Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movies in Review: My Best Rentals of 2010 (Part 2 of 2)


Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
Family/ Fantasy
Voices of Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Rated G

When I first started this film, John Lasseter, head of Pixar and director of “Toy Story”, greeted me and introduced the film, talking briefly about how much it inspired him personally. It was a warm welcome and helped me realize that I was about to witness a piece of art. The story is about a young girl who can fly on a broomstick, who travels to a costal village to learn more about her newfound gift. The film is very light on actual plot, but heavy on using emotions to guide the story, something which can be difficult to do in a fully animated feature.

“Kiki” is gentle coming of age story that wafts and lingers like the scent of a summer breeze after a peaceful rain shower. The characters are charming and endearing each playing a full symphony on your heartstrings amidst a beautiful world of colors and textures like the foundations of a daydream. I admired how early on we establish that each character has psychical weight, which the makes the scenes of flight all the more breathtaking. Everything about it was so captivating down the wind blown grass and sparkling beads of dew that I couldn’t even bring myself to look away.


Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Drama
No Rating

The visual tone of this film has an interesting effect. The colors look rain washed, like witnessing the aftermath of a mighty storm. This perfectly reflects the struggles of the teenaged Jim (James Dean) stumbling through life and his conflicts with his parents and peers that lead to a series of rash actions.

Curiously, there are at least two TV funnymen in supporting roles such as Jim Backus (The Millionaire from “Gilligan’s Island”) as Jim’s father and Edward Platt (The Chief from “Get Smart”) as the chief of police. Despite how we may think of them today, both characters play their parts seriously while others provide the levity and humor necessary to balance such a dark story.


Sabrina (1954)
Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden
Directed by Billy Wilder
Romance/Comedy
No Rating

I tend to view movies the way connoisseurs taste wine. Testing it and seeking to understand it beforehand, moving on to writing my reviews mere minutes after end credits have rolled. Conversely, I cannot think of many times when I have reacted so much to a film as this one. I laughed longer and harder during this movie than any other film I have seen in the past year.

After snubbing the advances of his chauffeur’s daughter, Sabrina. David, a carefree playboy begins to see her in a new light, which puts his arranged engagement in jeopardy, and its up to his strictly business brother, Linus to try and straighten things out, only to end up with feeling for Sabrina himself.

All of the characters seemed to be armed with a hefty supply of one-liners and snappy comebacks. William Holden exhibits excellent comic timing and Audrey Hepburn is as charming to watch as ever.


The Searchers (1956)
John Wayne, Jeffery Hunter, Vera Miles
Directed by John Ford
Western
No Rating

John Wayne continues to demonstrate why he is an icon of the genre with this strong role as seeks to rescue his kidnapped niece from the weary and savage west.

This is quite possibly the most beautiful cinematography I have ever seen in a movie. Filmed in Utah’s Monument Valley, every shot is dynamic, conveying the expansive yet strangely beautiful loneliness and danger of the frontier, opening up a world made of solitude unlike anything before.

Emotions run raw as our heroes cross the treacherous territory, experiencing highs and lows as they encounter both hope and futility in their long quest.

With illustrative sights, a strong story, able characters and a subtle sense of humor, "The Searchers" is easily one of the best Westerns ever made.


Toy Story 3 (2010)
Voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack
Directed by Lee Unkrich
Family
Rated G

The original “Toy Story” was one the first films I can remember seeing as a child. I had the opportunity to rewatch both films in anticipation for this unexpected sequel. The two previous films, despite their age and the changes in the technology felt as fresh and inventive as they did when they were first made. In many ways watching these films as an adult helped my understanding of the some of the gags and plot points.

While I thought the film had more situational humor than the character based interactions I enjoyed so much about the first two, it does match the tone of its predecessors perfectly. I only wish that I could go back in time and prevent myself from seeing the trailers for this film, which contained some of the film’s best jokes. If I had seen these gags without knowing what to expect, I imagine I would have been completely breathless from laughing, instead I settled for roaring with amusement in my chair.

Like Pavlov’s dog salivating to the sound of the bell, my eyes well up with tears each time I view the ending. Closing with the message; cherish your memories, and pass them on. What better way to end the year then with that?

If that wasn't enough, here are my recommend rental runners up. Perhaps I'll write about them some other time.


  • 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
  • The Apartment
  • Blade Runner
  • Chinatown
  • Castle in the Sky
  • Double Indemnity
  • Enter the Dragon
  • The Fly (1986)
  • Frost/Nixon
  • The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
  • The Hurt Locker
  • In the Heat of the Night
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • The Karate Kid (2010)
  • Let the Right One In
  • Mad Love (1935)
  • Marty
  • Predator
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Quiz Show
  • RoboCop
  • Rocky
  • Roman Holiday
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Some Like It Hot
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Zombieland

Movies in Review: My Best Rentals of 2010 (Part 1 of 2)

I love movies of all kinds, from all different genres and cultures. Unfortunately, I don’t get as much of a chance to go out to see current movies at the theaters. But I find I can often get more mileage out of renting older movies from the local video store. While other critics will likely bombard you with lists of their favorite theatrically released pictures that you may have already seen, here is my list of movies that I watched at home. Some you may know but never seen and some you may never have heard of at all. It took a while to narrow down all my choices to these; the top ten best movies that I saw for the first time this year.

A Patch of Blue (1965)
Romance/Drama
Starring Sidney Poitier, Shelly Winters
Directed by Guy Green
No Rating

A blind white teenage girl and black man discover an unlikely friendship.

Performances are everything in this movie. Sidney Poitier delivers his part with considerable grace, acting as a mentor and friend to Shelly Winters (in her Oscar winning role) who perfectly personifies the role of a modern day Cinderella, liberated from her abusive family and experiencing the everyday pleasures of life for the first time.

The late Jerry Goldsmith provides a remarkable score for this film. Primary known for his big rousing action movie music, here he is able to create a soft, gentle symphony that feels like a lofting summer wind. He also shows great skill, knowing when be silent and gives the audience an opportunity to linger on the emotions of the actors.


Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Horror
Starring
Directed by George Romero
Rated R

Recognizing the danger of the coming zombie apocalypse, four strangers find refuge in an abandoned shopping mall. While they have every conceivable comfort imaginable, over time we discover the futility of their daily living. The isolation from the rest of deceased remains of humanity slowly drives them mad.

The zombies in this movie are slow and lumbering with silver painted skin and blank

expressions. They are all dressed like they were about to go somewhere and had lives, jobs and purpose before they suddenly died. These are “blanks”; they look human, but have been wiped clean of anything that made them people. Their appearance serves as a haunting mirror of what our survivors stand to lose. It felt almost as if their soul had been wiped away and left behind nothing but the empty shell and is a subtle, yet terrifying concept to consider. The film is a masterpiece in multiple layers of horror ranging from shocking to subtle.


Dirty Harry (1971)
Action/Suspense
Starring Clint Eastwood, Andrew Robinson
Directed by Don Siegel
Rated R

“You’ve got to ask yourself: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

The quote, paraphrased and recycled throughout the decades, still weighs heavily when spoken by Clint Eastwood’s most indelible character. Through then lens of director Don Siegel’s brilliant camera work, the streets of San Francisco become a maze as the cynical Police Inspector Harry Callahan hunts a deadly serial killer.

This film was crucial in starting the “cop on the edge, who doesn’t play by the rules” archetype. While we side with Harry’s devotion to justice because we follow his point of view, amidst the pulse pounding suspense and violent action scenes, the movie encourages viewers to reach their own conclusion about whether or not Harry’s actions are in the right or wrong. Harry himself contemplates his decisions in the final frame that serves as a monumental deconstruction of the action hero.


Gone With The Wind (1939)
Epic
Starring Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable
Directed by Victor Fleming
Not Rated

This is a movie that I must admit, is difficult to sit through. I don’t mean that is difficult because of its four hour run time, or its historical setting that is so vastly different from out own, or because of its

harlequin romance tropes. No, what makes this a difficult is that our two lead characters, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, are horrible people. Scarlett is a cold, harsh woman who lusts after her best friend’s husband and is willing to manipulate the emotions of others in order to get what she wants. Rhett is a rougish womanizer, who is just as, if not more self-serving. Then why, you might ask, have I placed this on a list of movies that I enjoyed the most in the past year?

I find something refreshing about characters who are willing to admit their selfishness and it does help that we see these people change in the face of adversity. Scarlett does not sit around and wait to be rescued, but takes action into her own hands and by patient industry works to rebuild the life she once knew and loved. The onslaught of war devastates the Old South, and while it has been presented like our human leads as beautiful but flawed, seeing it in blazes, almost brings a tear to my eye. The conflict is presented with remarkable scale. In particular, there is a scene in which the camera pulls back on a field covered in the bodies of wounded and bloodied soldiers, is a heart-stopping image.

Those looking for a more shorter and more lighthearted movie may want to stop at the intermission at the two hour mark, where you’re most likely to find a more optimistic conclusion than how the film actually closes.


How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Family/Fantasy
Voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerald Butler
Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean BeLois
Rated PG

If I were to attempt to describe the plot of this film, I could say that it is the best of “The Hero’s Journey” plus a “Coming of Age High School Story” multiplied by “A Boy and His Dog”. Hiccup Haddock is a string bean of a gangly teenager living in a village of muscle bound Vikings, constantly at war with viscous dragons. However, when Hiccup inadvertently captures a young dragon, he finds it is a social animal and develops a strong friendship and understanding with the creature.

Ordinarily Dreamworks Animation causes me to roll my eyes and turn off my brain, as they are best known for assaulting the viewers with smarmy pop culture references and over-the-top celebrity voice cameos. However, in recent years their animated feature have developed remarkable maturity in visual style as well as storytelling with movies like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Monsters vs. Aliens”. With that said, “How to Train your Dragon” represents an astonishing new leap in what this studio is capable of doing.

The setting and the characters showcase an amazing level of detail when it comes to animation. The expressive body language of the dragons is dynamic and the flight sequences easily steal the show.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Watchmen (2009)

Starring Jackie Earl Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Billy Cruddup, Matthew Goode, Jeffery Dean Morgan
Directed by Zack Snyder
Action/Adventure/Science Fiction
Rated R: Strong Graphic Violence, Language, Sexuality and Nudity
Based on the graphic novel illustrated by Dave Gibbons

Summary:

I can't think of a movie more polarizing for comic book fans than this one. This is likely because of the complexity of the source material, widely considered to be the magnum opus of the comic book medium that was so complex that it has been called "unfilmable", and some might legitimately argue that this is still true.

Taking place in an alternative 1986, this film depicts costumed vigilantes as people who have helped shape the face of history and culture in America, but have since been outlawed, and now one of the older heroes has been murdered and the investigation leads to the revelation of a greater conspiracy set against the apocalyptic tension between the US and the USSR.

Analysis:

The dialogue felt very scripted and stilted, likely because of dense adaptation and the exuberant amount of exposition that needed to be laid out so that is understandable. The scenes with Laurie (Malin Ackerman), especially those with her mother (Carla Gugino) were absolutely terrible, thankfully her screen time is relatively brief. The violence is considerably bloody and lovingly shows bones breaking and human fillets whenever possible. The street fight at the beginning is easily the goriest, with Adrian’s assassination attempt near the middle coming in for a close second. By the time we get to the prison fight, we’re all but immune to the buckets of blood they show us in the sawing scene. To his credit Snyder reverses our expectations by cleverly staging Rorschach’s last kill occur off screen, using the swinging door as a tool for building tension and concealing what I imagine would be the bloodiest scene in the whole film, making it much more effective and scary.


The scenes with Dr. Manhattan (Billy Cruddup) are easily the best part of the film. For all those complaining about Dr. Manhattan’s lack of attire, please do us all a favor and grow up. His back-story does have to most weight and depth to it, especially when you realize how horrible the directions he was pushed into ultimately were. I sight the “Ride of Valekyries” scene in Vietnam as another example of just how terrifying the scope of this character can be amidst the tone of triumph and victory that is the intent of the scene itself.


Being unable to relate to others seems to be a theme of this film specifically. As the world's smartest man Adrian cannot relate to anyone but Rameses, Rorschach’s sociopath behavior alienates everyone close to him, Manhattan’s lack of humanity, and Laurie claims that she doesn't know anyone but other superheroes. I don't know wether this was an intended theme of the original work, and I had to wonder if this was Snyder's weakness when it came to working with actors over visuals that was unintentionally constructing this theme.


I find it ironic that for as heavy handed as things got in the original source material, things managed to be even less subtle in the movie, likely because of the medium’s reductive nature. The child murder had to be absolute so that Rorscharh’s action in killing the killer could be justified and could still be seen as heroic next to the "villain"; Ozymandis. Ozymandis's sympathy with the auidence is somewhat hampered by his diminished screen time and the forgiveness he asks from his pet CG tiger rather than for the millions he has just killed.
Altogether, even though I knew the story back and forth from the book and the previous viewing I can still say that it is very engaging. Saying it’s the fastest two hours and a half of your life is no exaggeration. While it has its faults but I still say as a film adaptation has done more good that harm done to its legacy.

Zack Snyder is a very visually oriented director and you could tell that this was a real passion project for him. The production design captures the look of the comic quite strongly, and the effects are complimentary in their workmanship quality, but the feelings I experience while reading the graphic novel are absent in this film. It is the best adaptation I think we could have gotten. No adaptation of this story could ever be as ground breaking as the original, but it tries more so to be a small representation than an avant-garde piece, just aiming to wrap everything up in a neat package. It was designed to satisfy those who were familiar with the source material, and on that level it works. The film contains a lot of the elements from the original, but the spirit and scope are absent due to the sheer abundance of the project.


Final Score:

3 1/2 out of 5. As good as it could have been.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Treasure Planet (2002)


Voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, David Hyde Pierce, Emma Thompson, Martin Short
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Adventure/ Science Fiction
Rated PG: Action Peril
Adapted from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Introduction:

The last time I spoke an animated film from Walt Disney Pictures, I spoke of “The Black Cauldron”, a horrible mess filled with wasted opportunities and that was best buried by the sands of time. In order to make up for that wreck of a film, I will now review another animated Disney that has largely gone unnoticed and deserves far more attention and better recognition.

What went wrong with this movie simply boils down to marketing. It was coming off the heels of the perplexingly popular "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" and was released a mere week before the latest installments of two other juggernaut frachises; Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. A film like this with such an eye-rolling premise didn’t stand a chance. The movie caved under the competition and the low income was deemed responsible for the eventually shutting down of Disney’s hand drawn animation studios. So when Disney was looking to revive the medium with “The Princess and the Frog”, they got these two directors again. Wait what? Well, actually it does make such given how Ron Clements and John Musker were responsible for the animation renaissance, making movies like “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”, the later of which we shall see a substantial influence especially with the rebellious orphan male hero with his sidekicks, flying around an exploding cave of gold on his flying board.

Summary:

The film shares the same writers as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and continues the blend of maritime action and humor, particular when it comes to the characters. Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, once again playing a teenager from outer space) is portrayed as moody teen with a lot of potential but no direction. He is taken under the wing of a rough old cyborg sailor named John Silver (Brian Murray), who teaches him the ropes, even giving him “The Destiny Speech”. (Unlike “Astro Boy”, the word “destiny” is never used in the speech, and is used to effectively guide Jim out of his funk and spark a change in his character for the better. Also the corniness of the trope is referenced by another character.) Doctor Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), is our primary comic relief, frequently stumbleing over his tongue, especially in the presence of the beautiful, yet stern Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson). The two remaining characters of note are the two “Disney sidekick” characters intended to become breakout stars and help sell toys; the shape shifting Morph, and the bipolar robot B.E.N. (Martin Short) These two are feel reminiscent of the various sidekicks from “Aladdin”. Morph’s faux-English and ability to fall into trouble is much like that of Abu, while B.E.N. spontaneous outbursts feel like leftovers from The Genie, and may have been less irritating had they come from the mouth of Robin Williams. Together, they’re off in search of riches and adventure IN SPACE!!!!

Analysis:

The surrogate father-son relationship between Jim and Silver is at the forefront of the film and is easily its strongest part, and reminds me of why this makes for a better adaptation than say “Muppet Treasure Island”, where there is a similar mix of the classic story with various anachronisms and several strange creatures. In that film, the relationship between Jim and Silver was mismatched by the child actors low key performance and Tim Curry as Silver being his usual over-the-top self, so that they only thing left to focus on is the weirdos in the background. Here the weirdos in the background serve as flavoring for the story and help establish the world they inhabit.

The setting of “Treasure Planet” is a rather unique one. The film employs and mixture of both traditional hand drawn animation and three dimensional computer animation. Anything made of skin or having an organic feel is done traditionally, while anything mechanical is rendered by computer animation. This creates an incredibly interesting effect on John Silver, who is half man and half machine. The environment of the film seems to have taken this same approach, mixing the book’s original setting during the Second Industrial Revolution with more contemporary science fiction, effectively combining Steam Punk with Cyber Punk creating what I shall dub as “Solar Punk”. The look of the film borrows heavily from the style of artist, N.C. Wyeth who illustrated the original “Treasure Island”. As an illustrator myself, this is going to gain it some extra points in my book. This also makes for serving some engaging sight gags to further one of the film’s themes that “Not everything is what it seems”, such as moments we see what appear to be quaint wooden building, only to get closer and see that they are made out of rivets and gears. Despite being close to a decade old, the computer animatied portions still hold up well, and being a Disney film, the traditional animation is second to none

Action Packed, Astoundingly Animated, Humorous, and ultimately moving (Kudos to the music by James Newton Howard) This one is a winner.

Final Score:

4 out of 5. Highly Recommended.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Starring Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer
Directed by Zack Snyder
Horror/Zombie Apocalypse
Rated R: Violence, Gore, Language, Some Sensuality

Summary:

The film begins as we slowly begin to see the zombie apocalypse develop and get a first person reaction from Ann (Sarah Polley) and well as a montage to let us know this is a worldwide event. Our entourage of characters are able find shelter at the local shopping mall. There are some hostilities with the people already at the mall, but this is smoothed over rather quickly for the sake of narrative convenience. They wait around, do some things, and then before you know it, they escape from the mall and make their way out into a very bleak world.

Analysis:

We don’t get so much of a protagonist or lead characters so much as we see some people who spend more time onscreen than others. In the original film had only four lead characters and got to know them and see them change with the situations, and because we knew them, there was some considerable tension as to whether or not they would live or die. In the remake we have at the height of the head count, seventeen characters, none of which we get to know beyond which of them is good with a gun, which one of them can stitch up injuries and which one of them is the jerk that’ll most likely abandon the group and get eaten by karma zombies. By the end I couldn’t even remember half of their character’s names.

With that being said there are some interesting ideas that are tossed around during the course of this movie. One subplot involves Ving Rhames using signboards to communicate with “Andy”, a guy who has secured himself on the roof of a gun store across the street. “He may as well be on the moon.” Ving says. It’s a rather chilling line at that, knowing that because of the undead army between them, he cannot help this man in need. The two men develop a friendship through the exchange of information and display emotional reactions to relaying of bad news. In my opinion, it’s the best part of the movie. There is also a rather gruesome scene involving a pregnant woman giving birth to a zombie baby that ranks as shocking on the emotional scale.

Despite the fact that the movie starts by focusing on Ann and reaction to the surrounding chaos she isn’t a leader or a real protagonist. As a nurse she just slaps on Band-Aids, while the other women are either elderly, in labor, or putting out so that we can see some truly pointless sex scenes. The duty of “group leader” shifts between Ving Rhames’ police officer character and “Michael” (Jack of all trades, master of none!) to handle all the dangerous situations, as that is the duty of men. I can’t help but remember “Night of the Living Dead” and the original “Dawn of the Dead” and how revolutionary it was that the black guy was in charge and could help get the survivors organized. In the very beginning we see Ann looked down upon by a doctor concerned only with his tee time because of her position as a nurse. This film could have been about Ann using her field experience as a medic to step up and lead, to show that theres more to her than what people give her credit for or what people see and feels like a missed moment of opportunity.

There are a handful of montage sequences, but none of them capture the feelings that the montages of the original did of the escapist fantasy of a shopping spree or of the futility and boredom of living in such an isolated and comfortable existence. There really isn’t any social commentary or message in this movie like there was in the original. So much of the film is just waiting around for something exciting to happen.

The zombies in this movie (curiously enough they are never called “zombies” at any point in the remake) are fast and furious, raging and raving as they crave for human flesh, much like those infected by the Rage virus in “28 Days Later”. These zombies look and feel more like wild animals than people with the way they ran, growled and were covered in blood. It really didn’t register in my mind that they were once people and it diminished both the threat of attack and the fear of what they represented.

While I respect the remake for trying out some new ideas rather than trying to carbon copy the original, ultimately it doesn’t go far enough to establish itself as something unique or different. The characters just hang around the mall waiting for something exciting to happen and I felt very much the same way watching the film itself.

Final Score:

3 out of 5. Typical. Falls short of what it could have been.

(Embedded trailer unavailable)

Dawn of the Dead (1978)


Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, Tom Savini
Directed by George A. Romero
Horror/ Zombie Apocalypse
Rated R: Violence

Summary:

The film opens on a chaotic news studio reporting the events of the zombie apocalypse as it happens. The mood is tense and the situation appears hopeless as we see scientists debating in circles about the current crisis having no definitive answer to the problem.

Our leads, recognizing the danger, manage to escape in a helicopter with the intent of going to Canada. Along the way they land on the roof of a shopping mall, where find supplies, food and shelter and decide to stay. We stick with these four for the whole movie and get to know them and see them change through the situations that they’re up against. Much like “War of the Worlds”, they are able to enjoy the comforts of home, but this soon becomes a theme of the film rather than a derailment. After they work to establish a perimeter defense the comfort they’ve achieved has been earned, but later through a series of montages we discover the futility of their daily living. The isolation is slowly driving them mad despite having all the treasures of the world. Despite some dark turns the film ends on a hopeful note with the remaining survivors escaping from the infested mall and into an unknown, but seemingly hopeful future.

Analysis:

The zombies (they are only referred to as zombies only once towards the end) in this movie are slow and lumbering with silver painted skin and blank expressions devoid of any element of emotion or humanity, and yet they are all dressed up like they were going about to go somewhere and had lives, jobs and purpose before they suddenly died. These zombies are “blanks”; they look human, but have been wiped clean of anything that made them people. Their appearance serves as a haunting mirror of what our survivors stand to lose. It felt almost as if their soul had been wiped away and left behind nothing but the empty shell and is a terrifying concept to even consider.

There is a certain wish fulfillment fantasy when we see our character run through the mall on a shopping spree which helps give the horrific scenario some levity. Not to mention the choice of soundtrack; muzak, providing ironic and happy, chipper tones over the scenes of carnage.

I was shocked in the end by a number of the deaths and violence in the action scenes, a testament to the quality of the characters even if the makeup and gore effects do seem a bit dated by our modern standards.

Final Score:

5 out of 5. Genius.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Blob (1958)


Starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe
Directed by Irvin Yeaworth
Science Fiction/ Horror
Rated PG

Summary:

The film begins with a really jazzy song called “Beware the Blob!” played over the opening credits. I’ll put a video of it down on the bottom in place of a trailer, because I can guarantee that once you get this snappy tune stuck in your head and can’t get it out, you’ll be more inclined to see this movie than you would if you saw the trailer.

The story begins with Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) in his car with his girlfriend Jane (Aneta Corsaut) up at Make-Out Point. Steve spots a meteor crash into the side of the hill, making the same mild impact as in “War of the Worlds”. Seriously, my brother has let off firecrackers that deliver more punch than Hollywood’s hurtling space debris. Steve and Jane go to check it out, but an old man and his dog get to the crash site first. The old man pokes the meteorite with a stick, releasing the blob, which latches onto him. Steve and Jane find the old man and race him to the doctor back in town. Shortly after the two teens leave, the blob swallows the old man and attacks the doctor and nurse. Steve sees the blob eat the doctor and runs to get help.

Conflict arises when the local police don’t believe Steve's story. So Steve, Jane and handful of other teens go out to hunt the Red Menace (That’s the Blob, not communism). The Blob eventually makes its presence known after consuming the local movie theater, and then the authorities go on the defensive. The police lieutenant calling the army to let them know that the blob has killed forty to fifty people. I’m curious how he came to that conclusion given how the only people we’ve seen the Blob kill are the old man, the doctor and his nurse. There was a janitor who was killed off screen, there’s no evidence to support that anyone in the theater was killed and it’s left ambiguous as to whether or not the old man’s dog eaten by the Blob.

In the state of panic produced by people running wildly every which way, Steve and Jane are trapped in a diner as the Blob consumes the building. It’s a surprising tense scene, but solution presents itself in the eleventh hour when Steve sprays the Blob with a CO2 fire extinguisher and concludes that the Blob can’t stand the cold. That certainly explains why it would attack a movie theater that boasted of it’s air conditioning. Wait, Huh?

The fire department hoses down the Blob until it shrinks and the army comes to pick it up for disposal at the North Pole. Steve asks “Are you sure it won’t hurt anyone again?” The lieutenant replies, “As long as the Artic says cold.” A response which is likely to get a chuckle out of most modern viewers.

Analysis:

This movie was Steve McQueen's debut role, despite the fact that he’s 28 years old and playing a 17 year old. Like anything Steve McQueen is in, his performance steals the show. His inflections and delivery sound very natural and make you believe in his character. His cohorts have a certain goonishness to them that makes you makes you believe that they really are rowdy teenagers. In contrast the adult characters struggle to say their wooden dialogue in any way convincingly.

There are a few violations of my “Show, Don’t Tell” rule, with the off-screen death of the supermarket janitor, made doubly worse by the fact that Steve is also off-screen when he tells us that he found the abandoned mop and bucket. There’s also a scene towards the end when a police officer tells another that diner is on fire, and the other replies “Yes, it is.” It’s almost as if saying its on fire, will make it real in our minds since we never see the fire.

There are so effective spooky scenes such as when Steve and Jane are sneaking through the supermarket after dark knowing the Blob could be just around the corner, it’s effectively scary. There are also a few legitimate laughs, like when some of the other teens think they’ve found the blob hiding in the bushes, only to discover that its two other teens they’ve caught necking.

Overall it’s a little cheesy and a bit clumsy in a few places but it is far from clich├ęd.

Final Score:

3 ½ out of 5. Friday Night Fun.


Trivia Time:

The Poster outside of the theater for "The Vampire and The Robot" is actually an altered poster for "Forbidden Planet".


War of the Worlds (1953)

Starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson
Directed by Byron Haskin
Science-Fiction
Rated G
Based on the novel by H.G. Wells

Summary:

The film opens with newsreel style opening with footage from both World Wars to build up apprehension for the movie’s eponymous war. From there we get a voice-over that gives us a brief lesson about the planets in our solar system and their harsh environments with a series of paintings to endow the imagination. Its actually kind of cool think how this must have been to a pre-NASA audience, and the narration itself is quite harrowing and really builds up the foreboding mood.

The story begins with a meteorite crashing down in Southern California, making only a mild impact with it hits the ground. People start to flock to it in droves, there’s a mom taking pictures of her kids standing on the edge of the crater, and some idiot with a shovel pounding on the side of the thing trying to break pieces off. Seriously, why isn’t there a police line or some kind of barricade up? Something to keep back people back until it’s safety can be determined.

This warrants the arrival of physicist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry, not Trace Beaulieu, that’s a different Dr. Clayton Forrester) and soon meets Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) who claims to be familiar with Dr. Forrester’s work, but doesn’t recognize him while he is wearing his Clark Kent glasses. In order to establish her a love interest, he makes a witty comeback about how he only wears the glasses when he wants to look at something close up. Oh you sly dog you…

Forrester manages to get the gang of gawkers away from the meteorite by telling everyone that it is radioactive. The local sheriff charges three men to guard it to make sure no one messes with the meteorite, but since these guys don’t look like they could make it as deputies in Mayberry, it’s no surprise that they’re instantly killed by the emerging Martians.

A military command post is set up and there’s a bit of speculation about the Martians, before the local minister slips past all the soldiers charged with securing the field, who watch the Martians listlessly, while he tries and communicate with the aliens while reciting Psalm 23, you know, the “Walk through the valley of the shadow of death” passage. Given the frequency with which I’ve heard this passage in movies, I’m beginning to suspect it’s the only part of the Bible that Hollywood knows.

Needless to say, for all his efforts, the minister is vaporized and the Martians launch an attack on the military post, obliterating both troops and tanks while the army’s weapons prove useless against the Martian’s ships. Clayton and Sylvia manage to escape in a plane, which they crash land off-screen. After some oddly placed stock footage of animal stampedes, we cut back to the two taking refuge in an abandoned house were Slyvia cooks up some fried eggs. It doesn’t really do much for the suspense if they have time to stop and eat. No, actually they don’t eat, they just sit at the table and talk to each other in rather humdrum tones until another meteorite crashes just outside the house. The two do manage to escape, Sylvia having enough hysterical fits for the both of them.

They manage to regroup with a number of other scientists, and learn that the army is going to drop an atomic bomb on the Martians in order to stop them. There is quite a crowd gathered to witness the ordeal. The watchers are told to avert their eyes from the blast, but they don’t, they just hold up their hands like they were trying to block the midday sun rather than the blast of a nuclear weapon. Ugh, these people deserve to be wiped out, maybe it’s just as well that the bomb didn’t work.

Now that we’re in the last ten minutes of the movie do things really start to seem severe as we see major cities be evacuated, riots have broken out and crazed citizens are raiding any passing vehicles. Dr. Forrester is forced out of his truck by the mob and is left battered and bloody. He runs down the abandoned streets furiously looking for Slyvia.

Its quite the eerie sight seeing an empty metropolis, even more so when the Martian ship glide in to cause destruction by toppling over skyscrapers. Against all odds, Clayton finds Sylvia in a church, but just as the Martians are about to destroy the building, they crash, as we learn that airborne bacteria has killed the Martians. Clayton spots an alien arm hanging out of a damaged spaceship, and I kid you not, actually takes it’s pulse before declaring, “It’s dead… It’s over.” I’m sorry, but unless you are Dr. McCoy from “Star Trek”, you cannot identify the pulse of a completely alien life form and determine whether or not it is dead. I’m sorry, no.

Analysis:

The effects of this film are what have helped to make the film famous. Producer George Pal really pushed the envelope with visuals, as he would do again with “The Time Machine”, but much like that film, the effects have been dated with the passage of time, and may not impress audiences the way they did during its original release. You can see the wires on the Martian ships if you actually look for them, but I won’t bother. When reviewing movies I try my best to judge the films on the merits of their story as well as the techniques that were used to tell it. Looking at it in those terms, the title “War of the Worlds” doesn’t fit so much as “A Small Skirmish in Southern California”. It isn’t until the end that we really get any sense of scale to the conflict or see the devastation heaped onto the populace. Our two protagonists remain in relative comfort through the film and don’t appear to have that much in the way of personalities to help us latch onto them in the course of the alien onslaught.

Final Score:

3 out of 5. Adequate.


Friday, July 16, 2010

The Fly (1986)


Starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz
Directed by David Cronenberg
Science Fiction/ Horror
Rated R: Violence, Gore, Frightening Images


I remember when I first saw the original “The Fly”. I was visiting my parents around New Year’s and I had just finished the movie when my mom came in the room and looked at the box for the DVD and said to me; “I don’t know how you can stand to watch that creepy stuff.” Well if she thinks a guy in a rubber fly mask is creepy than I hope by all that I hold holy that she never sees this remake.

The film introduces us to a reclusive scientist Dr. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) talking to journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) about his latest invention, Telepods, which are capable to teleporting, an object from one pod to another and offers her the opportunity to follow his progress exclusively, which she excepts, as the two slowly begin to fall in love. Conflict arises when Veronica’s editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz) threatens to reveal the telepods prematurely, leading Seth to jump the gun and test it on himself, not knowing that a common housefly got into the telepod with him, and together the two were merged and Seth and Vernoica slowly realize that Seth is morphing into a monster.

It is interesting to note how much like the remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (which also starred Jeff Goldblum) there is a shift in tone. The original “The Fly” was more focused on suspense, with the mystery sequence and the narrative told through voice over and flashbacks. Here the focus is more on horror, specifically Cronenberg’s signature style of body horror. Unlike the original Fly, the change from man to monster is gradual, forming a path in our head (aided by Goldblum’s unique tics) that helps us remember that this is the same man we’ve seen since the start of the film, regardless of how heavy or complex the makeup gets, especially helpful since the Goldblum’s makeup changes every time we see him. This is also what makes the scares so effective. When we see Seth’s fingernails break off or vomit corrosive acid or when his head quite literally collapses, it’s not shocking just because of what we see, its shocking because we’ve come to identify with his character and can empathize with his plight. The emphasis here is on “showing” as much as they could to iron out the instances of “telling” from the original.

The score by Howard Shore is absolutely fantastic, big and booming, accentuating the excitement and tension. Despite over two decades of technology, the animatronics still look incredible and help add a layer of realism to the situations, expect when they needed something to wringle, like with the dying baboon or the maggot baby, in instances like those it was apparent that it was operated by some kind of motor, but still impressive none the less. The film doesn’t have a “happy ending” coda like the original, which irritated me about that film so much, and here the lack one really does serve to pack a mighty wallop as you’re just left there to sit and take it all in while the end credits roll. If there was anything that the original had that I missed in the remake it, would be that “boom-boom” sound the teleporter in the original made that was just so eerie.

Neat little bit of trivia; Director David Cronenberg makes a cameo as the gynecologist who appears in Veronica’s dream. I like that. The director only appears in the story when the laws of reality are blurred, it reminds me of the thought that Alfred Hitchcock put into his own cameos, such as the one in “Rear Window” were he is winding a clock to symbolize how he is the one controlling time.

“The Fly” is a tragedy, pure and simple. Many of Brundle’s mutations serve as parallels for aging, drug addiction, sexually transmitted diseases and terminal illnesses. The acting is great, the pacing is terrific, the score is pulse pounding and the scares are genuinely effective. I will admit it is a not a film for everyone, but it is well executed.

Final Score:

4 1/2 out of 5. Outstanding.



Monday, July 12, 2010

Castle in the Sky (1986)


Voices of James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Mark Hamill, Cloris Leachman
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Fantasy/ Adventure
Rated PG: Perilous Situations

The film opens with sky pirates attacking an airship, attempting to capture a girl named Sheeta (Anna Paquin) and her pendant, but she accidentally falls out of the ship, fortunately her pendant starts glowly and floats her to safety. This is a rather confusing opening actually as we don't learn who Sheeta is, why she was on the airship, what the pendant is or why the pirates were after it until much later. I imagine this is supposed to generate suspense, but it's rather confusing as I have no idea who this girl is or why I should care about her, even if she is working some kind of mystic mojo with her magic necklace.

We're given proper introductions when Sheeta is caught in her float from above by a miner boy named Pazu (James Van Der Beek), who provides us with his own back story about continuing his father's quest for Laputa, the castle in the sky. There isn't much time to dwell on this exposition though, as the pirates come back to settle the score leading to one of the most exciting chase scenes I think I've seen in any movie. This culminates with our two heroes being captured by the army, revealing that they are also looking for Laputa and its great power, aided in their quest by the sinister Muska (Mark Hamill) We also learn that Sheeta is an heir to the throne of Laputa and her pendant can lead them it.

With the help of the pirates, Pazu is able to free Sheeta and they race to reach Laputa first. We spend most of our time from here on out with these sky scoundrels who as it turns out have hearts of gold and serve as effective comic relief with their larger than life personalities, particularly that of their boisterous leader, Dola (Cloris Leachman)

Eventually they find the castle in the sky and both the characters and the audience are stunned by it's serene beauty. While the visuals have been impressive, the animation in the third act is simply mesmerizing. There is a dramatic confrontation in the end, were Muska arrives and reveals himself as another heir to the throne, and plans the seize power for himself, betraying his soldiers and casting them to their deaths. A cold move, but it shows just how effective a villain Mark Hamill can play. Fortunately our heroes manage to save the day using a plot device that we introduced shortly before they arrived here, so it feels like a little bit of cheat resolution, but is made up for by one last scene reuniting with the pirates before literally flying away.

Unlike some of Miyazaki's other films that I saw prior to this one such as "Kiki's Delivery Service" or "Porco Rosso", this one actually has something of a plot . To to his credit though, Miyazaki does often find a way to make these films work even without a plot, miraculously enough. Like all of his movies, the characters are very enduring and likable, easily outshining the situations they are placed into. The backstory of both Laputa and our antagonist is rather rough, and I am still a bit in the dark about Sheeta and Muska's connection to the castle. How are they both heirs to Laputa when we see that the place is abandoned? The animation is top notch and the score is nothing to ignore. A few plot holes aside it is still a genuinely entertaining film.

Final Score:

4 out of 5. Well Done.