Archive for the ‘Sci-Fi’ Category

A Dual-Entry: Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936) and WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

I’ve done dual entries before, namely with remakes (like “Scarface” vs. “Scarface” and the original and remake of Nosferatu), and even taken liberties like including “Shadow of the Vampire” in my “Nosferatu” remake special.  But now Chaplin’s “Modern Times”…and “WALL-E”?!?!  Obviously one’s not a direct remake of the other, and after watching both I realize that there are less direct similarities between the two than I was originally banking on.  But here we are, at the dual-entry I was planning all along, so allow me to explain.  I saw the trailer for “WALL-E” in front of “Indiana Jones,” and even that little 2-minute trailer had me in awe, for the incredible visuals, for just a glimpse of the incredibly expressive title character, and his zany antics and run-ins with futuristic things way out of his league.  That was the only glimpse I had of “WALL-E.”  The only glimpse I had had of “Modern Times” was the one scene from the beginning of that movie, where Chaplin wreaks havoc, and wonderfully so, as an assemblyline man in a terrifyingly industrial factory.  Chaplin wreaks havoc in a factory, WALL-E wreaks havoc in a factory.  I looked at these two images and thought hey, why not watch the two and act all smart in critically analyzing the similarities between the two, how “WALL-E” is a postmodern take on the modernist “Modern Times,” and an update on “Modern Times'” theme of capitalistic and machinistic dehumanization using similar slapstick technique.

Well fuck that.

OK, that’s rough, because all of that is certainly there, but after actually, you know, WATCHING these movies from start to finish, It’s plain as day that both of these movies are so much more than that.  “Modern Times” goes WAY beyond the satirical yet one-dimensional feel of that first segment in the factory, eventually churning out a story and narrative that rivals the great “City Lights.”  And “WALL-E”…well, I’m gonna concentrate most of what I have to say here on “WALL-E” and how profoundly it affected me, but that’s coming up soon.  First, of course, I have to give the classic “Modern Times” its due and at least devote a paragraph or two on what was supposed to be nothing more than my own little personal homework assignment leading up to “WALL-E”, but ended up as something damn near great.

Really, was there ever a more life-affirming filmmaker than Charlie Chaplin?  Of his work I’ve only seen the masterpiece “City Lights” and now “Modern Times”, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such consistently innocent, lovable, and indeed life-affirming work from one man.  Even in the bleak industrial world of “Modern Times” resides the Tramp, clumsy and hilarious as ever…and also just as selfless.  From the start, especially with the famous first segment in the factory, “Modern Times” is pretty much “Metropolis” lite.  The first thing we see is a limitless group of sheep, which dissolves into a limitless group of lifeless workers headed for the factory.  Well, there’s your lifeless workers from “Metropolis” right there, and indeed both that film and “Modern Times” deal mainly with the dehumanization of a capitalistic, urban, and machine-dependent culture.  And while “Metropolis” is dead-serious with the god-like giant machine and the ravenous robot-turned-woman, “Modern Times” basically starts off as a face-off between the Tramp and the world around him in general.  His dealings with the assembly-line (as machine-like as the machine itself) and a malfunctioning automatic feeding machine are wonderful and show Chaplin at the height of his physical and facial prowess as a movement-based comedian.  But of course, “Modern Times” is more than just a criticism of industrial factories, and soon enough, after a nervous breakdown and wreaking all kinds of havoc in the factory, the Tramp is back in his signature too-small suit and bowler hat, being his clumsy self as he pretty much…goes places and ruins things.  Chaplin was the master of being some homeless dude who goes places and ruins things, and I never thought he could make such a shallow character type so vivid each time out.  This time, he and the “gamin” wreak havoc in a department store, in a shed on the outskirts of the advanced society, and at a sing-and-dance night club.  Much of it is vignettes showing Chaplin’s incredible physical ability as he skates, dances, wobbles, and even SINGS (this being his first talkie…and naturally he sings gibberish) his way through varied situations, but like “City Lights,” all these situations are connected by a story and by a relationship.  

I said before that the Tramp is one of the most selfless and innocent of all characters in cinema (look no further than what he does for the flower girl at the end of “City Lights”, in one of cinema’s greatest and most heart-wrenching endings), and there’s no exception here.  In the midst of factories, department stores, and a culture that endlessly buys, here are the Tramp and the gamin, situating themselves on the outskirts of society itself, literally living in a shack that’s falling apart at the seams.  And yet, they’ve made it into a home, not unlike the rundown house that’s unequivocally a home made out of love in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  The relationship between the Tramp and this young girl is one of survival, but also one of utter innocence and friendship and finding value in one’s fellow human being in a society where that’s been drowned out by the value of objects.  In such a soulless and stiff setting, it’s refreshing to see a figure as unstiff and unique and physically expressive as the Tramp.

Now did I say that the Tramp was expressive?  Because put him next to WALL-E and he’s about as expressive as a guard at Buckingham Palace 😛 .  Yeah, I just did a complete 180 by throwing Chaplin under the bus, and that’s not really a great transition to “WALL-E”, but after the wake-up call I got at just how unique “WALL-E” is from “Modern Times”, I don’t know if a smooth transition between the two was possible.  Yes, there’s the Tramp’s antics in the factory, basically remade as WALL-E’s antics in the robot repair shop more than 70 years later, so of course a lot of “WALL-E” uses Chaplin-esque slapstick humor as a launching point.  And it’s just that: a launching point, because “WALL-E” isn’t just an homage to “Modern Times” both in tone and message, but an amalgamation of so many great cinematic devices of the past used to perfection in one 90 minute animated film.

I went into “WALL-E” with just about the worst mindset I could possibly be in: looking for similarities to “Modern Times.”  Well, five minutes in, I see a lonely little robot toiling to collect garbage in an abandoned metropolis.  “Hey!”, I thought, “this is just like 28 Days Later or I Am Legend.”  I see long-abandoned video ads for a five-year luxury cruise aboard the Axiom.  “Hey!,” I thought, “this IS the off-world colonies of “Blade Runner,” promising a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!”  When WALL-E finds his way aboard the Axiom, the “people,” uniform in appearance, hover around and buy things like “Blue” for the sake of buying.  “Hey!”, I thought, “this is just like the dystopic future of THX 1138!”  My first impression about “WALL-E” was that it was the most un-original original movie I’ve ever seen.  Or maybe the most original un-original movie.  Either way, I mean that it’s incorporated so many visual and plot elements from many, many great movies of the past so that, in a way, you’ve seen much of it before.  And yet, these elements, whether they’re simple homages or critical plot points, are used in conjunction with one another so creatively that it somehow transcends the status of homage into pure, unabashed creativity.  “Modern Times” is there, both in the over-his-head little robot WALL-E’s antics aboard the immense and awe-inspiring starship Axiom as well as the wonderful relationship with fellow robot EVE.  I already mentioned the post-apocalyptic / class-based society influenced by “Blade Runner”  “Hello, Dolly!”‘s probably never had as much press as here, with a VHS of that musical being WALL-E’s prized possession.  And nods to “2001” are all over the fucking place, from the villainous red eye to the simply awesome images of space to the president’s secret video message to the corpulent captain’s moment of “glory” set to Also Sprach Zarathustra 😆 .  All homages, yes, and some would criticize that as a lack of creativity, but I say, why not mention the best of the best that cinema’s had to offer?  

Bottom-line, what Pixar has done for their latest effort was very brave and very risky.  After the kid-friendly “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo” and the brilliant stories of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” here they are with a movie with very little dialogue, who’s two main characters speak in beeps and whistles, and a G-rated movie concerning, oh, just that little issue of the APOCALYPSE.  The director and animators had the audacity of interspersing live-action footage of “Hello, Dolly!” and circa-22nd century snobs and president Fred Willard amongst the CGI animation.  Already it had the makings of Pixar’s most mature film, and in a way that’s certainly what it is, but it’s also certainly for the little one’s with how lovable a figure WALL-E is.  What started as risk becomes pure reward, and I have no reservation in saying that “WALL-E” is Pixar’s most universal movie, that can speak to children, adults, and everybody in-between.

A word must be said for the now-well known pro-environment, anti-corporation message that abounds throughout “WALL-E”, great for some, far too simplistic for others.  There are those who loved the first segment of the movie, with WALL-E’s curiosity-filled isolation on an abandoned earth, only to lose that love once he jumps ship for the Axiom, filled with what remains of humanity: fat, lazy, hedonistic blobs with not a shred of individuality.  Is it an overly-simple message to the viewer to get out more, to buy less, and to treat the earth with some respect?  Of course it is, but I didn’t have a problem with that.  C’mon, this is a G-rated movie geared toward the little ones, you can’t exactly have the intellectual complexity of a “2001.”  It was straight and to-the-point, but it wasn’t exactly “An Inconvenient Truth” either.  It was a simply moral of the story, set against the backdrop of an incredible setting and incredible story.  No problem.

And anyway, that message played complete second-fiddle to me.  I’ve seen that anti-consumer / industry, pro-environment message too much lately to care much.  Yeah, “WALL-E” does it well, but what I zoned in on was what turned out to be two of the most emotionally-resonant and fully-realized characters I have EVER seen.  It’s just too bad animated robots can’t get Academy Award nominations (I suppose the great sound editor Ben Burtt’s incredible work with WALL-E’s “voice” practically being a shoe-in for best Sound makes up for it 😕 ), because WALL-E and EVE form a bond that rivals any seen on-screen, including, well, the Tramp and the gamin in “Modern Times.”  You can feel the child-like exuberance oozing from WALL-E as he shows the wary EVE around his hovel, and his glee upon putting on the VHS of “Hello, Dolly!”.  You feel the desperation in the little guy to revive his new friend when she unexpectedly shuts down (and the same in her later on, representing the height of character maturation that you couldn’t even get out of a live performance).  I mean, those big, reflective eyes are so expressive the kids watching the movie will fall in love immediately.  And on the flip-side there’s EVE, so visibly angry at WALL-E for one clumsy, Chaplin-like mix-up after another aboard the Axiom, so visibly relieved to see her friend and dare I say, romantic interest, in one piece as they dance in the emptiness of space.  In a setting where the biological humans are gelatinous shells of their former selves, it’s these two robots who are the most human figures this movie, any Pixar movie, and for my money any animated movie altogether, has shelled out.  Conversations made up of nothing more than a computerized “EVAAAA” and “DIRECTIVE” contain as much emotional truth as each robot’s expressive eyes, movement and very nature, and as much love and humanity as your prototypical award-winning live performance, if not more.  And THAT’s where I make the ultimate comparison between “WALL-E” and “Modern Times”: not in the slapstick humor in a mechanistic setting, but in the relationship of pure love and selflessness and innocence between first the Tramp and the gamin, now WALL-E and EVE: each time, two individuals more human than the uniform, soulless consumers around them.  Yes, that environment and industry-related message is an important one, but the ultimate meaning that I got out of “WALL-E” involved learning how to be human, how to be selfless, and how to love, and it only took a couple of cute little robots to get that across.

You really gotta wonder how Pixar is doing this.  “Toy Story” had all the animated innovations and an incredibly clever script, “Finding Nemo” was unparalleled at the time with its beautiful visuals, “The Incredibles” turned out to be a brilliant satire disguised as an action movie, and maybe all of those were topped by the wonderful “Ratatouille.”  And now comes “WALL-E”.  The visuals alone, both with WALL-E’s isolation on a desolate Earth and then the awesome magnitude of space and the hedonistic, futuristic pleasures within the Axiom, are like nothing I’ve ever seen or will ever see.  And the performances (yes, I feel totally comfortable calling the actions of animated robots “performances”) and story are more intelligent, more moving, and more appealing to any age group than in anything Pixar’s churned out before.  Each of those Pixar movies that I’ve loved so much have revolutionized animation in the 21st century, but I truly believe that “WALL-E” has revolutionized cinema in general.  In “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille,” Pixar created great, great movies.  With “WALL-E”, they’ve done what not even I thought they could do: they’ve created a masterpiece.

Modern Times: 9/10
WALL-E: 10/10

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The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan, 2008)

Leave it to my parents to be my barometer on what the pretty typical movie-goer’s gut reaction to a movie should be.  Thing is, they think themselves to be movie experts with a little Hitchcock appreciation, while my dad basically thinks Shyamalan is something of a bold filmmaker, or some crap like that.  So yeah, wannabe cinephiles.  Jeez…  Anyway, I saw this with my dad, and after we got out, he said something very interesting.  He said this was a lot like “The Birds,” but Hitchcock had a much better grasp on the material.  He thought this was pretty much “The Birds” without the subtlety.  Now, when one thinks of “The Birds,” subtlety probably isn’t the first word to come to mind, especially regarding that movie’s second half when Tippi Hedren is just barraged by bluescreen seagulls for about 45 minutes.  It was basically Hitchcock using every means at his disposal to physically abuse this poor woman in her feature film debut.  But when I think about it, I realize that what my dad said was absolutely right, at least from a theoretical, if not necessarily stylistic, standpoint.  The subtlety of these two movies (or lack thereof) comes in the don’t-fuck-with-mother nature theme, and when all is said and done, I don’t necessarily like to compare “The Happening” to a movie 45 years its senior if I can help it, but I don’t think I can help it.  “The Birds” was a masterful thriller with a subtle message, and “The Happening” is awkwardly paced, sprinkled with random death scenes from another movie altogether, and a movie who’s message is splayed out in front of you like a fucking public service announcement.  That’s all there is to it.

Poor M. Night.  It’s obvious that the man is trying so hard to make “The Happening” as subtle as possible, but really, other than a select few scenes, he fails miserably.  He even tries making his patented Hitchcock-esque cameo overly-subtle, reduced to a voice on the phone.  Turns out, I thought this was a movie that couldn’t decide what it should be.  So much of it involved Marky Mark and friends just…traveling, the threat of a suicide-inducing neurotoxin far in the theoretical background.  And yes, some of this worked.  I didn’t buy into the whole thing with Marky Mark and Zooey trying to rebuild their marriage…I was bored by that, but what I did buy into was leaving the threat from afar up to our imagination: how news of mass suicides along the eastern seaboard aren’t seen, only presented to us as they’re presented to our heroes: as news.  It’s a fascinating device, depicting a wide-spread disaster solely from the point of view of a few, who deal with it in an area that’s not ground zero, and it’s been used before, both effectively (i.e. “Night of the Living Dead”) and near-disastrously (Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”).  Although, things basically spiraled into the outright silly when groups of refugees started running from the fucking wind.  It reminded me of that South Park episode where they’re all running from global warming 😛 .  And it’s too bad the star-power couldn’t live up to an interesting enough concept either.  Marky Mark…what a monotone, wet noodle he was here.  Where was the unbelievable energy and gift for acting he showed in “Boogie Nights” or even “The Departed?”  And god bless the beautiful Zooey Deschanel, she of probably the most stunningly beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen, but the woman can’t act her way out of a paper bag.  Leave it to John Leguizamo of all people to pick up the slack, especially in a wonderful send-off scene 😕 .

I can’t help but wonder whether this would’ve been a better movie if Shyamalan just stuck with one idea, one style, and just followed the main characters from beginning to end.  Clearly the point is to put ordinary people in an extraordinary situation that they don’t understand, so that we see things as they see them, and only as they see them.  But why not stick with that, M. Night?  Even Spielberg (the great filmmaker Shyamalan was supposed to be the heir apparent to once upon a time…I think that’s gone by the boards a few duds later 😛 ) stuck with that concept for “War of the Worlds.”  That movie was lousy, but at least Spielberg stayed consistent.  So many times in “The Happening,” we interrupt our regularly-scheduled programming to bring you a gruesome death or two.  Now, I’m not saying the involuntary suicide scenes by the random populace are a complete disgrace, because I do have to admit that some of them are wildly imaginative and even exhilarating (the deaths involving lions in the zoo and later a huge lawnmower really tickled my sadistic side, I must say 🙂 ).  On their own, the blood ‘n guts and the sheer gratuitousness of the deaths are frightening, blunt, and they work because they stick with you.  But then put it in the context of everything else, and they’re like scenes out of another movie entirely.  It’s like “Final Destination” disguised as a message movie.  Sure the use of increasingly creative ways of showing people offing themselves makes for a thrilling watch, but for what point?  I was more thrilled and entertained watching the main characters, running from something they can’t identify or explain or even see, and wandering aimlessly.  A simple, low budget-feeling movie like that is a good idea.  A grand romp featuring incredibly imaginative death scenes is good for a laugh or two.  Put them together, though?  You’ve got chocolate-covered caesar salad: a bit of a mess of a movie that can’t decide what it is and can’t get out of its own way.

I said that subtlety is the name of the game when comparing “The Happening” to one of its obvious predecessors, “The Birds.”  If you want subtlety, like I said, my dad was right: “The Birds” is a masterpiece of that, while “The Happening” very nearly crashes and burns, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, look no further than the explanation for the disaster.  Hitchcock and his screenwriter Evan Hunter gave you no explanation whatsoever for why the birds of Bodega Bay gang up on the humans, and it was an ingenious device.  That allowed for a purely human focus on the characters, as we became one of them, with no more knowledge than they as to why this extraordinary phenomenon was happening.  “The Happening”, though…does the dumbing down of American movie audiences in the decades since the glory days of Hitchcock absolutely call for an iron-clad explanation as to why something extraordinary is happening?  Clearly Shyamalan tries to be “subtle” about an explanation in showing debate amongst the characters as to where the toxin is coming from…terrorists, plant life, nuclear power plants.  But let’s face it, about 10 minutes in the movie’s basically decided for you which explanation is most appropriate, and everything that happens after that revolves around that explanation that’s not technically set in stone, but…fuck it, it’s set in stone, who am I kidding?  Hell, even “Cloverfield” was better at leaving the explanation for a city-wide disaster up to character and audience speculation.  The “speculation” part of the explanation for the disaster in “The Happening” is almost non-existent and pretty much becomes a farce, even though Shyamalan wants you to think there’s speculation.

That explanation gives way to what really ground my gears, and that’s the don’t-mess-with-nature moral of the story.  OK, maybe not the moral itself since I consider myself a pretty big environmentalist and fully buy into the idea that we’re fucking up the planet at an unprecedented rate.  What got me was, again, how unsubtle Shyamalan made that message.  Going back to “The Birds,” there’s no explanation for what’s going on, just a look at how a few people are dealing with it, so that movie’s completely similar message concerning nature fighting back is a subtle as can be.  Hitchcock banks on his audience actually being smart enough to figure that out.  Today, though, we have the Michael Bay generation of movie-goers who couldn’t figure out the moral of a story if their lives depended on it.  They need their hands held and guided to the destination like fucking toddlers in a day care center, so naturally Shyamalan obliges.  From the first scene where Marky Mark practically preaches the importance of bees to the ecosystem to the ending where we all pretty much get a slap on the wrist and are told to leave nature alone lest we suffer the consequences, it’s all there, laid out for you like clothes are laid out for a little kid by his or her mom the night before.  It’s an important message, a powerful message, but one that’s been presented in ways so much more effective in the past.  In the end, “The Happening” is a daring film with a daring albeit completely asinine premise and even more daring execution, and it is a better movie than the utterly lousy “The Village” and “Unbreakable”, but it’s scattered in so many directions I felt like I was going to become disoriented and violently commit suicide 😛 .  Just as this movie couldn’t seem to find its way, I have a feeling that M. Night, former wunderkind and “the next Spielberg,” is coming dangerously close to losing his way too.

6.5/10

Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)

I’m only 22 years old.  And yet, I feel like I’m already a little too old to fully appreciate at least part of what Alex Cox was going for in “Repo Man.”  Clearly the point is to stick it to the man and criticize our homogenized, consumer-based culture.  Our hero, Otto (Emilio Estevez), is an angry and angsty punker-turned skeptical repo man, and his ever-cynical view of the bizarre things going on around him become our cynical, confused point of view.  He represents teen angst in its most obvious form, and in a way “Repo Man” represents teen angst in its most obvious form.  So much of that teen angst and how square the society around Otto is is, at times, addressed so directly that to call “Repo Man” a bizarre satire is an incredible understatement.  And this is why I said I might’ve been a little too old (or if not too old, at least too experienced as a film afficionado 😛 ) to fawn all over a movie like this, because that symbolism that’s so blatantly obvious (works some of the time, infuriating the rest of the time) is clearly geared toward that angsty teenager in the mold of Otto, who’s become so completely disillusioned with the world around him.  I gotta admit that as a recent college grad it’s basically become my job to become ‘re’-illusioned with that empty consumerist culture, but still, I’d say there was still enough of that angry teen in me to appreciate some extremely blatant, EXTREMELY bizarre 80s-style satire when I see it 🙂 .

Yes, a lot of the satire of “Repo Man” stares you right in the face, and sometimes that works and sometimes it’s overdoing it in trying to reach out to the lowest common denominator.  You see, for example, Otto’s parents, so completely hypnotized by a T.V. televangelist as they admit to Otto in monotone that they donated his potential college money to that religious nut…it’s a gag meant to show the mind-numbingness of media-based culture, but one I think doesn’t quite work (though I did like how the religious manifesto was called Diuretix 😆 ).  On the other hand, there’s the running gag of just about every consumer product having as generic a name and container design as possible.  People eat out of cans called “Food” or drink “Beer” or “Drink.”  This gag, I thought, was absolutely hysterical and I couldn’t get enough of it.  Yeah, it’s absolutely blatant symbolism of the emptiness of consumerism, but whaddya want, it was really, really funny, and not even overtly commented on, so it wasn’t overdone.  In that vain, I liked how that feel pretty much translated to the entire world of “Repo Man,” how it’s basically a more-or-less “accurate” (?) depiction of circa-1984 L.A., with a few things here and there that set it apart from the norm, but are taken at face value and (with a few exceptions) not overdone.  Things like the war between rival punkers and repo men, the strange function of the Feds, and the generic brand names are just there, with Alex Cox not going wink-wink whenever something strange shows up, so what you see is more or less believable (yes, that includes radioactive aliens in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu 😆 ).

And what a world Alex Cox created.  So much of it is a war of the rival gangs/punkers or rival repo men a la “The Warriors”, but the ultimate irony is that it is essentially an accurate L.A. (namely in the movie’s great portrayal of punk culture, from the outfits to the hair to the music), with a few bizarre bells and whistles added along the way.  Or, it’s at least an accurate L.A. as seen through the eyes of the disillusioned youth Otto, which is probably why such bizarre things like radioactive aliens and bumbling feds seem so commonplace.  So for that reason, it has its realism, but it’s also a completely unique world unto its own.  There’s the empty souls of the adults, like Otto’s parents, and then there’s the punkers, standing out appearance-wise and acting first as Otto’s allies and then his nemeses.  And then come the repo men, who’s function in the whole scheme of things I just found absolutely fascinating.  In a world where the line is so clearly defined between the lifeless adults and the essentially lawless punks, the repo men are like the heroic, vigilante cowboys of the fictional world of a Western.  They’re Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name – bounty hunters whose bounties aren’t outlaws, but cars with deadbeat owners.  They’re world-weary, incredibly cynical, don’t take shit from anybody, and seem like the only people in this world making their own destinies instead of falling into some stereotype.  Consider the relationship between the rookie Otto and the crusty veteran Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), Otto’s makeshift mentor.  Using that cowboy comparison, if Otto’s young Jeffrey Hunter in “The Searchers”, then Bud is the more experienced and cynical John Wayne (and ironically enough, our ragtag group of repo men have an argument over their Beer-brand beer over whether John Wayne was gay).  Replace their horses with a jalopy, tobacco with Speed and gritty conversations with, well, gritty conversations with a lot more “fucks” thrown in there, and these really are modern-day cowboys, or maybe even modern-day errant knights with their own Repo Man Code, whether their targets are deadbeats, meddlesome punkers, or their rival repo men, those dastardly Rodriguez brothers.

Yes, some of the gags in “Repo Man” work and some don’t, but I do have to say that as a whole it’s very consistent, and what it’s consistent in is being inconsistent.  Doesn’t make sense, I know, but then again, neither does “Repo Man,” and for once that’s a good thing.  This might be one of the most convention-defying  movies I’ve ever seen, and clearly it’s making every effort to do so to make a point.  There is not a single cliché, not one movie formula being followed.  Quite simply, it’s nothing you’d expect.  A punker spontaneously combusts upon opening the trunk of the Malibu.  If repo men are shot at on the job, well, they just shoot right back.  There’s a 3-way car chase between the repo men, the Rodriguez brothers, and a lobotomized mad scientist.  The Malibu eventually becomes radioactive enough to glow green, looking absolutely awful, and the movie’s that much better as a result 😆 .  Otto’s being chased by a potential love interest in a psycho conspiracy theorist and a Federal agent with a robotic hand.  One of the punkers, giving a near-Shakespearean dying speech (well, at least something you’d expect a Shakespearean clown to say), blames his predicament on, of course, society.  And that ending, where Otto, the repo men, the feds, men of the cloth, and a very radioactive Malibu converge?  Good god, I’m not giving that away, but let’s just say that according to IMDB, Alex Cox originally planned on giving the great Muhammad Ali a cameo in which he gets radioactively fried.  Our loss.  So much of the movie is just conversations between Otto and an odd assortment of characters he meets along his bizarre journey, covering a wide range of topics from religion to drugs to the downfall of society as we know it. None of these conversations make any sense, and like everything else that’s screwy about “Repo Man”, sometimes they work, sometimes not.  In a movie as bizarre as this, though, you get the feeling it really couldn’t go down any other way 😛 .

So just to sum up, we’ve got Emilio Estevez, roving bands of rival repo men and punkers, aliens, a radioactive Chevy Malibu with a $20,000 “bounty” on it driven by a lobotomy patient, a bloodbath amongst generic food brands, all in what’s otherwise everyday L.A.  It’s an uneven and absolutely ridiculous satire, but otherwise, this is the stuff that cult classics are made of 😀 .

8/10

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008)

I’m gonna catch a hell of a lot of flack for this review.  Probably as much flack as an old Steven Spielberg, an old George Lucas, and especially an old Harrison Ford have gotten for resurrecting a film series that probably didn’t need a whole lot of resurrecting.  There’ll be the Indy purists (I’m one of ’em) who’ll hate everything about his latest adventure (I’m not one of ’em), from the special effects to replacing those dastardly Nazis with those dastardly Russians to Harrison Ford getting awfully long in the tooth.  It’s those kind of people who’d give me all the flack, and going in I was prepared to give Crystal Skull the wariest eye imaginable (since there’s probably no bigger “Raiders” fan than this guy writing this), but what Spielberg, Ford, and even that crazy fuck George Lucas did impresses me to no end, because when all is said and done, I truly believe that this has to be considered the best Indy movie since “Raiders.”

Blasphemy!  Outrageous!  Sean Connery would be spinning in his grave (by grave I thankfully mean retirement 😛 )!  Well fuck ’em.  I’m sticking with my guns.  Is it a perfect movie?  Good god, no!  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was a perfect movie, one of the few perfect movies I’ve ever seen…a standard which “Crystal Skull,” or “Temple of Doom” and “Last Crusade” for that matter, could never dream of matching.  And in fact there are point in “Crystal Skull” where I’m almost convinced it’s the most flawed of the Indy sequels…way too much talky talky talky in the middle about the origin of the Crystal Skull, a gross underuse of the wonderful Karen Allen, some very strange pacing to the point that we’re looking at 3 different movies, between almost a screwball comedy involving the A-bomb, political intrigue stateside, and a rip-roaring adventure in the jungle.  And yet, I’m still calling it the best Indy movie since Raiders.  Why?  Quite simply, because it reminded me most of “Raiders.”  I thought it was easier to attach labels of particular faults to the prior sequels than to this one.  “Temple of Doom” was too dark, and “Last Crusade” was too cutesy.  By all kinds of logic, though, “Last Crusade” probably is the best of the Indy sequels, mainly because of the wonderful on-screen chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, between father and son.  Cutesy it was, but it was a cutesy that worked and made for a very charming action film.  But as much as I like “Last Crusade,” and I do like it a lot, something never sat right with me about it, something that just didn’t let it fit in with the rest of the series.  The whole point of “Raiders” was to take us to exotic locales and go plundering long-forgotten tombs and troves of antiquities with Indy, while retaining that feel of a fake-feeling but utterly charming and exciting 30s serial.  The charming feel of the serial was certainly there in “Last Crusade,” but exotic locales and long-forgotten tombs pretty much translated to downtown Venice, the heart of Berlin, and a zeppelin 😕 , not to mention it felt like a lot of the action scenes were stuff we’ve seen before and didn’t necessarily need to see again.  “Crystal Skull,” all faults aside, felt like it belonged, like we were back to basics of watching an adventurous archaeologist doing stuff an adventurous archaeologist should do.  Once all that expository nonsense about aliens and skulls and lost cities of gold is out of the way, Indy’s back to doing what he does best, and what gives the Indy franchise its purpose. We’re plundering ancient tombs and catacombs and seeing spooky places and things we would never otherwise experience from scorpions to treasure troves to mummified conquistadors, and have a hell of a lot of fun doing it.

Like I said, I only wish George Lucas in this cockamamie story of his would’ve treated the macguffin of the skull as an actual macguffin and not put it so front-and-center, even before it makes its grand entrance.  There’s so much expository dialogue about what the skull does, what the fabled city does, Irina Spalko’s grand plan for taking over the minds of every American, that I couldn’t even keep up.  I just wanted to see some damn action sequences both silly and exhilirating.  “Raiders” was so ingenious because it actually kept the Ark at Macguffin level, basically leaving the explaining to one scene at the beginning and instead focusing on establishing Indy as a character and getting us to like the man getting himself into situations more and more outlandish.  The longest stretches of dialogue basically involve him and the villanous Belloq, establishing the two as rival archaeologists with different motives, but always with the focus on character rather than thing.  Much of “Crystal Skull” is about thing rather than character, and that’s a shame.  But once that’s out of the way, though, what exhilarating action pieces!  The first warehouse chase followed by the (very funny) run in with a nuclear test site, a chase on motorcycle through Marshall College, and the piece de resistance, the car chase through the jungle.  Here’s a chase that has everything.  Yes, EVERYTHING.  Bazookas, explosions, vine swinging, monkeys, acrobatic jumping, balancing acts and fencing duels, a cliff, playing catch with that fucking skull, a change of venue to accommodate three waterfalls, a run-in with some rather nasty ants (though Shia’s vine-swing with the monkeys was really pushing it and got it dangerously close to the obscenely over-the-top 😛 ).  All that, and I didn’t think it was too long in the least.  It was the perfect length, I though…not too short so that everything is scrunched in, not too long so that it becomes exhausting to watch.  It’s better than the eye-orgasm car chase of “The Matrix Reloaded,” better than the exercise in economizing time that is the car chase in “The French Connection”…it’s the best car chase since, well, its predecessor in “Raiders.”  And to all those who complain about CGI ruining the purity of the Indy franchise, shut the fuck up.  Didn’t bother me a bit, and I really didn’t think it stood out too much in the least.  Excluding the masterpiece of a car chase through the desert in “Raiders,” this may’ve been the best and most exhilirating action sequence Steven Spielberg has ever filmed..quite a pleasant surprise.

Aliens?  Fourth dimensions?  Flying saucers?  Surely such a silly mythology can’t possibly stack up with the epically biblical mythology of the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail.  And of course it doesn’t, it’s so much cheesier, it seems.  But it works.  It works the way something like the Holy Grail worked because of the common theme of never overstepping one’s bounds.  The Grail promises eternal life, something clearly nobody deserves, just like how the skull promises infinite knowledge, something clearly nobody deserves.  Here’s where the special effects argument rears its ugly head again, as I’m sure a lot of Indy purists will be furious with the spectacle of the film’s climax.  I think that’s a pretty hypocritical point of view.  In “Raiders,” the ghosts coming out of the Ark and the Nazis’ face-melting was pretty state-of-the-art, and today defines cheesiness.  What we see at the climax of “Crystal Skull” is pretty state-of-the-art visually, and I’m sure it’ll be cheesy 20 years from now.  And just as those godless Nazis (and Belloq) got what was coming to them the first time ’round, those godless Commies (and Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, basically a poor man’s Belloq) get what’s coming to them this time around, so what’s the problem? 😛

With everything I’ve said up ’til now, I’m absolutely shocked at myself for not even mentioning the presence of Harrison Ford.  It probably should’ve been front and center, since every potential detractor of reviving the Indy franchise after 20 years first criticizes the apparent fossil that is a 65 year old Ford.  Truth is, I didn’t even think of mentioning it ’til now, because it was, in all honesty, not an issue.  Clearly the man looks older by now and upon first glance he’s not the dashing young adventurer with that incredibly dramatic entrance at the beginning of “Raiders.”  And yet, beneath the gray hair and the leathery skin is clearly and unequivocally the Indy we’ve always known and always loved.  Still there is that sarcastic smirk, the subdued glee upon discovering an incredible archaeological find, that cute xenophobia (here with the Russians instead of Nazis), that world-weary kind of sass.  This is the Indiana Jones we’ve always known, only this time a little more worn out, a little more cynical, even a little more fatherly…somehow this new Harrison Ford that seems to never change facial expression or vocal tone in every other role he’s taken on the past few years pulls out all the stops, and it’s like the ol’ Indy was there all along.

As I said before, I think “Crystal Skull” is the best Indy movie since the flawless “Raiders” because, simply, it reminded me the most of “Raiders.”  Action sequences like the car chase were almost a direct homage to those of “Raiders” and yet weren’t imitations, but genuine add-ons that had originality all their own.  Marion returns and has lost none of her spunk, and the ever-shifty Mac is like a little more sinister combination of Sallah and Marcus (even Marcus himself makes his presence felt at a key point during a car chase, at least in statue-like spirit 😀 …).  Computer effects were kept to a minimum (though those ants were pushing it 😛 ), and Spielberg vehemently refused to use George Lucas’ signature digital camera, which just bastardized the Star Wars franchise.  A lot of the action had that care-free humor you’d expect out of an Indy movie, like the very first “chase” with Elvis playing on the radio or Indy and Mutt fighting their way out of a malt shop, 50s music blasting (no doubt a touch by George Lucas).  That shitty little classroom where Indy (make that Dr. Jones) actually does his day job is still there, and the red line on the map charting our heroes’ travels just brought as wide a nostalgia-induced smile to my face as possible, that probably being the series’ most memorable icon other than Indy’s fedora 😛 .  And, of course, a giant snake makes a cameo, and Indy’s reaction is everything you’d expect, and absolutely wonderful.  And yet, I was also impressed with how “Crystal Skull” separated itself from Indy’s earlier adventures so it wasn’t a complete homage…how Mutt was a pretty original character (despite the Brando-esque outfit) that could easily take Indy’s adventurous reigns (and wasn’t an annoying little shit like I thought Shia LaBeouf would be 😛 ).  Heaps upon heaps of flesh-eating ants and kung-fu fighting Aztecs are pretty silly additions, but I gotta admit, they’re original.  And Cate Blanchett…so ridiculous as the evil Russian dominatrix type with a thing for the supernatural, but in the pulp fiction world of an archaeologist battling the forces of evil and things spooky and other-worldly, she fits right in.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” was conceived as an homage to those old 30s serials, and was so wonderful because it wasn’t a straight-up homage (which would probably make it a straight-up parody) as it became a completely original masterpiece of action, adventure, and humor.  I see “Crystal Skull” as another homage, this time to, well, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  I don’t think its intended purpose of homaging 50s B movies really works, but as a continuation, or just an add-on, to “Raiders,” it obviously can’t be the masterpiece that its model is, but nonetheless, the legacy continues.  As Indy snidely tells Marion in Raiders, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”  “Crystal Skull” does show the age of its star and the franchise, but it shows even more of the mileage.  We probably didn’t need to continue the franchise after a 20 year hiatus, but even upon seeing an older Indy adapting to a new world around him, I think this fourth chapter fits right in.  Welcome back, Dr. Jones.  It’s like you never left.

8/10

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)

On a surface level, Iron Man really isn’t that different than the now-very familiar superhero film recipe that every fanboy/girl/person has memorized by heart…inexperienced, somewhat arrogant (though Tony Stark is anything but somewhat 😛 ) protagonist with a bit of hubris who has a life-altering experience and actually learns something in using his powers (Robert Downey Jr.), the one who seems like a friend but becomes foe through jealousy or what have you that the hero inevitably must do grand battle with (The Dude, a.k.a. Jeff Bridges), the tagalong sidekick (Terrence Howard), the quasi-love interest with whom the hero gets nowhere save through quirky flirting, or simply can’t or won’t go all the way with (Gwyneth Paltrow)…really, then, Iron Man doesn’t seem to set any new standard to make it an A-list superhero movie…doesn’t have the quirky charm of a Spider-Man or the sheer audacity of completely reinventing a franchise a la Tim Burton’s Batman or the dark humanistic aspects of a Batman Begins.  A lot of it is just a showcase of stuff getting blown up all cool-like (which are actually pretty few and far-between, making room for a lot more scenes of things like Tony Stark testing his new powers or stuff that goes on outside of crime-fighting, which is a trend I really, really like in the new-age superhero movie).  But, what I thought really set Iron Man apart from other recent superhero movies is one thing: this movie completely and utterly lives or dies by Robert Downey Jr.  And not only does the film succeed, it soars.

It’s really remarkable, that a movie that actually was pretty enjoyable but nothing profound and then had such a generic mano-a-mano climax, could be so damn great because of casting.  I really think that casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark may’ve been the most inspired bit of casting I’ve seen in a superhero/comic book movie.  It’s righ there with the “perfect” casting of nerdy and awkward Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker / Spiderman, the brooding, literal man of iron Christian Bale as Batman, and even the bold move of a then-unknown, Christopher Reeve, completely revitalize the image of the Man of Steel.  Usually I can’t stand Downey and his trademark sarcasm, but here I thought he had a great presence…just enough chauvinism and ego to make you roll your eyes, and just enough charm to give the man behind the mask some character.  Tobey Maguire’s awkwardness is great for making Peter Parker as real a character as possible for the movie’s target audience to relate to, while Christian Bale’s doom and gloom go of it was just as perfect for being the physical embodiment of the despair presiding through Gotham City, as well as Bruce Wayne’s tortured soul.  Iron Man, though, is a movie simply meant to stimulate the fun fuse in our brains, to the point that the obligatory message about doing what’s right with one’s abilities is just that: obligatory.  We just wanna see more stuff blow up and have as much fun as Tony Stark.  I didn’t care about the Middle Eastern terrorists or Jericho Missles or The Dude’s machinations for world domination…I just wanted to see a character with great screen presence and an unbelievably hedonistic lifestyle fuck up many, many times in his experiments, have playful banter with his artificial intelligence and a glitchy robot with a penchant for too many fire extinguishings, with the Suit himself kicking ass as the icing on the cake…the dessert, if you will.  Mindless entertainment?  Hell no…mindless entertainment would be a 2 1/2 hour rape of the senses like the action orgy Armageddon…Iron Man’s more like a 2-hour escape from the real world, or even films of the cerebral kind, and for my money, that’s definitely worth the $7.50 matinee price.

8/10

Escape from L.A. (John Carpenter, 1996)

I guess John Carpenter was going by the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy, because this was the exact same movie as Escape From New York, with some minor switches:

New York = L.A.
criminals = “undesirables”
captive President and tape macguffin= captive black box macguffin
plane = submarine
Ernest Borgnine = Steve Buscemi
Lee Van Cleef = Stacy Keech
Harry Dean Stanton = transvestited out Pam Grier
rabid sewer maniacs = plastic surgery gone wrong zombies
The Duke of New York = some South American wimp
death match with spiked clubs in Grand Central = basketball game of death at L.A. Coliseum
exploding capsules in the neck = some virus
climactic drive over the mined bridge = climactic hangglider fight over Disneyland

And Snake? Well, thank god that was the only thing that stayed exactly the same (except of course for his big fuck-you to the fate of the world at the end, which is infinitely more badass and drastic than the first time around). I love Escape From New York, but frankly, one Escape From New York is enough, because while I definitely liked this one (especially how you just feel like it’s supposed to be almost a parody of the first one with how similar they are, with this one just a little more over-the-top), I’ve definitely seen it before.

7/10

Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)

Listen, the whole story with the “rescuing the ex out of guilt” thing is beyond farfetched from moment # 1, with that and all the horror movie cliche lines serving as an excuse to give us the audience a guided tour of a ruined manhattan and as many obscure looks at the uber-monster as possible. That, and not to mention each and every logistical nightmare that you just have to ignore to take everything seriously (from the camera having such a long battery life life to our heroes getting their shit pushed in in every conceivable way that it just doesn’t seem possible, to the simple fact that so many women that gorgeous just have no business being on the same screen together….a problem I was more than happy to slide…god damn :shock:). But just as a visceral, sensory, and horrific experience, this is one I won’t forget about any time soon. All I had to do was forget about the stupid plot and the logic loopholes you could drive a Mack truck through, and just experience each individual moment like vignettes of action and horror, and damned if I wasn’t on the edge of my seat. I’m probably not exaggerating when I say that this was probably the best pure piece of entertainment that I’ve sat through in quite a long time. Good shit.

8/10

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956 & Philip Kaufman, 1978)

A Comparison:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)

vs….

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978 )

For years now, I’ve pretty much blindly stuck to the law-like rule that originals have to be better than remakes, and that remakes are bad. Boy, did these two set me on a different path. Don Siegel’s original “classic” anti-communist or anti-mccarthyist or anti-whatever you wanna make of it, the way i see it by today’s standards, was simply terrible. Bland, badly acted, and just about the worst and most thankless script i’ve seen from any movie in any time period in a long time (to paraphrase: “hey, lovely day we’re having!” “but my loved one is acting strange! I don’t think it’s really him!” “Why, he must be an alien pod-person!” “We have to warn people without falling asleep!” “Oh no, you fell asleep and became a pod person in the span of about half a second! Woe is me!” “YOU’RE NEXT! YOU’RE NEXT!”) And of course the tacked-on happyish ending that you just know 50s-era producers felt compelled to put in there. It’s a cool concept that fit that time period, but it couldn’tve been executed any worse by writers, actors, and all involved. A cheesy, completely uninvolving mess that makes a hammy mockery of an idea (body and soul-stealing) that should otherwise be terrifying.

Kaufman’s remake has the same basic story, characters, and events, just 20 years later, and presents it all in a way that Siegel didn’t: visually. Clearly the movie’s over-stylized, sometimes being too distracting and drawing too much attention to itself (with everything from the funny angles, sounds, editing and imagery, right down to that inexplicable walk-on cameo by Robert Duvall), but one thing’s for sure: that style’s unique, and I don’t care how contrived it can get, it makes the same material as the original a hell of a lot more interesting to take in. When it’s not distracting and actually fits, Kaufman’s style makes the story into what it should be: absolutely terrifying to even think about, let alone see. The sight of sleeping humans giving way to disgusting pod creatures slowly transforming into imitations, while a little dated by today’s standards, won’t leave my mind for some time, i think. A strange, strange movie this was: some of it a good strange, some of it bad, but definitely worth seeing, at least as a lesson into how similar material can be presented so differently in just a span of about 20 years.

Original: 5.5/10
Remake: 8/10

Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)

Just about every performance is so over-the-top it’s embarrassing (with Dr. Praetorious and that maid taking the cake).  The plot structure’s an absolute mess, from that shoddy prologue with Lord Byron and Friends to an ending that even Hitchcock would call abrupt.  The decision to have Karloff speak was so stupid you can’t help but roll your eyes when he puts together those sentences in broken English monster-ese.  All these flaws, and one has to ask why it’s considered perhaps the best and most enthralling of all horror films, and better yet, why I was so completely enthralled by such a flawed film.  To say that realism in the situations and performances aren’t suited for this material is obviously an understatement.  This movie is expressionism defined.  Scenes like the monster’s visit with the blind man and the unveiling of the Bride (one of the most famous images in all of cinema, and yet she has less than 5 minutes of screen time) are completely burned into our heads by now, whether we’ve seen the movie or not, not because of some unifying story, but because of the mood that it all conveys.  Those little people in Praetorious’ bottles, for example: so pointless to the plot, and so silly with their appearance and the music in today’s context, but like so many other scenes, it’s all for mood, for a state of mind, and sacrifices logic to simply show us something we’ve never seen before.  Sure, some of the humor, like Praetorious himself, those little people, and the monster becoming a wino just falls flat, but put together with the stark surrealism of these two mad scientists and their quest to become gods (namely the purely expressionistic visual process of creating life) creates a mood that, like the deepest recesses of our minds, defies all logic but affects us in ways that logical thought cannot.  The final sequence, with the lightning and all the gadgets splayed in darkness, the huge lightning rod ascending into the heavens, the Bride’s heartbeat acting as a perfectly ominous drumbeat: it’s a scene of such visual beauty and perfection that I was completely drawn in by the moment, rather than a unifying story.  The themes of misunderstanding those different from you and the perils of playing god are of course made obvious by the form of the movie, but in a purely visual and expressionistic way that feels oddly natural in the world we’re presented with.

I’m making no sense, rambling on and on.  😦   I guess that’s exactly what Bride of Frankenstein does if you look at it as a narrative by today’s standards.  Those stupid performances and story, along with the visuals and feel that’re stunning in a way i never could’ve anticipated after watching the first 20 minutes or so, probably make this the best “bad” movie I’ve ever seen  😛

9/10