointlessness is when Hal goes back to the planet he trained on (for like, a day) and begs the other Lanterns to help him save Earth because even though he said he wasn’t going to be a Green Lantern he knows now that he has to be one and he needs their help! And they say no so he says “Okay, that’s cool, we can do it on our own!” It’s absolutely ridiculous and they could have shaved a chunk of time off the movie by cutting it out and it’s yet another bit indicative of how poorly put together the movie is.

Honestly, I don’t want to bother going over the plot. The core idea – that a super powerful entity that feeds on fear is coming to Earth and Earth’s only Green Lantern must find a way to save his planet – is well enough for a comic book movie. I can even run with the training stuff, because it’s an origin story and it adds drama to have the hero be unprepared and scared (especially given that the villain feeds on fear, as I mentioned). And of course he has to be somewhat isolated because bringing the full power of the entire Green Lantern Corps against the villain would lessen the dramatic tension. But then they add in the minor adversary and try to make this whole jealousy thing happen when it comes to the romantic interest and there’s tension between the romantic interest and the hero and that’s not even touching on the fighter pilot stuff. If it wasn’t an origin story maybe the rest would work better, but having the origin in with everything else, oh, just, no. So overloaded.

Now, like I said, I did enjoy this. I didn’t love it and it’s far from the top of my comic book movies list. But it’s also not at rock bottom. I prefer it to say, The Spirit and it’s certainly miles ahead of the 1990 Captain America, so it’s got that going for it. But if I’m going to be honest about that, I should also be honest about thinking that a sequel has the potential to be so much better than this. They’ve got the worldbuilding out of the way! They don’t have to explain the Green Lanterns or Hal or anything like that. It’s all been done in this mess so they could leave the mess behind and focus on the story. And that would be such a relief and really, they’ve gone to all that trouble to set everything up so it would be a shame not to take advantage of that. Unfortunately, after this much of a mess I don’t think a sequel is very likely at all.

October 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 584 – Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank – October 5th, 2011

I really feel pretty bad about watching this tonight, but Andy suggested it and, well, I don’t really have any better suggestions. Though I do maintain that this is not so much a failing of our collection as it is a sign that we’re getting down to the end of the project and we’ve watched the vast majority of our really good movies. But then again, it’s hard to plan specifically for something like what to watch when someone like Steve Jobs passes away. We’ve burned through pretty much everything else that could be considered remotely appropriate and it was this or Real Genius, which we are saving for either The Worst Day Ever or the end of the project. So we went with this. Sorry, Mr. Jobs. You gave us revolutionary tech and we’re watching a made-for-tv movie featuring Raul Julia and stock footage of baboons. I am so ashamed.

As with pretty much every other movie we own that was featured in MST3K, I take responsibility for this one being in our home. We bought it on VHS when I was in college, more as a novelty than anything else. I mean, can you believe this movie was ever actually available on home video? It is probably up there with the weirdest stuff we own, just considerably cheaper in terms of production values than most of the others. It takes place in a future where everyone’s lives are controlled by an authoritarian government/corporation. One of the key points made is that regular people aren’t allowed to watch movies. They still exist, but they’re locked into a private database only accessible to the head of the corporation. The recreational activity of choice these days is called doppling. It involves having a little bit of tech implanted in your head that allows your consciousness to be stored in a cube and transferred into other things, such as animals. People dopple by spending a weekend riding around in the head of a lion or a horse or whatever. Meanwhile, their bodies are being taken care of at the doppling facility, stored in racks full of cots while bored technicians keep an eye on them.

The main character of the movie, Aram Fingal, is a programmer who’s bored with his job and his life in general. This sort of character is a stock figure in something like this. Obviously the dystopian setting requires that most people be subdued and willing to live with the monotony of lives controlled by the government and whatever basic amusements they’ve been offered. But Fingal isn’t. He wants something else. And he finds it by hacking into the movie database and watching Humphrey Bogart on his work terminal. It’s only a matter of time until he’s caught and reprimanded. And said reprimand? Comes in the form of an enforced doppling. Fingal hasn’t ever doppled before and he’s not terribly enamoured of the concept, but if he wants to keep his job then he’s got to do it. And all he can afford is three days in an old baboon.

Now, that sounds somewhat ridiculous, and it is somewhat ridiculous, albeit with a fairly decent core concept. But if you think for one moment that it’s not hilariously awful to listen to people say “Fingal’s dopple” over and over again? You are wrong and have no sense of humor. Just say it to yourself. Now say it again. Now say it about fifty times in the space of a minute or two. Now run some old National Geographic footage of baboons in the background and keep saying it. Congratulations. You have now made a reasonable facsimile of the first half of this movie, minus the late Raul Julia. To get the rest you need a somewhat modern looking office building and a seedy bar in which to re-enact portions of Casablanca. Also, a chroma key editing deck would help really set the mood. Give it that made-in-high-school feel.

No. I’m not joking. This is actually what this movie involves. The doppling facility loses Fingal’s body for a little while and the tech who was monitoring his dopple session has to talk him through the situation, keeping track of him while his consciousness is in the computer banks because they couldn’t keep it in the cube it was in while he was hanging out with the baboon. So Fingal starts making his own reality in the computer – very pre-Matrix, but lacking anything that made that movie cool. I’m sure some people would argue that the whole Bogart thing is cool, but no. No it’s not. It’s not remotely cool. I am so sorry, Raul Julia, but your Bogart impression kind of stunk.

Obviously since Fingal’s a rebel and a hacker and all, and now he’s inside the computers of the government/corporation, he’s going to muck around as much as he can, which worries the people in charge. So they try to get rid of him and he tries to get away from them and they have to find his body but that means inventorying the entire facility because apparently their organization skills suck hard. Seriously though, the reason this happened? Was because a kid on a field trip changed the tags on Fingal and someone else. And no one noticed. The only thing telling these people where each body belongs is a system of colored tags without any other identifying information on them and a kid on a field trip was allowed close enough to mess that up. For such an authoritarian society, they’re pretty sloppy.

There’s some really incredibly obvious foreshadowing early on, involving a vortex you have to avoid getting sucked into or you end up losing your consciousness completely. There’s a burgeoning romance between Fingal and the tech who’s been keeping an eye on him. And then there’s the stock footage and the Bogart impression and lots of cheap special effects and so on and so forth. While watching it I did a little reading up and found that it was one of three sci-fi book-to-tv-movie adaptations done by WNET/PBS in the 1980s. And that’s great! I’m glad someone had the idea of making sci-fi stories into tv movies or PBS at the time. As a kid I thrived on things like Doctor Who on PBS. But oh, oh the budget and the time period are so very obvious. The only remotely big name on the cast list is Raul Julia and let me be frank: This was not the performance of his career. And maybe the story reads better on paper, but on screen it just comes off as goofy, especially with people saying “Fingal’s dopple” over and over. It ends up being less a commentary on authoritarian governments meshing with corporations and controlling people’s lives and more a silly story about a ridiculous future.

October 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 578 – Battlestar Galactica: Razor

Battlestar Galactica: Razor – September 29th, 2011

Unlike the previous two nights’ movies, this was made to actually be a movie, albeit one that depends upon a television show to make any sense whatsoever. It tells about a whole chunk of time that the show skipped over to keep things moving and also goes back in time a bit, telling a related story from the first Cylon war. And it is perhaps some of the darkest stuff the franchise put out once the reimagining went on the air. Make no mistake, this is bleak and nasty stuff. It serves the dual purpose of showing how a certain new group of characters came to be the way they were when the Galactica encountered them, and making it clear that no matter how bad things got on the Galactica, they weren’t like this.

I honestly wasn’t sure when this aired in relation to the series. The show had some gaps here and there, including a hiatus in the middle of season 2 just after one of the most brutal episodes of the series up to that point. That episode, Pegasus, introduced a new ship to the fleet, a newer Battlestar that had survived the initial attacks. The Pegasus, commanded by Admiral Helena Cain, was a far different thing from the Galactica, and Cain herself was a far different commander than William Adama. But then the show kept going after the break and I didn’t think this aired that early and I was right. Looking it up, I see that it aired after the end of season 3, long after we’d seen the eventual fate of the Pegasus and many of her key crewmembers. You know, just to remind us all of what had been going on.

The movie begins with Lee Adama taking command of the Pegasus after Cain has been killed. Well, to be accurate, the Pegasus had two other commanders, but neither fared well. The focal figure of this movie isn’t one of the people we already knew, though Lee and Kara are both very important to the plot. The main character here, however, is Kendra Shaw, a young woman who had been assigned to the Pegasus as Cain’s assistant. Not long after she arrives the Cylon attacks commence and she’s suddenly in a far more deadly situation than she ever imagined. She’d considered the post as a stepping stone to a more prestigious position in the Fleet. Obviously that never happened. So we see her story, from meeting Cain to seeing her make the hard decisions in the opposite direction from what William Adama was doing in the main series. This is the story of how it might have been, had Adama been a slightly different man, had he not been surrounded by the people he was surrounded by.

Where Adama listened to President Roslin’s suggestion that they take the civilians they could and run? Cain stripped the civilian ships they found of both equipment and useful crew and continued the fight, using guerrilla tactics and if anyone questioned her or tried to stand in her way, she shot them in the head. That’s a good way of commanding order, I suppose, but it makes for a grim situation. She does this with purpose, though, and that purpose is survival. Not necessarily survival of the human race, but survival of her ship and her crew for the purpose of killing as many Cylons as possible. And she is brutally ruthless about it. You could probably take the events on the Pegasus point by point and compare them to the Galactica. It’s a stark comparison.

The movie flips between the prior events on the Pegasus, flashbacks to the first Cylon war, and present day where Lee has put Kendra in place as his XO to try and prove that he respects the Pegasus crew. As the crew goes on a mission to find a missing Raptor crew and an old ship from the first Cylon war with some sort of experimental tech the Cylons were butchering humans for, we go back and forth. Kendra and Kara butt heads, Kendra questions everything, Kendra remembers what brought her to this time and place. And I like Kendra. She’s an interesting character who’s had to make some compromises between her survival and her morals. She’s done things she regrets, but she’s had to keep going and not let those regrets engulf her. And they almost do, but she still keeps going. I don’t think Kendra really has an analogue on the Galactica crew. Dee, perhaps, but I almost feel as though she is a stand-in for almost every minor or unnamed character on the Galactica. People who might seem like perfectly ordinary human beings with the morals and moral failings one expects, but who, when faced with someone like Cain, might do unthinkable things. One of the things I loved about Battlestar Galactica was that it wasn’t an easy show. It made its characters make difficult decisions and it made them deal with the consequences. And Kendra is like a poster child for difficult decisions and consequences.

She also acts as a bit of a foil for Kara. Now, I’ll be frank: I love Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace and I love her for her entire character, flaws and all. But because she’s such a key character in the show and because she often steals the spotlight, it’s easy to look at anyone opposing her and dismiss them. This is a mistake. Look at Tigh, for example. He turned out to be one of the biggest bad-asses on the crew. So I like when people Kara butts heads with turn out to be just as strong and just as skilled and just as stubborn as her.

The other thing I really like about this episode is the combination of past and future around the present storyline. As the team from the Pegasus goes after their missing people they discover something that was created in the past, but which ends up playing a fairly sizable role (in concept) later in the show. There are also a number of callbacks to the original series, with classic-style Cylons showing up once or twice. The only unfortunate part about that is that the
foreshadowing done in this movie never really played out very well for me. The movie ends with a mysterious character we know very little about giving a prediction of doom for the human race that involves a major character from the show. And technically I suppose it does play out. But any time you have to qualify something like that with “technically” it’s a bad sign. It’s a matter of the terminology being technically true but annoyingly misleading. It’s not clever and it’s part of my eventual disappointment with how poorly planned the end of the series seemed to be. There was so much foreshadowing, including the end of this movie, and it felt like they had to find a way to make it all fit together and it didn’t. Ultimately, I do enjoy this movie. I just have to ignore where the climactic prophecy actually ended up leading to.

September 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 577 – Battlestar Galactica (miniseries)

Battlestar Galactica (2003) – September 28th, 2011

Watching this tonight made me angry. And I find that annoying in turn. Because I typically don’t get angry about television shows. I ignore the ones I don’t like and I enjoy the ones I do like and when the ones I do like go downhill (i.e. Heroes) I just stop watching. And you know what I did with this show when it started to go downhill and bore/irritate me, and I started to suspect it wasn’t going to end at all satisfactorily for me? I stopped watching it. And I was happier for it. My mother, on the other hand, kept watching. I feel a little bad about that since I’m the one who got her hooked and in the end she just couldn’t stop. She chided me for “quitting” and not seeing the show out to the bitter end. And then when it ended she told me she didn’t want to talk about it. She likened it to The Prisoner (the ending of which she also hated). And she never again called me a quitter.

I was doing just fine in regards to Battlestar Galactica, the show, until we decided to put this in following Caprica last night. We’d planned on Caprica and Battlestar Galactica: Razor because they were both movie-length specials. But then Andy suggested we add this in between them, since it was a miniseries special that acted as a pilot for the series that followed. It was on the long side, yes, but we’d had theatrical releases that were longer, so why not, right? And then I realized it was going to make me angry, because rewatching the beginning of the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica just served to remind me that it started so very strong. It came out swinging and for the first two seasons it didn’t let up and watching it again, seeing it start and seeing all of these characters that I became fascinated by and knowing where it’s headed? That made me sad and angry.

This miniseries held such promise. It begins with an explanation that the humans created the Cylons, a race of thinking machines, to serve them. But then the Cylons rebelled and when the war between humans and Cylons ended, the Cylons left. They’ve been gone a long time when we come in, but now they’re back. We meet them by seeing a couple of shiny centurion models, and then we meet Six. She’s a blond bombshell in a red dress and she’s a Cylon and she destroys the station she’s on. Gut punch right there: The Cylons look like humans and they’re going to try and kill the entire human race. Which they attempt to do not long after, detonating vast numbers of atomic bombs on the surfaces of the twelve colonial worlds. They exploit a back door in the defense systems of the colonies and the ships of the colonial fleet, left there for them by one of their own.

The Battlestar Galactica, an old military ship due to be decommissioned and turned into a museum, survives the attacks because its computers were far too old to run the new (bugged) software. It’s a holdover from the first war, when networking meant being vulnerable to Cylon attack. And by the end of the first section of the miniseries we know that the Galactica is going to have to stay in fighting form for the foreseeable future. The miniseries is largely interested in setting the stage for the rest of the show, but as it was the very beginning and done in three installments, each section does have a beginning and end and a point. We see the Galactica’s crew form up and work to return the ship to readiness. We meet the characters who will fill the series and discover some of their issues. There’s Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace, an excellent pilot but prone to violent outbursts. There’s William Adama, the ship’s commander and his first mate, Colonel Tigh (who has a drinking problem and longstanding enmity with Starbuck). There are more pilots and officers and a few civilians. There’s Gaius Baltar, a brilliant scientist who was also responsible for unwittingly allowing the Cylons access to the defense systems. And there’s the imaginary Six who shows up only to Baltar, the apparent ghost of his former lover. There’s the new president of the colonies, Laura Roslin (formerly the secretary of education but everyone above her is now dead). The miniseries introduces all of them in bits and pieces, showing them instead of telling about them. And the acting from each cast member is superb.

Looking back on it, I’m amused to see how some of these people started out. Tigh, in particular, has an amazing character arc that starts here with his drunken belligerence and ends somewhere totally unexpected. As we’re shown how everyone works (or doesn’t work) together, we’re given a good sense of how some of these relationships are going to shake out, at least in the short term. The show’s big strength there is that it becomes clear even midway through the miniseries that things will not always end up going in the direction that the show seemed to be pointing. I loved that. I loved it so much. Because I felt like the show did an amazing job introducing these characters and making me care about them and then throwing them for loops that did interesting things to them without being gratuitious.

Take Starbuck, for example. I love her. Watching Katee Sackhoff in this, seeing her character develop strong right from the start where she’s jogging through the ship, I absolutely fell in love with her again. She’s so central to the whole thing and I adored her. And knowing that in the end all the things they did with her just seemed so… lacking? That’s frustrating, at the very least. But it’s still impressive to me, how well this introduction works. It lays everything out and makes it clear that there will be hard decisions and people will die. Faced with the choice of standing and fighting a losing battle or running and hiding and protecting the rag-tag group of civilian ships that survived, Adama seems torn. And the trouble is that no matter what choice he makes, there will be consequences. He ends up going with saving as much of the civilian fleet as possible, but notice I didn’t say all of it. And it’s all the product of the combination of people who are there to influence him, along with who he is as a person. Beautifully done.

The miniseries ends on a potential high note. The survivors have supplies, they have some cohesion. There’s a military presence to help with defense and a political presence to keep things organized. They’ve identified not only the external threat but at least some of the internal threat. And Adama ends by giving a rousing speech to the fleet, telling them that he’s going to lead them to the mythical thirteenth colony: Earth. And everyone cheers “So Say We All” and it’s all very heartening. Except, as we learn after the speech, it’s all made up. He has no idea where they’re going. It was a morale booster. That’s all. The threat is still out there and they apparently have a plan whereas the humans really don’t. And someone we know is something entirely different than we’ve been led to believe. It’s a hopeful ending, but a tense one at the same time, promising difficult decisions and shocking reveals that seem to be leading somewhere. I just wish that they had led somewhere better and I’m angry that the vast and amazing potential on display in this introduction wasn’t squandered by the middle of season three.

September 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 576 – Caprica

Caprica – September 27th, 2011

Back when the reboot of Battlestar Galactica started showing on what was still Sci Fi at the time, Andy and I watched it every week through the first three seasons. We stopped midway through season four. Andy kept up with it longer than I did and I still regret getting my mother hooked on it because she’s not the sort of person who can just walk away from a show, even when it’s clearly going downhill. So by the time Caprica started airing we just couldn’t handle starting to watch it. Why bother when we’d been so badly burned by BSG? We never tuned in and I only got bits and pieces of the show’s particulars from friends who were valiantly trying to stick with the franchise. Nothing ever really convinced me it was worth getting sucked into.

Because here’s the thing: I loved the first two seasons of BSG. I loved them passionately. And I knew that if the beginning of the new show was done half as well as the beginning of BSG, I would be suckered right in. The whole conceit of it is to show how everything began, introducing the key figures in the history of Cylon development and telling the story of how the Cylons came to be and where it all went wrong. And I love prequels! I love seeing the background to a story. Where it started, what happened, all the bits and pieces that resulted in a story that came much later. BSG itself was full of such a huge amount of background and history and up until late in the show’s run it was superbly written. So, toss me some backstory and write it to the same standard? Yep. Sold.

Except I don’t know. This is the pilot for the series and it has some good material in it, but I don’t know that it really left enough room to head towards BSG itself. Without going into specific spoilers for the end of BSG, the whole concept of the development of the Cylons being a big breakthrough in human technology is kind of off for me, knowing what I know. And having seen Battlestar Galactica: Razor, which has some flashbacks to the first Cylon war, I know even more of what’s in store than just the regular series showed. What, precisely, is going to be revealed here that we don’t already know? What I loved about the earlier seasons of BSG was that it was a show that messed with its audience. By the end of the miniseries that started it, there was a huge reveal about a major character and it totally changed things. And the show kept doing that. The big dramatic moment in this? Was when the Cylon body wakes up. But I was expecting it. I wasn’t at all shocked by it. And that made me doubt that there were any real surprises in store for me.

All that being said, I did enjoy this. It’s not bad by any means. I do like backstory, after all, and seeing the development of the Cylon as a military project, the shared online worlds developed in secret, the tensions between the colonies, the religious issues, those are all interesting. And at least in the special we watched, there’s nothing really there that spoils anything later in BSG, which I’m sure was difficult. Instead there’s a distinct focus on the roots of what divided the Cylons from the humans in the first place. And at least as far as this first installment is concerned, it appears that a hefty dose of social injustice as viewed by a religions zealot is the key.

Anyone who’s watched a significant amount of the BSG series (and why would you be watching this if you hadn’t watched any of the other or if you weren’t planning on it?) knows that the human colonists are polytheistic, believing in their own interpretations of what we identify as the ancient Greek pantheon. The Cylons, on the other hand, are monotheistic, believing in a single omniscient and omnipotent god. Caprica provides background on that, revealing that there’s a growing underground movement amongst the youth and young adults on the planet of Caprica and likely other planets, rejecting the pantheon of their parents and peers and embracing a single god and more rigid definition of right and wrong. Our main character, Zoe, is a convert. She’s also a computer genius and has managed to create a self-aware copy of herself in a virtual world created by her father. So when her father discovers the copy after Zoe is killed in a terrorist attack he attempts to resurrect her, downloading the copy into a Cylon body that he’s been working on for the government. It does not go as planned.

What complicates things even more, beyond the religious and moral issues, is that Zoe’s father has befriended another man whose daughter was killed in the attack: Joseph Adama. Joseph agrees to let Zoe’s father try to use Zoe’s code to create a copy of his own daughter. Unfortunately, the copy created is self-aware enough to seem real, but also to realize that she’s not really alive. She doesn’t have the knowledge of how she was created because she’s not the one who did it. When she realizes she can’t feel her heart beating well, it isn’t a good outcome by any means.

Add into all of that some political wrangling and mob influence on the government and corporations struggling for contracts and the like and you’ve got the start for a series. Which is, after all, what this is. It’s fairly obvious that this wasn’t meant to be watched on its own. It ends with a “shocking” reveal that’s clearly meant to herald in the major storyline for the series. It opens up possibilities with the prejudices between the colonies, sets up rebellious youth out of control and introduces a host of characters. The trouble is that it really is supposed to lead into the series. So as a stand alone piece it doesn’t quite work for me. I would hope that in future episodes Adama becomes a little more sympathetic, seeing as he is the father of a major sympathetic character in BSG. I would hope that more is done with the virtual world, since that would help explain some of the things that happen in BSG. I would hope that the show was able to weave together all of the threads it introduced here, but I’ve been burned by BSG already and I’m not intrigued enough by this intro to make Caprica worth the risk of another burn.

September 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Gojira

September 10, 2011

Gojira

I have a long history with the Godzilla films. I’ve been a fan since I first saw the big rubber galoot during the Channel 56 Creature Double Feature. The movies had everything a thirteen year old boy could want in a movie. Aliens. Robots. Giant rubber monsters. Hilarious dubbing. I always wanted, however, to see the movies in a more pure form, un-dubbed and un-cut. I figured when DVD came around that Toho would eventually come out with special editions of the movies with sub-titles for American audiences so we could see the films the way they were meant to be seen. Since the movies are generally considered light-weight pop sci-fi this hasn’t really come to pass unfortunately, but this, the first Godzilla movie is an exception.

This film is not a popcorn sci-fi film for kids – it’s a serious disaster movie and obvious allegory about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. In addition, as the progenitor of the entire Godzilla line, and indeed the beginning of the Japanese giant rubber monster genre, this film has special historical significance. So it was that for the fiftieth anniversary Toho released this deluxe edition DVD set that includes the original Japanese Gojira movie. At last I got to see at least one of the Godzilla movies in its original form.

It’s a good thing, too, because if ever there was a movie that needed to be seen in Japanese with English subtitles to be properly appreciated it is this one. This movie is so quintessentially Japanese. Before the infamous monster ever appears on the screen we spend an awful lot of time being introduced to the little fishing village where he starts his reign of terror. As with many a monstery disaster movie the film starts out as more of a mystery. What has caused a small fleet of fishing boats and the boats sent to rescue them to disappear? There are only a couple survivors and they say that it was a monster that destroyed their boats. A supremely grizzled old man declares that it must be the same monster that used to terrorise the village known as Gojira.

At the heart of this movie are four human characters. There’s the scientifically minded paleontologist Dr Yamane who is the first to piece together just what the monster is. There’s his lovely daughter Emiko. There’s her fiance Ogata, and her childhood friend the one-eyed mad scientist Serizawa. Then of course there’s the two million year old living fossil with radioactive breath from hydrogen bomb tests – Godzilla himself.

Dr. Yamane doesn’t actually want the beast destroyed. He’d rather study the monster to understand it and how its species remained alive on the ocean bottom long after such dinosaurs were thought extinct. This causes some friction with Ogata, who takes a while to gather the nerve to ask the doctor if he can have his daughter’s hand in marriage, but insists that Godzilla is a threat that must be eliminated at all costs. Serizawa, meanwhile, has developed an ultimate weapon called an Oxygen Destructor that could probably destroy the monster, but he doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of politicians who could corrupt it and start a new arms race. He tells only Emiko of his discovery and swears her to secrecy.

A couple things struck me as I watched this again tonight. The first was just how bleak parts of this movie are. After Gojira’s attack on Tokyo there are several scenes in infirmaries and hospitals that drive home that this attack has not just destroyed a bunch of detailed models and set fire to sets – it has had a brutal impact on the people of Japan. There are irradiated children. There is a dead woman and her inconsolable daughter. There are hundreds of bodies on stretchers. It is a powerful scene of emotional devastation which must have been even more intense when the film first came out, less than ten years after Japan became the only nation on the planet ever to be attacked with nuclear weapons.

The other thing that struck me this time was the caliber of the talent brought on board for this movie. Of course the monster itself and the destruction it wreaks are fantastic to watch. The special effects work as well today as they ever did. I also love the actors they have on board. In particular I was amused when I thought I recognised the actor playing Dr. Yamane and checked IMDB to find that he is the ubiquitous Takashi Shimura (who we will also be seeing in The Seven Samurai when we review that for our collection.) Glancing at his resume leads me to believe that he probably starred in every Japanese movie made in the twentieth century. Or close to it.

I still heartily wish that there were a comprehensive Godzilla special edition collection that gave the same kind of attention to even the cheesiest and stupidest of Godzilla movies as is lovingly provided to the original on this DVD, but at least for now I can take comfort in the fact that we have this one movie in our collection. I’ve proposed the idea to Amanda that we should watch the dubbed American version tomorrow as a separate film, since so much was altered to make it more palatable for American audiences. We’ll see how we feel about that tomorrow.

September 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 558 – X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class – September 9th, 2011

Let me just say, this summer was pretty good for superhero movies. Or rather, it was good for Marvel superhero movies. We did go to see Green Lantern and we’ll probably buy it, but that doesn’t mean it was all that good. Poor DC. Marvel, on the other hand, had this, Captain America and Thor in theaters this summer. And we loved all three. This is the first to hit DVD, so we watched it right away. How could we not? After all, I am, first and foremost, an X-Men fan. Cap, Iron Man, they’re great and all, but I say bring on the mutants.

As I’ve said before when it comes to comic book movies, people can piss and moan all they want about continuity but it doesn’t mean a damn thing. Comic books, and Marvel in particular, have been mucking with continuity for decades. Marvel’s even numbered their various AUs and made up extra ones for kicks, like Earth-1002, where everyone’s a canine and the team is called the Rex-Dogs. I’ve mentioned before that the Summers family is a perfect example of what happens when you cross AUs, so I don’t see the big deal in changing up the specific first members of the X-Men, or having Alex Summers older than the other movie-verse versions of Scott Summers. So what you will not find in this review is a nitpick on continuity or canon. Yes, things deviate from the other movies. Emma Frost being the best example there. Yes, things deviate from the comics. No, I do not care.

I love this movie. I don’t love everything about it (and I’ll get to that) but I love a lot of it. I love seeing Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr before they became Professor X and Magneto. I love seeing the team grow and train. I love seeing little hints at the future, like General Stryker and the proto-Cerebro. I love the use of the time period for clothing styles, slang and most of all, plot. Because this movie is set in 1962, right on the cusp of the Cuban missile crisis, into which the mutants are thrown. It makes the team an integral but secret part of an event that truly happened in our own world. Really, I think the set-up for the team and the overarching plot are really nicely done, leading to a fantastic climax where not only is the team battling against what they perceive as their enemies, but also against the humans and then we get changes in loyalty too. Very nicely orchestrated.

Really though, in my heart my favorite bits of the movie are just the whole building of the team. Also, Erik and Charles. I don’t care who knows it: I honestly think this movie was Erik and Charles’ epic love story and breakup. And it’s not just me. Ian McKellan and James MacAvoy both agree, so I stand firm on this. Even if you don’t want to go with the love story aspect, they are certainly very close friends. The closest of friends. And their worldviews just aren’t compatible by the end. It’s tragic. And what I think this movie does excellently is present both sides as being potentially valid and potentially flawed. We know Magneto turns out to be “evil” later on, but the background they gave him here? It’s difficult to deny that his views are, at least in part, accurate for the world he’s lived in. Same for Charles, who has a much easier childhood and adolescence. Where this movie’s real strength is for me, is in its character arcs. Charles, Erik, Raven? They’re all given some truly good material to work with that makes what we know of their eventual futures that much more interesting.

Then too, you have the rest of the recruits. I love the recruitment montage, with Charles and Erik traveling to find mutants and make their case for joining the CIA. I love the little displays of power and quick character introductions. They’re not terribly heavy-handed but they give an idea of who’s who and who does what. And the cameo at the end of the recruitment montage? Perfect. Well played, good sirs. The recruits hanging out and goofing off together? Also fun, and a nice way to show off their powers. Training montage? Better than most montages because there are pauses for dialogue and context. I especially enjoy the interactions between Sean and Erik. They make the characters a little deeper and a little more real. And the chemistry between the various cast members is great. It seems like they had fun making the movie together, which translates well on screen.

What I find most frustrating about the movie is how piss-poorly it handles the races and genders of its characters. As ensemble casts go, it’s got a decent (but not great) assortment of genders and races. There are two women on the team, one of whom is Hispanic. One of the men is African American and while I’d love to see more diversity there I will give them credit for not having an entirely pasty white crew. The thing is, by the end? The team is Professor X and the three white recruits. Okay, one is blue by then, but he started out white. Granted, the divide between sides is made out to be very grey here and I can see how the justification might have been made for Angel switching over, I cannot for one second excuse how they handled Darwin. Okay, so you don’t want an overpowered character mucking up your main action scene. Then why introduce him in the first place? It’s not like Alex ends up being super useful (Sean’s more useful in the final battle and the poor guy gets left off every poster), so if you want to up the ante for the characters by killing off an ally, go for it. But why him?

Similarly, I totally understand Mystique’s character arc. And as an individual character, divorced from the larger cast issues, her story carries a hell of a lot of weight. To be honest, I don’t blame her one bit for leaving Charles on the beach. Charles is a privileged douche for much of the movie, spouting “mutant and proud” when it suits him but expecting his adopted sister to hide her true nature. So when she walks away, I get it and I do not question it and I think the writers gave her a wonderful arc. But taken in the larger context, when she switches sides, that makes all three female mutant characters on the “evil” side. And again, while I like the individual stories (Emma Frost being with Sebastian Shaw as part of the Hellfire Club is a wonderful little callback to the comics and Emma herself has switched sides numerous times) when put together as a whole they paint a picture full of unfortunate implications. And when you’re going to change the origin story for the team, adding in characters who weren’t there in the comics and using canon characters for new roles, you’ve really got a shitload to choose from. This particular team, with these particular issues, did not happen by accident. And it could well have been done differently.

I don’t mean to harp too much on my issues with the movie, but I feel they warrant saying. They certainly didn’t make the movie unpleasant for me to watch and I’ll gladly watch it again. And as I said, each individual choice and action makes sense on its own. They just add up to something that makes me heave a heavy sigh. But I can focus on the good and hope that future installments (or any future X-Men based movies) will handle things better. Certainly, I think this movie handled the universe better than, say, Wolverine or X3 did. I enjoy the character arcs and I like the decision to go back to the beginning and reboot the whole thing, starting a new continuity. I just wish I didn’t have anything negative to say. I wish I could applaud everything. I’ll just have to be content, for now, with applauding the majority of it.

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

James Bond: Goldfinger

September 4, 2011

James Bond: Goldfinger

Tonight we’re continuing Amanda’s James Bond education with the movie that is pretty widely accepted to be the best Bond movie, at least before they began playing with the formula on the last couple. I really felt that this needed to be in our collection if we were going to be exploring older Bond films because it is the quintessential Bond flick. It has the gadgets, the cool car, the mad plot, the babes, the bad puns. There were two films before this one in the franchise, but it wasn’t until this one that everything that you expect in a James Bond film truly came together. This movie established the formula not just for the whole James Bond franchise but for some of the knock-off films that came out around the same time. (For example the two MST3K films Secret Agent Super Dragon and Danger! Death Ray.)

This was one of the classic Sean Connery James Bonds, and it’s a lot of fun to watch him at work. Where his successor Roger Moore, who we watched a couple days ago in A View to a Kill, was cheesy and corny Sean Connery was much more suave. He simply projects machismo, from the moment he takes off his wetsuit in the prologue to reveal his white tuxedo jacket to his banter with the nefarious Goldfinger.

In this film James Bond, suave super-secret super-spy must find out how a madman named Auric (get it?) Goldfinger has been smuggling gold around Europe and devaluing the UK currency. Ultimately of course it turns out that Goldfinger’s plan goes far beyond mere smuggling – he intends to break into Fort Knox and using a dirty nuclear weapon to irradiate the American gold reserves, rendering it un-usable and thus raising the value of his own supply. Along the way Bond naturally sleeps with every woman he encounters and gets to use his usual collection of cool gadgets and toys.

One thing I can’t help noticing about Bond in this movie however is that he’s a bit of a dick. I expect all the womanising – hell that’s part of his charm – but he also spends a lot of time needlessly antagonising Goldfinger. His method of investigation seems to be to go piss off his subject as much as he can for no apparent reason. If he hadn’t messed with Goldfinger’s gin rummy game then the alluring Jill Masterson wouldn’t have been gilded. Then Bond challenges Goldfinger to a golf game and sneakily switches balls to prevent him from winning. Why does Bond go out of his way to antagonise Goldfinger at every turn? I honestly couldn’t say.

I do enjoy his car here though. The other gadget he gets from Q is his high-tech magnetic tracking device which probably seemed high-tech in the sixties but in the day of modern smart phones with GPS seems outrageously dated. His awesome silver Aston Martin on the other hand is as cool today as it ever was. It’s so full of cool tech! It has the rotating license plates, ejector seat, smole screen, oil slick, machine-gun headlights, spinning blades on the hubcaps and bulletproof windows. (All of which have been confirmed effective by Mythbusters, the authority on spy veracity by the way.) When I was in high school my best friend Jeff had a die-cast model of this car with spring loaded missiles, windcreen and ejector seat, which is proof that even in the eighties this car still had appeal to teenaged boys. I suspect that holds true to this very day.

As to the womanising, well, that’s a mixed bag. The first woman Bond hooks up with, a flamenco dancer, betrays him. Then he woos a pair of attractive sisters, each of whom is killed. Finally he aggressively “seduces” the very independent Pussy Galore who insists for most of the movie that she’s immune to his charms. Yes, she does eventually succumb and ultimately betrays her employer because Bond is just that good a roll in the hay, but the means by which he overcomes her reticence are a little too direct for modern audiences. Indeed I have to wonder if the scene where he forces himself on her seemed appropriate even in the sixties. And I had so been looking forward to seeing Honor Blackman of Avengers fame in the role of Pussy. Different times, I suppose.

It must have been interesting for Amanda watching this for the first time tonight. So much of this movie is so firmly entrenched in the modern pop culture lexicon. This movie is lampooned in everything from Austin Powers to the Simpsons. In Austin Powers when Random Task throws his shoe is it as funny if you haven’t seen Odd Job throwing his deadly hat in this movie? I’m guessing that Amanda was well aware of the scene where Bond is strapped to a table with a laser menacing his crotch but she had never seen it in context as part of the movie. Now at last she’s seen the film and she can understand just what the fuss is all about. I think with the four Bond films she has now seen she has a pretty good idea just what the whole character is about down through the years. There’s no need for us to collect all twenty of them I think.

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