Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Okay, look. I liked it, okay? Yes, it's a little more action-y and exposion-y than you normally get in a Sherlock Holmes adaptation. Fine. Yes, the trailer makes it look like it's all explosions. That's what trailers do. I propose that we stop judging movies based on the way trailers make them look. We're hip, twenty-first century movie aficionados and we know perfectly well that the trailers are A) cut together by people who did not work on the movie, and B) designed to show off explosions and groin shots?

Besides, need I point out that Sherlock Holmes has been adapted a million times in far more silly ways? The Great Mouse Detective made him into a freakin' mouse! And it was really good, too. And Holmes has fought Jack the Ripper (in both A Study in Terror and Murder by Decree as well as a bunch more, probably) and Cthulhoid cultists without people complaining their fool heads off. Holmes is infinitely adaptable. And don't go complaining about the sanctity of Arthur Conan Doyle's work, either. I didn't se you complaining about the goofiness of any of those adaptations of The Lost World.

Anyway. The only question for me was whether Holmes would feel Holmesy. And Robert Downey Jr. does. There's an early scene where he's shown analyzing the precise way to beat up an opponent (oh no! Holmes beats someone up! That's completely out of character for him, somehow, even though he says in "The Adventure of the Gloria Scott" he's both a fencer and a boxer -- that's right, I just whipped out an actual citation on you! Look it up!) and it's a great way of showing how an entirely rational character would approach fisticuffs. He's constantly sniffing things and smirking about how many things he knows, which struck me as exactly the right note.

So I liked it. I've heard it was a little long, but it felt fine to me. This is because I saw it at the Crazy Luxury Theater where every patron gets their own reclining armchair and complimentary blankets and pillows. It could have been six hours long and I would have been fine. Frankly, I almost didn't need a movie.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Avatar

Avatar is an amazing technical and aesthetic achievement. It's like looking at the world's most beautiful matte painting.

I don't actually think there's three hours of movie in there. Many scenes seem to have been inserted just to have an excuse for characters to walk around in a bioluminescent wonderland. But that's okay, since the alien landscape looks really, really cool. I didn't find the plot that interesting, and the only parts I perked up for were the bits that involved things borrowed from Aliens. And the occasional weird plot hole.

One thing I thought was awesome was that Sigourney Weaver smokes, but is not an evil character. It seems like it's been a few years since that's happened in a movie. And the smoking was an irrelevant character detail, possibly just thrown in to give her something to do with her hands. I don't smoke myself, but I'm getting kind of tired of the Only Evil Characters Smoke thing.''

Incidentally, whenever I see Michelle Rodriguez in a movie, I'm reminded of Janette Goldstein's portrayal of Vasquez in Aliens. So it was fun to see her basically playing Vasquez in a James Cameron movie.

Oh, the plot holes. I'll give you three: Michelle Rodriguez probably should have been court-martialled, I think it's weird that Jake's security level (which you can see on the video log) never changes, and the Colonel mentioned that they're in low gravity but I don't think they actually are.

Anyway, it's a remarkable achievement and quite pretty. And I like the idea of making a movie you want to see in 3-D in a good movie theater, because it's a nice end-run around Internet movie piracy. I just wish I liked the movie more. Also, it seems weird that it costs a quarter of a bullion dollars to make a movie with no sets. Shouldn't that make it cheaper?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ninja Assassin and New Moon

I wanted to see Ninja Assassin, but my girlfriend wants to see New Moon. So we compromised and watched both of them. This is the sort of compromise that leaves both people cranky and exhausted. Although that's mostly because, while both movies are exceedingly dumb, we watched New Moon last. And at least Ninja Assassin had some entertainment to go with its stupidity.

Okay, Ninja Assassin. This is the Dumb Movie for Boys. It stars Korean pop star Rain as a renegade ninja named Raito, who escaped from the clan years ago and is now bring hunted down. There are, as you might have guessed, a lot of fight scenes.

One thing I liked was that they put a lot of effort into making the ninjas feel like the mythical unstoppable killers of legend. You know how a lot of movies have ninjas that couldn't threaten a fuzzy bunny rabbit? These ninjas aren't like that. The shuriken in particular feel even more dangerous than bullets. They're huge, fast, sharp, and come whizzing out of the darkness, shattering whatever gets in their way. It's probably too late to make ninjas cool again, but this movie does what it can. And it's got Sho Kosugi as the old master ninja, which is a role he's played a million times.

The movie's really about two things: crazy fight scenes (with weapons that vary from "real" to "obviously CGI") and Rain With His Shirt Off. He's covered in scars and blood, but he always has time to pose with his abdominal muscles flexing. One character complains that he looks like he belongs in a boy band, but that's just because he chose one of the rare moments when Rain's wearing a shirt.

And speaking of characters taking off their shirts for no reason, let's move on to The Twilight Saga: New Moon. This is a boring story of Bella, a boring girl who has the magical power of making everybody fall in love with her. I felt sorry for the few mortal kids who befriended her in the first movie, since Bella just blows them off in favor of mooning (ha!) over Dreamy Edward Cullen, a pasty-faced vampire of Clan Mope.

In this movie, Bella's extra-cranky because her beloved Edward has left her because he's afraid that it's bad for her to hang around vampires. So after pouting for three months, she makes friends with Jacob, who turns out to be a werewolf and then tells her to stay away from him because he's afraid that it's bad for her to hang around werewolves. At this point, I think it's perfectly understandable if Bella gets some sort of a complex, what with all the boys she likes suddenly turning out to be supernatural killers and shoving her away. Although all she cares about is being left alone; she never really seems worried about the part about vampires and werewolves.

It's still not clear why everyone falls in love with Bella instantly. Her main traits are "quiet" and "twitchy". Apparently she has blood that smells very tasty. But that doesn't explain why a pre-werewolf Jacob cheerfully spends months helping her rebuild motorcycles. Wait, that's not quite right -- Jacob spends months rebuilding motorcycles for her while she watches and occasionally hands him tools. Then she rides for about twenty feet and crashes (without wearing a helmet) and the motorcycles are never mentioned again. Even though she's always pining over Edward, Jacob is happy to wait for her.

I guess if I have to pick a side, I'm on Team Jacob. But that's only if he doesn't have to end up with Bella. I'm on Team Jacob Seems Like a Nice Guy So Why Doesn't He Ditch Bella and Go Get Himself Someone Cool? He deserves better.

Actually, I liked a couple of the tertiary characters more than any of the main ones. There's one vampire named Emmett who somehow managed to be entertaining and interesting in both Twilight movies even though he's had like four lines. And I kind of liked the jackass Backup Werewolves. The moral is that I like characters who appear to be the only cheerful people in a World of Mope.

Also, after watching these two movies I would like to see something where everyone keeps their damn shirts on.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Magic

People in movies love puppets. There's this pre-code Frank Capra movie called The Miracle Woman, in which Barbara Stanwyck is absolutely enraptured by the sight of a guy making a puppet dance. He does this for hours in her bedroom, which is why it was important that someone invent television.

Anyway, this is another movie where a ventriloquist's dummy causes people to go into raptures of delight. It turns Anthony Hopkins from an unsuccessful magician to a sensation. And that's hard to understand, because the dummy is creepy as all get-out. Plus, it looks kind of like Hopkins, except that it has an even bigger head. The hardest thing to accept in the movie is that everyone loves the puppet, even though it's incredibly creepy. As a result, Ann-Margret comes off as crazy, because she keeps giggling and shouting about the wonders of Anthony Hopkins and his simplistic magic tricks and his evil puppet.

Note that I refer to the "evil puppet". This isn't a movie where the puppet has a life of its own, so we're not talking about Child's Play here. Unfortunately, this is a movie where Anthony Hopkins can't control what he has the puppet say or do. So he has arguments with it when he's alone in the room and ends up getting bullied by it, which represents him not being able to control that side of his personality. It's pretty silly, is what it is.

The movie is exceedingly artsy, sinc Richard Attenborough was only making it so he could get the money to make Gandhi, and it features Anthony Hopkins being an unhinged angry jerk. He gets hosed down with a lot of Angry Sweat in this movie. And then there's also the creepy puppet, which is enough for most people even without the story or acting.

Penn & Teller fans may be interested to know that there's a big scene in which the key card is the three of clubs.

Bonus line: I like the time when Burgess Meredith (as the slimy agent) says "My God, the IQs alone must go to a hundred!"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

I loved this movie. But that's almost certainly because I loved the book and this was like watching George Clooney and Ewan McGregor acting out my favorite scenes. The scene in the hotel room where George Clooney is making all these outrageous claims is exactly how I picture that scene happening in real life. Because the people that Jon Ronson talked to when he was writing the book were seriously claiming all sorts of psychic powers with a straight face.

The book is really interesting. It starts with Ronson learning that some people claim to be ex-military psychic spies, and then it works backwards to the First Earth Battalion, which was an attempt to New Age up the army back in 1979. You get a lot of entertaining things during this segment, like the news that Uri Geller (the spoon-bending guy) was a psychic spy, but he can't talk about it because he might be on duty right now.

Then it turns out that some of the First Earth Battalion stuff has actually been put into effect, and that's where it gets relevant to today's military. Apparently those stories that came out about people in Guantanamo Bay being "tortured" with the Barney theme song are due to some sort of theory in the First Earth Battalion manual. It sounds wacky, but I've read the manual and it's surprisingly prescient. The techniques currently called "Neurolinguistic Programming" are in there, for example.

Anyway, the book was fascinating enough that I enjoyed seeing it dramatized. But if you haven't read the book, I'd recommend doing that first. Or instead.

Also, there are goats in this movie. I like goats.

Monday, November 16, 2009

This Is It

I thought This Is It was fascinating, and I'm not even a big Michael Jackson fan. I acknowledge that he had a large number of huge hits, and I've owned my share of Michael Jackson albums (my share was two: Thriller and Bad) but I've never really been personally invested in the guy.

But it turns out I find it more interesting to watch him dance at half-speed than when he's going all-out. This Is It is full of moments where he's sort of sketching his dance out, gesturing in the direction of the performance, and it's really cool. Part of it is that I know all his moves, so I can tell what the finished performance would look like, but it's also just that it's neat to watch him work out what the performance will be.

Early on, someone (Kenny Ortega, I think) says that the backup dancers are supposed to be "extensions of Michael", and I can really see what he meant. While Michael's moving around the stage showing what he could be doing, the dancers are hitting everything full-speed at all times. So when Michael decides to go all-out for a bit, everything is in sync and looks great. And when he pulls back, you realize that there really is a hole at the center of the stage waiting for Michael to fill it. This wasn't going to be one of those big shows where the "star" just wanders around between professional dancers. The movie makes it clear that every part of the show was designed to flow from Michael's performance. He's the focal point and everything else is designed to either amplify his movements or reflect focus back on him.

It's also made clear just how in-charge Michael was. There are times when he tells everyone that such-and-such a cue has to be given by him. No one else's judgment matters in the moment; just wait for MJ to point to you, then start up. He's very polite about these things (way more polite than, say, Madonna in Truth or Dare) but he's also very clearly a perfectionist who knows exactly what he wants. And since he's always right about these things, people shut up and do what he says.

The movie made me think about the history of stadium shows. The Michael Jackson "This Is It" tour would have been lavish, produced, and choreographed to within an inch of its life (the backup dancers never miss a step, as far as I could tell). But just a few decades ago, the Beatles hit Shea Stadium with a show that just consisted of the four of them standing on a tiny stage playing their songs. At some point, someone realized that if you're going to play to tens of thousands of people, you might want to add more than just a couple of go-go dancers.

I also liked seeing how excited everyone was to be working on this show. There are moments where Michael's working out some steps with the other musicians, and the dancers are down on the floor in front of the stage, giddy with delight that they're getting a private Michael Jackson concert. When he sings for real, some of them are actually jumping up and down, they're so happy. Then he complains that people shouldn't let him get carried away, because he was trying to save his voice for the performance.

But that's what made me enjoy this movie so much; knowing that he was holding back made the whole thing much more real for me. I already knew what it looked like when Michael Jackson is on stage before 50,000 people and he's doing his polished dance routine. Now I know what he looked like when he was just messing around in the middle of a song, too.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Missed Touchstones Week: Female Trouble

Wait a minute! This isn't a cultural touchstone for my generation! This is John Waters back before he had a budget and had to pretend to be classy! What the hell is going on here?

Actually, I guess this fits in well with the secret sub-theme of this week, which is "movies featuring characters who are treated as being more attractive or interesting than they actually are." Except where There's Something About Mary and Almost Famous are doing it accidentally, John Waters is gleefully shoving Divine in your face while filling the movie with people swearing up and down that Divine is the most beautiful thing in the world. Actually, with this many ludicrously ugly creations running around, Divine might actually count as one of the Beautiful People in this world.

To be fair, though, although Divine isn't classically beautiful (cough cough), she's got incredible screen magnetism. Even when Divine is shoved all the way over to side of the screen and 80% of the viewing area is taken up by Mink Stole in a gold lame ballerina outfit, you can't take your eyes off Divine. This movie also features the peculiar sight of man-Divine raping woman-Divine. There's something you don't see every day. I hope.

Oh, and there's a plot of some sort, I guess. It involves crazy people doing crazy things all over the place. John Waters had a vision, that's for sure.

Come to think of it, there's something else this movie has in common with There's Something About Mary: it's full of absurd things designed to shock and horrify. The difference is, 35 years later, this movie still gets the job done. And the nakedness isn't achieved by special effects, either!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Missed Touchstones Week: Good Will Hunting

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Academy Award winners.

Not for acting, of course. Although Matt's gotten some praise from his acting in recent years, I guess. He and Ben are basically perfectly adequate big-name actors these days. And they get to have "Academy Award-winning" before their names in commercials for, um, "Untitled Jason Bourne Project (2011)" and "Whatever Ben Affleck is doing to follow up on Daredevil and Smokin' Aces".

This is the movie that made them famous. It raised them up from "Wasn't he in Dazed and Confused?" to "Ben and Matt on the cover of Vanity Fair". I didn't see it at the time because I don't really dig on Gus Van Sant movies. The most straightforward movie he'd made at the time was My Own Private Idaho, starring River Phoenix as a narcoleptic street hustler. And I'm always leery of movies in which Robin Williams is a kindly father figure. He got lucky once in Dead Poets Society, but I usually find him insufferable in movies like that.

Speaking of the Academy Awards, did you know that Robin Williams has an Oscar for this movie? And three other nominations? Doesn't that seem like a lot?

Okay, anyway. Good Will Hunting is obsessed with class struggle, I think. Matt Damon's character ("Will Hunting", ho ho ho, and that's another reason I never got around to watching it) is supposedly a genius. Except I never really buy it. He's memorized a lot of books and is brilliant at math, but when he's not spouting theorems, he's not acting like a genius. The movie saw that objection coming, though, because Will is a huge jerk most of the time and it's hard to tell what he'd be like if he calmed down.

I didn't really identify with this movies "Harvard vs. Townies" angle, because I went to college in the city I grew up in. And I guess UCSD students aren't as snooty as they are at Harvard and people in San Diego generally aren't as angry and edgy as people in Boston. My theory is that this is because San Diego is a nice place to live, which creates a calmness not available in places that have snow.

I was surprised that Will was the instigator of the fights. I always figured there would be some scenes of college kids sneering at the townies first, but instead, Will and his buddies apparently just cruise around town looking for "smart kids" to beat up. That's an interesting move, because it practically dares the audience to sympathize with Will. And I think Damon pulls it off. So good for him. I was less impressed by Affleck, who has a big endless monologue-slash-joke that I tuned out. Incidentally, I think it's cheating to fill out your Oscar-winning screenplay with characters telling jokes. That's why The Aristocrats didn't win.

Anyway, I liked it okay. I still think Matt and Ben shouldn't be allowed to call themselves "Academy Award Winners" in ads for movies where they're just acting. I'm even going to accept William Goldman's word that he didn't write the script for them. I'm open-minded!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Missed Touchstones Week: Zombie

Okay, so not everyone has seen Lucio Fulci's Zombie (or, as it is sometimes confusingly known, Zombi 2). But I've reached the point in my movie-going career that it's frankly embarrassing that I haven't seen any Lucio Fulci. And it's time that changed.

First of all, the title. It was released in Italy in 1979 as Zombi 2 so it could pretend to be a sequel to Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which was called Zombi. In Italy. So when this movie came to the USA, they just bumped the number off the title and called it "Zombie". In 1988, Fulci made Zombi 3, but it's not as iconic as this movie and I don't want to deal with it right now.

It's kind of weird at this point in America's zombie-fascination to watch a 100% sincere zombie movie. There's no winking at the audience here. There's not even any assumption that everyone knows how zombies work. This is one of the movies that defined the genre. And I would like to point out that they don't eat brains here. They're only interested in the flesh of the living. And hopefully causing big gouts of bright red blood. The point is that it takes a long time for them to really make their presence known in this movie. This isn't one of your post-Zombie deals like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland (or even World War Z) where you can jump right into the zombie hordes. One zombie is a terrifying and mysterious creature in this movie.

Also, this movie's zombies appear to actually be voodoo-related in some way, which is practically unique in zombie movies. The Romero zombies are really just ghouls, if you ask me. Even if he started calling them zombies in Dawn of the Dead (you remember, "Zombi"?).

One fun thing about this movie is that half of the cast is speaking Italian, and half are speaking English. Everyone's dubbed over anyway, but it's still a little weird to have only some of the characters' mouths match the sounds. Well, to be fair, none of the characters are exactly in sync, so it's actually distracting when someone does match up for a scene. You have to learn not to look at their lips.

Incidentally, I don't know why all the clips I've seen of this movie have been grainy and terrible. The DVD I was watching looked fantastic, even in the legendary Zombie-vs.-Shark scene. And of course it's full of iconic shots, although I personally prefer the eye-gouging scene from The Wizard of Gore. Um, the original, not the weird remake from a couple years ago.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Missed Touchstones Week: There's Something About Mary

The problem with the idea of spending a week watching movies I've never seen is that sometimes, there's a reason I didn't watch these movies. This is one of those cases. I knew perfectly well I wasn't going to like There's Something About Mary. And I didn't. Frankly, that wasn't that interesting.

This is the movie that makes everyone think Cameron Diaz is hot, right? Because she isn't, really. She seems very nice, and she has a very pleasant smile. But in later movies, I've come to the conclusion that she's kind of weirdly shaped. Sorry about that. I admit she looks fantastic here, though.

I continue to like about a third of Ben Stiller movies. I like your Zoolanders and Mystery Men, and I'm surprisingly fond of Reality Bites. But this feels more like the Meet the Parents/Fockers Ben. I guess I like Angry Ben more than Frustrated, Stammering Ben.

Anyway, as far as I'm concerned this movie is really quite unpleasant. Unpleasant things happen to unpleasant people for no reason other than that people laugh when they're startled. And I'd already heard about all the "shocking moments", so they weren't even all that shocking. It didn't work for me at all. Blah.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Missed Touchstones Week: Almost Famous

This week, I'm watching movies that everyone else my age has seen and loves. Okay, I may never have seen Almost Famous, but at least I've seen a lot of musicals from the first year of talkies. And a pretty good selection of rotten horror flicks that are only available on VHS. So there!

Anyway, everybody loves Almost Famous, right? I understand there's a scene where a number of people sing an Elton John song on a bus, and it's very emotionally affecting. Going into the movie, I really only know "Tiny Dancer" as the theme song to my old Bar Trivia team. Good times.

Your first question is why I never saw it. Well, I don't know. I like Cameron Crowe okay. I even like Lester Bangs, although I think his writing was a bad influence on generations of pop culture writers who confused attitude with talent. Also, I'm pretty sure he thought it was funny to take some terrible piece of crap band and make them sound like the coolest thing in the world just to see if he could make people buy the record. Don't get me wrong; he was a great writer, it's just that -- actually, I could go on for quite some time about Lester Bangs, and this is about Almost Famous. Which I've never seen. Until today.

I did try watching the DVD once a couple of years ago, but I only got about twenty minutes in before I got bored and antsy and turned it off. It was when Kate Hudson first showed up. I remember I found her first couple of lines as the groupie to be intensely annoying.

This turns out not to have been a fluke: I still find her insufferably obnoxious. I could do with a good deal less of her. She's trying way too hard. She's completely fake. And maybe it's the character that's trying too hard, not the actress. That happens sometimes. But everyone in the movie finds her adorable and magnetic and fantastic, which does not match my personal reaction, which is basically "Why would anyone spend time with this person?" Frankly, I did not find her to be a blithe free spirit, flitting hither and yon and bestowing magical fairy dust on every scene. Or whatever it is people see in her. Even in her big scenes, she doesn't work for me.

You know what she's like? Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The Aaron Sorkin show that wasn't anywhere near as interesting as 30 Rock? Everyone on that show acted like the show-within-a-show was brilliant and groundbreaking, but we could clearly tell that it was awful, because it turns out that while Aaron Sorkin can write dialogue like nobody's business, he can't write a convincing sketch comedy show. Penny Lane is like that. The character I see and the character the rest of the movie sees are severely at odds. And I don't think it's on purpose.

I did enjoy the movie as a whole, though. The non-groupie parts of it. It's fun to have a movie that hides everyone under silly Seventies wigs and facial hair so every new character comes with thirty seconds of "...that guy sounds really familiar. Who is that? Is that ... Jimmy Fallon? I think it is!" And it's just enough of a period piece that parts of it feel quaint. Like, remember when bands didn't get their first T-shirt until after they'd already opened for Black Sabbath and went on a tour? These days, you print up your first shirts on CafePress five minutes after you settle on a band name.

Incidentally, almost the first shot is in Balboa Park, driving past the Museum of Man. I approve of movies that feature Balboa Park. Although the only other one I can think of is Citizen Kane, which uses it for the exteriors of Xanadu (the stately home of Charles Foster Kane) in the newsreel at the beginning.

Oh: The "Tiny Dancer" scene works. Darned if I know why, though. Cameron Crowe's good at putting songs to scenes, is my theory.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Saturday Schlock

What's better on a Saturday afternoon and evening than curling up on the couch with your loved one and watching a bunch of terrible movies? Nothing! So here's what we watched:

Escape 2000

This movie is really called “Turkey Shoot”. That’s the name it was originally shown under in Australia, and it’s the name in the movie when you watch the DVD. But it was released in the US as “Escape 2000”, and that’s a more Postapocalytipcal title. Seriously, there are like ten movies set “after the apocalypse” that have “2000” in the title.

It’s a prime example of Ozsploitation, which means that it’s full of things that people in 1980s Australia thought of. Like, it’s mostly a story of people stuck in a futuristic reeducation camp, but for some reason there’s a werewolf-mutant guy. He seems pretty well-mannered, though. His name is Alf. His presence doesn’t make any sense.

About half of the movie is the “turkey shoot” of the title. Well, one of the titles. The main four prisoners are set free to get chased by the sadistic weirdoes that run the camp, and a couple of them manage to kill their pursuers and get back to the camp. Then they kill about a hundred and fifty guards with machine guns and bazookas, which should certainly prove that they shouldn’t have been put in a prison for antisocial behavior. Then that Australian army bombs the whole camp, I guess.

Slithis

Okay. It’s sort of like The Host, in that it’s about a monster created by toxic waste. Except that it’s made incredibly amateurishly and contains approximately zero actors. Some of them, like this one policeman in a house, sound like they’ve learned their lines phonetically. And this other guy, who plays the chief of police (I think; I wasn’t paying that much attention until he showed up) puts in the most over-the-top performance in the history of “Trolls Under the Bridge: The Troll Story”. He’s got some sort of fake British accent going on, but it’s a lot like the Wayne’s World imitation of Leprechaun.

Slaughterhouse Rock

This starts with two “Omigosh it was only a dream!” scenes in a row. Awesome. And then it fills the rest of the movie with Horrible Visions by the main character. These Visions are accompanied by extremely shrill noises that require the television to be turned down. Anyway, they eventually lead Dull Main Guy and his pals Fratboy Jerks 1-3 and Vapid Screaming Girls 1-4 to sneak into Alcatraz and battle demons with the help of the ghost of a murdered heavy metal singer played by Toni Basil.

We got bored and didn’t finish watching it. Sorry.

The Terrornauts

This had a terrific trailer on the latest 42nd Street Forever collection. You know, the Alamo Drafthouse one. So we watched the movie, and it turns out not to be worth it. It’s one of those really boring British science fiction movies from the late sixties where a bunch of stodgy scientists stand around on one set for an hour talking about what it might look like if they actually travelled to another planet. When it eventually happens, the highlights are:

A) A crudely constructed robot covered in about twenty heating vents, and
B) A ridiculous alien that turns out to be an illusion.

Aside from that, strictly boresville, Daddy-O.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Texting During Hackers

I was in Austin a week or so ago, which meant that I got to see movies at the Alamo Drafthouse. I'll watch practically anything there! And I'll also watch Hackers at practically any moment. So imagine my delight when I realized I was going to get to see a special showing of Hackers at the Alamo Drafthouse! Seriously, go ahead and imagine it. I'll wait.

Of course, most people have to be in the right mood to see Hackers. They need some sort of excuse or something. I don't know why. Maybe they just want to limit their exposure to things that are fun. The Drafthouse was going with a weird gimmick: members of the audience would send text messages that would appear on the screen. It's like everybody shouting during a movie, but quieter and nerdier.

Sooooo anyway, here are the things I texted during the movie.

Featuring a star of Sports Night! -- this is because Felicity Huffman plays the prosecuting attorney at the beginning of the movie. Who doesn't like Felicity Huffman?

Poor Dade

The movie begins and ends in an airplane -- Actually, I guess it's the second scene and third-from-last scene. I still think it's interesting to have an airplane scene sort of bookending the action.

NORM! -- I have no idea why I texted this. I assume there was a fat guy on screen.

The challenge is clearly to text far enough in advance that it makes sense when it finally shows up. -- there was a lot of lag at this point, because the automatic system was slowing down the texts, so you didn'treally know when the queue would show yours.

College is the secret theme of this movie. That and the word ELITE -- It's true. Dade's motivation is apparently "get into college", while Joey's is "become ELITE"

Snap!

The kid is Bring It On's Jesse Bradford! -- Well, it is.

This is the most realistic depiction of nerds EVER -- You know, with all the leather, latex, and rollerblading.

He just looks slick all day! -- I love this line, which is used to describe a character who promptly vanishes from the movie.

Wow. Normally you have to pull a lever to set off the sprinklers. -- As opposed to Dade's method of elaborately hacking into the school computer.

Those sunglasses are so small! -- Cereal Killer's sunglasses are barely big enough to shade his pupils.

College!

The pink shirt book is just a Peter Norton guide -- Most of the manuals that Cereal Killer uses are, in fact, classically helpful (and taken directly from the Jargon File), but this one is just pointless.

Booooo -- At this point, the movie froze up. Turns out they were using a bad DVD.

So then the kid says he hit a bank, see... -- I was thinking we might just narrate the rest of the movie via the texts.

Hack the Movie! -- The movie's still frozen.

Now no one will see my hilarious jokes about Penn Jillette -- Because we skipped ahead a couple of scenes, which meant that we missed a scene where Penn plays a security guard.

Yay! Numbers!

Hapless technoweenies are the worst kind. -- The Plague calls Penn a "hapless technoweenie", which is a weird way to talk.

Never use your computer without proper eye protection -- Most of the characters (including Penn) are wearing sunglasses whenever they're using a computer. This is so they can have groovy animations projected on their faces.

ELITE

Razor and blade? They're flakes!

This song is not on the soundtrack -- Joey was singing "Wild Child" in the shower. Incidentally, other texts around this point made the argument that Hackers has the worst shower scenes ever.

Ooh! Escalators! Now we're in the future!

Why not talk about our secret plan right here? -- Seriously, they just got out of the big meeting, they're still surrounded by officers, and they just start babbling about the millions of dollars they're stealing?

Nice read, Lorraine -- Lorraine Bracco's read of "Find the file or else you'll lose all your toys" is just awful.

Loyd wrote this manifesto -- Loyd Blankenship, writer of GURPS Cyberpunk.

He doesn't look like a Nirvana fan. -- Dade's got a GIANT Nevermind poster in his room.

The Plague HATES radios! And hard copy.

It ain't a party until the geeks show up!

What about the pooper? -- We skipped another scene when the DVD froze up again. So we missed Cereal Killer's line about "Lookit that pooper!"

WHOOSH! BEEP!

We missed the part where Angelina spraypainted her computer! I love that scene!

Sexay! -- This could have gone almost anywhere, but I wrote it for Acid's dream sequence where she sees Jonny Lee Miller in a latex dress.

Moo?

Now in this scene, I want you to be reaaally annoying...

Phreak doesn't get laid in his dream sequence. -- Doesn't seem fair, really.

It's in that place put that thing that time... That's what she said? -- I'm worried that I've stopped saying "That's what she said" ironically.

Cereal is also a Bible scholar.

I'm threatening you over a wireless headset and open phone line because I'm an elite hacker.

When is the next freezeframe scheduled? -- They were not using a good DVD at all. At the end of the movie, the audience all got free movie passes! Which will come in handy if I get back to Austin in the next year!

This is actually a pretty realistic scene. I mean, look at the pizza boxes! -- This is the scene where the good hackers deconstruct the virus/worm. It's realistic, I tell you! Look past the graphics!

Fractally!

They care more about Dade getting into college than the inevitable jail time

Erotically, as it were

She coulda killed that guy! -- Seriously, you can't just shoot a a flare gun at some guy doing his job!

Great. Lillard's butt. Thanks, movie.

Nice tape machine from the 1930s.

Couldn't they theoretically be elite flakes? -- Razor and Blade, that is.

I hate these movies that cast Asian actors in whiteface. So racist.

I also need an electronic army.

What's a Voodoo People?

Let's commit our federal crime in public! It'll be more ELITE! -- I just think they could have found a better place to work from than the Grand Central Station payphones, is all.

Oh, that Penn! What a technoweenie!

I love the smirk on the Italian guy. Unless he's French. You know, the Euro from five minutes ago when I started typing this.

Nappy: North, up, get egg, down, south, east, open window -- Someone using the handle "Nappy" asked if anyone wanted to play Zork I. I normally grab the egg right away so that I can get it into the treasure case before I attack the troll, since it shortens the fight. Fascinating!

Joey's getting stupid busy! He used to be just stupid.

I am not talking to you, actually.

Arf Arf!

LOLlerblades, actually. -- Someone said the fashion in this movie was "LOLlerskates", see...

Fine, I'll hack the stupid planet already. Get off my back!

A heinous scheme, you say?

Unlucky! -- Lillard's weirdest line reading.

Same jail

Why did they let the plane take off? Did the cops get first class tickets too? -- Seems like a weird way to arrest him. Now they have to go all the way to Tokyo and back.

Wash off some makeup?

So... it was a romance? -- These last scenes don't have much to do with the theme of the movie, in my opinion.

They had to rent an underwater camera for this one scene?

Needed more UNTZ -- Someone was posting UNTZ UNTZ UNTZ UNTZ UNTZ UNTZ every time those songs showed up on the soundtrack.

Play it again!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Whip It Plus Five

Before we start, I should mention that I was a scorekeeper for the Rat City Rollergirls for a season. So I might possibly be biased in favor of a movie about roller derby. And I did enjoy it, although I admit that it was awfully formulaic. Between the trailer and my knowledge of How Sports Movies Work, there weren't that many surprises to be had. But who cares when I can watch Zoe Bell being a roller derby girl?

I was also predisposed to like it because it's set in Austin (well, mostly) and I'm going there in a week. So I was already pleased about going to see movies at the Alamo Drafthouse, and now I got to see a movie with the Drafthouse in it! So that was cool.

I don't really have much else to say about Whip It, since it was a straightforward fun movie. I don't feel like dissecting it or anything. Although I did feel that it was inappropriate for a seventeen-year-old character to make out with someone who thought she was 22. And if making out was all they did, I'd be very surprised. Anyway! Here are five other movies you might like if you liked Whip It!

5. The Fireball (1950)

Mickey Rooney is an orphan with a bad attitude who discovers a natural aptitude for speed skating. So, just like Bliss in Whip It, he immediately becomes great at roller derby. But this is back in 1950, when derby was a national sport, so he becomes a massive star and develops an even worse attitude. Then he gets polio (!), recovers, and makes an inspirational return to the track, all while being a huge egotistical jerk.

4. Double Dare (2004)

Zoe Bell plays Bloody Holly in Whip It, and she's a lot of fun to watch. You might recognize her from the Death Proof half of Grindhouse, but I recommend this 2004 documentary, which splits its time between two stuntwomen: Zoe Bell (who did Xena's stunts, which means all that flippy-flippy was her) and Jeannie Epper (a million roles in the Old Days, including doing Lynda Carter's stunts in "Wonder Woman"). This movie is why I spent so much of Whip It watching a character with very few lines.

3. Unholy Rollers (1972)

Roller Derby sort of comes and goes, you know? This is from the Seventies version of derby, and it's kind of like Flashdance. Except instead of being a steelworker, Claudia Jennings works in a cannery, and instead of becoming a Flashdancer, she becomes a roller derby skater. Then all the usual things happen, but it's entertaining anyway.

2. The Demon of the Derby (2001)

Ann Calvello was a tough old broad who skated in the Very Old Days of roller derby. She dyed her hair crazy colors and gleefully played the bad guy. She was awesome. This documentary is from when she was even older, but no less tough. It makes a great double feature with Lipstick and Dynamite, about the tough old broads from the old days of women's wrestling.

1. Kansas City Bomber (1972)

This is probably the best roller derby movie. It's got Raquel Welch! And some of the same background skaters as Unholy Rollers, so you can learn all about the standard Roller Derby Moves from back then. You know, like the Double Clothesline and the, um, Hop Up and Down on One Leg for Half a Lap!

Monday, September 28, 2009

On Stranger Tides? Yes, please!

It appears that the full title of the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie is "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides".



I mention this because On Stranger Tides is a book by Tim Powers of which I am very fond. It's got pirates and voodoo and magic and would fit very well into the world of the PotC movies. It's even set in the Caribbean! What more do you want?

I admit that I'm not sure how they're going to shoehorn Cap'n Jack Sparrow into things, but I'm willing to keep an open mind. A big-budget Tim Powers movie is Huge News in my world.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Astro Boy Commercials

The first line of the commercials for Astro Boy is "He was a robot ... who wanted to become a real boy."

What? A robot who wants to a real boy? I've never heard of such a thing! How are we to cope with such a shockingly original plot?

Or, to quote the noted robot expert Joel Robinson, "Oh, Tom Servo, you've got Pinocchio syndrome!"

Sheesh.

(EDIT: It says in that TV Tropes link that "Astro Boy is perhaps the oldest anime expression of this trope." Canonical or not, it's still boring)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Fame (the 2009 one)

I enjoyed the new Fame remake, although mostly for the things that reminded me of the original. I've seen the original a lot, and I kept thinking, "Oh boy! This is where the character considers suicide in the subway!"

First of all, the high school portrayed in the movie has the best faculty in the country. These kids are being taught by Debbie Allen, Charles S. Dutton, Megan Mullally, Kelsey Grammer, and Bebe Neuwerth! Incidentally, would it have killed them to put Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwerth on the screen at the same time? I demand my Frasier-Lilith reunion!

The new movie is set in a cleaner, nicer New York. Which I guess is accurate, because 1980 Manhattan was a lot grosser than the one we have in 2009. The kids are also more advanced; a big moment in the original movie was when two of them went to the Rocky Horror Picture Show but this movie has someone use part of that movie as her audition monologue. She actually does a really good job with it. Better than Little Nell did, anyway (it's the part where Columbia yells at Frank right before being turned to stone).

The main Mousy Girl didn't do much for me. They established her hangups and limitations early on, but we don't really get anything later on to show that she's learned to act. She just gets a progressively more mature hairstyle. The feeling of learning and maturing is definitely something that's missing from the movie. The character who starts out as an immature dancer is the one who ends up being told he's not a very good dancer. The dancer who starts out awesome (Kherington Payne from So You Think You Can Dance) pretty much stays awesome. And so on.

Anyway, my main problem with it was that it just didn't feel as real as the original. I put in my time at the San Diego Junior Theatre, and the background action in the 1980 version rang true in a way that it doesn't in this one. Also, because it's PG, I would occasionally think "Uh oh, is she going to get raped? No, I guess she isn't. Never mind."

Also, the songs weren't as good. And they were very on-the-nose, what with the lyrics about "be true to yourself" and "success is about succeeding, not being famous".

But like I say, I still enjoyed it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

I have wanted to see Aguirre, the Wrath of God for probably twenty years or so. See, there was this book called Cult Movies by Danny Peary, and I always thought it would be nice to have seen all of them. And the first one on the list was Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which kind of intimidated me into abandoning my plan.

Now, jump forward to 2009. I want an excuse to watch My Best Fiend, which I am reliably informed is an amazing documentary in which Werner Herzog demonstrates just how crazy Klaus Kinski was. I could watch it with no preparation, but the only Herzog movie I can remember seeing is Grizzly Man, and I mostly think of that as "the movie where that guy gets eaten by a bear". So I figured it would make sense, this being a lazy Saturday and all, to watch Aguirre, the Wrath of God first, then a movie with a bunch of behind-the-scenes footage about the crazy dysfunctional relationship between Herzog and Kinski.

And it was, in fact, fun! Aguirre takes its time developing. There's a scene where you look at rushing water for about three minutes. And Kinski doesn't take center stage for quite a while. But when he does, man, that cat is crazy. This doomed river expedition is even more doomed than usual. They don't even really need the cannibal Indians. I'm sure they'd have died off just about as quickly left to their own devices.

Big Fan

I saw the new Patton Oswalt movie last night. Actually, is "Patton Oswalt movie" a thing? I can only think of two, and it's not like Big Fan and Ratatouille have a lot in common. I mean, I enjoyed them both, but it's not really a genre. It's not like if I said "I saw the new Seth Rogen movie". Or "the new Seka movie". Remember Seka? I'll start again.

Patton Oswalt is the star of a new movie which I saw last night. I'm a fan of Mr. Oswalt, which you can tell by the fact that immediately after the movie, I went to the Moore Theatre and saw him doing stand-up live. Actually, he was live at the movie theater too, doing a quick Q&A for the fifty or so people who showed up at the 5:00 show. It was an interesting experience to see him in a tiny intimate setting and then go sit in a tiny seat in a very high balcony to watch him again. I also thought it was really cool that his Q&A was introduced by Travis Vogt and Kevin Clarke, creators of Steel of Fire Warriors 2010 A.D..

Getting back to Big Fan, it's written and directed by Robert Siegel, who used to edit The Onion and more recently wrote The Wrestler. I liked it because the main character doesn't learn anything. He starts off in one place and resolutely refuses to budge. Good for him! He's found something that makes him happy and doesn't want to let go of it. And why should he?

I also really liked the sound editing, which is a odd thing to pick out. I very rarely walk out of a theater saying "Boy, that sound was really edited together well!" But there were a number of times where the main character is supposed to be feeling overwhelmed by a number of people talking at once, and it makes sense that they overlap and become hard to understand. That happens a couple of times, once in a loud strip club. And there's another scene where he's trying to pick one voice out of a number of other conversations. Come to think of it, he's most comfortable relating to people on call-in radio shows, so the sound really is an important aspect of the movie.

I also really liked the idea of a character who has already achieved an extremely low goal for himself and resolutely refuses to go beyond that. He's a regular caller on one of the less important sports talk stations in New York, and he only calls in after 1:00 in the morning. That's like someone who's satisfied with his lot in life if he becomes a regular commenter on Deadspin. Or not even Deadspin; one of those sites that wishes they were Deadspin.

Big Fan is in extremely limited release (I get the feeling there's three prints of it and they're moving them from town to town on a bus), but see if it's coming to your city.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Scarlet clue

I'm watching a Charlie Chan movie called The Scarlet Clue. Charlie Chan, a Chinese detective, is being played by Sidney Toler, a white dude. But his son (excuse me, "Number Three son") Tommy is played by Benson Fong, who appears to have actual Chinese blood. I think it's weird that the one played by a White guy speaks in a pidgin English (although he can't be bothered to put on an accent, so he's just talking slowly and ungrammatically) while the one who looks Chinese speaks perfect unaccented English. I mean, it's also weird that they insisted on hiring a white guy for the main character when they were perfectly willing to have non-whites elsewhere in the movie.

Speaking of non-whites, Tommy's comic relief role is mostly played off Mantan Moreland. He spends about 80% of his screen time in bug-eyed terror. It's not dignified, but it's the kind of work that African Americans could get back then. He also engages in a classic vaudeville routine (with his partner Ben Carter, who appears in the film with no introduction and then vanishes just as mysteriously) called "The Incomplete Sentence". Personally, I don't think the routine is racist, but practically everything else in the movie is.

Anyway, you can see references to Mantan Moreland in Bamboozled, which borrows both his name and the Incomplete Sentence routine. I would not recommend this movie unless the words "fascinatingly racist" sound like a good idea.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Zardoz

Man, I've watched Zardoz, I've read the novelization, and I still don't know what the deal is with it.



Watching the movie is difficult, both because it's an incomprehensible mess and because the mind naturally recoils from a seminaked Sean Connery. That's him on the cover of the book. He's wearing tiny pants held up by red suspenders. Do you know why he's wearing red suspenders? Because John Boorman doesn't hate us, that's why.

The introduction explains that John Boorman wrote the screenplay in novel form, then shot the movie in the hills near his home (because even coming of Deliverance he didn't have enough juice to get major studios interested). Then he had a friend help reshape the screenplay back into a novel. He doesn't mention it explicitly, but the clear implication is that everybody involved in the movie was exceedingly drugged up. I'd summarize the story, but it really doesn't make any sense. Likewise, I'd compare some scenes from the book and movie, but almost nothing matches up, so the only thing I could talk about would be how a scene would be incomprehensible in two different ways. I was hoping that the narrative voice would at least convey something of what was supposedly going on, but that does not turn out to be the case.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mayor of the Sunset Strip

I had never heard of Rodney Bingenheimer, which presented a challenge for this documentary about him. However, I was pretty impressed with the next three names on the Tivo's cast list: Cher, Courtney Love, and David Bowie. It turns out that Rodney is someone who's had a fascinating life, and I'd rather watch a documentar about someone interesting than someone famous.

Although in a way, Mayor of the Sunset Strip is a documentary about fame itself. Rodney came to Hollywood as a young man, when his mother dropped him off in front of Connie Stevens's house and wished him good luck. Connie wasn't home, so Rodney went to the Sunset Strip and should have starved to death. Instead, he got a job as Davy Jones's stand-in on The Monkees and went from there to hanging out with Sonny and Cher, and was generally on the fringes of everyone famous in the world of rock and roll for the next forty or fifty years. He was in charge of the backstage refreshments at the Monterey Pop Festival, and Ray Manzarek still sounds kind of ticked off that Rodney let the Beatles eat all the shrimp. He had a club and introduced David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, Suzi Quatro, and apparently the entire glam scene to Los Angeles. He's not the only one making this claim, you understand; David Bowie is the one actually telling us this.

Then he had an important show on KROQ and broke Devo and the Ramones and the Sex Pistols and Nirvana on radio. At this point, he's famous in his own right, and all the bands of the '70s and '80s know him. We see some home movies of Chris Stein and Debbie Harry on his bed in 1977. It's really quite impressive.

I think we're supposed to feel pity for him because when the movie was made in 2004, he's living in a tiny apartment and his radio show has been cut down to the Sunday night midnight-3AM slot. But he's had an amazing life. And apparently Robert Plant once claimed that Rodney was having more sex than anyone in Led Zeppelin. And it seems like every rock star in the world not only knows who he is but is fond of him. Joan Jett shows up to say a word or two, and she wouldn't even do the documentary about the Runaways themselves!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cry-Baby

There's a great movie theater in Seattle called Central Cinema. Not only does it serve food but it shows random cool movies. It's going to have a Street Fighter marathon, and you can't get more "indie theater" than that. That's the sort of thing that Quentin Tarantino is always babbling about right there.

Not that I saw Street Fighter there. No, I saw a movie much more dear to my heart: Cry-Baby.



Look. I love this movie. Practically every line makes me giggle with glee. It's easily my favorite John Waters movie, and it's right up there for my favorite Johnny Depp movie as well. If you're a movie theater and you want me to like you, I recommend finding a way to show Cry-Baby on a big screen.

It's 19 years old, so it's easy to forget how weird this movie was when it came out. Johnny Depp was "the pretty-boy from 21 Jump Street" and all of a sudden he was doing a movie with Crazy John Waters, who nobody quite trusted to be a "real" director yet. Depp kept claiming that he wanted to break out of the generic matinee idol roles, but nobody believed him. After this, he did Edward Scissorhands, Benny and Joon, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and people were forced to accept him at his word that he'd rather do weirdo quirky roles. But at the time, this was the quirkiest anyone had ever seen him. And he's terrific in it.

This time out, I particularly enjoyed Susan Tyrrell as Ramona Ricketts. I saw her recently in Night Warning, and she's just crazy, over-the-top great in that.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie



Look, just because I'm not focusing exclusively on movie tie-ins anymore doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good novelization now and then. And this really is a good novelization. It was enjoyable to read and made me want to see the movie again, which is really all you can ask from one of these things.

Now, as you may know, Bye Bye Birdie is a musical. That means that they had to decide how to handle the songs. As you may remember, the novelization of Grease just incorporated all the songs into dialogue, with predictably disconcerting results. This book goes a different route: most of the songs are just ignored or mentioned in passing. For example:

At that moment, Kim McAfee, humming softly about how great it was to be a woman, floated rather than walked into her blue-and-white bedroom.


And that takes care of an entire musical number in which Ann-Margret changes clothes while concealing her nakedness under a fuzzy sweater. The telephone song is dismissed entirely!

Now, the songs that are actually sung by Conrad Birdie (the Elvis-knockoff whose name, for some reason, is taken from Conway Twitty) appear in the book. But for the most part, this is just a novelization of "what would have happened if the characters didn't keep bursting into song." With one exception! The "Kids" song appears entirely in dialogue, possibly because it actually reads relatively normally:

"Kids," McAfee said sourly. "I don't know what's wrong with these kids today."

Doris nodded slowly. "Who can understand anything they say?"

"Kids! They're disobedient, disrespectful oafs! Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy loafers! And while we're on the subject..."

Mama took her head from the oven and chimed in: "Kids! You can talk and talk until your face is blue!"


And so on. It works pretty well, although I have to point out that Doris is not, in fact, in this scene in the movie. There are a few differences between the book's events and the movie's, but almost all of them are entertaining. Like the scene where Conrad Birdie talks about going out on the town and finding himself a filly. Oh my!

Having read the book, I rewatched the movie. It retained its most mystifying element, namely "Why does the title song go 'Bye Bye Bir-HEE' instead of having a 'D' in there?" I also have decided that Conrad Birdie's resolute dopiness is probably on purpose. I guess we're supposed to be laughing at those dopey kids, swooning after this gumbo just because he's dressed in gold lamé. Apparently they wanted the actual Elvis Presley to do the movie, but Colonel Tom Parker wouldn't let him. That's a shame, because you have to assume he and Ann-Margret had some pretty good chemistry.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Singin' in the Rain

One of my favorite movie eras is the early talkies, where they hadn't quite figured out how to take advantage of the new technology. There was a run of fairly rotten (but entertaining) musicals that appeared to be a random collection of vaudeville acts. You can tell them because they have the year in the title, like The Broadway Melody of 1929 and The Big Broadcast of 1936. And it occurred to me recently that Singin' in the Rain is essentially about making a movie in that era. So it was time for a rewatch!

...and it's still good. I think Donald O'Connor's character actually comes out better than Gene Kelly's does. Kelly is just a movie star, but O'Connor is pput in charge of the studio's new music department. That's a pretty good gig!

Fanboys

This, I think, is the first movie I've ever seen where I'd previously exchanged emails with the screenwriter. Ernest Cline wrote a fan script for Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League a few years ago, although he had to take it off his website. It's around, though, if you know where to look. So I happen to know that this movie has some solid fanboy credentials behind it.

It's set in the distant past of 1998, when Star Wars fans still liked George Lucas and "Episode I" was just something to look forward to. I think Episode I gets a bad rap, so it was kind of fun to have characters talking excitedly about it. The idea is that one of the characters is dying of cancer (movie cancer, though, so he only has physical problems when it's time for a plot complication) and the only way he'll get to see Episode I is if everyone piles into a van and drives from Ohio to Skywalker Ranch in California and steals a copy of The Phantom Menace. This will also allow one guy to finally admit his love for the Girl Geek (Kristen Bell) and the two estranged buddies to reconcile.

There's also another guy who doesn't actually have a plot. But he's the most entertaining one, so he ends up taking a lot of screen time, so by the end of the movie, I'd forgotten about the two-friends plot entirely.

A lot of the movie rings true. If anything, there could have been more dialogue lifted directly from Star Wars. I didn't really dig the ongoing "Star Wars fans hate Star Trek fans" angle, but I can allow it.

The sequence at Skywalker Ranch was particularly enjoyable for me, since I've actually been there for a July 4 party. That's not relevant to the review; I just wanted to mention it.

It would be nice to see a movie like this that isn't awash in stuntcasting. In addition to the previously mentioned Kristen Bell, there's William Shatner, Carrie Fisher, Kevin Smith, and Jason Mewes. Also Danny Trejo, but he's really just being deployed the same way he always is, so I think that's just normal casting.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Buck Parvin and the Movies

Okay, this is kind of a complicated one.

The book I just finished reading is Buck Parvin and the Movies, published in 1916. It's a collection of short stories by Charles E. Van Loan about the world of movie-making. Naturally, that's silent movie-making, and early ones at that. Most of the stories are about making one-reelers, which they turned out at a pace of one per week. The director would get instructions from the home office to stop making jungle pictures but still keep using the lion and elephant, and hey presto! It's time to make a circus picture!

Buck Parvin is a stunt man cowboy who has a secondary role in the early stories but eventually works his way to center stage. He's full of old-timey wisdom, and the stories are a lot of fun. You can read a couple of them here, complete with annotations to tell you what real people and movies the characters and situations are based on.

And then it gets complicated, because these stories were promptly used as the basis for a series of Buck Parvin movies. They're listed on IMDB, but it's pretty hard to find obscure silent movies that were never on DVD and may not even have gotten a token VHS release. So I haven't seen them. And did I mention that Buck Parvin was played by Art Acord, who was one of the actors he was based on?

I realize this doesn't technically count as a "novelization", since it's simultaneously a behind-the-scenes fictionalization and the source material for movies. Also because it's not a novel anyway but a set of short stories. But it was pretty fun anyway. I recommend reading The Extra and the Milk-Fed Lion to get a feel for what it was like making movies back then. Always shoot your stunts first, because if those don't work out, the part of the movie that builds up to them will fail too.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ceiling Zero

Howard Hawks! James Cagney! Pat O'Brien! Not available on DVD!



Ceiling Zero was originally a play, but then it was made into a movie in 1936 and consequently into this keen novelization I've got here, which is a hardback. It's got some stills from the movie, which it refers to as "Illustrations from the Photoplay". Neat!

The book is pretty straightforward, combining verbatim dialogue with simple declarative sentences like "Outside the window he heard the motors of a passenger ship roaring at full power." There isn't much attempt to provide an inner dialogue for characters, which fits fine with the movie itself. I happen to live near an excellent video store, so I was able to rent the VHS, and I can report that people talk way too fast in it. I'm a huge fan of Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday, which I used to think had the fastest dialogue in movie history. But Ceiling Zero knocks it aside easily. Cagney already tended to bark all his dialogue, and when Hawks got his hands on him, it's like listening to a Tommy gun. And Pat O'Brien is even faster. So fast, in fact, that he frequently lapses into incomprehensibility. It's like watching a movie about angry auctioneers that have drunk too much coffee. So there's not a lot of opportunities for the author of the novelization (possibly Frank Wead, author of the play and screenplay, but more likely an uncredited starving writer) to shove in thoughts and feelings.

There's a big crash in the movie (not a spoiler; it's right there on the front cover), and here's how it's described in the book:

Through the dense mist the blurred outline of the mail plane could be dimly seen. It glided through the fog straight for the hangar. There was a terrific tearing crash as the metal plane ripped into the side of the building. The wings folded crazily back against the fuselage and fell free. Then the boom-boom of exploding gas tanks and a burst of flames.


Exciting!

Now, this movie isn't for everyone. Cagney's character is kind of a cocky jerk, which I admit isn't all that unusual for him, but he's a more aggressive ladies' man than usual. I think it's the fact that his character is 34 and spends a lot of time hitting on girl aviator Tommy Thomas, who is 19, that kind of soured me on him. Also, how come the female characters in this movie are named "Tommy" and "Lou"?

Like I say, this movie is only on VHS, and even then you have to get lucky. It'll eventually show up on Warner Archives (although that still won't mean that Blockbuster or Netflix will have it), so I present yet another adaptation: the Lux Radio Theater version! It was surprisingly common for movies to have a shortened radio version broadcast with much of the original cast. So if you want to know what a radio version of a movie version of a play about aviation would sound like, it's on this page along with various others. Enjoy!

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Happening (not the M. Night Shyamalan one)

Ah, 1967, when no subculture was too obscure to be exploited. I give you... The Happening.



This should not be confused with the M. Night Shyamalan movie by the same name. It should also not be confused with an actual "Happening", which in the 1960s was a weird art experience thing where people would show up at a place and hang out with no real plan. It was sort of like flash mobs are now, I think. When you hear Austin Powers (or the character in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls from whom Mike Myers borrowed the line) say "It's my happening, baby, and it freaks me out!" that's what they're talking about. A Happening.

But there is no Happening in The Happening. It starts with a big drug orgy, then four listless characters escape from the police and accidentally kidnap a mob boss. Actually, he kind of kidnaps himself. He's a take-charge kind of guy. Then no one pays the ransom, so he raises it. Which is not the way it's supposed to work. Normally the hostage just sits there tied to a chair or something. Anyway, it ends on kind of a nihilistic, existential note, the way movies in the sixties often did. You should see Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, for example.

The novelization does its best to make the random events interesting. But there's only so much you can do with characters like this. Practically as soon as the four protagonists have met, on page 13, this happens:

Full sunlight had turned Sandy cynical.

"He's a cheap hustler who wants to be legit," she said.

Without taking his right hand from the wheel, Taurus swung his left in a half circle and backhanded Sandy hard and full in the face.


Classy, eh? And Taurus is one of the heroes of this little epic. So's Sandy, who a few pages later has the most memorable line in the book (or, I suspect, the movie):

"Hit me again," she suggested. "A real wham. Maybe I'd feel something anyway, hey Taurus?"


Yeesh. People in low-budget movies in the sixties were serious weirdoes if you ask me. Anyway, Sandy's the only real reason anyone remembers this movie even exists, because here's a picture from the back cover:



That's Faye Dunaway in her first starring role. Later that year, she'd also appear in Bonnie and Clyde, which is a much better movie about directionless clowns committing crimes.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

I've got almost ninety movie novelizations, you know. But I've been trying to decide how quickly to spool them out. So here's the plan, for now: every Monday, a new post about a movie novelization. Other posts to appear at random.

Now, with that out of the way, check this out!



The movie came out in 1964. The novelization came out in 2005, and I don't think it's even authorized. As far as I can tell, the movie might be public domain at this point. So why would you write a novelization of a terrible movie from forty years ago?

Well, this is one of those movies that's mysteriously beloved. It was on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and also Cinematic Titanic, which I still think was an odd choice) and appeared in one of those Golden Turkeys books. It's got defiantly weird acting, especially from Dropo. And it's got a very young Pia Zadora, which makes this one of the best movies she ever did.

The novelization is by someone who knows how bad the movie is. It's told in the voice of Girmar (Pia's character) and is full of things like this (after someone has told an excruciatingly unfunny joke about a "Martianmallow":

By the way, that Martianmallow joke ended up sweeping Mars. I mean really sweeping. And it spawned a movement. Within a year after the completion of the Santa Claus incident, Martian jokes were all the self-deprecating rage on my planet.

Not that they were any funnier than Martianmallows.


Or, take Dropo. Please. (classic!) Here's part of the description of the scene where Dropo puts on Santa's spare outfit:

The heavy red coat was next. He slid his arms into the sleeves without removing his eyes from the mirror. Could this be the same Dropo who, in the fractal school yearbook mind chip, was voted Most Likely to Cause an Unwanted Disruption? Yes, it was. And soon things were going to be very, very different.


So although the book is supposedly narrated by Girmar, the narrator seems to share the audience's exasperation with Dropo. And his antics. It's a little meta, especially at the end, when she complains about Pia Zadora's wooden portrayal of, um, herself.

Another fascinating element to this book is that it includes a DVD for the movie that it's novelizing. You don't see that too often!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The novelization for the new movie (which I enjoyed a lot) isn't out yet. So until I get it, let's go back in time to 1979...



That's right, this book was written by Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. And unlike "George Lucas's" Star Wars novelization, this one was apparently actually written by the person it says it was written by! Incidentally, I think it's weird that the original story for the screenplay was from Alan Dean Foster. Not that Mr. Foster isn't a talented writer; it's just that he's written so many movie novelizations himself (including Star Wars, actually), it's weird to see him at the other end of the chain.

Now, the book opens with a preface from Admiral James T. Kirk:

My name is James Tiberius Kirk. Kirk because my father and his male forebears followed the old custon of passing along a family identity name. I received James because it was both the name of my father's beloved brother as well as that of my mother's first love instructor. Tiberius, as I am forever tired of explaining, was the Roman emperor whose life for some unfathomable reason fascinated my grandfather Samuel.


This is interesting for three reasons. First, I like that the first thing on Roddenberry's mind was to clarify exactly what Kirk's middle name was. Second, this directly contradicts the new movie, which is kind of neat. Third, "love instructor"? What's going on here?

After Kirk's preface, there's something labeled "Author's Preface", and it's pretty weird:

Considering Admiral James Kirk's comments is his own preface, it may seem strange that he chose me as the one to write this book. I was, after all, a key figure among those who chronicled his original five-year mission in a way which the admiral has criticized as inaccurately "larger than life."


So... this book's "author" is in the Star Trek world, and was responsible for a television show about the Enterprise at some point in the past. An in-character Gene Roddenberry, in other words. Later in the preface, he even says "Why STAR TREK again? I supposes the real truth is that I have always looked upon the Enterprise and its crew as my own private view of Earth and humanity in microcosm." It really is an author's message, but it's pretending to be from within the Star Trek universe. It's complicated.

There are other fascinating things about this book, both from a deleted-scene standpoint (the character "Decker" of the movie was supposed to be the son of the "Decker" from an episode of the series) and from a transliteration standpoint ("V'ger" is spelled "Vejur" everywhere in the book. Weird). There's also a little digression revealing that McCoy prefers homeopathic treatments. But the things which stands out is the spot where Gene Roddenberry decides to comment directly on the canonicity of Kirk/Spock Slashfic. On page 22, there's this line:

Jim! Good-bye my . . . my t'hy'la.* This is the last time I will permit myself to think of you or even your name again.


Those are Spock's thoughts, and they go to a legendary footnote:

* Editor's note: The human concept of friend is most nearly duplicated in Vulcan thought by the term t'hy'la, which can also mean brother and lover. Spock's recollection (from which this chapter has drawn) is that it was a most difficult moment for him since he did indeed consider Kirk to have become his brother. However, because t'hy'la can be used to mean love, and since Kirk's and Spock's friendship was unsually close, this has led to some speculation over whether they had actually indeed become lovers. At our request, Admiral Kirk supplied the following comment on this subject:

"I was never aware of this lovers rumor, although I have been told that Spock encountered it several time. Apparently he had always dismissed it with his characteristic lifting of his right eyebrow, which usually connoted some combination of surprise, disbelief, and/or annoyance. As for myself, although I have no moral or other objections to physical love in any of its many Earthly, alien, and mixed forms, I had always found my best gratification in that creature woman. Also, I would dislike being thought of as so foolish that I would select a love partner who came into sexual heat only once every seven years."


Ha! Although I can't help but notice that all this really says is that Kirk wasn't monogamous. And who ever said he was? Plus, if this section is to be taken as canon, it means that Kirk definitely has experimented with something other than "that creature woman."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Last Action Hero



I actually kind of enjoyed Last Action Hero, even though it's now a legendary flop. It helps that I watched it as a projectionist, so I was all alone in the theater the night before opening night, watching it mostly to make sure I had attached the reels correctly, and didn't accidentally play a reel backwards or something.

This played well with the plot of the movie, which involves a kid getting to see the new big action movie all alone in the middle of an empty movie theater. And this was very much the New Big Action Movie. They were going to have an advertisement on the side of the space shuttle, but the launch got scrubbed or there was a public outcry or something. The point is that they got lots of press coverage even though they didn't end up buying the ad space. Nice job!

This copy of the book came with a movie ticket being used as a bookmark. Tragically, it is not for Last Action Hero but Jurassic Park. What fun is that?

Oh, and the novelization is okay, I guess. It plays up the wacky aspects of the movie more than the action scenes, but that's what the movie did too. That's why everyone hated it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Star Wars

This isn't the oldest movie novelization in my collection, but I'm pretty sure it's the first novelization I personally read. Let's go back to the time when Star Wars was fun!



Before I get into the book, I would like to point out that it doesn't say "Episode IV" or "A New Hope" anywhere on it. This is just "Star Wars", which is "From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker". However, don't get the idea that this breaks the continuity put forth by the prequels:

Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organ of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic.


Yeah, that's pretty much what happens in the prequel movies. But I'm more interested in this line at the end of the prologue:

"They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally they became heroes."
-Leia Organa of Alderaan, Senator


Man oh man, I must have read this book a million times when I was a kid, because I remember that line like it's tattooed on the inside of my eyelids. Which brings us to the thing that this book always reminds me of: this is what made me aware of the question of what's canon. You know the attack on the Death Star, right? Sure you do. Here's how it's described in the book:

"This is Blue Five," Luke announced to his mike as he nose dived his ship in a radical attempt to confuse any electronic predictors below. The gray surface of the battle station streaked past his ports. "I'm going in."

"I'm right behind you, Blue Five," a voice recognizable as Biggs's sounded in his ears.


Wait, what? Blue Five? But in the movie, he's Red Five! This was very confusing to Young Monty. I watched the movie, loved it, read the book, and loved that too. And then I saw the movie again, and something bothered me about it. Eventually I realized that Luke's callsign in the book was different from the one in the movies. Is he Blue Five or Red Five? Which one is right?

The other exciting thing about the book is that it was my first introduction to the idea of deleted scenes. This wasn't just before DVDs, it was before home video. And there are scenes in the book with Luke's childhood friend Biggs Darklighter. Special added backstory!

Oh, and if you're curious, not only does Han shoot first, but Greedo doesn't even appear to get a shot off:

"Over my dead body," Solo said unamiably.

The alien was not impressed. "If you insist. Will you come outside with me, or must I finish it here?"

"I don't think they'd like another killing in here," Solo pointed out.

Something which might have been a laugh came from the creature's translator. "They'd hardly notice. Get up, Solo. I've been looking forward to this for a long time. You've embarrassed me in front of Jabba with your pious excuses for the last time."

"I think you're right."

Light and noise filled the little corner of the cantina, and when it had faded, all that remained of the unctuous alien was a smoking, slimy spot on the stone floor.

Solo brought his hand and the smoking weapon it held out from beneath the table, drawing bemused stares from several of the cantina's patrons and clucking sounds from its more knowledgeable ones. They had known the creature had committed its fatal mistake in allowing Solo to get his hands under cover.


Oh yeah. That's the stuff. Frankly, the book resonates with me almost as much as the movie does.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Battlestar Galactica (the original one!)

That's right: a novelization by Glen A. Larson and Robert Thurston from 1978, describing the events of the original Battlestar Galactica. I think this counts as a "movie novelization" because this is the original two-hour "movie" that I vaguely remember actually being in theaters. Anyway, it's hilarious.



Actually, the back cover is even more entertaining than the front:



I love that the only person who gets mentioned by name is John Dykstra. Actors? Writers? Forget 'em, kid; we're here for the special effects from the Star Wars guy! And they were pretty good, but they don't really come across in the book. You'd think they'd play it up in the combat scenes, describing things as exploding in an expensive manner, with a noise that would really impress you if you could hear it, but none of that really happens.

But! I want you to look at Lorne Greene up there. He's the glowering white-haired gentleman in the circle. How would you describe him? If you're Glen A. Larson or Robert Thurston, here's how:

Commander Adama's angular cheekbones seemed the work of skilled diamond cutter. But his cold, penetrating eyes could not have been designed by even the finest of artisans. The members of his crew feared Adama as much as they loved him. There was a popular superstition aboard the Galactica that, when the commander became angry, those powerful eyes retreated into his skull and gave off rays that made him look so inhuman he might have just materialized as a god from some new alien mythology. Although tall and strong, he had none of the muscular man's typical clumsiness in normal movement.His gestures were smoothly graceful, and there was an ease in his bearing that made even his enemies comfortable with him—at least when he was comfortable with them.


That's right; the original Commander Adama had magical retracting laser eyes. Take that, Edward James Olmos!

While we're at it, here's how Starbuck is introduced:

Starbuck didn't have to look over his shoulder to know that a gallery of onlookers had formed behind him. When he had a pair of rubes like these two on the line, word always spread through the ranks of the Galactica, and people came running to the ready room. It was considered a privilege to be in onthe kill. Starbuck's gambling acumen had become so famous that his name was now a part of fighter-pilot slang. To be starbucked meant that you had allowed yourself to be maneuvered into a situation in which your defeat was inevitable. It was in the vocabulary of battle as well as in that of the gambling tables.

Like an actor, the handsome young lieutenant knew how to play to an audience. He let his face, so clean-cut for a man so diabolically shrewd, assume a mask of naiveté, as if he had just boarded the battlestar fresh out of space academy. Awkwardness substituted for the normal grace of his movements, and he leaned into the table like a man who wondered how he had gotten himself into this mess in the first place. All part of the setup. The gallery knew it, just as they knew he was ready to sweep down on his foolish opponents like a Cylon patrol from behind a cloud cover.


I remember this scene from the show. The rubes win the hand, but later on Starbuck is about to win his money back when the alert sounds and everyone has to go get in their Vipers and put John Dykstra to work.

This is not, as the cover claims, The Greatest Space Epic Ever, but if you're old enough to remember the original series, it's an adequate replacement for watching the show. And if you only know the recent series, it's probably a weird, jarring experience as you keep having to remind yourself that these aren't the Boomer and Apollo you remember. Either way, the scene where Adama looks at his daughter Athena and muses on her sensuous curves is really, really strange.