Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Recent movies - The Thing, Bad Day at Black Rock, and Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator

The Thing (1982) - This is a pretty good horror film. I had seen the first 20 minutes years ago at a Halloween party (in early high school, actually), and we turned it off because it wasn't quite what everyone was in the mood for. If I remember right, I may have been the only guy there. I don't think the girls like the dog transformation scene. I didn't either, at the time.

Everything works really well in The Thing. The way the story opens, with this feeling of mystery and rising dread, is really effective. It would have been cool to watch this movie with no idea of the plot before-hand, so that the whole 20-30 minutes before the creature even reveals itself would have been all clueless-yet-freaky anxiety. Even though I spoiled it (sort of) years ago, it still worked for me, fortunately. I'm sure every modern review says this, but the effects hold up really well. They're very well-done creature effects. Gross as all get out and believable. Kurt Russell is great as the lead. I loved the blood-testing scene (and now I get that reference in the South Park episode where Cartman tests everyone for lice).

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) - I took advantage of Netflix's "Watch Instantly" feature to check this one out while Amy was out shopping. It's a great movie. I think I've only seen one other Spencer Tracy movie (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?), but wow he's a great actor. The premise concerns Tracy's one-armed character arriving in a tiny town in Arizona for unknown reasons. (I don't know how this town sustains itself, because they don't show anyone other than the 8-12 main characters the whole movie, and they're hostile to visitors, but eh. Actually, it was the same kind of town as the one featured in Cars, so I guess these places must have existed.) Everyone in the town is hostile and wants him to leave right away, also for unknown reasons. They keep trying to provoke Tracy's character, but he won't react. He has some business to attend to, and he just wants to do it and leave, but no one in town co-operates. There are some great pay-offs in the movie. The supporting cast is quite good, too: Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, and Walter Brennan (as Not Stumpy).

Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator (2002) - This is a good companion piece to Rising Son (the Christian Hosoi story). Both were gods of the 80s skate scene. Both made millions and bought into the lifestyle. Hosoi got into drugs and was eventually busted and spent several years in jail, where he gave his life to Christ. He's now a youth pastor at a big SoCal church, and he skates and speaks to youth through Stephen Baldwin's Livin' It ministry. (Amy and I got to see him skate a few months ago at an event in Orange County, along with our friend Anthony Carney -- who killed it, by the way.) Gator gave his life to Christ just before going to jail for the rape and murder of a 19-year-old girl. It creates a tough situation to explain. On the one hand, Hosoi is serving the Lord in a great way and has truly turned his life around. The fruits of his claims are evident in his lifestyle. What do I say about Gator's professed Christianity? He really didn't give his life to the Lord? Or he just really turned his back on Him in the most extreme way possible for a brief time? I don't know. If he really gave his life to the Lord, that should have been manifest in his life. But Christians still sin. But he raped and murdered someone shortly after his professed conversion. I don't know.

The documentary itself is interesting in the same way that Hosoi's is in the beginning. It shows the 80s skate scene in all its glory, with a lot of archival footage and interviews with the skaters involved. There is also some interesting stuff about early skate-related marketing and branding. But it doesn't shy away from telling the story of the horrible and tragic conclusion, which is really hard to watch. There's no hope at the end. No happy ending like Hosoi's story. Mark (Gator) is interviewed from prison throughout, and at the end he doesn't really speak about whether he is still seeking God or not.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Beowulf - 80% on Rotten Tomatoes??

How on earth is Beowulf, the Zemeckis-directed mocap (more like mocrap! Ha!) flick, getting 80% good reviews? It's looked like the stupidest piece of trash since I first heard about it at Comic Con, and each new trailer and poster only makes it worse. But it's getting good reviews! How??

First off, my bias: I hate hate HATE the mocap "animation" style that has been used in The Polar Express, Monster House, and now Beowulf. It is utterly lifeless, and, in the cases of Polar Express and Beowulf, completely unnecessary. Why bother making a CG movie if you're going to make it as "life-like" as possible? We already have a way to do that that works much better, and it's called "live-action." At least Monster House gave their characters a sort-of cartoony appearance to try and justify its CG existence. But Polar Express and Beowulf have digital representations that look exactly like the actors providing the voices! That doesn't make any sense. Why would you not just make a live-action film? On top of that, the "animation" is terrible. The characters are nowhere near as expressive as real people (or good cartoons, for that matter), and it looks awkward, like men and women covered in wax moving around. The same goes for Monster House, which, despite the cartoony designs, still had less life in the animation than an early episode of South Park.

Beowulf is supposed to be in 3D in certain theaters, and the snippets of the reviews I've read indicate that this is the biggest reason to see the movie. But, as cool as Nightmare Before Christmas was in 3D, I have zero desire to see Angelina Jolie's wax sculpture moving around naked with a tail in 3D. That sounds like a compound headache.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

To Live and Die in LA (1985)

I added this to my queue so long ago that I don't even remember how it got there. It must have been a DVD review. Anyhow. When I received the disc, I noted that it was directed by William Freiedkin (of The French Connection, The Exorcist, and The Hunted), so I though, "Hey, it should be all right." It also starred Willem Defoe and William Peterson, with John Turturro in a supporting role, so that sounded good, too.

Well, it opened up with some really bad 80s music, and I wondered if that was a staple of any 80s movie set in a then-contemporary setting. Black Rain (1989, directed by Ridley Scott) had the same problem, so I thought maybe the producers back then just really insisted on gawdawful "cool" music to help sell their movies (in spite of the directors' wishes, I hope). As I continued watching To Live and Die in LA, though, the music never let up! There was hardly a quiet scene to be found. Every single scene opening had some really bad synthesizer blaring wretched generic "dih-dih-dih-dih" stuff. My theory about pushy producers fell apart. The director surely would have had his hand in this. Why, Billy? Why?

Aside from the awful music, there was also a series of really bad cliches that set up the movie. It was so full of bad predictable dialogue and situations that it could almost be played for straight-faced parody. The plot, as it opens, is this: two secret service agents (partners) take down a terrorist after the president. One is clearly older, and the other is the young maverick. After chucking the terrorist off the roof, the old guy even says, "I'm too old for this s---." He says that! That was a joke line not two years later in Lethal Weapon! Maybe in 1985 that wasn't a laughable phrase, I don't know. Can you guess what happened shortly thereafter? Yep, party with the rest of the force, and we find out the older agent is two days away from retirement. "Really?" I asked the TV screen. "Really? You're really using that?" And, not 30 seconds later, we find out that the older agent is investigating "one last thing," and -- wait for it -- he's going alone. "Wow, he's dead," I say to myself. Sure enough, during the investigation minutes later, Willem Defoe shoots him in the face. Smooth moves, old guy. Now "Maverick" is going to go on a vendetta and "the lines between good and bad will be blurred." That's your message? Ehhhh!

At this point I started skipping around the movie. Every scene I skipped to opened with a car pulling in to a new location as the terrible soundtrack continued. I was fortunate enough to find a truly great car chase scene which provided 10 minutes of entertainment. Good job, Friedkin, at least there was that.

The only original thing about the movie that I could find was the way it ended (at least as far as Peterson's maverick was concerned -- Willem Defoe's conclusion was really weird).

Gads, is there anyone out there who can provide a reasonable defense for this movie? I found two favorable reviews here and here, but I don't agree with anything other than their assessment of the car chase. One guy says the soundtrack is awesome right after deriding the 80s soundtrack of Manhunt, which is funny. I guess maybe I'd have to see Manhunt to see if it really is that much worse/different...? He also says that To Live and Die in LA plays on the cliches of the cop movie genre, but from what I saw, it merely employed them.

Oh, and you get to see William Peterson's junk. Thanks. Thanks for that.

I wish I could remember how it got into my queue.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Straight out of a comic book

The Mighty Mice

Doesn't that sound like a recipe for the origins of both super-hero and super-villain? The movie version would open with a montage during the credits of the mice being injected with this new Super Serum, then being tested for their new powers, and would end with one of the mice exhibiting extra aggressive tendencies by killing all the other super mice one night (discovered the next day by the scientists, of course). The camera would zoom in on the Uber-Mouse's eyes which would flash green or red before the camera goes to black, and then open up on a scene where our future hero would be seen beginning an average day of being nerdy and picked on.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Often: the "t" be silent, yo

This is one of those little pet peeves that I don't voice all that often for fear that the person I'm criticizing will come right back and point out a million grammatical errors that I have committed, but I found a site today that validated my belief, so I'm finally going to come out and say it: often is pronounced "offen." This is one of those things I really remember from 3rd grade, for some reason. The teacher made it very clear to us that the "t" was silent. I think my teacher was the only one to ever teach this, though, because everyone else IN THE ENTIRE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD says "off-ten."

Here you go.

Rooster Cogburn (...and the Lady) (1975)

Amy and I finished this one over several lunch breaks this last week. It's not exactly a sequel to True Grit, but it features John Wayne's same character, the titular Rooster. (At first I'd typed "the titular one-eyed Rooster," but I really wasn't comfortable with that.)

This one's ok. Not as good as True Grit, despite the presence of Katherine Hepburn. The interplay between Hepburn's Churchy La Femme and John Wayne's John Wayne is cute at times, but not as engaging as I thought it would be. There are some fun bits of dialogue, but there are also a few phrases repeated far too often (like "Save your sermon, preacher lady, you won't change this old dog" x 99 -- we get it, your arc is going to be the two of you adjusting to each other and changing minor behavior flaws. You can stop announcing it).

There isn't really a scene to compete with the awesome rifle-spinning horseback charge from True Grit, unfortunately. Wayne opens up with a Gatling gun a few times, and he yells awesome stuff when he dispatches jerks, but it still lacks enough western action for my tastes.

Strother Martin shows up for a few minutes just to be Strother Martin, I guess, so there's that.

The villain (who is played by the guy who was the sneaky southern congressman in The Hunt for Red October!) is just not very threatening or memorable. He comes off as an hot-headed idiot who should have been shot years ago by his own dumb gang. And he blends in perfectly with his gang -- nothing distinguishes him visually or in terms of personality. Yawn. He doesn't even have a gimmick to set him apart. He's just Guy Number 3 who drew the short straw to be boss for the movie.

There are many better Wayne westerns to spend your time on.