186-187: Back to the Future I & II

Back to the Future

Back to the Future was one of the first movies I clearly remember seeing on the big screen. It was the actually the first movie the new movie theater in my hometown screened. Before that we had to go to the next big town and we just didn’t have the time and the money to do that in my family. With the new theater the next phase in my life began and it started with Back to the Future. From that point on I could go to the movies whenever I wanted to and I assure you that was what I did… a lot. It is therefore no surprise that Back to the Future occupies a very special spot in my heart. And I am glad to say that after nearly twenty-eight years it still holds up. Though some of the humor and visual effects don’t hold up so good Back to the Future makes up a lot of the wear and tear with a tremendous amount of good old-fashioned fun. This movie is bursting at the seams with situations and performances that are totally engaging like the diner scene where Marty meets his father for the first time or the confrontation between Biff and George that seals the deal for Marty. Or the entire character of Doc Brown, for that matter. I return to Back to the Future on a regular basis, just like someone will return to their favorite ice cream to feel better.

Back to the Future Part II

Back to the Future Part II isn’t regarded as a very good sequel. I happen to like it, though. I like the way the uppity tone from the first movie is turned upside down to create an atmosphere that is totally menacing. From the moment Marty arrives in the future you know this is not going to end well. True, the catalyst that sets off the adventure (the sports almanac) isn’t the strongest in the world, but it gets the job done. It sets in motion a mind-boggling time travel adventure that takes us to several of our favorite moments from the original movie, but now shown from a slightly different perspective. It is great to analyze how these scenes were transformed and reenacted from different viewpoints. It is uncanny how Zemeckis managed to do this. I look back on Back to the Future Part II like I do on Alien3, I know it is flawed, but I recognize the way it expanded on the original material and enriched it. I would even go so far as to say that I like Part II better than Part III, because I never actually understood the whole appeal of moving the story to western times. But that’s one for a future piece.

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178-180: Safety Not Guaranteed, Innkeepers, Fear and Loathing

178: Safety Not Guaranteed

safety-not-guaranteed

Quirky indie movies are a dime a dozen, most of them self-important exercises in low-budget moping. But sometimes an indie surfaces that manages to find the strength to raise itself above the crowd and find something interesting to say. One of these is Safety Not Guaranteed, a great science fiction fantasy drama about people searching for meaning. Once again Mark Duplass manages to give us an engaging performance (earlier this year also in Your Sister’s Sister). He plays Kenneth, a man who thinks he has built a time machine. Young journalist Darius finds a classified by Kenneth asking for a companion on his experiments. Darius (Aubrey Plaza) convinces her editor to investigate further. Under the ‘supervision’ of Jeff (New Girl’s Jake Johnson), Darius and researcher Arnau (Karan Soni) go to find the mysterious man who must be out of his mind. Once arrived things start to take a turn for the absurd as everybody starts to take the opportunity to work out their own problems. The heart of the story is the relationship between Kenneth and Darius. Plaza and Duplass really hit it off and sparks fly every second they spent together. It is an endearing look at the lives of two people searching for more. On the side there are the adventures of Jeff and Arnau, both of which are funny, but ultimately not very important to the central storyline. The whole, however, is a beautiful mix of science fiction, drama and comedy. I totally recommend watching Safety Not Guaranteed, even if you don’t like independent cinema.

179: The Innkeepers

the-innkeepers

Deconstructionist horror movies are nothing new. Earlier this year I reviewed the excellent The Cabin in the Woods and last year I loved Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Now I can add The Innkeepers to that list, while this last addition to the genre does the deconstruction a little more subtle.  Everything in The Innkeepers revolves around the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is about to close for good. Two custodians (Claire and Luke) are charged with taking care of the inn during its final weekend. Legend has it that the inn is haunted, or so Luke tells Claire. He is supposedly interested in the inn’s sordid history and has even devoted a website to it. During the weekend, however, strange things start to happen and old guests turn up to stay for one more night. Claire and Luke go looking for signs of the haunting, but in the end may be getting more than they bargained for. Director Ti West ramps up the tension from the beginning and doesn’t let up until the end when things start to really get out of hand. Along the way he inserts a surprising amount of humor into his screenplay which alleviates some of the more standard tropes of the haunted house genre. There is a tongue-in-cheek quality to The Innkeepers that isn’t overtly visible. I was often glued to the edge of my seat. Not because the movie was so scary or something like that, but because West paints a great picture that will stick with you. I recommend searching out The Innkeepers.

180: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

fear-and-loathing-in-las-vegas

Terry Gilliam adapting a Hunter S. Thompson novel is a match made in heaven. Gilliam’s movies always feel like fever dream with all its wild imagery and brilliant production design. Thompson’s famous novel about a weekend in Vegas at the end of the carefree hippy era filled with drugs, alcohol and other such debauchery fits perfectly with Gilliam’s visual exuberance. From the very first moment we know we are in for quite a ride. We see Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro speeding down a deserted highway on their way to Vegas. They are clearly operating under the influence of several types of drug a normal person wouldn’t think of taking, let alone combining. Once in Vegas the shenanigans don’t stop. Soon the drug use starts to take its toll and the situation turns more grim by the minute. This change is reinforced when we are witness to Del Toro intimidating the waitress (Ellen Barkin) at a diner on the wrong side of Vegas. It is an incredibly uncomfortable scene in an already uncomfortable movie. While the movie is more concerned with the drug use than the political underpinnings of Thompson’s novel I admire Gilliam’s courage to take on a project like this. I love Fear and Loathing for what it is: a crazy ride hopefully none of us will ever have to endure.

160: Resident Evil: Retribution

I can’t really remember what happened in the last installment in the Resident Evil series, or any of them, for that matter. I have seen them all, but that’s what happens when a movie is totally forgettable. Director Paul W.S. Anderson spends a few minutes at the start of this movie to explain to us what happened before. Do we need this? No, not really, because Retribution doesn’t concern itself with telling a compelling story, so why bother with a backstory. This is another one of those movies that is out there, but for whom was it made. Are there droves of fans out there clamoring for more Resident Evil? I imagine this is not the case.

I actually used to think Anderson was sort of an anti-genius because he made movies that were technically proficient and entertaining in a guilty pleasure kind of way. Event Horizon is still one of my favorite horror movies, however ludicrous it may be. In recent years he has more and more gone the Uwe Boll way. His movies have become less and less compelling and ultimately entirely forgettable. Resident Evil: Retribution is a good example of this. He doesn’t concern himself with telling a story that could be even remotely interesting. Fans of protracted slow-motion action sequences will find some satisfaction, but that is just about the only group of people who can find something to enjoy here.

What did struck me as interesting was how Retribution doesn’t even pretend to hide its videogame heritage. The videogame series has become more and more a simple shooter and Retribution follows suit. More so than ever this installment is divided in a level structure with everything we have come to expect from shooter games like Call of Duty. From Tokyo to New York to some generic suburban area. We jump from area to area, get new weapons, new enemies. The only thing missing is the first-person view. Everybody knows how much fun it is to sit next to somebody who is playing a videogame… well, that’s what watching Retribution feels like. Utterly uninvolving and boring.

> IMDb

155-158: Jeff, Be Kind, Snow White, Short Circuit

Every once in a while I am going to play catch-up. Due to time constraints I am not able to write full-on reviews for every movie I watch. The movies I don’t have the time for I will aggregate in these Catch-Up episodes.

155: Jeff Who Lives At Home

Jeff Who Lives At Home seemed to me to be one of those hipster comedies that are just too clever for their own good, but I came away very surprised that this is actually a very funny and thoughtful movie. Jay and Mark Duplass are mostly known for their meandering ‘mumblecore’ outings, but this is nothing like those movies. Jason Segal plays Jeff and inhabits him completely. His musings on M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs are hilarious. Ed Helms plays his despicable brother Pat and it is nice to see him play up his more evil side for once and not be the corny good guy. While the movie takes some time to get up to steam the wait is well worth it. The characters are fleshed out really well and come together rather nice at the end. This is an excellent unassuming comedy about people stuck in their lives and finding a new way.

156: Be Kind Rewind

Michel Gondry is a gifted artist and his work has fascinated me for years. His beautiful music videos for Björk, Massive Attack and The Chemical Brothers in particular caught my eye early on. He eventually made one of my favorite movies of all time: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I get the feeling he has lost his way a bit in his own visual style. Nowhere else is that more evident than in Be Kind Rewind. Gondry’s homemade style of film-making is pushed to the brink of being annoying in this fairy tale about the sweding of movies. The conceit is that all the videotapes in a video store have been erased and that our heroes are supposed to figure out a way to fix this. They decide to recreate the movies on their own, which is fun in itself. Be Kind Rewind has no problem convincing us that these sweded movies are fun to watch. That’s where Gondry’s style fits perfectly. The problem is the fact that the rest of the movie just doesn’t add up too well. Be Kind Rewind is the textbook example that an idea can be very funny in short segments, but simply doesn’t add up to a good movie.

157: Snow White and the Huntsman

Can a good enough movie be ruined by a single piece of the puzzle? After seeing Snow White and the Huntsman I believe this to be the case. This is by no means a terrible movie. There are some problems with the pacing and some directorial choices (was the big green monster scene really necessary), but on a whole there is a lot to enjoy here. The movie looks brilliant and Charlize Theron is deliciously evil. Then why did I not enjoy it one bit? I think it’s because of Kristen Stewart as Snow White. I’m sure she is a decent actress in some parallel universe, but this role wasn’t the one to display any skill whatsoever. There is no emotion in her eyes and consequently I could not bring myself to be invested in the adventure she is on. I felt literally nothing and was bored to tears. Such a shame, because I felt there certainly was a lot in Snow White and the Huntsman that could justify it being a good movie.

158: Short Circuit

This is one of those movies that can do no wrong with me. It is up there with The Goonies, WarGames and Gremlins. Even now, nearly thirty-eight years old, I enjoy the hell out Short Circuit and as it so happens… my five-year-old son does as well. He eats it up until he is full and then asks for seconds. Just like I did when I was a kid. I used to watch the aforementioned movies on a loop. But what does the rational, cynical movie review part of my brain tell me about Short Circuit? It tells me the comedy is corny, the logic is non-existent and more of such movie review jargon. Often people say you have to watch movies with the target audience in mind, because it isn’t fair to judge a kids movie by adult standards. So when I see my boy enjoying the hell out of this movie, and I am sure many more to follow, I know enough. This movie works its magic ways and will continue to steal the hearts of a lot of children to come.

150: Project X

Project X revolves around young air force recruit Jimmy (Matthew Broderick) who is assigned to a facility where he has to take care of a bunch of chimpanzees. Before long he is made aware that the chimps are used in animal testing. One of the chimps is Virgil. He is brought up in a loving environment and taught sign language by Teri (Helen Hunt). That is until funding runs out and Virgil is donated to the facility where Jimmy just started working. Jimmy and Virgil strike up a friendship, but when time comes for Virgil to be up for his experiment, Jimmy starts to have second thoughts.

Project X consists is your standard I-don’t-want-to-be-doing-this-because-it’s-wrong story. There is not a lot more to it. The fact that Project X is as entertaining as it is comes mainly from the charming presence of its leads. Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt are excellent for their roles because of their wide-eyed innocence that is taken advantage of during the movie. And because the movie takes itself serious this doesn’t come off as exploitative on the part of the movie. This surprised me quite a bit. I was totally ready to skewer this ’80s romp, but it turned out to be a generally pleasant experience. There were some truly intense sequences that make you think twice about animal testing. It is admirable that the people behind Project X didn’t hold back on that material, because it gives the movie a layer of importance that puts it in the vicinity of a movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Of course there were parts of Project X that stretched my ability to suspend my disbelief. Mainly the ending sequence where the apes took flight and escaped was ludicrous and clearly the writer was fighting to find a pay-off that would satisfy ’80s audiences. If Project X were to be remade that sequence would most likely be rewritten somehow. For the most part this is a fine Matthew Broderick flick (you can even see some Ferris Bueler in him in a bar scene). One that actually stands the test of time for the most part.

> IMDb

147: Humanoids from the Deep

Roger Corman has been a great mentor to a lot of filmmakers that are heroes today, like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and James Cameron. But unlike these cinematic heroes, Corman produced some of the worst and exploitative movies ever. He unabashedly exploited women and violence to further his gain from his movies and the 1980 horror movie Humanoids from the Deep (A.K.A. Monster) is no exception.

Once again a small fishing village is terrorized by something that lives between the surface of the water. The monsters are out for blood, but there is a catch: they just kill the men and leave the women to be mated with. This is actually not a bad idea, because even monsters need to ensure their survival, right? It also gave producer Corman the opportunity to include come revealing footage of frightened naked women running on the beach being hunted by men in suits. Well, if that’s your thing, then Humanoids from the Deep is totally up your ally. If you want something more than that… steer clear.

According to behind the scenes lore the original cut delivered by director Barbara Peeters was a much more serious movie with less sex and violence, but she was fired and another director was brought in to spice things up to create more buzz for the movie and draw in a larger audience. I am a bit curious about the movie Peeters delivered, but deep down I know full well that the original version is not going to be any better than the released result. In fact, the campy violence and gore make the movie a little more bearable, because this is by no stretch of the imagination a good movie.

While the first half of the movie is fairly entertaining it all comes crashing down when the monsters are revealed. Rob Bottin designed the creature suit and he tried his best to create something creepy. It didn’t work at all. This is the classic man-in-a-suit problem we know mostly from ’50s movies. There is no menace at all present in the suit that looks like a cheap knockoff of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Bottin would go on to become one of the foremost make-up wizards, so we can forgive him Humanoids from the Deep. Corman, on the other hand, can never be excused for this terrible movie.

> IMDb

136: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

James Cameron #4

After the incredibly ambitious The Abyss, which was not received favorably, Cameron probably thought a sure thing might be a better way to go. He decided to return to his feature film debut (Piranha II not counting), The Terminator. There was a second story that  he wanted to have told and what a story it is. I remember going into the screening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and being blown away by it. I can not remember whether I had seen The Terminator (T2) yet (I probably had, I was almost 17), but if that were the case it certainly didn’t bother me. From the moment of the terminator’s foot crashing down on that poor skull I was hooked and Cameron took me and everybody else on a journey that was unforgettable. And coincidentally it cemented Cameron’s name as a sure fire moneymaker.

After a short monologue by Linda Hamilton, returning as a beefed-up Sarah Conner, and our first glimpse at the end of the world, Cameron takes us right back to 2029 AD, where the civil war against the machines is in full effect. John Conner is now the leader of the resistance, but that could soon change, because the machines are sending back a terminator to kill him before he is even born. But that is a story for another movie. This time the machines think they are smarter and they send a terminator back to the time when John is a teenager, a deeply troubled teenager, because living with his mother hasn’t been all that pleasant for him. Luckily for John he has sent back a terminator as well. He managed to reprogram one to obey John no matter what happens. Now the only question remains is which terminator will reach him first. This results in a brilliant game of cat-and-mouse between the two terminators. Caught in the middle are John and his mother Sarah, who has for years been locked away in a psychiatric institution because of her rants about the end of the world.

Cameron wasn’t planning on making a carbon copy of The Terminator. He wanted to shake things up, play with his audience’s expectations. Sarah Conner is no longer the meek victim we saw in part one. She has become bitter and cynical while preparing for the seemingly inevitable demise of the human race. Her arc is especially interesting in T2, because during the movie she becomes the terminator while trying to stop SkyNet from becoming the malevolent force it is bound to become. As a counterweight Arnold Scharzenegger’s terminator is becoming more and more human. Under the influence of young John Conner, the T-800 slowly but surely starts to recognize what it is to be human. He even learns how to smile and not kill someone while on a mission. Cameron plays with the mythos of The Terminator saga, succeeds admirably and made a movie that in many ways is better than its ancestor.

A huge part of T2‘s success can also be attributed to the visual effects. These are phenomenal, as is to be expected from a James Cameron movie. Robert Patrick’s T-1000 is made of liquid metal and we don’t doubt it for one second. When he came walking out of that car crash and morphed into his human form everybody gasped. After that we see him skewer people with needles and swords, drop through a helicopter window in liquid form and assemble himself after being blown to bits. It was astonishing to behold and at that point we knew the face of visual effects were changed forever. There is no doubt in my mind that Cameron’s work on T2 paved the way for future movies. Maybe not the actual soft- or hardware, but more the awareness that it can be done made people go further and further to create what would become some of the most iconic movies of all time like Jurassic Park and Toy Story.

Some of the effects come across as a little dated. Take for instance that iconic scene where the T-1000 walks out of that fiery crash. The animation of that figure is crude at best compared to what is possible today. It is like watching the Taun Taun running across the snowy fields of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. You see clearly that it is stop motion animation and today that could have been much more smooth, but we don’t care. That is what the state of visual effects were back then and it is part of that movie as much as the performances are. The same goes for T2 (and every movie for that matter). Sometimes things are going to look crude, but that is the way it is. However, for the most part the visual effects–practical and digital–are still examples of how visual effects can enhance your story. Something a lot of filmmakers can learn a lot from.

There are some things, however, I do have a problem with. One of them is the introduction of the T-800, Schwarzenegger’s terminator. Cameron uses George Thorogood’s song Bad to the Bone after the T-800 assaults a group of bikers in a bar. I never really understood why Cameron did this, because it breaks the serious tone of the opening in such a jarring way. It certainly doesn’t fit the overall tone of the movie. There are comedic elements in T2, but they stem almost all from dialogue and action, never from audio elements or songs. Another thing is the sloppiness with which some of the scenes are handled. For example: Miles Dyson walks into his clean room without any protective gear, while other people walk around in full get up. This is just lazy and something that could have been fixed easily. And one last thing: how convenient that they happened to end up in a metal smelting factory. With that said, I stop my nitpicking.

Once again the Special Edition is the version of T2 you need to watch. The scenes returned to the movie add a lot of depth to the relationships between the characters. Most startling are two sequences. The first is where Sarah Conner has to remove the microprocessor from the T-800’s head to reset it. She then has to make a decision that could have dire consequences. The other occurs after the T-1000 is blown to bits in the factory. Apparently getting blasted to bits wasn’t so good for the T-1000 after all, because we see him struggle when he comes in contact with other metal. This solves one of the most glaring omissions from the theatrical cut of T2: How did John know which Sarah Conner to trust at the very end? It appears that he could see the difference because the T-1000 was fused to the metal grating he was standing on. It is unbelievable to me that Cameron let this cut go ahead it is that crucial to the outcome. Strangely, though, some small beats are missing from the Special Edition that were in the theatrical cut.

If it wasn’t obvious yet, I absolutely adore this movie, warts and all. The sheer kinetic force of T2 is enough to take your breath away. There is not a moment wasted and still the movie clocks in at a whopping 137 minutes (152 minutes if you are watching the Special Edition). It is to Cameron’s credit that he is able to create such an engaging story in the middle of one of the most spectacularly ambitious action movies ever. Something he was not able to do in his next film, True Lies.

> IMDb