Saturday, June 30, 2012
In one of the most appropriate bits of casting ever, Sean Connery plays Dr. Henry Jones, an expert on the Holy Grail who has spent his life looking for it and had been somewhat neglectful and dismissive of his son.When Henry Jones goes missing, Indiana races to rescue, and before long, the Joneses are reunited on a quest to get the Grail before the Nazis.
It's impossible to watch Connery and not be reminded of the James Bond legacy he brings to the table. In a way, Last Crusade could be seen as the meeting of two action genre icons: the witty, old-school, impossible-to-impress Conenry and the laconic, physical, almost exasperated Ford. Of the two, Ford is more business, less likely to get distracted, and more aware of the immediate danger. Every time he does something heroic, he turns to his dad, who usually rolls his eyes or is focused on something else, casually dismissing his son's efforts to impress him. Henry Jones is also more of an intellectual, wearing his glasses a bow tie in the desert and resorting to his wits when his son might rely on fists. Both father and son get a chance to surprise the other, whether it's Henry causing a flock of seagulls to crash a Nazi warplane or Indiana rescuing his father from a tank.
Of course, it wouldn't be a successful Indiana Jones movie without a number of standout action sequences, and Last Crusade offers its share: the boat chase through the canals of Venice, the Joneses' escape from a burning Austrian castle followed by a motorcycle chase, an aerial dogfight, and the attack on a Nazi tank convoy in the desert. Twenty-plus years later, they still retain the power to excite, and the special effects work remains top-notch.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
And that little moment encapsulates why Aliens (1986) proves to be a worthy and superlative followup to the original Alien ; it expands on both the characters and the narrative instead of repeating the same plot. Written and directed by James Cameron, Aliens does something unique with its central character: it gives Ripley choice. Many science fiction horror tales drop their protagonists in a pressure cooker and watch them react, and the best ones, like Alien, show us what those characters are made of. But the two big dramatic moments of Aliens occur when Ripley chooses to confront the creatures she barely survived the first time.
At the start of the movie, Ripley is a woman out of time, having been cryogenically frozen and drifting through space for 57 years after her first terrifying encounter with the alien. Everyone she knows is dead (including her grown daughter, we learn in the director's cut); her company strips her of her rank and job, holding her responsible for the destruction of her ship and not believing her story about the creature; and her sleep is plagued by nightmares. Everything about Ripley's life: her family, her friends, her job, and her peace of mind have been drastically and negatively impacted by the alien.
Ripley's second big decision comes after the aliens have taken Newt to be implanted with another creature. By this point, we've seen them bond for much of the movie, and Ripley, understanding better than anyone what this little girl has gone through - alien attack, death of her family - is the one who looks after her, becoming an adoptive mother. She talks soothingly to her, cleans her up, protects her, comforts her, and Newt reciprocates. We can see how far Ripley has come as a character over the course of the movie; after Newt is taken by the aliens, there's no question about it: she immediately goes to save her.
Ripley and Newt aren't the only characters we come to identify with. The marines are elevated as being more than just cannon fodder along for the ride. Cameron continues a trend of the series of showing us blue collar workers of the future. These are grizzled grunts, each with their own personalities and quirks, and they share a palpable camaraderie. They bust each others' balls, reference past missions, and have seen a lot together. Who can forget the blustering Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton), the tough Pvt. Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein), the quiet, competent Hicks (Michael Behn), and the authoritative, no-bull Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews)? The director's cut takes well over an hour to get to the first big alien attack, and by then, we've seen the marines and have become invested in them.
The marines also boast their own thematic interest. As critic John Kenneth Muir has noted in his writings on Aliens, the battle between marines and aliens can be interpreted as a commentary or reflection of the Vietnam War. The marines, like the US military, come equipped with the biggest, baddest technology and weaponry only to find themselves in unfamiliar territory, prone to ambush by a less sophisticated enemy that understands the terrain better, and the marines find themselves over-matched. The fight is even taken to an elaborate tunnel system. Traditional tactics do not work.
Cameron further explores the alien life cycle, not content with just giving us more creatures to blast. The hive lifestyle is both fascinating and creepy in that aliens have some sort of social order, and they take humans to cocoon them. The Queen Alien is a wonderfully realized creation, both awe inspiring and fearsome (Stan Winston proves yet again to be the master of creature effects). There's talk in the movie how humans are terraforming planets to make it liveable; turn-about is fair play because we see the aliens transform human structures into these weird, dark dwellings, coating the mechanical trappings with a strange, biological residue.
Cameron also plays on the expectations from the first film in a number of significant ways. In the first movie, the facehugger laid on a face with a tentacle wrapped around John Hurt's neck; here, two facehuggers stage an attack on Ripley and Newt, scurrying like spiders across the floor and leaping from the ceiling. As in Alien, one of the characters in an android, but unlike Alien, we know almost as soon as we meet Bishop (Lance Henriksen) he is an "artificial person." Immediately, Ripley is suspicious of him, wondering if he'll do anything to jeopardize their lives for the good of the company. The chestburster scene in Alien was such a left-field development such a surprise cannot be replicated, but Cameron matches it for intensity twice. First, there's the dream sequence, in which Ripley dreams one bursts out of her, her skin stretching just as she wakes up, showing us just how haunted she is by the experience. Later, when the marines find a still-living colonist who "births" an alien, they're shocked but quickly dispose of it, but the truth can be seen on Ripley's face as she watches the video feed. She's in tears, not surprised but realizing and accepting of the horrifying truth: the aliens are back, and things are about to get worse.
Through much of my teenage years, I considered Aliens (1986) my favorite movie of all time. As I got older, I kind of distanced myself from it, thinking I had to find a more adult and sophisticated title, and I was a bit bored by the now genre staple of "send in the marines to blast bugs." Watching it again for the first time in years, I was surprised and pleased at just how well it holds up and how sophisticated and rich the movie is narratively, thematically, and visually. It succeeds as exciting action, as scary sci fi and most importantly as character-based drama.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Ledger plays Tony, an amnesic who becomes a pivotal figure in a feud between Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), the immortal leader of a traveling theater company, and Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), the devil. The "Imaginarium" is a stage mirror that allows a person to enter an imaginary world commanded by Parnassus's mind where he or she chooses between good and evil. Parnassus and Mr. Nick are locked in a bet over souls, with the winner getting Parnassus' daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) as the prize.
Gilliam's followup to the dreary freak show of Tideland, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus finds the director on more familiar and comfortable territory, resulting in a movie that's more charming and has a lighter touch with a few darker elements on the edges. We re-visit some of Gilliam's favorite themes and motifs, including the power of imagination, its ability to provide an escape from life's daily hardships, the art and magnificence of story and performance, and the conflict between parent and child.
Gilliam seems to be channeling his Monty Python days with some of the images. One can't see the giant stone statue of Parnassus' head spinning in the sand, the giant flight of stone stairs to the heavens, or the head of a Russian woman opening up to reveal Mr. Nick at the controls of a cockpit and not be reminded of the crude animation of Flying Circus, although these are more polished. There's also a sense of humor, much of it coming from Verne Troyer as Percy, Parnassus' diminutive, long-suffering assistant who is always yelling at the doctor and others to stay focused on the task at hand.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
The usual suspects are present and accounted for. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and Mark Ruffalo as the third actor in three movies to play Bruce Banner/The Hulk. Also getting a chance at being more than glorified cameos are Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. As in Thor, the villain is Loki, again played by Tom Hiddleston, and this time he's got an army of intergalactic baddies looking to invade earth.
A great part of The Avengers' appeal is seeing how all the heroes fit in with each other and tie in from their other movies. Writer/director Joss Whedon really knows his source material and plays to the strengths of the characters, and I appreciated how each member got their own little storyline and time to shine. Based on my experience with the X-Men movies, I was afraid it would turn into an affair in which each character would pop for one scene, demonstrate a cool power or ability, and then be gone, but the heroes here get more to do. I particularly liked the animosity between Captain America, the proper, traditional hero who follows orders and has a strong view on right and wrong, and Iron Man, the modern, bad-boy who plays by his own rules and is kind of a prick. Banner is trying to keep his violent other half in check, Thor still has his family issues with his brother Loki, and Black Widow and Hawkeye are repaying old and new debts.
The actions are visually exciting, and the special effects are impressive. When Loki's army invades New York, there are hundreds of flying baddies and several giant, metallic slug-like creatures they ride causing destruction. We get several iconic moments: Thor's hammer smashing into Captain America's shield, the Hulk rampaging in the streets, and more. Still, I never really felt much tension or suspense. It's hard to get too invested in a potential self-sacrifice by Tony Stark during the climax when we already know there are plans for Iron Man 3 and more Avengers sequels.
Sunday, June 10, 2012
Toshirio Mifune plays a masterless and nameless samurai wandering the countryside in 19th century Japan. As fate would have it, he comes across a town paralyzed by the blood feud between gangs, one for silk merchant and the other a sake dealer. Looking for work, the samurai (who when asked his name only replies Sanjuro Kuwabatke, which is translated as 30-year-old mulberry field) plays both sides off each other, hiring himself to one gang as a bodyguard (or a Yojimbo) then the other and in the process killing a lot of people in a town "filled with a lot of people who deserved to be killed."
At the same time, Mifune plays him very calmly and collectedly. While everyone else in the cast is busy being chest-beating thugs, hysterical villagers, corrupt officials, despondent observers, or self-important crime bosses, he's at the center stroking his beard, betraying little emotion, offering droll insights, and casually dismissing anyone else's ideas. Yojimbo has a nice streak of sardonic humor mainly because so many of the low-lifes try to act tough or smart only to be put down, outsmarted, or killed by Sanjuro. In a funny little framing device, the young farm boy who ran away from home at the start of the picture is confronted by a rampaging Sanjuro in the climax, begins crying "Mommy!" and is told "children shouldn't play with swords."
In a way, Yojimbo is about the approaching change of modernity. Sanjuro does not fit the traditional image and expectations of his class - i.e. loyalty to his employers - and his cynicism is a lethal counter to everyone locked in their old roles and way of thinking. They cannot fathom that once they pay this samurai for his services he would sabotage them behind their backs. This samurai is willing to adapt to survive. Meanwhile, Unosuke and his gun are the harbingers of new technology that will completely outclass and render obsolete the balance of power. It is the end of an era.
Monday, June 4, 2012
In actuality, what audiences got from Nothing but Trouble, the sole directorial effort of Aykroyd who also wrote the script, was a $40-million spoof of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre crossed with the in-your-face weirdness of Beetlejuice that most people found repellent. The plot reads like a setup for any number of drive-in exploitation features from the 1970s: a group of rich, normal New Yorkers run afoul of a demented family in the middle of nowhere. In this case, the middle of nowhere is Valkenvania, a burned-out coal field and industrial wasteland. For running a stop sign, New Yorkers Chase and Moore wind up at the twisted courthouse of Judge Alvin Valkenheiser (Aykroyd) a decrepit 106-year-old Justice of the Peace who has bizarre and lethal methods of delivering punishment to traffic violators and anyone else who falls into his clutches.
I should note the back of the DVD case says Aykroyd and Candy have "two tasty roles each." Okay, Aykroyd plays a disgusting old man with a nose that looks like the tip of a penis (no joke, that's what it is) and a giant grease-covered baby in a diaper. Candy fares a little better; one of his parts is a reasonably presentable cop (mutant families always have one normal-looking member to lure the unwary), but the other is the cop's mute sister Eldona who tries to marry Chase. Chase and Moore, frankly, look embarrassed. It makes for a fun drinking game to take a shot every time Chase says something that could be interpreted as a knock against Aykroyd for getting him in the movie: "What is this shit?" and "Is this a joke?" are two examples that come to mind.
To be honest, Nothing but Trouble was a movie I grew watching fairly regularly. I loved all the dark and twisted stuff that happened and kind of relished that most people found the movie disgusting and impossible to watch. Looking at it again, I must admit it's not very good. I still hold some nostalgic affection for it, and there are a few lines I think are funny ("Chris, you have a BMW. Act like it!), but overall, it should serve as a warning to studio executives about giving untold millions of dollars and complete control to an untested filmmaker.