Back to the Future 26 years later: It still works

I watched Back to the Future today for the first time in many years and it still holds up well. The cast, anchored by the amazingly weird Crispin Glover, is terrific and the story puts all the pieces together surprisingly well for a time travel plot. It helps that it’s a comedy and the science fiction stuff can be hand-waved as needed (moreso than normal).

The cutest part, of course, is how quaint the present-day setting of 1985 looks now. Michael J. Fox wears suspenders without irony. The woman have hair that towers like skyscrapers. Music is played on cassettes!

Definitely worth catching again if it happens to be on TV.

Star Trekpalooza (with bonus Forbidden Planet)

Over the weekend I had a rare chance to watch several back to back Star Trek: Next Gen movies as part of some Space network marathon and it has made me revise my opinions of several.

I saw the last segment of Insurrection and all of Generations, First Contact and Nemesis. Here are my new and improved opinions:

First Contact: This is still easily the best of the Next Gen movies. Yes, the concept of a Borg Queen is inconsistent, Crusher gets pushed into the background in favor of Alfre Woodard’s character and it combines two of the most tired tropes in Star Trek — saving Earth and time travel. But thanks to a lithe script, some excellent set pieces and tight performances by the cast, it all holds together and becomes more than the sum of its proverbial parts.

Insurrection: I only caught the last few scenes and it reminded me of what a dull and plodding movie it is. They somehow managed to make the action sequences limp and lifeless despite having the cool new Enterprise tooling around. Going from First Contact to this was a huge letdown. Even as a TV episode, Insurrection wouldn’t rank among the better ones, with its ‘simple folk on Amish planet’ plotline and not giving a damn if they blew the whole thing up.

Generations still comes off as a disjointed narrative, with too many different threads, many of them feeling only loosely connected to each other. The whole ‘Picard’s family dies in a fire’ (a fire? Really? In a time where they brag about no disease or poverty they somehow still manage to have fires that still burn down houses and kill people? Okay!) was utterly unnecessary and forced Patrick Stewart to spend a large amount of the film moping around. But the writers apparently couldn’t come up with anything better for Picard in the Nexus than ‘a family of mawkish, Stepford-style children dressed as if they were from the late 19th century so the tragedy of his real family was deemed necessary. When Picard looks out a window of his imaginary Nexus home and says, “This can’t be real” it’s a bit of a “Well, duh” moment. Which also demonstrates how hanging the whole movie on the Nexus was dumb to begin with. The plotholes in this movie are at least Galaxy class in size. Here’s just one, though: If Picard was able to leave the Nexus at any point in time, why did he not leave when Soren could be safely apprehended aboard a ship instead of mere minutes before he blows up an entire star? Because that wouldn’t have given us a scene of Kirk falling down and dying. Yes, Kirk’s death comes at the, er, hands of a rogue walkway that collapses. How noble!

Nemesis: I have always thought of this as being the worst of the Next Gen movies because of the poor matte effects, the overall cheap look of the film, the silly dune buggy sequence and the unnecessary and unconvincing sacrifice of Data as an attempt to wring a few tears from long-time fans (not to mention the cop-out of having B4 suddenly become more Data-like at the end). However, while all of these flaws are still present, none of them bothered me the same way they did back when I saw this in the theater when it came out in 2002. The story stays focused on the silly main plot (a lot of nonsense about a less-than-believable evil clone of Picard wanting to, uh, destroy the Earth or something for reasons that are never entirely clear, but which I can best surmise as “So I will be famous!”) and the pace keeps moving forward. In the end I have to say I found Nemesis more interesting than Insurrection, if not actually better, so I think I’ll now put it slightly above Insurrection in my list of Next Gen movies. My new ranking is thus:

1.First Contact
2. Generations
3. Nemesis
4. Insurrection

The gap between #1 and #2 is pretty big. The gap between #2 and #3 is smaller, while the space (ho ho) between #3 and #4 is rather small.

It’s too bad that the Next Gen cast didn’t get a decent batch of movies for their theatrical run. When most of your efforts rank about as highly as Star Trek V, it ain’t good.

***

I also managed to catch most of Forbidden Planet on AMC, which I’ve somehow never see before. It’s a bit of a jolt to see a young Leslie Nielson playing it straight as the commander of a military force that travels on a spaceship that looks strangely like a UFO. Overall I enjoyed it and it reminded me of how the pacing and plot sensibilities of movies have changed so much in the last 50 years. Forbidden Planet has its action but most of the film is simply talking or even one character demonstrating things to another. The enemy for the most part is literally unseen and the ending is not based on action but a psychological twist. There is allegedly a remake in the works (IMDB lists it as a 2013 project) and I can imagine the bigger, louder lasers already, the relatively simple ending being drawn out into a huge firefight and several unnecessary subplots tacked on. We need more science fiction movies that are about ideas and not just action. I expect the worst.

Finally, I caught the first 20 minutes or so of Fantastic Voyage. They emphasized several times that the shrinking process could only last 60 minutes maximum and then went through multiple phases post-shrinking of the sub and crew before finally injecting them into the guy’s body. I was expecting the project lead to send them a wireless message (yes, despite having all of this very fancy tech, they could only communicate through Morse code) telling them that they only had five minutes to complete the actual operation. Still, I love the tone of the movie, which can be described as serious-but-fun.

Review: Strong and Silent Types (VQFF)

This year I’ve only managed to see one film at the VQFF but it’s a collection of five shorts, so that makes it feel like I’ve seen a lot more.

Strong and Silent Types also could have been called Those Crazy Gay Drunks as it seemed like every other character was an alcoholic. Is there something I don’t know about gay men? Spoilers ahoy below!

In order:

Last Call. This is the one high-concept piece in which an alcoholic (!) gay man seeks to reconcile with the guy who left him some time before. He manages to convince the ex to meet him, drives off and promptly gets into some kind of horrible accident (that you don’t actually see). Instead of ending up under a sheet at the local morgue, Gavin finds himself in a bar that is empty save for one of those wise older women that exist mainly as supporting characters in morality tales. She pours him three shots, which he refuses as he no longer drinks. She insists and each drink causes him to flashback to key moments in his relationship with Mark, the acoustic guitar-playing, singing and wanting-to-adopt-a-child guy he used to be with. They are set to adopt but Gavin is, well, a drunk. Instead they break up.

Gavin laments to his mystic barkeep that it’s a shame fate had decided he was to end up dead after finally getting a chance to meet with David again (by this time he realizes the bar is some kind of way-point on his journey to the afterlife). She assures him that she can undo the accident if he drinks the last shot, which has the look of fresh Windex. He gulps it down and finds himself back in the car. He heads off to meet Mark but as he pulls up he sees his ex kissing another guy and handing off a small child to him. It’s clear that Mark has taken his pale blue Japanese guitar and started making music with someone else. Gavin then finds himself back at the bar where the woman, who confesses she has never been in love, and thus has no particular insights to offer, reveals that well, maybe you really are dead after all. Oops, my bad! But go on and leave the bar and get ready for the afterlife.

The afterlife turns out to be a really bright dock on the ocean with a bench where Mark is waiting with guitar. The End.

If you’re scratching your head at this point, you’re probably not alone. Even given its Twilight Zone pedigree, the story doesn’t make much sense. Feeding booze to a recovering alcoholic should serve some purpose beyond a plot device but nope, that’s all it is. The wise old woman turns out to not be very wise. In fact, she’s not really much more insightful than an eggplant sitting on the counter would have been. At least if the barkeep had been young and good-looking there would have been some eye candy. The ‘you’re not really dead — oh, wait, yes you are!’ seemed pointless but mostly I’m baffled by the ending, which seems to suggest that the afterlife is a fantasy world where you get exactly what you want. I suppose there’s an undeniable appeal there but Gavin would presumably know that Mark was really back on Earth boffing his new BF and raising the son he was too drunk to commit to having. That might prove a bit distracting in fantasyland. Thumbs sideways.

Little Love. This is a simple story of cheaters and their cheatin’ ways. It starts with three friends, two of whom are a couple. One half of the couple flies off on a trip, the hot Latino other half invites the mutual friend over and they boff in an energetic sex scene. The boring other half of the couple comes back, finds out and is all “I trusted you!” and then it’s over. That’s really it. There is no particular insight offered here and the piece is so short (10 minutes) that there’s no room for any kind of character growth or development. The message seems to be ‘don’t cheat on your friend with his super-hot Latino boyfriend’. Good advice! The worst part of this short film, apart from some stilted dialogue and somewhat wooden performances (except in bed, oddly enough) is the poignant piano or PP as I call it. This is heard throughout most of the shorts and is used to telegraph emotional moments, of which there are many, judging from the virtual poignant piano concertos taking place. You can hear a lot of the PP in the trailer for the film. At least there are no alcoholics in this short.

Disarm. A 30-something guy arranges to meet a 20-something guy through an online hookup site but instead of having sex, they engage in a wide-ranging conversation about sex, being gay, childhood, drinking and more. The 18-minute short is a character study and much of it a study of contrasts — the bitter older man still recovering from the wounds of his childhood and growing up gay, set against the glib young man who resolutely declares how masculine he is and how much he hates ‘fems’. They come to verbal blows, with the older man telling the young man that he both sounds and walks like a gay man — something the younger man obviously takes to heart as he ‘adjusts’ his stride after leaving the older man’s apartment. At times amusing and revealing, this is one of the stronger shorts in the presentation.

Promise. Oof. This one features an alcoholic, poignant piano, two essentially unlikable characters, a few unintentionally funny lines and a simulated rape. And it’s a comedy.

Just kidding about the comedy part.

This is a dour drama about a relationship falling apart. Stu (alcoholic) and Chris are about to get married but Stu has broken the somewhat arbitrary rules of their premarital open relationship by ‘double-dipping’ with another man by going back to him for another round of lovin’. This results in a lot of yelling, accusations both real and imagined and ends with Chris pulling off Stu’s clothes, throwing him on their bed and raping him over Stu’s loud and persistent protests. The film ends the next morning with the two of them meeting in the hallway of their home, both dressed for the wedding, though it is deliberately left as an open question of whether they will go through with the ceremony or not. “We have to,” Stu protests the night before, “all those people are showing up!” While the actors here are mostly fine, they are given dialogue that is pretty stiff at time and really, both of them come off as jerks you’d be happy not knowing, so I’m not sure what the point of the film was, except to perhaps show that not all gay men are witty and carefree like on Will & Grace. This may have worked better as a feature-length piece where the characters could have been fleshed out more. Hard to recommend.

Professor Godoy. The lightest and most daring short comes from Brazil. It features a classic premise, succinctly summed up by Van Halen as ‘hot for teacher’. In this case the teacher is a stern and exacting math professor at a private school, who tells us in the narration that he has always counted the exact number of steps to the school where he teaches ‘brats’ who ‘never grow older’ while he does. His dull routines change when one of his students, a young man named Felipe, starts including cryptic math-themed notes with his assignments that indicate an attraction to the professor. Godoy is initially repulsed, and rebuffs the attempts, until one night he finds himself waking up from a wet dream about Felipe. Awkward.

Even more awkward, Felipe shows up at Godoy’s home and gives him a slip of paper with an address on it, telling him to meet him in two hours (it’s okay, Felipe explains, they are no longer in school). Godoy says he will do no such thing and of course ends up sitting on a park bench at the appointed time. Felipe arrives and the film ends with a silent montage of the two on the bench, telling stories and laughing.

While the subject is provocative, the writer-director (who was at the screening and took questions after) plays it fairly safe — there is no sex depicted, not even touching or an errant kiss. Even at the end it’s ambiguous what sort of relationship the two men will have. Still, the actors are natural and the presentation is almost light enough that one might be inclined to call it innocent, if not for the actual subject matter. The director, Gui Ashcar, admitted in the Q&A after that the fantasy sequence — which consists of the two alone in the classroom, each at their desks and with Felipe advancing through a sequence of blackouts, toward Godoy — was originally meant to be less a fantasy and more explicit but as they were filming in an actual school, there was pressure to keep things a little more PG-rated. Another mark in the film’s favor is the beautiful cinematography, easily the best of all the short features. This was perhaps the only one to actually have the imprint of a director interested in telling a story, not simply teaching a lesson. Ultimately a pleasant diversion but not much more. Still, thumbs up.

Review: Pandorum

I rented Pandorum because I knew it was a “scary spaceship movie” like Event Horizon. I didn’t know any of the details about what made it scary. I liked going in without really knowing anything about it.

This review contains spoilers, so skip to the last paragraph if you just want my final take on the movie.

It turns out that Pandorum is not actually scary, working more as a mystery and then as both an action and psychological thriller. The story begins with two crew members waking up from hypersleep on a massive spaceship that appears to be partially disabled. Intermittent rumblings signal the ship’s reactor getting ready to shut down, giving the movie its main plot point as they characters race to get to the reactor to reset it. Along the way they discover what the ship’s mission was, who they are and what ‘pandorum’ is — the madness that grips some people after extended periods of hypersleep.

You can see where this is going.

I found Pandorum to be likable enough but unremarkable. It moved along at a decent pace and there was nothing horrible about it, but also nothing especially noteworthy, either. It’s the kind of film that you start poking holes in immediately after viewing. Dennis Quaid continues the trend toward playing crazy as he ages and I’ll admit he does a pretty good job of it. Ben Foster, who plays the engineer, brings a grounded quality to Bower that I enjoyed, especially compared to the other supporting characters, all of whom are pretty stock — the beautiful but dangerous woman, the eccentric but dangerous older man, the fierce and dangerous younger man (who bafflingly speaks a different language than the other characters, for no reason I could determine), the young, insane and hey, dangerous! man. You get the idea.

It turns out that these people are on the Elysium, a colony ship carrying tens of thousands of people to the Earth-like planet Tanis some 123 years away. The stakes are raised by two factors: the discovery that Earth somehow went kablooey shortly after Elysium took off and at some point in its voyage something went horribly wrong, leading to the ship being invaded by vicious humanoid mutants who dress like Mad Max extras and carry around blue flashlights that they enjoy waving around ominously as they scuttle down hallways. At first the mutants are presented in fleeting glimpses, flashes of teeth and sinewy limbs lashing out. Since they are the antagonists of the story, this doesn’t continue and as they are revealed more in full and further explained as being mutated humans from the ship itself, the menace is completely bled out of their presence. The other primary source of tension in the film

Several times the characters comment on the massive size of the ship yet the film never adequately conveys this, as the darkly-lit corridors and tunnels the characters spend most of their time running down are very generic. You do get a few moments where larger spaces are shown but they feel disconnected from the rest of the design. Naturally, there are the obligatory chambers with water pouring down for no reason, as established in Alien over 30 years ago. The worst offender design-wise is the reactor room showcased in the movie’s penultimate scene. Not only does it improbably serve as the breeding ground for the mutants, its design is straight out of the original Star Wars, with Ben Foster filling in the Obi Wan Kenobi role as he walks on a narrow gangway out to the reactor controls. Naturally there are no handrails of any sort on this narrow gangway and naturally the gangway starts to collapse as soon as he starts walking across it, all the better to slide off into the giant mass o’ mutants sleeping below. As he gingerly makes his way out of the slithering mass of very mean things, the dangerous some-other-language man suddenly drops his flashlight, its clanging causing all of the mutants to wake up. I’d think a little metal tube clanging off a pipe wouldn’t seem like much in the bowels of a giant nuclear reactor (that causes the entire ship to shudder violently from time to time) but these mutants are very sensitive to plot-driven sound effects.

Once the reactor is fired up in the nick of time, a number of mutants are shown being obliterated by it. Somehow the good guys are impervious to this, even though they are clearly in the same space as the mutants. No bother. Time to reunite with Dennis “crazy eyes” Quaid for the final confrontation on the bridge. The pandorum-fueled struggle here results in the glass being cracked. One might hope that an interstellar ship carrying the last hope for humanity on a trip over 100 years in length would have invested in at least double-glazed windows but apparently not. Failing that, an emergency bulkhead would seal the bridge off from the rest of the ship. Nope. Instead a hull breach emergency is declared. Time to evacuate! In the movie’s final twist, it is revealed that the Elysium is actually already on Tanis, sitting partially submerged in an ocean off the coast of some landmass. How it managed to land in the ocean fully intact and without any of its windows breaking is not explained.

The film ends with Bower and Nadia, the dangerous woman/botanist escaping to the surface in a life pod, tasked with repopulating the human species. Get to work, kids! Okay, other pods are seen popping onto the surface of the ocean and the end card indicates a population of 1,213.

Pandorum isn’t a bad movie but it’s hard to recommend because there is nothing about it that stands out. If you’re hankering for a competently-made science fiction thriller it’s entirely serviceable, otherwise I’d recommend something a little more thoughtful, like Sunshine.

Reviews: Toy Story 3, Inception and The Last Airbender

This summer has been kind of blah for movies so far but on the plus side, it makes for a happier wallet. Here are a few more reviews of what I’ve seen lately.

Toy Story 3
I saw this shortly after it opened in June (blessedly, not the 3D version that asks you to mortgage your home to pay and makes you wear a pair of glasses over your own glasses in order to get a dimmer, slightly unfocused version of the movie) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Why did I wait a month before writing a review? Because as much as I like Toy Story 3, it’s easily forgotten. In what is assumed to be the final arc for the characters, the plot has Andy heading off to college, with all of the toys but Woody to be stowed in his parents’ attic for safekeeping. Woody is to accompany him to college, out of sentiment. Thanks to a mix-up the toys instead end up in a daycare facility, where they are beset upon by ‘age-inappropriate’ kids who mangle, torture and mutilate them in that cheerful way little kids do.

Making matters worse is a teddy bear kingpin who presents a warm smile but runs the daycare like an internment camp. When Woody arrives to rescue the gang, the movie takes off, essentially becoming a prison break story.

One of the film’s highlights are the villainous henchmen who aid and abet Lotso the teddy bear. One is a freaky ‘realistic’ doll that silently lurches about on its stubby legs, a half-shut eye staring out of an otherwise vacant face. Another is one of those monkeys with cymbals that watches the many monitors of the daycare’s surveillance system, appropriately screeching and going berserk with the cymbals when the alert is sounded. That ought to have set up at least one kid in the audience for nightmares.

The action is brisk and there are some decent setpieces, though I found the Spanish Buzz Lightyear sequence merely amusing. The addition of Ken and Barbie works better than I thought it would, especially Ken being depicted as a vain, fashion-obsessed girlyman. The scene in the incinerator is surprisingly touching and the deus ex machina actually doesn’t feel cheap (it’s also foreshadowed quite openly for those paying attention).

The message of the movie — growing up, letting go, moving on — is presented gently and lovingly. But in the end, as pleasant and warm as Toy Story 3 is, it feels more like a confection, something to enjoy in the moment, not to savor afterward.

And that’s okay. Not every movie needs to be deep or make you think. Speaking of which…

Inception
Inception is Christopher Nolan’s first movie since The Dark Knight two years ago and it a real rarity: a brainy big budget science fiction film. Think about how many of those you can remember seeing.

To discuss the film in any detail would be impossible without spoilers all over the place but without spoiling too much, the story takes place in a world where people are able to invade the dreams of others, literally stealing their ideas from the sleeping and subconscious mind — a process known as extraction. Cobb, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, assembles a team to work for a client that has come to him. Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants something a little different, though. Rather than an extraction, he wants Cobb and his team to plant an idea into the mind of the son and heir of a competing business owner in order to convince the son to break up his father’s empire and thus eliminating Saito’s main competition.

Planting an idea is an inception, not an extraction, something most of the characters believe is impossible. Cobb is not one of them and he has motivation for wanting to succeed — Saito has promised to clear the way for him to return to the US to be with his two children, as he is currently on the run as a fugitive, accused of a crime he says he didn’t commit.

We follow the characters down the proverbial rabbit hole, where the story plays out as a series of dreams within dreams within dreams. Nolan takes pains to explain all of the rules of this subconscious manipulation and in doing so reveals one of the weaknesses of the film: fairly heavy exposition. It’s not a deal breaker, however and apart from what I felt was some clunky dialogue early on, it’s blended in fairly believably as characters explaining things to others not ‘in the loop’.

Much like a movie about time travel, Inception fairly brgs you to look for plot holes after the fact, most obviously with the ending and final shot, which some may regard as brilliant, while others dismiss it as facile.

SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH

On reflection I think the final scene is a dream and not reality, mostly based on the children looking exactly as they did in Cobb’s dreams. Trying to invent a plausible reason for them being identical in age, wearing the same clothes and and even standing in the exact same spot in the yard is just too much. Cobb is caught in the limbo the film describes as the nether state where you cannot wake from a dream and risk scrambling your brain if you stay ‘down there’ too long. It is there, not in reality, that he is happily reunited with his children.

While all of the characters are good, I especially liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur, who operates with a steely precision, whether it’s fighting in a hotel hallway where gravity has suddenly gone askew or questioning Cobb’s mental state (a conflict between the characters is hinted at but never develops). DiCaprio is decent but not outstanding but this is a movie more about ideas rather than heart, so it’s not surprising that most of the characters exist to simply service the plot. We’re not here to observe any character arcs or growth, apart from Cobb’s and while that gives the film a bit of a detached feel, it’s not problematic.

With so much to chew over I have an urge to see Inception again. I’ll be interested to see if the audience in general shares that feeling or if it fades quickly in favor of the next moron movie. Definitely recommended.

The Last Airbender
I had the good sense not to see this but Nic didn’t! Read his review here. Currently tracking at 8% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Review: Accelerate (R.E.M.)

Yeah, I’m reviewing a two year old album. :P

R.E.M., Accelerate (2008)

This is the best album R.E.M. has put out since the group became a trio with the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997 and a dramatic turnaround from the slow, keyboard-driven sound of their previous album, 2004’s Around the Sun.

Some of the tracks here recall the freewheeling performances on 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, particularly “Man-Sized Wreath” and “Supernatural Superstitious”. On the former, Michael Stipe offers a cynical view of celebrity death, opening with “Turn on the TV and what do I see?/A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me – wow!/I’d have thought by now we would be ready to proceed/But a tearful hymn to tug the heart/And a man-sized wreath – ow!” putting particularly cheeky emphasis on the “ow” and “wow” as punctuation. The song captures everything that makes Accelerate work so well: the percussion is no longer buried deep in the mix, as if in deference to Berry’s absence; instead the drums drive the song forward. Buck’s guitar also returns to the front, aggressive but clean, unlike the muddy play and excessive distortion found in efforts like New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Perhaps the most welcome return is Mike Mills’ soaring background vocals (even getting a brief solo at song’s end). Unlike the sometimes labored and typically downbeat tracks of Around the Sun, the band here seems to be just plain having fun.

On first listen, the album is bound to leave you feeling a bit out of breath despite its short length (under 35 minutes) due to the relentless pacing of the bite-sized songs, but further listens reveal more texture and depth. “Until the Day is Done” is a mournful reflection on America, characterized by Stipe as “an addled republic” and backed by Buck’s acoustic guitar and “Sing for the Submarine” is a weird number that features call-outs to past R.E.M. songs and a suitably submerged organ playing behind the chorus, along with more of Mills’ terrific backing vocals. It is perhaps ironic that the titular song is probably the weakest on the album. It’s competent but never quite realizes the urgency of its lyrics, as if the music is stuck a half-beat behind what Stipe is framing with his words.

Despite its brevity and some quibbles with pacing, Accelerate remains a well-crafted rock album, a worthwhile addition to the R.E.M. catalog and an easy recommendation to anyone who enjoyed the band but may have been put off by its last few efforts.

Review: Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 is the first of the big summer releases for 2010 and has already made a zillion dollars in its opening weekend, as Box Office Mojo reports. I had not read any reviews before going in but from headlines and such the gist seemed to be “not as good as the first one”, which is probably not surprising, since the original was a lot better than many would have expected.

And I’d agree. It was fun, not as sharp as the first, but still very entertaining. Robert Downey Jr. continues to play the role of Tony Stark with perfect comic timing. The supporting cast is generally solid, although Rhodes, now played by Don Cheadle, seems a bit more straight-laced than when he was played by Terence Howard. Mickey Rourke is a hulking revenge-seeking Russian physicist, ex-Siberian prisoner and apparent master hacker, breaking encrypted systems with a few deft taps on a keyboard. Movie computers must use ‘password’ or ‘abc123’ as passwords or something. Sam Rockwell plays Justin Hammer as an evil buffoon, sort of the underachieving younger brother gone down the wrong path. While never generating any actual menace, he is regularly amusing (and annoying). Garry Shandling is brilliantly cast as a supercilious senator investigating the Iron Man and he clearly relished playing the acerbic character, sort of a callback to his Larry Sanders days, but even less likable (he is playing a politician, after all).

The story is pretty simple — bad guy seeks revenge on Iron Man — and the final mano-a-mano-a-mano battle ends rather abruptly, but things move along at a brisk pace and the cast seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, so it’s hard not to get swept up in the fun.

The science, as always, is pure comic book (read: nonsensical) and people who pick it apart are missing the point by the proverbial country mile. It’s like attacking the accuracy of the doomsday scenario in 2012.

The effects are quite good, as one would expect, and there’s another teaser at the end of the credits, just as with the first movie. The credits, by the way, would have been shorter by listing the people who had not worked on the movie. Ay caramba, the size of the crew on the movie was bigger than Tony Stark’s ego.

Captain America’s shield had an awesome cameo.

Iron Man 2 is not a great movie, but it is great fun. Recommended.

Review: House

This past Sunday I saw the movie House at Pacific Cinematheque, the first time I’ve been back to that theatre in many years. It was a bit muggy inside and it’s only mid-April. Perhaps it is a way for them to claim “hot movies” without having to rely on the quality of the film itself to back up the statement.

In any case, a recent acquaintance who volunteers there and at Vancity Theatre, was able to procure free tickets, so it was risk-free. I bought a bottle of water at the concession to assuage my guilt over not paying, as is my way, knowing full well my bladder would be scolding me in short order for having done so.

House is a 1977 Japanese horror film. There are clips of various scenes on YouTube and I had actually seen one such scene last year without having any idea what the context of it was. As with many scenes in the movie, it is pretty unmistakable. In this case, one of the school girls is getting her head chomped by a large lampshade.

Considering its age, the film surprisingly does not look particularly dated, mainly due to the timeless Japanese schoolgirl look. The story revolves around seven schoolgirls, each deliberately named after her defining characteristic (Gorgeous is beautiful, Melody plays the piano, Kung Fu – well, you can probably figure it out) going to Gorgeous’s creepy old aunt’s house for the summer after their original vacation plans fall apart. A freaky white cat with magic eyes, a dancing skeleton and the aunt herself play host to a macabre series of events that claim the girls one by one.

House is relentlessly energetic – the characters are constantly laughing and chattering with each other, even while their numbers dwindle as the house claims them, and the score plays near constantly in the background. As things continue to go terribly wrong for the girls, the ebullient tone of the film shifts toward traditional horror and it becomes more deliberately weird and disturbing. It never fully succumbs to being ‘serious’ fare, though. You can only draw so much solemn symbolism from a piano eating a girl or a man in a dune buggy that gets turned into a giant pile of bananas.

Visually, the film matches its audio portion, with an array of effects, filters and stylized painted backgrounds. Moments get played forward and back, one character has a constant breeze softly lifting her scarf for effect no matter where she goes.

My only real complaint here was the tone shift doesn’t fully work. You can’t really lay out something so utterly silly and then try to make it serious but House doesn’t try too hard, so it’s only a minor criticism. House is easy to recommend for the energy and striking composition alone. It is a wonderful piece of over-the-top storytelling that full embraces the medium of film and just has fun with it.

In Japanese with English subtitles.

Reviews: Alice in Wonderland, Ringu, Avatar, Clash of the Titans

Four quickie movie reviews, one a rental, three in theaters and two of those in 3D.

Ringu
This is the original Japanese version of The Ring from 1998, the story of a weird videotape that, once viewed, will lead to the viewer’s horrific death exactly one week later. A reporter who comes across the story and falls victim to the tape launches an investigation against time to solve the mystery. And that’s essentially what this is — a mystery, albeit one that centers on a tortured spirit instead of something mundane. I have not seen the American version of The Ring but was told it is scarier than this one, which really isn’t scary at all. There’s a few minorly creepy bits but that’s it. The film is still well-crafted and interesting but this is a case where perhaps something really is lost in the translation (I watched a subtitled rental). Thumbs up but not hugely so.

Alice in Wonderland
In which the Mad Hatter gets an expanded role because you’re paying zillions for Johnny Depp so you’re going to use him, dammit. This is pretty much what you’d expect from Tim Burton but I found it a bit pedestrian and the usual Burton aesthetic didn’t quite work for Wonderland. The look was a little too dreary and dark, not funky and weird. The actors were fine and I especially liked the style Helena Bonham Carter brought to the Red Queen — an unexpected surprise. But the story, which imposes a not very interesting narrative onto a setting that works best without one, felt a bit limp. By the end where the Mad Hatter is fighting with a sword and Alice is decked out in a suit of armor you’re kind of wondering what the hell is going on. But the visuals were good. A feast for the eyes, not so much for the brain.

Avatar
What can be said about this that hasn’t been said already? It’s made over $2 billion worldwide, is still playing in theaters as its Blu-ray and DVD release nears, was nominated for a truckload of Oscars and perhaps formalized the mainstream acceptance of 3D in movies with most of its take carrying the $3 or so premium price that 3D films extract. I thought it was pretty good, though some of the early dialogue in particular was clunky and the story, of course, is nothing original. I don’t ding it for that because few stories are original and if it’s told well, that’s good enough for me. Cameron keeps things moving along and though predictable, I enjoyed the ride. The visuals are amazing. Sam Worthington, as the titular avatar, didn’t seem to be all that different here from his role in Terminator Salvation last summer. This leads me into…

Clash of the Titans
I heard the bolted-on 3D here was especially bad but we managed to catch an old-fashioned 2D version of the film. Reviews had been mixed at best so I didn’t have high expectations. Some good CGI, some decent action, that’s all I hoped for and the movie mostly delivers on that. It plays fast and loose with the mythology, just as the original did, but when you’re remixing stories that are made-up to begin with, how much can you really complain? This time Perseus is out for revenge after Hades wipes out his adopted family. Hades is played by Ralph Fiennes, who seemed to be channeling several different bad guys, among them Wormwood from The Lord of the Rings. Liam Neesson played Zeus about as well as one might hope for and his armor literally sparkled, like a Twilight vampire. The Medusa sequence was fairly brief and somewhat disappointing, though the Medusa design was striking — a huge serpentine body with a hauntingly beautiful face that transformed into a suitably haggish look when she got some face time with a hapless victim. My biggest complaints would probably be some of the dialogue (see Avatar), Sam Worthington’s bland Perseus (see Avatar) and the way Perseus was written, apart from Worthington’s specific portrayal. The character just wasn’t interesting. The giant scorpions, surprise “cameo” and general effects were all pleasing enough. Better off as a rental.

Review: Sherlock Holmes

I saw Sherlock Holmes today and liked it. I knew there would be more action in it than what one might expect in a typical Holmes story but it wasn’t an action movie. Robert Downey Jr. stamps the character with his own style while still engaging in some of the classic Holmes behavior we expect — the logical deductions, the violin playing. Jude Law was terrific as Dr. Watson and I was pleased to see the character presented not as a well-meaning buffoon or comedy relief but as a worthy match for Holmes in many ways.

The story sets up a cult engaged in magic that will “change the world” and is neatly deconstructed (and thwarted, of course) by Holmes in the end. The perfect sort of tale for the confirmed skeptic. The remainder of the cast is fine, though no one especially stands out. Everyone does what they’re supposed to and Downey and Law remain the focus throughout.

There is the suggestion of a sequel by the end and that wouldn’t be an altogether bad thing, I’d say. Thumbs up.

Book review: Dark Delicacies II

I just finished Dark Delicacies II: Fear, the second collection of 20 horror short stories and it holds up nearly as well as the first volume. Most of the stories are fairly good, a few are standouts and, unfortunately, a few also fell flat. The variety is decent, ranging in subject matter from vampires (on the Titanic) to the undead, ghost and the more subtle horrors of the mind. Tone and mood ranged widely, from very light to grim, with most stories falling somewhere between the extremes.

The Best

  • “Dog” by Joe R. Lansdale, a simple but effective chase story
  • “The Accompanist” (John Harrison), a mesmerizing character study of a man consumed by his passion for music
  • “Where There’s a Will…” (Robert Masello), a romp in which an underachieving son in a somewhat dysfunctional family gets success in a way he could never have imagined. This was my favorite of the collection, a real delight all the way through.

The Worst

Unlike the first volume, there are a few stories here that fell flat:

  • “Amusement”, a story about unlikeable characters engaging in unlikeable (and uninteresting) acts
  • “Great Wall: A Story from the Zombie War” by Max Brooks which was strangely boring but mercifully short. Maybe it suffers from being out of context from World War Z.

“The Y Incision”, a goofy homage to the old Night Stalker TV series, invoked my internal editor when the protagonist, a private detective who specializes in the undead, complained about “losing two bills” on a case that goes bust when there was a very clear, obvious point where the detective could have (and really, should have) gotten the money back. There were a couple of other stories where I found myself rewriting bits in my head. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Overall, though, I’d definitely recommend Dark Delicacies II to any horror fan. It’s a solid anthology.

Star Wars 32, 12 and 0 years later

I saw Star Wars at the Duncan Odeon shortly after it premiered in 1977. I was 12 years old, pretty much the ideal age.

I also saw it in the theater here in Vancouver when the special edition came out in 1997. I was 32 years old.

I watched it again last week.

What follows is the answer to the question: Can a magical film of my youth withstand the critical, nay, cynical eye of adulthood?

The short answer is: mostly yes. The longer answer follows.

I saw Star Wars before it became the most successful movie ever (for the time) and at the age of 12 I was old enough to understand everything but still young enough to be dazzled in the way only a child can. While the 70s are fondly looked back on by film purists, I think it’s important to remember that film has always been a combination of craft and commerce. When the serials of the 30s and 40s were being cranked out, no one was aspiring to high art. Likewise the exploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s were just mindless entertainment designed to titillate and little more.

Star Wars, though, was one of those films that tried both. In the context of the era, it was unheard of — a big budget science fiction movie complete with veteran actors like Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing to lend it credibility. It’s been well-documented how George Lucas drew from many sources for inspiration for the movie and somehow he made it all work. But how does it fare now?

I have the special edition on DVD. This was essentially a test-run of the CGI effects that would drive the Episode I-III prequels, adding extra bits of shiny and re-inserting a few cut scenes. The quality of the transfer is a bit strange — some parts of the film are very vivid while others still appear muddy and with “noise” in the film. While a few effects shots have been cleaned up, others still have the telltale transparent rectangles outlining TIE fighters that shows how they were overlaid on the backgrounds.

As to the additions and extras in the special edition, most don’t hold up and some even detract from the film. The best ones are a few quick shots that make Mos Eisley look like more than just “four overturned cans of paint” (as one critic dubbed the original). The scene with Biggs and Luke chatting before heading out to the Death Star is also a thoughtful inclusion.

However, the background bits with exotic beasts fussing and farting and noisy little drones flying about are distractions that pull your eye away from the focus of the scene. The infamous “Greedo now shoots first” scene undercuts the character arc of Han Solo going from a mercenary out for himself to someone who actually joins the cause. The worst bit, though, is the re-insertion of the scene where Han is confronted by Jabba the Hutt. Not only was most of the scene reworked for the Greedo/Han confrontation, making its insertion gratuitous, Jabba looks like CGI and Han addresses him as if he was a person and not a giant slug. He even ends with, “Jabba, you’re a wonderful human.” This made sense when the scene was shot because Jabba was just some guy in a bad fur coat. Putting the scene back in was the first sign that Lucas’s ear had gone tin on what worked in the world he created.

But what about the rest of the movie, the parts unchanged from 1977?

For the most part, it still works. There is the sense that you are watching events unfold in a universe that is truly unlike ours, one where technology has advanced but is still grimy and gritty and prone to breaking down. The characters are all broadly and clearly delineated. Luke is the farmboy hero who fulfills his destiny, Han is the rogue, Kenobi the wise mentor, Vader the despicable villain and the droids the comic relief. The only real misstep among the cast is Carrie Fisher’s mysteriously appearing and disappearing British accent that seems to activate whenever she’s in a scene with Peter Cushing. Monkey see, monkey do, I guess. Of all the actors, Cushing seems to delight most in his role, coldly putting the leash on Vader (who else would do such a thing in any of the other movies?) or shrugging off the rebels’ chances of actually destroying the Death Star.

Lucas keeps the stakes high throughout — Luke’s guardians aren’t just killed by the stormtroopers, they’re reduced to charred skeletons, the Death Star destroys an entire planet to demonstrate its power — but deftly keeps things moving with lots of action and banter between the main trio as they battle their way through to the final showdown at the Death Star. Yeah, it’s not entirely believable that dozens of stormtroopers could all miss when firing at them but it’s part of the pulp serial fun of the movie. The heroes face impossible odds but somehow overcome them, anyway.

The original effects are a mixed bag. The Death Star trench runs hold up decently but there’s a certain wobbleyness to a lot of the others where they still work but just barely. Here, you do need to keep the film in context. Effects-wise, I’d say it holds up worse than, say, The Wizard of Oz. Even the special edition spiffing up only goes so far.

There is also throughout the film an earnest corniness than many today might find off-putting but again, it works in the context of the story. These aren’t just characters, they’re archetypes. Han isn’t just speaking for himself but for every guy who just wants what’s his and to keep his nose out of everything else.

One of the things I most notice now as an adult is how Lucas really isn’t very good with his actors. Those that know their stuff, like Harrison Ford and Cushing, manage just fine but the younger and less experienced actors like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher offer uneven performances than a firmer directorial hand would have made more consistent. In this regard I think Lucas actually got worse in the prequels. Still, the lapses aren’t enough to detract from the film as a whole.

Overall, Star Wars still holds up fine. Its flaws are more apparent now and the special edition adds little of value to the film, but it’s well worth seeing. It’s amazing that over 30 years later so few other films have captured the science fantasy feel that makes Star Wars so appealing, even to where it largely eluded Lucas himself.