Thursday, July 30, 2009

Everyone Watches the Watchmen

As I remember it, last summer was all about superheroes. The film everyone was excited about, the culmination, nay, apotheosis was to be Watchmen. Since I don't go to theaters, I had to wait until now to see for myself. Verdict: All True.

Watchmen takes place ca. 1985 on an alternate Earth, where Nixon is in his 4 term and superheroes have been banned. The superheroes are introduced through an opening montage - we have to infer their powers and passions. In fact, one of the stars, Nite Owl, is only named once in the movie in passing. It is assumed that these heroes and their history is well known to you, which draws you into the universe.

They may be well known to you, if you read Alan Moore's graphic novel that the movie is based on. Personally, I have not - my new philosophy is never to read the book before you watch the movie. It just leads to disappointments. However, I understand that the movie is very faithful to the look and feel of the comic, although the plot takes some hits.

You certainly get the feeling that there's a lot going on that you are missing. Watchmen is densely layered, filled with symbols (like watches), jokes (anti-vigilante riots), and history (a superhero kissing a nurse at the end of WWII). It would definitely reward multiple viewings.

I'll skip the plot - don't want to be a spoiler. Instead, I'll mention the heroes:
  • The Comedian, a coarse, brutal Nick Fury type, killed at the start of the movie.
  • Rorschach, his mask an ever-changing inkblot, the definition of vigilante.
  • Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, both second-generation heroes, both retired, both depressed by trying to live like ordinary citizens.
  • Ozymandias, the smartest man on Earth, living openly as a tycoon.
  • Dr. Manhattan - naked, glowing blue, able to control all matter, space and time with his mind, but will he be able to keep his humanity?
Dr. M, played by Billy Crudup, is probably the best thing in the movie. He speaks in a high, soft John Malkovich voice, and you believe that he is near all-powerful. He gets the best special effects, too.

But the important thing to remember is: all of the heroes are flawed. Some are cruel, some careless, some indecisive, some impulsive. It's clear why society has banned them. But can society live without them?

All of this is aided by a cool visual style like we have seen in Sin City, The Spirit, and some others I haven't seen, like 300. I'm not sure what to call this style - a mix of digital video and CGI, I guess, although there are some other tricks going on: Matrix style slo-mo, perspective distorting lenses, tricks with color, etc. Since half the examples above are directed by Zach Snyder, and the other half Frank Miller, this isn't a director's style. Does it have an established name? The Miller-Moore Effect?

Monday, July 27, 2009

J-Men, Amen

In case you haven't heard of them, the Firesign Theater are 4 or 5 guys from LA who make hilarious, hermetic drug-induced humor. Mostly famous for comedy albums like Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers and How Can You Be In Two Place At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All, they also made some movies. J-Men Forever is one of them.

Their technique was to take old Republic serials like Commando Cody and the Copperhead and re-dub them, like Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily. So we get the story of the evil Lightning Bug, a madman from the Moon who plans to take over America with rock 'n' roll and hash gas. A master of disguises, the Bug can look like almost any villain in a serial. It's up to the J-men to stop him!

The good news: This is pretty funny. The bad news: They did it better in Hot Shorts, which is pretty much unavailable. They re-use some of the shorts, and a few of the jokes from Hot Shorts in J-Men.

So, until you can get Hot Shorts, try this. If you like it, you'll like Hot Shorts better. If you don't, you'll still like Hot Shorts.

In conclusion, contains as an bonus feature a v. low budget interview with George Wallace, the guy who played the original Commando Cody - the Rocketman. Interesting guy - a sailor, a boxer, a lumberjack, a bartender/singer, and once punched in the nose by Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Movie Quiz!

I know it's a little late, but you can find Professor Severus Snape's mid-summer movie quiz at the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog. It's not too late to get your answers in, but it's probably too late to get them read. You can see my answers here and ff.

Why should you read these? They are funny and informative. I always find new movies, genres, and directors to watch. Why should you try your hand at the quiz? If the professor likes your answers, he will publish them, granting you temporary immortality! I got a few in from last quiz.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Nowhere Man

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is far less a John Carpenter movie, and far more a Chevy Chase. We don't get much of the signature Carpenter low-budget off-kilter silly horror. Instead, we get a lot of Chevy Chase mugging lovably.

Chase plays a disengaged moneyman in the go-go 90s, daydreaming and drifting along, until he meets Darryl Hannah and falls in love. Before this relation can go anywhere, he is rendered invisible in a massive lab accident. Cute point - he is rendered invisible while dressed, so his clothes are invisible too. This is pretty convenient, because the camera's point of view can sometimes see him, and he doesn't have to go nude.

Of course, rogue CIA agents are after him (head rogue, Sam Neill), so he has to go underground. The middle of the movie concerns the problems of invisible life - people bump into you, cabs won't stop for you, food is visible in your stomach until it's digested (and it's disgusting), etc. This section shows the most promise, in my mind. Chase is disoriented, hungry, helpless - and it's funny.

The latter portion is devoted to him getting together with Hannah, and getting away from Neill. It's not done badly, but a little rote, by the numbers. The romance isn't that romantic - Hannah is beautiful, but a little underwritten. The action/suspense part is pretty weak, too. Come on, he's invisible, there's got to be something fun he can do with it, even against the CIA.

Also, Chase is not a lovable as he perhaps thinks he is. This is the patented Chevy Chase of Caddyshack or Fletch: a smug, smirky, devil-may-care wisecracker with a heart of gold. I think it works better for Bill Murray. Mostly, he seems like an entitled yuppie.

Anyway, there are some laughs - The scene where he uses a passed out drunk like a puppet to get a cab is inspired. The movie could have used a lot more of that.

Running on Empty

The Cannonball Run is a mix of 70s modern, with Burt Reynolds and Dom Deluise, and one foot in the old school, with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Even though it was made in 1981, the fact that everyone is driving with a drink in their hand gives it a 60s feel for me.

It's a story that's been told a million times: a bunch of oddballs in a long distance race. Bert and Dom are driving a souped-up ambulance, with insane proctologist Jack Elam in back with drugged and shanghaied airhead Farrah Fawcett as patient. Sammy and Dino are dressed as priests in a Ferrari. There are some cuties in a Lamborghini, using their wiles to avoid tickets. There are some good ol' boys, and a couple of others I forget. Jackie Chan and Martin Hui play Japanese (!??!??) drivers in a computerized Subaru that goes "hilariously" wrong. At least he gets a small role in the melee at the end.

I was ready to laugh at this, but it was a pretty rough slog. Some plot might have helped - most of the scenes were pretty much standalones. Caring about the characters, maybe that's too much to ask, but mostly they were just creepy. Maybe it just needed better jokes and stunts.

Anyway, Farrah Fawcett, R.I.P. She's had better.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Man, I wanted to like Shinbone Alley. Here's the pitch: an animated musical version of Don Marquis' Archie and Mehitabel, based on the Broadway play. Archie the cockroach is voiced by Eddie Bracken, of Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Mehitabel the amoral cat is voiced by Carol Channing, although the role was premiered on Broadway by Eartha Kitt. Also on board are John Carradine as a ham actor cat, and tough tomcat Fred Flintstone (Alan Reed). The play was written by Joe Darion and Mel Brooks. So far, so good.

Where does it all go wrong?
  • The music is not that strong - Marquis' free-verse philosophizing doesn't really make for strong showtunes. Somehow, I got the impression of songs, without actually experiencing them.
  • The main animation is not very distinctive - character animation is kind of Hanna Barberra/Top Cat. The backgrounds are nicely done, though.
  • Carol Channing is not as annoying as you'd think. She does a gravelly, low-down growl, with her trademark squeak for emphasis only. Nonetheless, well, Carol Channing.
However, there are some very nice animation setpieces. Some borrow from the Peter Max/Yellow Submarine tradition. Some are sweet homages to Geo. Herriman, who drew Krazy Kat and illustrated the original Archie and Mehitabel stories. For me, the movie is worth it for these scenes alone.

Also worthwhile, Eddie Bracken, who is perfect in his role of dreamer, loser, bad poet, writer, conscience to the unconscionable Mehitabel. Mehitabel, as a character, is perhaps not as lovable as Marquis wished. She lost Ms. Beveridge when she attempts to let her kittens drown.

Confession time: I've never really read the A&M stories. Made a few attempts, probably looked at the pictures, gave up. I know they have maximum hipster credit, but I could never get into it. Maybe it's just as well. I don't know how a real fan would have reacted to this disappointing attempt.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Feelings - Nothing More than Feelings

Equilibrium is consists of approximately 3 intertwining elements:
  • A moody, introspective meditation on feelings, war and the meaning of humanity
  • A stylish, stylized visual exercise in light, shadow, color and geometry
  • An action movie introducing the martial art of "gun kata" - hand-to-handgun combat achieving a maximum kill rate while avoiding return fire
Guess which part I liked best?

In the Future, war, crime and aggression are eliminated by periodic doses of a mood-deadening drug, enforced by the Tetragrammaton. Christian Bale is a high-grade cleric of the Tetragrammaton who spends his time finding people who have stopped taking the drug and killing them with flamethrowers and gun kata. Since they have "feelings", these outlaws collect pretty and sentimental objects, like family photos or the Mona Lisa. These also get the flamethrower treatment.

Then one day, Bale fails to take his dose.

The plot is not an original one - see 1984, V for Vendetta, etc. The question is - how well is it carried out? Well, Ms. Spenser gave up on this instantly for the silly dichotomy between war and violence vs. medicated soul death. Neither human nature nor psychopharmacology work like that.

I'm a little more forgiving. I think Christian Bale does a fine job at showing no feelings whatsoever, and looks good in a high-collared frockcoat. The visual language isn't subtle (desaturated color when our hero is drugged, a warmer palette when he is "feeling", for example), but is well executed.

The action is great. There are gunfights, sword melees and a lovely setpiece with handguns at pointblank range. Each combatant must get his gun in position and fire, while trying to knock the opponents gun off target. My only complaint, there is not enough of it. More gun kata.

Director Wimmer used his gun kata ideas more extensively in Ultraviolet, a weaker movie, I think, but perhaps a more fun one.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Snake Plisken? I Thought You Were ...Taller

Escape from L.A. is another one of those "what do you need to say" movies. If you liked Escape from New York, you'll want to watch this.

An earthquake has turned L.A. into an island, and the conservative, moralistic, totalitarian president has turned it into a prison for dissidents - from which no one returns! Now, the president's daughter has hijacked a dangerous MacGuffin and run off to this hellhole to be with her Che-like South American revolutionary lover, Cuervo Jones. Who you gonna call? Snake Plissken.

So we get Kurt Russell's iconic Snake vs. assorted post-apocalyptic punk rockers and revolutionaries, plus a few friends. - SPOILER - kind of:
  • Peter Fonda as an aging surfer dude
  • Steve Buscemi as the slimeball Map to the Stars Eddie
  • Pam Grier as Hershe - I won't spoil that one
So we get the usual fights, a basketball game to the death, and Snake and Fonda surfing a tsunami up Hollywood Blvd. Everything we love about Sanke Plissken.

I just thought he was ... taller.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Planet of the Monkey

The main reason I wanted to see Robinson Crusoe on Mars is the cool cover of the Criterion release - which, of course, we don't get from Netflix. Reason number 2: Monkey!

Our tale begins with two astronauts, Adam West and Paul Mantee, and Mona, a woolly monkey, in orbit around Mars. An asteroid causes them to bail out in separate pods. We follow Mantee as he lands and tries to survive on the inhospitable planet.

In this movie, Mars looks like beautiful and forbidding, both romantic and surprisingly realistic. As I understand it, the secret is Death Valley locations with a process color sky. Details aren't exactly hard science, but close enough for Hollywood. Our astronaut can breathe martian air for a few hours before needing a shot of oxygen - very optimistic. Mona the monkey can breathe the atmosphere with no problem - unlikely. But other movies of the period would have let him breathe just to move the story along.

The plot is similar to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. They really get across the idea of struggling for survival in an alien environment. The sets/location/process shots are stunning, in the Chesley Bonestell tradition that mixes scientific realism with mystery and awesome grandeur. Paul Mantee, who doesn't have a lot of film credits, isn't a great actor. However, he seems perfectly suited for the role: A can-do flyboy being pushed to his limits.

I'll skip over Adam West's role.

As usual, the monkey steals scene after scene.

Why didn't De Palma remake this instead of Mission to Mars?