Thursday, December 31, 2015

Where Were You in ’96?

by ScottDS

I’ve decided to jump ahead 10 years, so let us look back [gulp] 20 years at 1996. I was a 13-year old socially-awkward nerd (hard to believe, I know) and this was the first year I started going to movies with school friends and not parents, so it will always hold a special place for me. As per usual, the list leans towards genre stuff.

Independence Day – The big one. Back when Roland Emmerich could direct a watchable film. Back when a teaser could play in theaters and not be dissected within minutes. I’m still a fan of this movie. It’s just fun and goofy and ridiculous and some of the effects have dated… but it’s likeable and genuinely exciting. And David Arnold’s bombastic score is a treat. One wishes all this could be said about Emmerich’s 2012. Right now, an Independence Day sequel (sans Will Smith) is in post-production and I consider it a huge mistake. Nostalgia counts but this teaser doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. “All you need is love. John Lennon. Smart man. Shot in the back, very sad.”

Fargo – Would you believe I only saw this film for the first time this year? And that was after the excellent FX TV series! This critical darling is what I call “deceptively simple” – it’s a crime drama, but there’s enough homespun weirdness to make it unique. This is the Coen Brothers firing on all cylinders. William H. Macy plays (what else?) a sad sack who hires two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so he can extort his rich father-in-law. Frances McDormand plays a police officer who investigates a related homicide. The cold Midwest landscape is bleak and oppressive and Carter Burwell’s Norwegian folk-inspired score is downright depressing. “There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that?”

Twister – I thought this movie was awesome back in 1996. I recently watched parts of it and… yikes. Cheesy and clichéd and the otherwise talented Cary Elwes plays a mustache-twirling villain (you know, because tornadoes aren’t big enough?!). The film did have one of the great teasers (featuring that cool shot that wasn’t in the film) and ILM’s effects mostly kinda sorta hold up, but damn. I swear half the dialogue consists of “Run!” and “Go!” With Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg involved, you’d expect something a little, uh, better. On the plus side, however, this film was my first exposure to the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. “‘The Suck Zone.’ It's the point basically when the twister… sucks you up. That's not the technical term for it, obviously.”
Mission: Impossible – I’ll always have fond memories of this film, even if the plot was a little too labyrinthine. Brian de Palma directed what would be his highest-grossing, most crowd-pleasing film, and plenty of his trademark visual tricks are on display. Many criticized the film for making what was an ensemble TV show into a Tom Cruise showcase and many more criticized the film for turning series lead Jim Phelps into a villain. But for someone who had never seen the series, this movie was just a lot of fun, though the novelization helped to clear up some things. The CIA vault sequence is still a great case study in direction and the helicopter/Chunnel climax is ridiculous (and awesome!). “Good morning, Mr. Phelps.”

Star Trek: First Contact – Picard and Co. travel back in time to 2063 to stop the Borg from interfering with Earth’s first warp flight. Jonathan (Riker) Frakes made his big-screen directing debut and while he’s still a regular TV director, I wish a studio would give him another shot at the big chair. Alice Krige is silky and sexy as the Borg Queen and James Cromwell plays warp drive inventor Zefram Cochrane. The film is good but somewhat hampered by its low budget and I can’t disagree with fans who feel the studio-mandated Borg Queen was a mistake. The make-up effects are great, Jerry Goldsmith returned to do the music, and Deborah Everton's 21st century outfits are some of my favorite Trek costumes. (I love Cochrane’s ensemble!) “Believing oneself to be perfect is often the sign of a delusional mind.”

Jerry Maguire – Cameron Crowe’s critical and audience favorite features Tom Cruise as a super agent who one day has a moral epiphany, is subsequently fired, and is stuck with only one loyal client and one loving employee. The client is NFL star Rod Tidwell, the role for which Cuba Gooding Jr. won an Oscar – it’s a shame his subsequent career has had more downs than ups. Renée Zellweger plays Maguire’s employee/love interest and she's on the receiving end of the classic line “You complete me.” Sadly the last time she was in the news, it was because of her cosmetic surgery. Hell, even Cameron Crowe’s career has hit the skids. He did Almost Famous after this, which is considered a modern classic, and then Vanilla Sky… and nothing’s clicked since. “Twenty-four hours ago, man, I was hot! Now… I'm a cautionary tale.”
Mars Attacks! – This is one movie I wish I liked more than I did. Equal parts 50s B-movie and 70s disaster movie, Tim Burton’s all-star mess is based on a series of grotesque Topps trading cards: big-brained aliens attack Earth, Sarah Jessica Parker’s head is attached to the body of a Chihuahua, and the only way to kill the aliens is to blast Slim Whitman music. Jack Nicholson plays two roles, Rod Steiger plays a war-mongering general, and Tom Jones plays himself. How can I not like this movie!?! Because it’s honestly not that funny and I don’t really care about anyone… even Danny Elfman’s theremin-heavy score doesn’t do it for me here. After this film, Burton would go on to develop an ill-fated Superman movie which is the stuff of legend. “Ack! Ack! Ack!”

Daylight – This disaster movie from Rob Cohen is one of those movies I’ll keep on in the background. It’s not particularly good, but it’s still watchable. Sylvester Stallone is former EMT chief Kit Latura, the Only One Who Can Save the Day after an explosion seals of both ends of an unnamed New York/New Jersey tunnel. It’s clichéd and predictable and there’s some ham-handed backstory explaining why Stallone is no longer on the force. The cast includes Amy Brenneman as a playwright who’s sick of the city and Viggo Mortensen as an adrenaline junky (you can see where this is going). This was one of Stallone’s last big movies before he ended up in direct-to-video purgatory for a few years. If you’re claustrophobic, I’d avoid this one! “Okay, we're high and dry and out of danger. Now, what we don’t need is more surprises. Right?”
The English Patient – Proof that Best Picture doesn’t necessarily equate to longevity. I still haven’t seen it (one day!), but when was the last time you heard anyone talk about it? The actors are talented and it’s well-made from the bits and pieces I’ve seen, but Fargo got a TV series… where, may I ask, is The English Patient series? [smile] I would argue that this film is better known today for the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine resents everyone she knows telling her to go see it and she gets stuck seeing it… twice. And in case you were wondering, the film tells the story of a wounded pilot who, in the final days of WWII, tells the story of a fateful love affair to the nurse who’s tending to him. “Those sex scenes! I mean, please! Gimme something I can use!” (That was from the episode, not the film.)

Eraser – One of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last big headliners. He plays a Witness Protection agent who’s tasked with protecting a defense contractor employee (Vanessa Williams) after she finds out her crooked boss plans to sell the company’s new weapon on the black market… that old chestnut. There are a lot of familiar faces, including the much-missed James Coburn as Arnold’s boss, James Caan as Arnold’s mentor (and traitor), and the late Robert Pastorelli as one of Arnold’s previous witnesses who gets to help out. I haven’t seen the film in years but I remember some fun (if implausible) action sequences and some horrible CGI when Arnold comes face to face with a crocodile. “I didn't know treason was part of the corporate strategy.”
Hamlet – I first watched Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour 70mm epic in high school and enjoyed it very much. Unlike previous adaptations, this one uses the complete text. The cast ranges from excellent to “Him?” Branagh plays Hamlet, the prince who seeks to avenge his father’s murder. Derek Jacobi is Claudius, Julie Christie is Gertrude, and Kate Winslet is Ophelia. Charlton Heston is the Player King, Brian “Gordon’s alive!” Blessed is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Billy Crystal (!) is the First Gravedigger, Robin Williams (!!) is Osric, and Jack Lemon is sadly a bit out of his depth as Marcellus. Tech stuff is all top notch, as is the location work at Blenheim Palace. This film is truly an epic of the old school. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Island of Dr. Moreau – Cult director Richard Stanley was fired from his passion project three days in and was replaced by John Frankenheimer. Val Kilmer was a temperamental ass, Marlon Brando was his eccentric self, and Mother Nature was a bitch. I recommend the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau – it features Stanley and others discussing what could’ve been. There were days where Kilmer wouldn’t leave his trailer until Brando left his, but Brando wouldn’t leave his trailer until Kilmer left his! Meanwhile, dozens of extras in strange animal makeup were sitting around with nothing to do. To be fair, Kilmer was dealing with his divorce and Brando was dealing with his daughter’s suicide. Stanley even managed to sneak back onto the set disguised as an animal extra. “I have seen the devil in my microscope, and I have chained him.”

The Long Kiss Goodnight – Honestly, I think this is Samuel L. Jackson’s most quotable movie. Geena Davis stars in one of her last big films as Samantha Caine, a housewife who finds out she was once a CIA assassin. Jackson is a PI who teams up with her to find the truth and Brian Cox does more in five minutes than most actors do in two hours as an eccentric doctor. Renny Harlin directs one of his last big movies and Shane Black writes one of his last big movies before bouncing back with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The plot involves a CIA false flag operation in which the agency would blow up Niagara Falls and place the blame on Islamic terrorists in order to get more funding – the stuff that truther dreams are made of. “…when you make an assumption, you make an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘umption’.”

Everyone Says I Love You – A charming Woody Allen musical. All of the actors (save for one) use their own singing voices: some are okay, like Edward Norton; some are actually pretty good, like Goldie Hawn; and others should stick to their day jobs, like [cough] Julia Roberts. The plot is immaterial – a series of vignettes featuring an upper-class liberal Manhattan family. The final 20 minutes are magic: a bunch of dancing Groucho Marxes singing “Hurray for Captain Spaulding” in French, followed by Woody and Goldie dancing along (and above) the Seine. Another example of an R-rated movie that shouldn’t be (one “mother---er” in a rap song… and nothing else!). “I should go to Paris and jump off the Eiffel Tower. I'll be dead. In fact, if I get the Concorde, I could be dead three hours earlier…”
Swingers – I need to see this again. Jon Favreau wrote the screenplay, basing it on his experiences as a newly-single struggling actor in LA. He plays Mike and Vince Vaughn plays his friend Trent. I saw this movie for the first time in high school and as someone who’s struggled with the opposite sex (and with friends who are all too eager to assist), this movie hit me on a personal level. The scene in which Favreau attempts to leave a message on a woman’s answering machine is positively cringe-inducing. The film’s budget was nearly non-existent – director Doug Liman shot party scenes at actual parties and the crew had at least one run-in with cops when they were caught without a permit. An indie classic. “I want you to remember this face, here. Okay? This is the guy behind the guy behind the guy.”

The People vs. Larry Flynt – It might be hard to believe but there was a time when porn was actually controversial! Milos Forman’s film stars Woody Harrelson as the titular Flynt, strip club owner and publisher of Hustler. Courtney Love plays his (fourth) wife, Althea. The main… uh, thrust… of the film involves Flynt’s legal battles with Jerry Falwell over a parody story detailing a sexual encounter between Falwell and his own mother – a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, eventually in Flynt’s favor. Ya know… as a 32-year old male, I can’t say I’m against any of this, but I do sometimes wonder where we’re going as a society. Sometimes. “I don't like what Larry Flynt does, but what I do like is the fact that I live in a country where you and I can make that decision for ourselves.”

Also: American Buffalo, The Arrival, Beautiful Girls, Big Night, The Birdcage, Bound, Broken Arrow, The Cable Guy, Courage Under Fire, The Craft, Dragonheart, Evita, Executive Decision, Flirting with Disaster, The Frighteners, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Ghost and the Darkness, Happy Gilmore, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, James and the Giant Peach, John Carpenter’s Escape From LA, Kingpin, Matilda, Michael Collins, Multiplicity, The Nutty Professor, 101 Dalmations, Ransom, The Rock, Scream, Shine, Sleepers, Sling Blade, Space Jam, That Thing You Do!, Trainspotting, and William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet
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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Film Friday: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

“This will begin to set things right.”

That was the very first line spoken in the new Star Wars film, and while it ostensibly involved a man handing over a map, there is no way that is not a slap to the face of George Lucas and an acknowledgement of the damage he had done with his last three films. And do you know what? This film backs up that line and more. After watching The Force Awakens, my faith in Star Wars has been restored.


Uh, no. This story is so full of potential spoilers that I’m not going to give you a plot. I will warn you, however, that some of the things I will talk about may... may be spoilers if you want to go into this one cold, which I recommend.

This Movie Was Fantastic!

So what am I going to talk about? I’m going to tell you what this film did right and why. And let me begin with my apologies to J.J. Abrams. After the total hack job he did to Star Trek, I expected the worst for this film. I expected him to exploit it with little care for the fans or the story. I was wrong. He did an amazing job.
With what did he do an amazing job? Well, first, the effects are fantastic. And I mean this in several ways. First, the effects are clean and utterly believable. More importantly, they fit perfectly along with the first three Star Wars films. Unlike the prequels, the ships, the sets, the costumes, the worlds all fit perfectly with the first three movies. They fit the time period. They respected the existing world. They didn’t feel like CGI at all; they feel substantive. Seriously. These felt like real ships, real worlds and real battles. The lightsaber fights feel real and tense. The explosions look real. The environment in which the characters find themselves is real. And all of this felt like the ones from the first three films.
Indeed, the very feel of the film fit with the first three Star Wars films. Unlike the prequels, the characters here are not cardboard. They come across as real people with real lives who really live on these worlds. They act in ways that are consistent with their own lives too.

Next, this film fit the storyline perfectly. In fact, it fit so perfectly that you could almost have dumped Return of the Jedi and run this instead and not only would it have felt like it fit, but it might even have improved the series.

Abrams was really smart too in terms of knowing what to keep and what to toss out of the prior films. I went in cold, so I didn’t know how much the original characters would be involved in this one. I suspected that Abrams would milk a cameo out of them and then rush off in some new direction. He didn’t. The original characters are vital to this film and the actors play them perfectly as the same people only a couple decades later. That was a smart decision because the story is so tied to several of them. It also avoids the sense that Abrams just wanted a younger cast.

At the same time, the storyline makes perfect sense for that time period. The Empire fell. Its ruins are everywhere in the film. But the universe didn’t become a happy place. Instead, a new threat stepped into the power vacuum and grabbed the failing Empire’s powerbase. All of this not only feels natural, but it gives you the sense of an exciting backstory that permeates the atmosphere of this film. It makes you want to know so much more, and that’s always a winner when your audience feels a strong desire to know more about everything they are seeing.

Abrams was smart about throwing away the deadweight too. There is no emotionally exploitive cameo to remind you of Yoda, there are no Ewoks, there are no flashbacks, there is nothing to remind you of the prequels. In fact, they even undo the stupid story of the stormtroopers being clones, which became the foundation of the prequels. Nor are there any Star Trek babies hitting on each other or any of the other asinine sins Abrams injected into Star Trek.
All of this is fantastic. In fact, up to this point in the review, I have to say that this is easily my third favorite Star Wars and the only thing missing that I felt should be in a Star Wars film but wasn’t was a bigger, more zen-like delving into the force. The force is used in this film, but isn’t the focus yet as it was in the first three films. That said, part of the film promises a deeper exploration of the force in the future. And if you stop to think about the story, you will see the force explained in great detail by two characters, there just aren’t any long talks about it.

All of that makes for a great Star Wars film. This is an excellent Star Wars film that feels indistinguishable from the original series and fits the story perfectly. Who could ask for anything more? But there is more... specifically, this is an excellent film.

I wasn’t expecting that. Even if you ignore all the Star Wars aspects, this was great science fiction. The worlds that were created were real and immersive. The characters were interesting, funny, and engaged in personal growth of a type rarely seen in science fiction. The action was fantastic. It was strong and well-choreographed with great effects. There were no 40 minute CGI fight scenes in this film -- fights were short and punchy. Even more interestingly, the story was gripping. It twisted and turned and moved along at a great pace and I never really knew where it would end up. Do you know how rare that is these days?

In short, J.J. Abrams not only created a great addition to Star Wars, he created a great film. This thing can be truly enjoyed by anyone from lifelong fans to people watching their first Star Wars. It is exciting and gripping and super enjoyable. And when it ended, it made you wish you could tell them to start the next one right. fricken. now! Finally, this film felt like it set everything right. I LOVE Star Wars again, which I hadn't for some time.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough.

(Please be very careful of spoilers in the comments.)
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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Film Friday: The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur is not doing well with audiences, and I’m not at all surprised. There is a fundamental problem with The Good Dinosaur, and that is that the film mixes a main character who is too cutsie with a plot that is anything but cutsie. The resulting mishmash satisfies neither those looking for a mindless baby distracter nor those looking for a more compelling story.


To put it simply, The Good Dinosaur is a western that uses dinosaurs instead of humans as the main characters. In fact, this is a very, very clichéd western, right down to the use of Sam Elliot to do voice work. The story involves the weak son of a noble farmer who must prove that he can live up to his father’s expectations and ends up in a survival film as he must find his way home through a dark and evil wilderness.

The story opens with the birth of the main character, Arlo, and his sister Libby and brother Buck. Their parents, Henry and Ida, are Apatosauruses. They live in a world where the dinosaurs were never wiped out and continued to, uh, evolve I guess (this is part of the problem with the film... it’s not clear what changed except that these particular dinosaurs are farmers).
Arlo is the runt of the litter and quickly proves not only to be incapable of doing the work required on the farm, but is a coward. He is afraid of basically everything. His father is patient with him however, though he simultaneously pushes Arlo to stop being such a whiny bi— uh, to become less of a coward. One of the tasks Henry gives Arlo in this regard is to trap and kill a pest that has been eating their corn... which they need to feed their chickens, who terrorize Arlo. The pest turns out to be a cutsie baby human! Oh goodie.

Arlo, of course, can’t bring himself to kill the human, and the human escapes. Henry then takes Arlo and chases after the human cave boy. They chase him up into some evil looking mountains, which end up flooding. The flood kills Henry and leaves Arlo stranded far away from home. Arlo then finds and befriends the human, who acts like little more than a puppy (he can’t even speak). The rest of the story is Arlo’s journey to find his way back to the farm.
Why This Film Doesn’t Work

This movie has a lot of problems, quite frankly.

The first problem is the simple blown potential. The trailer to this film was intensely clever. It asked, what would happen if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the Earth? And then you see the asteroid shoot by the planet and all the dinosaurs who had looked up at its approach return to their grazing. This trailer offered limitless potential. It opened the door to anything. It promised a world where dinosaurs had evolved to something beyond just being dinosaurs. It promised a world where man and dinosaurs co-existed in some friendly or hostile way. It promised something you had never seen before. The film even skips a few million years at the opening, suggesting that we would see dinosaur society evolved into the modern world... whatever that would look like.

But none of that happened.

Instead, you get a world that is indistinguishable from dinosaur times except for the presence of one cave-boy and the existence of one dinosaur farm. That’s it. What a waste.
The next problem probably tells us why the first problem exists: the filmmakers never bothered to lay down the rules that guide their new universe before they began. Is there really a dinosaur society or not? There’s the farm. There are three T-Rexes who are herding the dinosaur version of cattle. But that’s all you see. There is no sense if there are cities or if there is an economy – does the farmer sells his crops? Do the T-Rexes sell their cattle or just eat them? The other dinosaurs they run into seem to be standard feral dinosaurs. So is there a society or not? They never say, and the result is that it’s unclear what kind of world Arlo really lives in and everything feels ambiguous and confused.
As an aside, I was also personally bothered by the sense that much of what they encounter felt vaguely stolen. The human reminded me of Mogli from Jungle Book; he even has a similar storyline – leaving for human companionship at the end. The nyctosaurus and pterodactyls reminded me of the vultures from Jungle Book. The T-Rexes reminded me of a combination of Bagheera and the elephants from Jungle Book. There's even a seemingly hypnotic horned dinosaur (a Styracosaurus), right at the end of a snake scene, which is clearly Kaa from Jungle Book. The scene chasing the human felt like the apes rounding up the humans in Planet of the Apes. The whole Arlo story felt like a number of westerns involving a weak son who must avenge his father’s death. And so on. This is the first Pixar film where I felt I could pick out things that were copied from other films.
The real problem, however, is that the film is a mishmash of concepts. For whatever reason, Pixar chose a main character who is better suited for the preschool set. He’s cute and whiny and stupid and whiny and seems made for backpacks and plush toys. Put him in a story with his imaginary friends and magic tree houses and he would feel right at home. But then they rammed him into a story that has a truly adult storyline in the sense of being dark and not at all funny, and about the subtle goal of proving one’s worth to oneself. This is a farmer western combined with a survival drama like The Grey or The Edge. It is not a plot that in any fits the childish Arlo.
The result of this is an entirely unsatisfying story. The preschool crowd will not like the dark, very unfunny plot. The people who might like the survival story will find the whiny, child that plays the lead to be too annoying and unbelievable for this kind of story. And people who come in having seen the trailer are going to wonder how this movie managed to ignore the entire magic the trailer promised.

Pixar is an amazing company that does a great job with its movies time and again, but this one is a total miss. This one is entirely unsatisfying. It’s boring, indifferent, and just out of place. And that’s too bad given the amazing potential the backstory suggested.

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