A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 478 – The Terminator

The Terminator – June 21st, 2011

When I was in grade school one of my classmates was an avid fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He even named his dog (a female sharpei) Arnold. I just couldn’t see the appeal. To be honest, I still can’t. But even so, I will admit that his presence in this movie is perfect for the role. I’ve read stuff about other actors being considered for the part and no. I just can’t see it. This role is Arnold’s. From the first moment you see him through the last bit of time he has on screen, he is iconic as the Terminator. And while that might not be the mark of a great actor, it is the mark of a perfectly cast role.

It took me a while to see this movie for just that reason. It seemed to be so very full of Arnold and I wasn’t big on Arnold and so why would I watch this movie? Well, because it’s one of the best time travel sci-fi action movies ever made. That’s why. I don’t expect everyone to love this movie and I can certainly see flaws in it, but there’s a reason it’s a so-called “modern classic” and it’s not just the title character. It’s the whole package. Personally, I really like the plot and how it all comes together.

It’s a time travel plot, which was apparently done out of necessity because there was no way the movie was going to get the budget it would have needed to be entirely in the future. But that time travel plot works. Got some holes? Sure! What time travel plot doesn’t? But it’s kept fairly simple for the most part. Way off in the future (which will obviously be the past eventually – that’s the trouble with anything set in the future) the world is a nightmare where mechanized tanks hunt people down and what’s left of humanity is fighting to survive against implacable foes. You know, your standard issue dystopia. As we learn later, the machines that have taken over the world are in danger thanks to a resistance force of humans led by a man named John Connor. To rid themselves of this man they send a super machine – a Terminator – back in time to kill Connor’s mother, Sarah, before he’s born. Why yes, that would create a paradox! But like I said, this is a time travel plot. That’s just how these things go. Let’s run with it. Resistance fighter Kyle Reece follows the Terminator back in time to find Sarah and protect her and so the stage is set.

Okay, I might have lied a little when I said that the Terminator itself isn’t why this movie is iconic. He is really important and I think with anyone else playing the role it just wouldn’t have been the same. Because the movie hinges on the threat from the Terminator. He has to be the serial killer in the slasher flick. He has to be the ultimate unsympathetic villain. You have to believe that this creature is willing and able and determined to kill not only Sarah but anyone between himself and her and you have to believe that there is no stopping him whatsoever. And Schwarzenegger delivers here. After the movie was over Andy mentioned to me that he thought the Terminator is a “single spine” character. That is, a character who can only really be performed with a single motivation. Most characters, if you really dig into them, will have a couple of possible motivations and the trick to playing them well is for the actor to choose the one that works for them. The Terminator, on the other hand, has one goal and one motivation: Kill Sarah Connor. But then, I don’t think he’s really a character. He has no personality and no background and no name. It’s not even a matter of not knowing who he is. It’s a matter of there not being anything to know. He’s a plot device, not a character.

All that being said, I think that’s perfect. He’s a cyborg from the future, bent on killing our heroine and as many extras as possible. It makes him horrifying and impossible to know and that in turn makes the humans in the story that much more sympathetic. When we meet Sarah she’s decently likable and all, but she’s not necessarily a deep character we want to root for. Until we see her sudden realization that with the deaths of two other Sarah Connors in the area, her life is in danger. Until we see Kyle Reece grab her and tell her “Come with me if you want to live.” Because suddenly we know that Sarah Connor is important. She might be a scattered waitress who gets stood up for dates right now, but she’s going to be crucial somehow. And she has no idea why.

While I’m never thrilled at female characters being built only on the fact that they have wombs, I don’t mind it here. Because not only do you know that Sarah Connor had a child who led a revolution, but you know that he lived to fight that revolution because his mother taught him how to survive. And I love seeing Sarah realize it all. That if she wants to live and if she wants her son to live and if she wants humanity to survive, she needs to learn all these skills and she needs to learn them fast. She is hands down one of my favorite characters in an action movie, ever, and not because she’s bad-ass (that would be tomorrow’s movie), but because she’s not. Not yet. But she has the potential. And that right there suggests that we all have that potential. That if we were told tomorrow that the future depended on us we could rise to the occasion. And that’s a good thought to have.

As an action movie it does its job nicely, with plenty of car chases and gun fights and speed holes and explosions. The Terminator even shoots up a police station, so that’s obviously going to make for some decent action. The climactic fight scene with the Terminator’s mechanical skeleton still coming after Sarah is as iconic as Schwarzenegger in a black leather jacket and those sunglasses and with good reason.

It’s easy to make fun of the movie’s fashion and dated technology (VHS tapes, cassette walkman with a shoulder strap, not to mention Linda Hamilton’s feathered hair) but really, the effects stand up to time. The future scenes are still pretty solid and the Terminator’s repair scenes are still as good as anything I’ve seen. The script isn’t brilliant but it’s got some great memorable lines and when the movie’s action scenes and character interaction work as well as they do, the script doesn’t have to be full of nuance and insight. Nuance and insight would be kind of silly here. So the movie delivers exactly what it should, Arnold and all.

June 21, 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 453 – Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the Apes – May 27th, 2011

Why yes, I am only just now seeing this for the first time. Strange, I know, but it’s one of those movies I’ve seen parodies of and references to for so long it always managed to escape me that I hadn’t seen it. There are so many other sci-fi movies out there that looked more interesting than a shirtless Charlton Heston running around screaming at apes. And besides, I knew the ending. Tonight when we put it in we realized that the cover for the movie and the menu background for the disc totally spoil it. Which is just one of those things, I guess. When a movie is as much a part of the cultural lexicon as this is, it’s hard not to spoil it. It’s like Rosebud or Darth Vader. So I never really felt much need to stop on this while I flipped channels or grab a copy from work. Still, we had an opportunity to buy it cheap and it was a sci-fi classic shaped hole in our collection. So here I am.

And I’ve got to say, it is an impressive piece of film. The ape make-up on the vast majority of the cast alone is amazing in its scope and realization. Not that I expected anything less. After all, this isn’t considered a schlocky classic like Plan 9 From Outer Space. It had a big budget and well-known actors. What I am impressed by is how well it stands the test of time. Sure, it has problems, but visually it still looks very good. Part of that is that there aren’t really any special effects. The ape costumes and make-up do all the work here. So there’s not as much to date the movie as there would be if we had lots of lasers and effects shots. The thing that dated it the most for me was seeing the main character smoking at the control panel of the space ship he starts out on. This was filmed only a few months after the tragic fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, caused by a spark in a pure oxygen environment during a launch rehearsal for the Apollo 1. Smoking on board a space ship? Now that’s fantastical. It’s the sort of thing that genre parodies like Amazon Women on the Moon poke at. But once that space ship crashes, well. Its timelessness is rooted in its plot.

The whole story is set on what appears to be a strange and somewhat primitive world. It’s sparsely inhabited, with vast stretches of desert before any hospitable land is found. And the inhabitants are both apes and men, with the apes in the dominant role. The humans are non-verbal and uncivilized. They seem to be pre-When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, even. The apes, on the other hand, are cultured, with their own laws and religion and scientific community. They use horses and horse-drawn carriages for transportation and know nothing of achieving flight, but they also carry somewhat modern rifles (apparently they’re circa WWII), so the state of their civilization isn’t precisely analogous to any specific time period of our own. Suffice it to say that they’re a good deal ahead of the humans and believe humans to be dirty animals, untameable and only intelligent enough to learn simple tricks. And then along comes Taylor, leader of the space expedition that crashed on the planet. He’s an intelligent human from an advanced human civilization. And that changes everything once the scientists who’ve captured him realize that he’s different.

Of course, to keep the tension up, his crew is rapidly dispatched. One dies on the ship and the other two are dealt with once they’re captured by the apes. So Taylor’s on his own, trying to convince the apes that he’s a thinking and reasoning being and not a lab animal. The drama here comes from the very clear references to our own culture and conflicts. The apes have some very firm religious beliefs that state that apes were set above all other animals and given souls and reason. These beliefs are all set forth in a series of sacred scrolls that are believed to be the entire history of the world. So a human who can talk and reason? That’s heresy. And to be honest? It was painful to watch the religious authorities (who are also the scientific authorities) run a trial denouncing proof of intelligent humans as blasphemy. I’d like to believe that this was meant to be an allegory for such people as Copernicus and Galileo, but let’s face it: There are people right now who still deny that the theory of evolution has any basis (and its inclusion in text books is challenged all the time) and that the Earth is only a few thousand years old. It was unpleasant to watch the trial scenes, and I think it was supposed to be, but maybe not to the extent I felt it was.

There is a bit of a saving grace to the movie, however, which is that the character so vehemently opposed to Taylor’s existence, Dr. Zaius, has more motivations than he initially claims. It’s hinted that he knows more than he’s letting on. Zaius is both a scientific and religious leader and everything he does he claims to do in the name of science. But once you know more of what’s going on you see that he’s figured a lot of it out himself and is trying to protect his civilization from what he perceives as an ancient threat. And given the ending and what’s implied about the humans who came before? He’s probably right to be so cautious. Which is damn depressing, if you ask me. But this is a dystopian look at things, so that’s not shocking. The thing is, while pretty much everyone now knows the basic story and the “twist” ending, at the time the movie came out it was likely a huge revelation that Zaius was right and while not a good character, perhaps not as evil as he appeared to be.

I do like that the movie turns in different directions that way. I like that by the end we’re presented with our hero as the alien and humanity as a scourge. Just ask Al Gore, I’m sure he’d whip up a slide show for you to support that. But I like it because it does what some of the best sci-fi does: It makes you look at things with a different perspective. It views the world from a different angle. And that it can still do that and not come across as horribly dated more than forty years after it was made is an impressive feat. Of course, the impact of it is lessened by everyone knowing the twist already. If you already know what’s going on when you start the movie it takes a little more work not to watch the movie with it in mind. But it’s worth it.

I did find a few other aspects of the movie quite interesting and I was curious about tham and a little disappointed that they weren’t explored in more depth. The personality of Taylor, for one. He gets some time to explain himself when he and his crew are walking through the desert after the crash. He’s pretty damn misanthropic, which makes sense for the mission they were on which would have meant the crew would never see their friends or families or homes ever again. But it also ends up setting him up as an interesting figure to be mourning the end of human civilization. Unfortunately, that aspect doesn’t get much time since it’s only revealed in its full form at the end.

The other thing I liked and didn’t get enough of was the ape civilization. We’ve got gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees all living together, but in what appears to be a caste system. The gorillas are all in security type roles. The orangutans are the authority figures. And the chimpanzees are the inquisitive ones, but somewhat looked down upon by the others. I’d have loved to see more of the civilization itself, but that’s not the point of the movie, so it’s more background worldbuilding.

Overall I wouldn’t say I necessarily enjoyed this movie, but I appreciated it. It’s very well made and well acted. I have to give enormous respect to everyone who acted in the ape make-up, which I’m sure was difficult as it covered their entire faces. And the movie itself was done in such a way that it can be watched today and appreciated. Obviously it’s been referred to all over the place, from The Simpsons to Spaceballs. It spawned a number of sequels and tie-ins and that’s because it’s got an interesting and potentially vast world that’s ripe for exploration. It’s a success through and through, so I don’t need to have been grinning through the whole thing or want to watch it in regular rotation to acknowledge that and agree with it.

May 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

Planet of the Apes (1968)

May 27, 2011

Planet of the Apes (1968)

I like, as I watch this movie, to try and imagine a time when it was fresh, new and revolutionary. This movie spawned a franchise that involved a new Planet of the Apes movie every year from 1970 to 1975, a television series, multiple television movies, even a modern re-imagining. It has been the subject of references and spoofs in the Simpsons, in movies like Spaceballs, in MST3K – it is infamous and ubiquitous. I, myself, watched all the original movies on television in the early eighties. Channel 38 showed them all over the course of a single weekend and I was absolutely captivated by the somewhat strange mythology of the series. This was the seminal movie that started it all though, a movie so fascinating, radical and so compelling that it created an empire.

What people might not realize if they haven’t actually seen the movie and have only seen all the parody is that it is actually a very well done sci-fi film. It has a cool premise, a big budget, famously well done make-up, a powerful and well respected leading man, and of course some rather heavy social commentary. The strong messages of the film, and its often lampooned twist ending, should not be surprising considering that is was adapted for the screen by none other than Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone. As with much sci-fi from the sixties and seventies this is a movie that makes no attempt to hide its agenda.

The movie follows Colonel George Taylor and his ill-defined mission of space exploration. Traveling nearly at the speed of light he and his little crew are flying to a planet somewhere in the constellation of Orion. They make the journey in suspended animation and at relativistic speeds so that although back on the Earth they’ve left so far behind more than two thousand years have passed it is only a year or so for them. Unfortunately their spacecraft crash lands at the end of their journey leaving Taylor and the other two survivors of the crash in a desolate alien wasteland.

The first half hour or so of the movie shows the three of them, Taylor, Landon and Dodge trudging across the barren landscape. I’d say that this is the weakest part of the movie because although it gives a lot of time to establish Taylor’s nihilistic and skeptical character as he buts heads with Landon it also highlights the absurdity of their mission. Had it not gone awry what exactly were they supposed to be doing? Taylor takes almost annoying delight in pointing out that everything they knew when they set out in 1972 (which was the future when this movie was made) is now ancient history and dust. As such it seems they’re a very poorly equipped crew even just on a psychological level. Dodge is cool – he’s a scientist and more interested with exploration than anything else. Landon, however, is described by Taylor as mostly a glory hound – which doesn’t make much sense as there’s little glory to be had if nobody even remembers you. Then there’s Taylor himself, who seems to have been running away from Earth and from humanity as much as anything else. An interesting character to be sure but I wouldn’t send him on a mission to Mars, much less put him in command of an interstellar mission of exploration.

Glossing over all that though we soon get to the meat of the movie when the trio encounter a race that seem very much like primitive humans, and shortly thereafter are captured by intelligent apes whose agrarian culture is the dominant power on this planet. Rendered mute by a grazing bullet wound to the throat and separated from his crew mates Taylor must somehow find a way to communicate with his captors. He gains the confidence of a chimpanzee named Zira and her fiance Cornelius, an anthropologist with some interesting theories about the origins of simian culture. Eventually his very existence as an intelligent and talking human endangers both of them because he contradicts the ancient scrolls handed down from the Lawgiver – legendary creator of all simian culture fifteen hundred years ago. Dr. Zaius, the orangutan Minister of Science and defender of the faith, seems determined from the start to foil Zira and Cornelius at every turn in their attempts to explore knowledge of the time before the Lawbringer, and is deeply afraid of Taylor and what he represents.

There’s a lot of interesting social commentary here. Amanda was very much put off by the theme of demagogues putting faith before scientific inquiry I know (and I’m sure her review will explore those themes.) Of course there’s the infamous ending with its anti-war message which perhaps resonated more in the days of the cold war but is still great today. Me, I found myself captivated on this particular viewing by the slightly more subtle messages on race relations. I wonder how radical it was in 1968 that the science officer on Taylor’s expedition, Dodge, was black. It is not an issue for the characters in the movie, which is perhaps even more interesting given the time period. (Though of course sci-fi has often been a bastion of equality for both races and sexes since speculative exploration is part of the nature of the genre.) The apes themselves also raise questions of race and segregation though. There are three different species of ape featured in the movie, the chimps, the gorillas and the orangutans. The orangutans are clearly in command roles, the gorillas are muscle, and the chimps seem the most inquisitive and intelligent of the three. There are all kinds of hints about tensions between the races – such as the mention Zira makes to accords giving chimpanzees more clout in the scientific community lately. I’m fascinated by the entire concept of multiple sentient species cohabiting. The notion of specialization and segregation is something I’d have liked to have seen explored in greater detail.

It must have been a great coup to get Charlton Heston to star in this film. I mean this guy played Ben Hur, he played Moses, he played a Mexican in an Orson Welles movie. He’s a big time actor and his very presence on the screen gives a certain legitimacy and weight to this movie, which could otherwise have been fairly cheesy and campy. Indeed there’s a serious tone to this whole film that doesn’t seem to be present in much sci-fi any more. The sci-fi of today, with some rare and special exceptions like the excellent Moon which we reviewed last year, is largely a popular adventure film format – they don’t make movies like this one any more. With time even the Planet of the Apes movies became increasingly cheesy and silly, which is why when I watch this one I try so hard to see it for itself. Back before this movie became little more than a punchline.

May 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 1 Comment

Next

April 28, 2011

Next

You may recall, if you’ve been following this movie project since the very beginning, that we reviewed a cheesy Nick Cage movie as our fourth or fifth review. It involved Nick’s character knowing the future, and before we put it in I thought that movie (Knowing) was this movie. I was wrong of course, but maybe you can understand my confusion. The distinction is that in Knowing Nick’s character is tortured by the inevitability of the future, in this movie he spends the whole time surfing through the best of all possible futures.

I enjoy the concept at the core of this movie, which frustrates me because I don’t particularly enjoy the movie itself. It involves a man, Cris Johnson, who can see two minutes into the future. Always two minutes. He has a sad sort of life as a two bit Las Vegas mentalist calling himself Frank Cadillac. He’s been eking out a living trying not to draw too much attention to the fact that he knows the roll of any die or the order of the cards as long as the results will be revealed within the next two minutes. When the pressure gets too bad he can make a getaway using his future sight to wend his way through all the possible next two minutes to find the path that leads to freedom.

This is a very cool notion, the idea of seeing multiple outcomes that can result from different paths taken. We’ve seen it already seen it in a couple of my favorite films: Groundhog Day and Run Lola Run. Sadly, with a couple notable exceptions near the end of the movie, this movie doesn’t do a very good job showing Cris navigating the many possible futures. We get to see him taking the miraculously perfect path like Phil Connors at the end of his very long day. We get to see him on a couple occasions slowly going through the alternatives available to him in search of just the right result. Most of the time, however, he doesn’t seem to know what’s going to happen until just before it does happen, and even then he seems surprised. I think that the film makers just couldn’t figure out how to portray this in a way that made sense to the audience.

Call that problem one.

Problem two is that after establishing this cool mechanic they proceed to throw it out the window because there’s this one girl that Cris has seen for some reason who is outside of the normal two minute window. He has seen her coming into a certain diner at a certain time, and he keeps going back there with the hope that this day will be the one where he finally meets her. Apparently there’s something special about this girl Liz. The issue with this is that the movie never bothers to resolve anything about her. Supposedly where Liz is concerned Cris’ power is much enhanced and he can see much further ahead (how far is never made clear) but still he is constantly shocked by things about to happen just seconds into the future.

Then there’s problem three – the whole main action plot of the movie. There’s this group of foreign terrorists who have smuggled a nuke into the US and a sort of female Fox Mulder who knows about Cris and his ability and wants to use him to prevent Armageddon. This FBI agent, Ferris, is obsessed with capturing Cris and forcing him to use his precog powers for the greater good. The terrorists are obsessed with killing him before he can reveal to the FBI the location of their weapon. Of course Liz gets caught in the crossfire. It’s a poorly thought out plot on many levels. For one, Cris very correctly points out that two minutes warning is not going to help much when a nuclear detonation is involved. For another, it’s unclear why both the FBI and the terrorists are so convinced that Cris is the key to their articular agenda. It is a frilly doily of a plot with more hole than material. Most frustratingly the final twist ending resolves absolutely nothing. He does actually want to help stop the terrorists and protect Liz, but I can’t figure out how the events as we see them at the end of this movie have that desired result.

It drives me crazy that this movie is so lackluster. There are hints of the interesting world that Cris lives in, but they’re never explored to my satisfactionn. Take, as a minor and fairly spoiler free example, the moment when Cris picks up a phone and calls Ferris’ cell phone without thinking about it. Well this makes perfect sense – Cris would never dial a wrong number as long as the other party answered his phone. If he can truly see every possible future then he could easily explore every possible phone number until he found the one that worked. Likewise he should be able to instantly hack any password or PIN. There’s just so much potential here, and it saddens me that it isn’t lived up to.

It’s even more frustrating because I really want to see more of Cris and Ferris working together. Ferris is played by Julianne Moore, who gives her a strong and powerful vibe. She’s a woman used to being in command and getting her way. I enjoyed seeing her in action, and felt shortchanged that I got to see so little.

This movie is a tease. It introduces cool ideas and abandons them. It feels like it borrows some of its coolest moments from other movies (like the famous train escape from The Fugitive.) It sets clear rules and boundaries to the supernatural talents that Cris has, and promptly throws them out the window. It leaves me unfulfilled and frustrated, and wishing that it culd have been better done because I so very much love the concept.

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

Movie 400 – Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams – April 4th, 2011

A few things before I really get to the movie: One, we are now on movie 400. That’s pretty amazing to me. 400 movies in 400 days. We’ve watched through conventions, holidays and hospital visits. We’ve seen new movies, old movies, movies we liked, movies we hated. And we have a little under 200 more to go. I look at our list now and what’s left feels so small in comparison with when we started. Two, I had no idea this movie was based on a book. I often read through the IMDB trivia while we watch, because I like having a head full of pointless facts, and quite a lot of it had to do with the adaptation. Tomorrow I think I’m going to track down a copy of the book and check it out, because while I enjoy the movie, tidbits about the book intrigue me.

Now, on to the movie itself. This is one of those movies that everyone’s seen. It’s become a bit of a cultural icon, with the “If you build it…” line being quoted and spoofed all over the place. As is common with such things, it’s sort of reached the point where it’s inevitable that for every person who loves it and maintains that it’s a well made and meaningful movie, there’s someone else who thinks it’s overrated and maudlin. I fall somewhere in between. Because while I can see some of the criticism, I can’t deny that the movie makes me tear up every time I watch it. It has an emotional impact I appreciate.

The thing is, baseball is a vehicle here. Much as it is in The Natural. There’s a story to be told and baseball is used to carry it. I guess I just find this particular story more interesting. It’s a story about redemption and choices and family and growing up and growing old. We meet our main character, Ray Kinsella, and get a quick review of his life. He grew up in New York, rooted for the team opposing his father’s favorite. Resented his father’s push towards baseball. Headed to California for college and immersed himself in the 60s counter culture. He ended up marrying and starting a family, buying a corn farm in Iowa. His father died before they could make amends. They argued about baseball and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the Black Sox scandal and that sets the stage for the movie.

Ray hears a voice out in the corn one day. It tells him to build something and later he sees a baseball diamond out in his field. So he builds it. He sinks his family’s entire savings into it. And his wife is skeptical, but she helps him because he is utterly passionate about it. He has to build it. And after he does, “Shoeless” Joe shows up in the diamond. Young and in the prime of his career. Other players soon join him but he’s not done. Soon he’s tracking down an author named Terrence Mann, who heavily influenced his young adulthood. Then they go to find a man who played only a single game in the majors before retiring. Yes, it’s about baseball, but it’s a quest too. Complete with a road trip.

What I love about the movie is that it isn’t just about baseball. Yes, the sport is a keystone in the plot, but there’s a lot more to it. There’s a whole literary theme going on, with Mann and his works being a major point in Ray’s character. And there’s a strong theme of family, with Ray and his wife working as a team, with Ray and his daughter talking baseball and watching the ghosts of old greats play on their field. Ray’s wife Annie’s brother Mark shows up to threaten the farm, which is going bankrupt thanks to the space the baseball field takes up. And the spectre of Ray’s father, John, hovers through the entire story. And my favorite character (aside from Mann, who is played wonderfully by the fantastic James Earl Jones) is one who barely plays at all.

My absolute favorite character arc in this movie is Archie “Moonlight” Graham, or Doc Graham. He played a single game and retired, going back to school to become a doctor. Ray and Terrence learn that he took care of the whole town he lived in, devoting his life to making sure kids had the care they needed and the town held together. In a bit of time travel, Ray meets the late doctor, who corrects him when Ray says it was a tragedy that he only played for five minutes. Graham tells him no, if he’d only been a doctor for five minutes, that would be the tragedy. Graham doesn’t go with Ray, but then his younger self shows up, plays, and makes the same exact choice. To give it up and be a doctor. And there is something there that touches me. If I was going to get truly sentimental, I would say that it not only makes this movie for me, but it informed me as a person. That sometimes, some people just have to go down the path of service, not the path of glory. That those decisions will always be impossible to make any other way when we’re faced with them. I love Graham’s character. I love Burt Lancaster as his older self and Frank Whaley as his younger self. It sets this movie aside for me.

There are plenty of good performances in this movie, notably Ray Liotta as Jackson and Kevin Costner as Ray. I really like Amy Madigan as Annie and I always enjoyed her funky attitude towards the whole situation, questioning and accepting at the same time. Because it’s all fantastic. They build this field and then a dead ball player shows up in the middle of it before walking off into their cornfield. They have the same dream featuring Fenway Park and an author they hadn’t talked about before a PTA meeting discussing banning his books (and I love this movie for being so vehemently anti-censorship, by the way). And that’s ridiculous! But she stands firm because she knows it’s important and she’s a strong woman in the face of pressure. I love that.

So it’s heavy-handed. It’s heavy-handed in interesting ways for a movie that’s ostensibly about sports. It’s got a lot of thought in it, and a lot of care. And it’s got an Action Research! scene. It’s a movie that takes the time to make you want to care about the main character as well as the people around him. You care about Terrence Mann through him before you meet him. You care about the ball players and Doc Graham and you care about Ray’s father. It’s a fantasy movie. It’s got ghosts and magical voices and time travel, so there’s all of that going for it for me too. And it comes together. It all plays out in a well-paced movie that never feels uneven to me. It feels balanced and really, it feels literary. Which I know now is likely because it’s based on a book and I think that speaks well to it as an adaptation. We’ll see how I feel after I actually read the book itself.

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

Movie 385 – The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect – March 20th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Butterfly Effect

March 20, 2011

The Butterfly Effect

I bought this movie at the same time that I bought Donnie Darko and watched them as a double bill. It was a kind of a mind bender of an afternoon. Both movies deal with wish fulfillment in a way, but this movie is far more direct about it. I was actually reluctant to watch this film that first time because it was billed as an Ashton Kutcher film, and I didn’t feel particularly jazzed about that. This movie is mesmerizing and fascinating though and it easily got under my skin.

The start of this movie is a little brutal to watch. It’s a movie about changing the past and what perils lie therein, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. Our hero Evan Treborn has had a traumatic childhood. It involves child pornography, the inadvertent detonation of an innocent baby, the brutal murder of a dog and other general nastiness. Every time one of these horrific events occurs he blacks out and can’t remember what happened. The point of all this is that when Evan is eventually all grown up and in college he eventually discovers that he can concentrate on his journals from the time and go back to those missing moments and re-live them. He can change those tipping points in his life and as a result change all the lives he’s connected with.

It’s the concept of the movie that grabs me more than the execution. Like Run Lola Run and Groundhog Day it explores that sort of “if I knew then what I know now” notion of re-doing your life and the alternate paths it can take. Unlike those movies it is a fairly gritty and unpleasant life that we’re witness to. The general theme of the movie is that there are drastic unintended results from our actions, particularly at these crucial turning points in our lives. Every time Evan goes back and tries to make things right they turn out worse in unexpected ways. Particularly in the director’s cut, which we watched tonight because it is a rule of the project that we will always watch the longest version of a film that we own, Evan can’t get a break and there’s a dreadful sense of inevitability to his final solution.

There are a few things in this movie that simply don’t make sense. One central theme is that whenever Evan changes the past and finds himself in a new reality the people around him don’t notice that anything has happened. Except when it serves the plot for them to notice. At one point he goes back and gives himself some scars to prove to his cellmate in prison that he has this ability and his cellmate is suitably impressed. It doesn’t make sense given what we’ve seen so far of his ability. What should happen is that his cellmate sees the scars and is like “Yeah? So what – you had those scars when you came in here.” And there are unanswered questions set up right at the start of the film like why did he draw that bizarre picture in class? We keep expecting some kind of answer and get nothing.

Putting aside these little complaints and the general bleak tone of the movie though I have to admit that it’s a pretty good film. Not a happy film by any means, even with the less-dark theatrical ending, but a good film. I’m a sucker for the core concept – even if this movie takes it in a pretty uncomfortable direction. The progressively more bleak alternate realities that Evan finds himself in are interesting extrapolations from the past. There are some cool digital effects done on a shoestring budget, which I always appreciate. And there are even some good performances.

In particular Amy Smart is fantastic as Evan’s childhood crush Kayleigh. Most of Evan’s efforts revolve around attempts to save her and in many of the alternative worlds she is very badly broken by the events of the past. Amy gets some very difficult scenes to play as the emotionally damaged Kayleigh and she delivers some great emotional impact for the film. I had also forgotten that Elden Henson plays one of Evan’s other friends in the various alternate realities and he’s awesome too. (I remember being very impressed by him when we reviewed Marilyn Hotchkiss.) As for Ashton himself? He’s perfectly acceptable. Evan is a generally likable guy who turns out pretty much okay most of the time in his various alternative presents, and Ashton plays him as generally likable.

I really like this kind of movie. Movies that explore how changes or foreknowledge allow people to alter their lives. This particular example is pretty brutal, but that doesn’t stop me liking it. I think I enjoy the theatrical cut better than the director’s cut, even though there’s more explanation for Evan’s affliction and a more epic feel to the director’s cut. Maybe we should add Peggy Sue Got Married to our collection so we have another example of the genre to examine.

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

Movie 344 – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – February 7th, 2011

I was not looking forward to this movie. Granted, it’s a cheesy action movie based on a video game series I quite like, but I was not looking forward to it. In fact, I didn’t want to own it. I’m fairly sure I was vocal about not wanting to see it or own it before it even came out in theaters. It rubbed me the wrong way right from the beginning and yes, I blame the casting. It suffers from the same issues that plague The Last Airbender (and no, I won’t be watching that) and I know I said I had problems with it. And then one day I came home from work and Andy told me he’d bought it. We might have had words about that. And now we have a standing policy not to buy things without consulting each other first. When I grabbed a pile of movies for cheap at work I put them aside first, checked with Andy, and then paid for them. I think that’s a good policy, both for the collection and for our marital bliss.

All that being said, it was not as horrible as I expected. Of course, I went in with expectations about as high as a worm’s eye view, so that wasn’t hard. I can think of worse movies. I can think of worse movies in our collection. But that does not make this a good movie. Even the presence of two actors I quite enjoy isn’t enough to make this a good movie. Witty banter isn’t enough and pretty props and effects aren’t enough. It’s just plain not a good movie. And there were no spinning saw blades in the floors and the princess didn’t crawl through any cracks, so right there it fails as a movie of the video game for me. Were spinning blades in the floors too much to ask? I think not.

Part of the movie’s problem is that I just don’t buy Jake Gyllenhaal as the prince. He seems a nice enough actor, but I’ve always seen the prince in the games as a Han Solo sort of character. And to pull off that sort of character you have to ooze charm. You have to be so charismatic you could be loved and adored by the people you’re shooting. Or stabbing, as the case may be. And Gyllenhaal, well, he just seems to be a bit too serious. A bit too quiet. He just doesn’t do it for me. I haven’t seen too much with him yet, so I don’t want to speak to his abilities in other types of roles, but I don’t think he’s really the charming scoundrel type. He can’t pull off moments like selling a princess into slavery without making me want to slap him. That moment was really close to Beastmaster levels of disgust for me and there wasn’t enough survival-of-the-me snark to mitigate the grossness.

Gemma Arterton does a slightly better job with the banter and snark, which is nice. I mean, it’s kind of cool having a female lead who tricks the scoundrel male lead into feeling sorry for her before kicking his ass. That’s what I want from my Prince of Persia princess. Really, she outshines the prince whenever they’re on screen together. Can’t complain about that. And then there’s Ben Kingsley, who arrives on screen looking like he should have “Grand Vizzier” written on his hat in rhinestones. Oh, Ben Kingsley. You need to find some movies where you’re the good guy, or even a neutral guy. Or at least a better bad guy than this, bitter over being a king’s brother. Richard Coyle was the surprise here for me. I know him best as Jeff in the original Coupling series. Bizarre to see him so coherent, and I did enjoy seeing him do something so very different from what I know him from. Still, I wish it had been in something better than this.

The plot isn’t anything special. It’s your typical treason plot, with someone close to the king (they didn’t call him a grand vizier but come on – look at the beard!) plotting to take over the throne and setting up our hero to take the fall for it. We get some backstory, with the king adopting homeless orphan Dastan and making him the youngest of his three sons for some bizarre reason. The king’s brother tricks the three young princes to attack a fortified holy city so he can steal a magical dagger that contains the sands of time and which can be used to reverse up to a minute of time if needed. The king is killed, Dastan is blamed, he goes on the run with Princess Tamina, the ruler of the holy city, and together they have to try and keep the dagger out of the wrong hands while also stopping… the dagger from getting in the wrong hands. I mean, okay, Dastan knows he can’t let the bad guys get the dagger, right? So he takes the dagger with him when he heads back to the city where the bad guys are. Smart move, jackass.

There’s actually a whole plot in the movie where Dastan and Tamina head to a sanctuary in the middle of nowhere to try and dispose of the dagger by plunging it into the earth. Great idea, except one of Dastan’s brothers shows up (Garsiv, played by Toby Kebbell – and I must say I liked him, even if Andy is totally right and dude was pulling some major Karl Urban facial expressions) and then a bunch of hired hit men show up and it really feels like a climax. Sure, it’s not as showy as the real climax ended up being, but watching it, I realized there was another 36 minutes to go and kind of boggled. The movie lurches from action scene to action scene. There’s even a sandstorm. Saaaaaaandstoooooooorm. And no, that’s not the only MST3K reference that found its way into this movie for me. It is a movie perfect for riffing on (and yet RiffTrax hasn’t done it).

By the time the actual climax happens and there’s sand everywhere and time’s being reversed and then set going again and reversed again and so on and so forth I was so bored all I could do was snark about the lack of spinning blades. It was pretty obvious how it was going to go in the end, though I was amused to see that our hero had to subcontract a key part of the plan to another hero (the knife throwing Seso, played by Steve Toussaint about as well as one could play a role with so little to work with outside of action). It just left me feeling like with a budget like that, and material like the game(s), they could have done a better job. Frustrating, but there you have it. It didn’t grate on me as much as it could have, but it certainly wasn’t surprisingly good or anything. And seriously, if I’m ever a world leader, remind me not to have a grand vizier. Especially not one who looks like Ben Kingsley.

February 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

February 7, 2011

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

“Most people think time is like a river that flows fast and sure in one direction, but I have seen the face of time and I can tell you that they are wrong. Time is like and ocean in a storm.”

So begins one of the greatest video games of all time. A game which shares a title with this movie and very little else. The game is a near perfect blend of action, puzzles, and plot. It made you care about the characters of the nameless Prince and the rival princess Farah who is the only other person not corrupted when the sands of time are released. It has adventure, romance, magic and most of all a wonderful way of telling the story.

I remember seeing the previews for this in the theater and saying to my wife “we’re going to see that, right?” It was the same reaction I had when we saw the previews for the Clash of the Titans re-make. I knew this wouldn’t be as good as the source material, but I was curious to see how a truly great game would hold up when adapted into a summer blockbuster big budget movie. We didn’t end up seeing it the theaters though, and when I eventually bought the movie on DVD (at the same time that I bought Clash of the Titans in fact) Amanda was aghast that I would waste our money in such a way. Why, she wanted to know, did I keep buying movies I knew were going to be bad?

The fact of it is that this movie isn’t all bad. Oh, it can’t hold a candle to the writing and charm of the game it takes its name from, but it’s a passable if somewhat over long summer action flick. It has some fun fight scenes, a little wire work, and some acrobatics which, although they do not really capture the flow of action in the game, look kind of cool I suppose. I’d say it has two main flaws. For one there’s Jake Gyllenhaal. He makes a strange sort of action hero. He has the physique (he must have done a whole lot of push ups) but he doesn’t have the charm. Somebody made an effort to make him look like the Prince in the second PoP game. The one with the mopey, angsty, Trent Reznor inspired hero. And although there are quips for him to deliver in the movie they never seem to work. I would posit that the problem is that at heart Jake is a ham. He’d be more at home in some of the campier comedy inspired episodes of the Highlander TV series laughing it up with Adrian Paul. When he’s called upon to bring some intensity he just comes up short.

My other problem with the movie would be that it takes so long to get moving. It’s about forty minutes before the prince first uses the dagger of time to rewind. There’s a long preamble that introduces the slightly confusing royal family with the king, his evil brother (don’t deny that you knew from the very first time Ben Kingsley appeared on screen that he was evil) the king’s two biological sons and his adopted street urchin son Dastan (our hero ladies and gentlemen.) Then there’s an extremely long siege on a peaceful neighboring town where Dastan gets the dagger. And back to the capital of Persia (wherever that is in the confusing alterna-universe of this movie) where the king is assassinated and Dastan framed for it. All of that before we get any sands of time at all. I think that one thing this movie very much needed was a ruthless and creative editor. If your movie is about the manipulation of time then perhaps it should not be so ploddingly linear – and perhaps you should set a better pace from the outset.

I won’t say that I expected more from this movie. It delivered pretty much exactly what I saw in that preview in the movie theater. In the end though it doesn’t have a creative moment in the entire film (you know what would have been a cool and unexpected twist? If Ben Kingsley had turned out NOT to be the bad guy!) It borrows not just from the game but from the Disney Aladdin and the Indiana Jones movies. It is about half an hour longer than it needs to be. After watching the whole thing tonight I wanted to hold the ‘L’ button and re-do it. I leave you with another quote from the classic game this was based on: “Wait. That’s not how the story goes.”

February 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment