Tuesday, February 27, 2007

One marathon overlaps another

The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is finished. Go here if you would still like to make a donation. With these films, I reached 19 Brattle films seen and 25 elsewhere, which means 63 "points" total (or 31.5, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

Actually, that "elsewhere" number could be as high as 31, since I saw six films in the sci-fi marathon before midnight, with no sleeping done until 2am or so. There could have been some really sick numbers, but I opted not to try and survive the Brattle's "Schlock Around the Clock" marathon, which would have started at 9:30pm on Saturday and run straight through until 12:30pm Sunday (overlapping the start of the Sci-Fi Marathon by a half-hour). I don't know if I have that kind of strength.

I've avoided visiting the sci-fi marathon's message board all week, wanting to organize my thoughts a little and just not looking forward to the annual "watching bad movies is not nearly as much fun as watching good movies" argument. And, of course, I'm going to have bad things to say about Trail of the Screaming Forehead, because that's a movie just designed to irritate me - watching movies that are deliberately bad is a much more painful experience than watching a bad movie whose filmmakers really felt they were making he best movie they can.

D.O.A.

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2007 at The Harvard Film Archive (Cold War Films) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

D.O.A. has one of the classic mystery hooks - a man given a "luminous toxin" searches for his murderer before the slow-acting poison finishes its work. It's one of those ideas so simple and brilliant that anyone who tries to use it at a later date must obviously be doing a remake whether it is credited as such (the Dennis Quaid film of the same name) or simply uses it as an obvious source of inspiration (the godawful Crank).

This version is an obvious B movie, and initially exhibits a lot of that kind of pulp cinema's weaknesses: After the scene that sets up the flashback, much of the first act is actually clumsy and annoying - the protagonist takes off to San Francisco to escape his clingy girlfriend/secretary, and while she's annoying enough that you can't really blame him, the sound effects as he looks at other women are outright juvenile enough that he becomes a pain, too. But then we see his drink switched, he goes to doctors and learns his fate, and the movie kicks into high gear. It's like a season of 24 crammed into eighty-odd minutes in its propulsive urgency. Where many noirs are hard-boiled, D.O.A. lets its characters wear their desperation on their sleeves, so that even the scenes with the annoying secretary become poignant by the end.

Rocketship X-M

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2007 at The Harvard Film Archive (Cold War Films) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I'm not sure which is more annoying about Rocketship X-M - the obviously awful science or the jaw-droppingly ridiculous way in which it handles its one female character. The latter probably has some sort of basis in fact, but it's still sort of stunning for a modern audience to watch a film like this where the woman scientist has obviously proved her brilliance only to be patronized at every turn.

Is that more annoying than a rocket designed for a round-trip to the moon being nearly able to get to Mars and back because the passengers overslept? Maybe not. In any event, it's a deeply stupid movie, no matter how interesting what they actually find on Mars is.

The Eagle

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2007 at the Institute for Contemporary Art (The Alloy Orchestra) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

Rudolph Valentino is a name most film fans know, even if they couldn't pick him out of a lineup they way they could with, say, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. He's a vaguely remembered symbol of roaring twenties virility who died too young to appear in talking pictures or grow into more substantial roles. People vaguely remember that he did a couple of movies where he played a sheik. But, then again, how many of us can expect that much after we've been dead and gone for seventy-five years?

The Eagle is a fun Valentino movie - he romances the daughter of the man who stole his family's land, and we buy it, because Valentino does project a great deal of charm and come off as a believable lover and warrior. He probably would have made a great Batman in another era, and Vilma Banky has genuine chemistry with him. There's a fair amount of swashbuckling and derring-do, but Valentino and Banky are the core of the movie and there's no real slowdown when he's pretending to be her French tutor.

The Alloy Orchestra contributed a new score to sister group Box 5's restoration; it's as much fun as usual - I wish more contemporary filmmakers would hire Alloy for a score, because they have a great knack for letting the audience know when it's time to get down to business. The print is very nice, if not as eye-popping as the work done on Phantom of the Opera. All in all, a fun time at the movies.

Ghost Rider

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2007 at AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

You've got to feel kind of sorry for Nicolas Cage here. He's a huge comic book nut - he took his stage name from Marvel's Power Man, he and his son are co-writing a comic for Virgin, he was attached to play Superman when Tim Burton was going to be directing, and named his youngest child Kal-El after the man of steel. So I figure he really deserves a good comic book movie, rather than this bland thing.

The shame of it is, there's enough right in the setup to make it disappointing. Writer/director Mark Stephen Johnson has the right idea in making it feel more like Blade with western influences than other superhero movies, and casts people who are fun to watch - Cage makes Johnny Blaze eccentric without making him a freak show. Eva Mendes would be fun even if the producers had allowed her to button her shirt ("Eva Mendes's cleavage" really should get a co-starring credit) - there's a funny scene where she's waiting for Blaze in a restaurant and pulls a magic eight ball out of her purse to ask whether he'll show, and we buy this random, goofy thing because we like her. And Sam Elliott as the mentor character - Sam Elliott's a gimme. You can't screw him up.

Sadly, the film is bereft of interesting bad guys, so while, yeah, Ghost Rider is pretty neat, there's not much of a story to stick him into. The character's also a pretty goofy visual: I remember when the trailer first came out, I figure that that's as good as you're going to get Ghost Rider to look, and it was still kind of silly. Sometimes the character looks really good, and sometimes the expensive technology looks like something from The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra set afire.

But, some good might still come of this: Cage is talking about producing a She-Hulk movie to star Mendes. I'd be all over that.

The General

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2007 at the Institute for Contemporary Art (Alloy Orchestra) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

If you like film, then this should be a rule: If The General is playing in your neighborhood, you do see it. Period, end of story. If The General is playing with the Alloy Orchestra accompanying, there's a good chance of a "blackout" situation, where one has the tickets in hand even before quite realizing that they were on sale.

Which is as it should be.

Music & Lyrics

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2007 at Regal Fenway #12 (first-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

There's something almost perversely clever about having the sanest person in a movie be the washed-up 80s pop star. Hugh Grant winds up playing the straight man in this movie, a thinly disguised "other guy from Wham!" who has a chance for a comeback when a loopy pop tart asks him to write a song for her and he recruits his substitute cleaning lady to write the lyrics.

It's a lightweight little romantic comedy, and that's no bad thing. Indeed, at one point during the movie, Grant's character defends such things, if not directly: A good, catchy three-minute pop song will affect millions more people than even the greatest novels, so don't apologize for liking or creating them. They work, and that's all that needs to be said.

Music & Lyrics works. Not transcendently, so that you'll remember much of it long afterwards, but in the moment? It elicits smiles and occasionally surprises you with something clever. Which is all it needs to do.

Happy Birthday Daffy

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Bugs Bunny Film Festival) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

Ninety minutes of Daffy Duck cartoons, in all his various incarnations - the deliciously egocentric Chuck Jones version who works as a perfect foil for Bugs Bunny, the fast-talking, genuinely daffy fellow, the victim of circumstance.

Daffy doesn't work on his own; he needs a straight man. But we love him, even as he sells out Bugs Bunny because he is "a duck bent on self-preservation". He's got the best lines and his bill is one of the funniest bits of maulable cartoon anatomy ever devised.

Forbidden Planet

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

The first film in this year's Sci-Fi Film Festival (after the obligatory Duck Dodgers cartoon) is one I just reviewed a month or so ago. Still good stuff: Warner does appear to have made new prints available, and it looks even nicer on-screen than it did on HD-DVD.

Full review (still) at HBS.

Metropolis

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

I love this movie. Watching it with the marathon audience, after getting into a bit of an online shouting match with people who were reading to simply dismiss it for being anime (animated films are okay, Japanese films are okay, but put the two together and it apparently makes perfect sense to just dismiss them out of hand), I cringed a little, because I know that it plays into what a lot of people don't like about many anime films - it's dense with ideas and visuals, it doesn't stop to explain, it makes seemingly incongruous choices.

But that's what's great about it - it's a full world, and even though the audience initially laughs at "I Can't Stop Loving You" playing as a the city is laid waste, it's perfect - it prevents us from enjoying the destruction too much, and it encapsulates the theme of unrequited (and unrequitable) love perfectly

And some people passed on it because of the tools used to make it. Fools.

Full review at HBS.

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is a movie whose title garners low expectations, and yet it somehow manages to not meet them. It gives us both a NASA android prototype going haywire and the aliens who shot it down kidnapping Earth women for breeding stock, but never succeeds in making either really fun, unless you enjoy laughing at how something is badly produced. In that case, sure, go ahead and laugh at the scientists zipping around Puerto Rico on their motorscooter, the static and poorly-acted scenes on the alien ship, or the clumsy and non-threatening robot.

It's easy to say that one shouldn't expect much, but even with such a silly premise - and maybe even with such an obviously limited budget - the filmmakers could do better. This film is seldom even bad in a way where one can really soak in the badness and admire the effort.

Puzzlehead

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

This one will get a full review at some point in the near future, but for right now, I'll just say I liked it. It's the story of an engineer who builds a robot using himself as a model, only to find himself eventually struggling with his creation for control over his own life - with the woman they love caught in the middle of the increasingly bizarre tug-of-war. It's told from the robot's perspective, which makes the narration interesting: "Puzzlehead" attempts to describe the sensation of being reactivated after a long time switched off, or having his autonomy neutered, and it's an intriguing idea. Necessary, too, because otherwise Puzzlehead's narration might humanize him, so these bits which emphasize his non-humanity are important.

The story this narration is wrapped around is just the right kind of creepy, noirish stuff, too: A messy, occasionally violent game of alternating identity theft that not only intrigues the audience in terms of what the next step in the dance will be, but eventually leads us to wonder what effect this will have on the robot's moral parameters, since he is like a child learning from every action. That's what makes the movie unique, in the end - it's neither an evil robot or exploited robot film, but a psychological thriller in which one of the characters is an android.

Flash Godon - Rocketship

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

This is why comic books can't be adapted directly into movies, if you figure each issue of the comic is equivalent to an episode of a Saturday serial. By themselves, I imagine each episode of "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" was a fun experience, full of action and intrigue and a new element to be added to the plot. With a week between them, they're each exciting and the audience can let the bad parts fall away by the time they come back for the next installment. Take in a lot of the installments back-to-back, even (or, perhaps, especially) edited down to feature length, and the absurdity accumulates, the reversals piling on so quickly that one laughs at what the creators expect us to buy rather than just running along with it.

Also? As much as I can intellectually applaud the filmmakers for giving the women as much skin to ogle as the men, I'm sure that the ladies will agree with me when I say that some of these people really should be wearing pants.

Trail of the Screaming Forehead

* * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

To be fair to Trail of the Screaming Forehead, it's nowhere near as bloody awful as the writer/director's previous genre spoof, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, which sets a low standard almost impossible to live down to. Indeed, Forehead has a few moments of genuine humor, even as Larry Blamire beats his two or three jokes to death with repetition. But even if Forehead were executed well, I strongly suspect it would be obsolete. That's not the fault of Blamire, but three blokes from England: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright have killed this sort of parody dead.

They didn't do it alone, of course, but Shaun of the Dead will likely be seen as a turning point in the coming years: It's the moment when comedians stopped taking the easy way out, and instead of just highlighting and exaggerating a genre's flaws, put their efforts into making a movie that obeyed the rules of the genre, but applied them intelligently while still making the audience bust a gut.

Word has it that Hot Fuzz is more of the same. Heck, the next film in the line-up, Slither, is easily much funnier than Forehead, and rather than mocking the things that monster movies have often done badly, it embraces what's done well. Forehead has a little game, but unless the audience is going to laugh non-stop at "Look! Monster movies in the fifties and sixties were poorly acted with stilted dialog, and this is even more poorly acted with worse dialog!", it's got fifteen minutes of jokes to stretch into an hour and a half of movie.

Mel Brooks got away with this sort of thing for a long time, but at his best, he knew he had to have more. Sure, this form of parody isn't dead yet - "____ Movie" keeps coming out - but with any luck, it's on its way out.

Slither

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

As I said, this is great fun. It's funny, thrilling, full of creatively disgusting visuals, witty line readings.

And, it kept me awake between midnight and two. Always a good indication a movie is doing something right.

Full review at HBS.

Chopping Mall

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

Here, I had a little more trouble staying awake. Three A.M. is a killer, isn't it? Same thing happened at another one of these - I don't remember falling asleep, but the cast seems to be mysteriously reduced without my knowing how someone bit the dust.

Ah, well. Not like I missed something really great. Security robots go kill-crazy thanks to a lightning strike, and of course a bunch of teenagers are partying in the mall where they work after hours. Think the virgins will survive? Damn right.

I've seen worse. But I'm not going to seek it out to find out what I missed.

The Stepford Wives

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

There may have been sleeping here, too. But The Stepford Wives is the sort of movie where you can drift off for a few minutes and come back and still not necessarily feel like you missed anything. Not that it feels padded or over-extended; it just procedes at a steady pace, working a slow build until, by the time it gets to the big revelations, it feels inevitable.

Part of this, of course, is that as I mentioned when I saw the remake a couple years ago, everyone knows what The Stepford Wives is and what it's about. Thirty years ago, would it have been so obvious? Maybe. The end would have been just as chilling, though, and that's what counts.

Blade Runner (Original Theatrical Cut)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

Supposedly, Warner Brothers and the various other entities that are involved with this film are planning something special for its twenty-fifth anniversary, probably another special edition (this would, I guess, be version 3.0). The talk was that we likely won't see this original theatrical version again, and we weren't supposed to talk about it being shown.

Well, okay, I'm breaking that. I didn't sign anything. It played, it was good, and the voice-over isn't nearly as terrible as the reputation it has acquired.

Dark Star

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

Heh. It's been a while since I saw this, probably some late weekend night my sophomore year of college, so, geez, twelve years or so. I've got to find time to revisit this sort of movie every once in a while, rather than just waiting for them to show up at the Brattle or marathon or the like. I've just got too many movies on my shelf.

And that doesn't even include this one, although it probably will sooner or later. It's a fun, goofy little movie that's probably smarter than a lot of more serious science fiction films. John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon have ideas in their head, and even if they're often cribbed from others like Ray Bradbury. This is way before John Carpenter got pigeonholed as a horror director; willing to try anything in this student film which he expanded into a feature.

Monster House

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

I liked this movie in theaters; quite a bit, really, although upon seeing it at the marathon, it's clear that a great chunk of the appeal was technology. Scenes which looked awesome in 3-D look merely neat here.

And what's this doing at a sci-fi marathon, anyway? It's a cute little movie, but if the organizers felt they needed something cute, recent, animated, and kid-friendly, why not Robots?

Full review at HBS.

RoboCop

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2007 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/32)

Somehow I'd never seen RoboCop before. That is a crying shame; it's as smart as it is over-the-top and violent, making good use of the news story devices Verhoven would later use to excess in Starship Troopers. The corporatization of services like law enforcement and the military, which seemed perhaps a little paranoid when the film was first made, seems prescient today, and more credit than I expected for making the corporate politics more interesting than I expected.

Indeed, it may seem kind of odd, but the thing that stuck with me from this movie was the observation of how corporate executives have evolved. The first generation is founders, people who had ideas and wanted to do remarkable things. The second generation is loyal to the company, though they often see the company as an entity whose survival is more important than the goals for which it was founded. The third generation is simply mercenary, playing politics as a game and out for nothing but their own gain.

Everything else - the willingness to accept authoritarianism, the idea that crime will spin so out of control as to require radical solutions, the nifty action, the idea that all the new technology is useless unless it has a human heart - that's good too, and just goes to show what a great, classic movie this is, even if it did spawn less impressive follow-ups.

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