Saturday, June 30, 2012

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Sometimes, all it takes is for one new element, one different angle, to make a movie stand out from other movies it otherwise might be remarkably similar to. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is the third in the series, and it bears numerous parallels with Raiders of the Lost Ark: Harrison Ford once again plays the heroic archeologist, the plot is a globe-hopping race against the Nazis for a religious artifact that could mean world domination if it falls into the wrong hands, and Jones is engaged in something of a rivalry with another scholar of ancient artifacts. But unlike Raiders, in which Jones held enmity with his rival Belloq, he's competing for father's approval in Last Crusade.

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.

Director Steven Spielberg also returns, and with the description, it's tempting to think Spielberg is giving into sentimental schmaltz about a father and son learning they really do love each other, but that's only part of it. The relationship between the Joneses is more like one between an older and younger colleague with some heart-felt affection buried between them. Given their relationships with the woman in this picture, Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), there's even an element of romantic antagonism; Indiana is shocked at his father's reply when he asks how he knew she was a Nazi: "She talks in her sleep," the elder Jones notes matter-of-factly.

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.

Compared to Temple of Doom and even Raiders, Last Crusade is more light-hearted and less grim. Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) are back in more prominent roles as comic relief. They were certainly missed in Temple of Doom, and their returns are welcome. The banter between Henry and Indiana is antagonistic but playful, and they do seem like father and son. Even though they work out some tension between them, it doesn't feel obtrusive or forced. The quest this time doesn't feel as desperate or intense as it did in Raiders. Even though there are Nazis in it, the hunt for the grail feels more like school boys on an adventure.

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

Aliens

In the final 20 minutes or so of Aliens, we see series protagonist Ripley (an Oscar-nominated Sigourney Weaver) prepare to enter the creatures' hive to rescue Newt (Carrie Henn), a little girl and sole survivor of an alien infestation of a human colony.  Ripley loads up with a massive pulse rifle, a flamethrower and grenades, and as the elevator descends to what very well could be her death, we notice just how strung out and exhausted Ripley is, how covered in sweat and grime she is. She closes her eyes, mentally preparing herself for the horrors she knows she's about to confront.

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.

When the company loses contact with the colony on the planet Ripley warned was teeming with alien eggs, she's asked to accompany a team of Marines to investigate, with the offer her officer's rank will be reinstated. She refuses out right at first; why the hell would she ever willingly go back? But after another nightmare, she decides to go, realizing the chance to reclaim her life by confronting her fear and obliterating the alien threat.

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.

The scenes of alien attacks are exciting, visceral, and tense. Like the original creature, they prefer to leap from the shadows to snatch their victims, only now they attack en masse. The first attack is an excellent example of build up and editing as we cut back and forth between Ripley and others watching helplessly on video monitors as the creatures pick off the marines after stumbling into their nest. The later big fight is bathed in red light as the remaining marines make a last stand as the aliens pop out of the ceiling and is just as effective. I cannot stress the importance of the motion detector, its pulsing beep alerting the marines to incoming attacks they can't see.

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

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

A sad pall hangs over The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009). It was the final film of the late Heath Ledger, who died at the age of 28 during its making. Losing a star in such a tragic way would probably shut down any other movie, and for a while, this one was on hold. Eventually, director Terry Gilliam (who co-wrote the movie with Charles McKeown) developed the conceit of a magic mirror into a fantasy world altering Ledger's character's appearance enough to allow Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to step in and complete the role, ensuring Ledger's final performance would not be lost.

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.

As is common through much of Gilliam's work, the plot borders on nonsensical. I admit being lost a number of times and being puzzled by certain developments and character actions; I don't even think I can begin to explain the ending. Regardless, Gilliam still possesses his flair of visual extravagance and wonder, using Parnassus' fantasy to create a kaleidoscope of color and texture. It's really quite astounding. I particularly liked the scene where Law's Tony is being chased up a ladder into the sky, and when the ladder splits in two, the chase resumes with the ladder being used as stilts. Later, Farrell is in a giant theater that begins cracking open into nothingness and eventually a desert.

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.

Helping things immensely is a strong cast. Ledger displays his roguish charisma and charm, highlighting just what a loss of talent he was. Credit must also be given to Depp, Law, and Farrell for admirably completing the part; you can watch and believe they're playing the same character. Plummer is also good as the tortured, guilt-ridden immortal doctor, and Waits is an inspired choice for Mr. Nick, presenting himself as a low-key con artist and manipulator with only hints of the loathsome demon within.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Avengers

Here it is. After years of buildup and several movies to introduce the main players, The Avengers (2012) has finally arrived in theaters. At this point, about a month and $1 billion in box office receipts later, a review almost feels pointless. Does it live up to the hype, and is there anything I can add to the discussion? Let's find out.

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.

I was disappointed Loki was brought back as the main villain. Loki is an interesting character, and Hiddleston plays him very well, but fundamentally, we've already seen him beaten by Thor. What challenge should he be to six heroes?  Still for the purpose of the Avengers' first get-together, he's adequate. I especially liked his scene where Black Widow interrogates him, and he gradually gets under her skin and plays on her emotions. He's at his best as a conniving manipulator, not a fighter.

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.

But the real accomplishment of The Avengers is how its seems part of a greater universe. The way everything has been building from all the recent Marvel movies and all the hints and plot developments fit together really give the movie a deeper and richer sense of scope. If nothing else, The Avengers sets a respectable bar for future entries in the series and presents a number interesting story threads to build on.  I am excited about where this can go, and it makes me want to go back watch everything that led to it.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Yojimbo

The lone gunman rides into a bad town and sets things right. That plot has served as inspiration for hundreds of Hollywood Westerns, and yet, one of the best examples of this trope was done by the master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in his 1961 samurai piece Yojimbo. Instead of the dust filled open-prairies, saloons, and gunslingers of the Old West, Kurosawa gives us swordsmen, sake shops, and the countryside of post-feudal Japan. The resulting hybrid of Western and Samurai themes and images proves amazingly fertile and remains one of Kurosawa's best and accessible films.

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."


Newcomers to Japanese cinema will likely find modern and western sensibilities in Yojimbo. Sanjuro is such an intriguing character. Clearly, he's the best swordsman in the movie, whether up against one opponent or 10. Yet, the movie is not him mindlessly hacking through bad guys. He's more like a chess player, striking at the most strategic moments. We learn practically nothing about his background, where he comes from, or what his beliefs are; everything about him is revealed through his actions and his plotting. Not only is he a mystery to the gangs and villagers, he's ambiguous to us. The purpose behind his actions only apparent after he's performed them. At times, he seems just as cruel or immoral as the criminals he encounters before his true nature is revealed.

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."

The action scenes are quick and to the point. Like a Western, the men have showdowns in the street and stare each other down until someone makes a move. The image of the lone, dark warrior standing tall and proud against numerous adversaries remains as impressive and potent in a samurai picture as it does a Western.The samurai is so skilled with a sword only one person offers him any true threat: Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the brother of one of the crime lords and the only person in the movie with a gun, in this case a revolver. Unosuke is also the only criminal smart enough to realize the Samurai is up to something.

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

Nothing but Trouble

If I told you there was a 1991 movie starring Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and Demi Moore, what type of movie would you envision? You've got two of Saturday Night Live's biggest stars who had a string of hits in the 80s, a beloved alumnus of SCTV best known as the affable big man with a heart of gold, and the female lead from the previous year's hit supernatural romance Ghost. Most people, I figure, would expect a light comedy with some romance and slapstick thrown in for good measure.

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. 

Presumably, Nothing but Trouble is meant to be a comedy given the cast, but it is a surprisingly joyless affair. I can only wonder what the financiers  at Warner Brothers were thinking when they saw the scene where Akyord peels his own nose off (complete with a crunchy sound effect). Or when a group of drug dealers are sent flying though a device known as Mr. Bonestripper, which lives up to its name by spitting their bones out at a bullseye. Or when the giant dumb junkyard babies Bobo and Little Debbull (one of which is Aykroyd in his second role)  start bouncing their hideous, greasy man-boobs and squeal about getting to play with Moore's character. As Ron White would say, "Things that make you go buhhh."

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.

The special effects and production design are pretty impressive. The courthouse is this really bizarre funhouse filled with trapdoors, moving walls, conveyor belts, slides inside the walls, and an attic with thousands of IDs of the Valkenheiser family's victims (including Jimmy Hoffa!). The junkyard is an industrial nightmare: rusted metal twisted into weird sculptures, fires reaching out of the ground, and giant statues. The makeup effects on the Judge and his ilk are gross but well done for what it is. But that might be the problem. These aspects really belong in a horror movie, and they are so effective they overwhelm everything else in the movie.  A director like Tim Burton might have been able to balance the freaky aspects and harvest some humor, but Aykroyd lets all these dark, dank elements get away from him and doesn't really put them toward much of a comedic effect. It's just gross out that Aykroyd seems to think is funny by itself.

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.