Friday, May 30, 2008

In Theaters: Baby Mama

Poster from IMPAwards.com
BABY MAMA is the sort of film that’s just good enough as to make you wonder why it’s not better. The pairing of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler is a promising one; not only did they have great rapport hosting Weekend Update on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, but Fey of course not only headed up that show but the inexplicably funny 30 ROCK as well, while Poehler is a veteran of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe. Of course, neither of them wrote this picture, which seems like a wasted opportunity, though WGA rules being what they are I’m sure they contributed something and simply haven’t gotten the credit for it. This is a predictable film, and I know I just gave the new INDIANA JONES a pass for that so I can’t be too harsh, but this time the material really does feel stifled by the formula; the plot is by-the-numbers when it doesn’t need to be, and the whole thing depends on its cast to elevate it above average. Which they do, mind you, and I don’t want to overload this piece with vitriol; this is a recommendation, just more qualified than most.

Fey plays Katie Holbrook, an executive at the Round Earth organic foods company headed by an egomaniacal New Ager (Steve Martin). She’s in her late thirties and wanting to have a baby, but quickly discovers that conditions in her womb make conception unlikely. Fortunately for her she discovers a company that provides surrogates, who take the mother’s fertilized eggs and carry them to term, for a hefty fee. Holbrook’s surrogate is Angie Ostrowski (Poehler), a white trash girl with a basically good heart and a sleazy common-law husband (Dax Shepard). Things hit a wrinkle when Angie breaks up with her partner and has to stay at Katie’s apartment; not only is it a classic Felix-and-Oscar situation, but in this case Oscar is carrying Felix’s child. Katie tries to steer Angie onto the path of responsible motherhood, with health drinks and prenatal classes, while also overseeing the building of a new Round Earth store in the city. (Which city I’ve actually forgotten.)

There’s one complication that I actually didn’t see coming at the time, and don’t want to spoil since it is a good one. The structure is off, though, and the plot burdens itself with an adequately written but still not very exciting romance between Katie and a handsome juice store employee (Greg Kinnear) who never quite manages a full personality though he comes close. The plot flails around more uncertainly as the action proceeds, as though writer/director Michael McCullers wasn’t entirely sure where he wanted to go with this. We even get a scene of the two girls singing to a popular song (albeit through a karaoke video game), and a courtroom scene near the end.

Of course, even if the story moves along predictable lines, there are still some fine comic performances to take in. Fey and Poehler are a great team, each knowing just how to play off the other. The film comes alive when they’re together, especially when there aren’t any other significant characters around to confuse things. A scene in which Angie drags Katie out to a club is particularly entertaining (and not just because Fey wears a low-cut dress.) Steve Martin’s work here is a nice reminder of his skills as a comedian, which have sadly been obscured by some bad role choices as of late- he’s playing off his classic blasé and self-absorbed persona, to good effect. A number of SNL alumni pop up here and there (Lorne Michaels was an executive producers), as do Maura Tierney and John Hodgman (at least I don’t think they’ve ever been on the show.) And Dax Shepard continues to be a comic actor worth keeping an eye on.

I think my major issue with the film is not so much the plot per se as the realization I had about two-thirds of the way through that it was headed for a cloyingly conventional resolution. A wealthy single woman hiring a poor woman as a surrogate for her baby is a situation replete with all kinds of sexual and social politics, and though I wasn’t expecting anything too envelope-pushing, Fey and Poehler’s presence had me hoping for something a little less tidy and a little more subversive. Some of that anarchic wit comes through in the dialogue, and this is certainly a clever film- it’s just not a daring one.

Still, one out of two isn’t bad, and BABY MAMA manages to be funny and get you to like the characters enough to stay with them for a couple of hours. It’s forgettable but fun, and though I can hope that Fey and Poehler will find a better vehicle, this at least proves they can carry a picture by themselves. If you’re a fan of either or both actresses it’s worth seeing, and if not, well, I’m not sure I want to know you.

Written and Directed by Michael McCullers
Grade: B-

Saturday, May 24, 2008

In Theaters: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Movie poster from IMPAwards.com
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is the sort of movie where you know what to expect. I don’t mean this in a bad way, since the same can be said of the Bond films, the Godzilla series, etc.; some franchises are built on a formula, and though that makes it difficult to keep things fresh, that challenge often produces interesting results. Of course, this is not only a sequel but the continuation of a saga that seemed to wrap up back in 1989; the idea for a fourth Indiana Jones movie apparently circulated between Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, and others for years before the project actually came together, making this a big movie geek event. I wasn’t anticipating this film quite as much as some, because although I like all the Indiana Jones films I didn’t really see any pressing need for more of the story. But it’s here, and it’s welcome, a pulp adventure that once more delivers the goods with skill and enthusiasm.

The film takes place in 1957, long past the age of pulp heroes and weekly serials, and our old friend Indy (how old is never quite specified) has gotten himself caught up in a plot by Russian agents to break into Area 51 and make off with... well, something. He escapes but finds himself under surveillance by the FBI, and temporarily suspended from his teaching job as a result. He’s flagged down by Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a greaser who’s related to an old colleague of Dr. Jones. It seems Professor Oxley (John Hurt) has gone missing, and Mutt wants Indy’s help finding him. Oxley was searching for the legendary crystal skull, a South American artifact with the theoretical power to control a strange kingdom hidden in the Amazon. In order to find Oxley, Indy and Mutt must find the skull itself, and wouldn’t you know it, but the Russians, led by the icy hot Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), are after it too, as part of Stalin’s program of expanding research into the psychic. At some point in all this, Indy’s old flame Marion (Karen Allen) shows up, as she happens to be Mutt’s mother. And she’s still feeling punchy.

The film actually does make one break with the past that’s sort of interesting, though it’s also the film’s most controversial aspect. In fact, it’s a bit of a spoiler, so you might want to skip this paragraph, but then again maybe it makes more sense if you’re expecting it as I was. Suffice it to say, the crystal skull is of alien origin, and though the specifics of it are left appropriately vague, it’s definitely science fiction as opposed to the supernatural material of previous movies. For some this will be (and has been) a rough transition, but it’s eased into well, and given the timeframe it’s quite appropriate. By the late 50s the popular imagination had moved on from mystic relics to flying saucers, and pulp is a genre that encompasses science fiction as much as fantasy. I didn’t have a problem with it, your mileage may vary.

In other respects this is a film that follows the Indiana Jones formula for better and for worse. The structure is familiar, again we have the good guys racing the bad guys to the important site and/or artifact, and there are numerous call backs to previous entries. You’ve got the red travel lines, ticking clocks, vehicle chases, villains dying in gruesome ways, Indy’s fear of snakes, none-too-subtle references to past films and general in-jokes, etc. Obviously this film is not going to win points for originality, but the series has lain dormant long enough that it all feels fresh when it’s dragged out again.

It helps that Steven Spielberg is definitely in his element. Though the film does use quite a bit of CGI, especially by comparison to the effective 0% of previous entries, he still manages to give things a rough-and-tumble feel. Indiana Jones has always been the kind of hero who takes a lot of blows and doesn’t execute his stunts flawlessly, and of course compounding that he’s now getting on in years. Things rarely go too smoothly for anyone in this film, and though a few moments stretch credulity more than others, it still stays firmly within the realm of cliffhanger logic.

The old serial feel is pretty strong with this movie overall, as a matter of fact. There’s a wonderfully spooky sequence in a graveyard, where you expect things to get a lot worse at any minute. The skull is treated with the same kind of mysterious reverence that attached to the Ark, the Shankara Stones, and the Holy Grail- we sense there is a power at work beyond what we can actually see. There are narrow escapes and spills and recaptures galore, and the film never loses its momentum.

Harrison Ford remains as firmly in the role as he’s ever been, with the possible exception of one or two lines. He has a very good rapport with LaBeouf, and it’s mostly the two of them for the first half of the picture. Marion is actually introduced unusually late in the proceedings, given that we all knew she was coming back, but Allen hasn’t lost any of her spark either. John Hurt isn’t used to his best advantage as Oxley, who for most of the picture has gone stark raving mad and speaks in cryptic directions, and Ray Winstone could have been more memorable as Mac, Indy’s not-entirely-trustworthy partner. That said, Cate Blanchett excuses many things. Many many things.

The one major problem I have with this film comes near the end. The climax is simply too abrupt, not having the full harrowing effect of earlier entries, and some subplots are closed off more quickly than they should be. The climax of an Indy movie should be as big as the rest of it, and though what happens is definitely at the right scale, it could stand to be longer. There is something to be said for leaving us wanting more, but given that this will probably be the last entry regardless of its box office gross, a little ponderousness would not have been entirely bad. The film feels a bit like a grace note on top of the trilogy, not quite as big or as substantial (as odd a word as that is in regards to any of the movies), but more a celebration.

Celebrations are a lot of fun, mind you, and I still wholeheartedly recommend this movie. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is, once again, classic adventure pulp made by people who know and love the genre, and whatever things could have been done better, all of it is done well. It’s not the most memorable entry in the series, but it’s definitely a good finish, and the actual ending is played just right- whether or not we see Indy again, he’s definitely sustained his own legend.

Story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson
Screenplay by David Koepp
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Grade: B+

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: Godzilla (1998)


Ten years ago today (more or less), the American remake of GODZILLA was released, and it is a pivotal moment in my history of defending the unloved. Sure, I never quite viewed it with the passion of an AVENGERS or EXORCIST II, but it was one of the first times I really found myself swimming against popular opinion. Made by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the once-not-hated duo who had just brought out INDEPENDENCE DAY two years prior, the film was intended as the big ticket release for the summer of 1998. It received some of the most hype I’ve ever seen for a film, and in the end was a victim of its own hard sell; the advertising campaign not only gave audiences high expectations, but genuinely misled them as to what to expect. The marketing and PR promised an intense action spectacle that would blow audiences out of their seats, with “Size Does Matter” as the tagline. But GODZILLA, as an actual movie, is a relatively small scale, almost low-key monster mash marked by a lighthearted tone and an affection for the quirky which matches my own tastes well enough. It’s certainly not without flaws, and it isn’t what anyone (least of all Godzilla fans) expected or hoped for, but it has a charm and some genuinely good aspects that I think are worth revisiting.

The film starts when a mysterious creature sinks a Japanese fishing boat and rampages across the Tahitian countryside before anyone can even get a good look at it. Called in to investigate is Dr. Nick Tatopolous (Matthew Broderick), a geeky biologist studying the effects on radiation on Chernobyl earthworms. He works out that the creature is some kind of hybrid of reptile life that lived in the French Polynesian islands where nuclear tests were recently conducted, and just in time for the beast- identified as “Godzilla” through a mistranslation of a Japanese sailor’s muttering- to make landfall in New York, smashing through Manhattan before going into hiding somewhere underground. The military, working with Tatopolous, manages to lure Godzilla out in the open, but the giant reptile/lizard/whatever is fast, agile, and cold blooded enough to evade missile fire (no, that’s not how being cold blooded works, but hush.) And things get more complicated when Tatopolous discovers that the creature is not only hermaphroditic but has managed to impregnate itself. Godzilla is using Manhattan as a nest, and since an ordinary reptile can lay around a dozen eggs or so, all of mankind is pretty much in deep trouble.

TriStar Pictures was trying to make a Godzilla movie as far back as the early 90s, when the effects technology of JURASSIC PARK made the idea appealing. The reason Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio are given partial story credit on this film is that they worked on an earlier version of the project for director Jan De Bont (though that script cast Godzilla as a genetically altered dinosaur created by aliens to defend Earth against an approaching space monster, and was pretty much different in every other way you can think of as well.) That was scuttled due to cost concerns, though the film ended up costing more than it was supposed to anyway. Emmerich and Devlin were brought on board after ID4 hit and decided to make their Godzilla vastly different from the original, in appearance, powers, and behavior.

This made a lot of people very angry. The general consensus of Godzilla fandom is that A) Devlin and Emmerich are horrible, horrible people, owing to their lying about the creature’s appearance to preserve its secrecy and Devlin eventually losing his temper and snapping at fans at the forum for the film’s website (to be fair, I was there and they weren’t exactly being polite, and if the whole thing still existed it would be a fascinating archive of a point when the internet truly began to change the interaction between creators and audiences), and B) the creature is “Godzilla in name only”, often abbreviated as GINO. Unlike the Japanese Godzilla, the AmeriGoji is not a dinosaur, does not breathe fire (though he appears to a couple of times as an homage), and is vulnerable to bullets and missiles and things that his Japanese predecessor tends to shrug off, and so responds to attacks by evading them and even fleeing at high speed. To a kaiju fan this is nothing short of cowardice.

The question of whether this is “truly” Godzilla is one of those contentious fan thingies you’re better off not getting tangled up in, and when I was more a part of that fandom I tried to defend the monster as being close enough, vacillated on this position, and finally stopped caring. Maybe this is because I started looking at superhero comics later, where, for an example, “Hawkman” is both a reincarnation of an Egyptian prince AND a police officer from outer space. A fictional character can be many things at once, and though some interpretations are more radical than others it doesn’t invalidate any of them. Granted, I do think the film reaches a bit too far to distance itself from the original Godzilla and his campy reputation- change is all well and good but a few dollops of the old theme music or even the Blue Oyster Cult song wouldn’t have killed anyone, especially since the final product isn’t going for gritty realism.

All of which is a very roundabout and tedious way of getting to one point I do want to make in this movie’s favor. The monster, Godzilla, Zilla, GINO, Fred, whatever, is awesome. It’s a beautiful design by Patrick Tatopolous (for whom the film’s protagonist is named), mostly iguana-like but incorporating dinosauric and even dragonish elements, and never looking the same from different angles. One of the drawbacks of the film being so poorly received is that we haven’t seen much more of this beastie (especially considering that most of its appearances in the film are at night)- there was a good animated series that made use of the monster, and he also popped up under the name “Zilla” in GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, if only to get trounced by the original Godzilla as a cheap bit of fanservice. A good monster can excuse many sins, and the US Godzilla not only has a neat appearance, but a distinct personality, motivated to protect its offspring and pulling off some canny moves against her attackers.

(At this point I’m going with whatever pronoun feels right at the time.)

As I’ve said above, this is not a terribly serious movie. The whole thing is laced with humor, mostly of a dumb variety, and I don’t mean that as an insult since I can appreciate dumb jokes as much as anyone. Even when it’s not funny it creates a nice atmosphere; one of the major flaws of INDEPENDENCE DAY was that it would get bogged down in maudlin or overly jingoistic moments when a lighter touch was called for. Of course, in all this, there’s less of a genuine sense of danger, and the film’s physics sometimes stretch plausibility even by big action movie standards. That said, while the film’s action setpieces aren’t really nerve-wracking, they are enjoyable and neat lookin’, with some creative use of the environment and New York landmarks.

The film definitely overplays its hand at a few points. Most glaringly, Maria Petillo is dreadfully miscast as Audrey Timmonds, Nick’s ex-girlfriend and an aspiring reporter who steals a few secrets in confidence and then tries to make it up to him by following him on the search for the nest. She’s far too cherubic for her little slide into corruption to be convincing, and her moping when things go awry gets kind of irritating. An extended in-joke with Michael Lerner playing the pompous Mayor Ebert is severely overplayed, though I have noticed on re-watchings that the character is almost allowed to be sympathetic when the military end up trashing more of the city than Godzilla has in their attempts to fight him. (That he’s assisted by a timid balding man named Gene, played by Lorry Goldman, just belabors the gag even further.) Just because the film is free of ID4’s undue gravitas doesn’t mean it doesn’t pander more than it should.

The film also has the feel of a rough draft. The script that Devlin and Emmerich wrote was apparently accepted without many changes, and the studio’s perhaps-misguided decision to keep the creature’s appearance a secret until the day of release meant that there were no test screenings held (and reportedly post-production was rushed to meet that all-important Memorial Day release. Let this be a lesson.) It would be interesting to see what a more rigorous re-editing could do for this film- there are a lot of minor bits that could be trimmed or re-arranged, and far too much time is spent on a JURASSIC PARK-esque sequence where our heroes try to evade the monster’s ravenous offspring inside their nest in Madison Square Garden; we almost forget about the title critter entirely during that twenty minutes or so, and that’s not good.

But there is something else I genuinely like about this film, and that is that it’s full of misfits. You’ve got a geeky protagonist, his standoffish ex, a suicidally brave cameraman (Hank Azaria), and Jean Reno leading a group of French secret service agents in a clean-up job while trying to find a decent cup of coffee without much success. Okay, he’s pretty fucking badass, but he’s still out of his element. Nick’s partners include NEWSRADIO’s Vicki Lewis as a smitten paleontologist (and frankly why he doesn’t go for her I’ll never know.) Sure, these characters are all sitcom-quirky instead of truly weird, but even that is a welcome touch in a movie like this, and it fits the story, since Godzilla herself is a unique creature, a mutant byproduct of our own carelessness and not really to blame for the destruction he causes. I have to give the filmmakers credit for retaining the creature’s nuclear origins (something the Rossio/Elliot script did away with), and for allowing a certain ambiguity to the creature’s role in the story. As a monster it has to be destroyed, but you can’t help but feel sorry. I also feel like I should mention at some point that the film really looks good, with some really lovely shots of a dark and rain swept Manhattan, and David Arnold’s score is quite strong as well.

In many ways, the movie itself is kind of a mutant; not nearly as aggressive or pumped up as a proper summer blockbuster, having its own cadence. Like all mutations it’s got a few excess bits here and there, not everything working, but I think it works. Though the film was technically profitable and most of the reviews were mediocre rather than terrible, the fact that it was a massively overhyped film that failed to meet expectations made it a slow-moving target for anyone wishing to point out the stupidities and excesses of Hollywood and its brainless summer fare, adding a certain vitriol to the film’s reputation that exceeds its actual shortcomings. (The project seems to have become a permanent black mark against Devlin and Emmerich as well, who disbanded as a team some years after and whose every upcoming film now is looked upon with extreme skepticism at best.)

I understand a lot of the points made against this movie, having become intimately familiar with them over the years. To me, it’s a question of whether those flaws outweigh the movie’s strengths, but I still enjoy the film whenever I see it and think it’s got enough to redeem itself on the cosmic scale of film judgment. Though it may be more memorable to some as an ad campaign than a movie, GODZILLA still has a lopsided charm to it, and in the end is fun enough that I can’t condemn it. Ten years and it’s managed to hold up.

Happy Birthday, Zilla. You’ll always be welcome here at the club.

Story by Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio (sort of, see above) and Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich
Screenplay by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Directed by Roland Emmerich

Grade: B

Get Godzilla (1998) here, from the image above, or at the sidebar.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

In Theaters: Speed Racer

Poster via Impawards.com
Ignore the cynical critics, who seem to object to SPEED RACER more on a conceptual level than on anything to do with the film that’s been made. Ignore the fact that this is yet another movie based on a vintage TV show. Ignore the poor box office reports. SPEED RACER is, and I never expected to say this, a truly great film. It does what it sets out to do almost perfectly- you may object to what it sets out to do, especially if you have epilepsy, but there is not only skill in this film’s execution, but genuine heart.

I went into SPEED RACER hoping to enjoy it, but seeing it mostly out of principle. Said principle was that movies are not colorful enough these days, and that anything which embraces the idea of having more than one shade onscreen at a time deserves support. I knew the reviews were not great, and at any moment I expected the film’s massive flaws to reveal themselves, and the divide in opinion (because I’ve heard enthusiastic responses to the film on various fora) would be explained, and I would decide what side I fell on. I actually kinda wish I’d seen what the problem was. Instead, I gotta say, this is a superb spectacle that delivers everything it promises, and the naysayers- I don’t get what their deal is.

If you’ve seen the show (I actually haven’t), you know the story. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is the middle child of the Racer family, who as you might expect are big in the car racing game. Pops Racer (John effing Goodman) builds cars, and big brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter) drives them. But at some point Rex seems to go bad, aggressively pushing off other drivers and seemingly being killed in the middle of a massive cross country race. Years later, though, the Racer tradition lives on, as Speed continues his brother’s legacy in the Mach 5 (in an ingenious touch, the first race sequence slides between Rex and Speed running the same track, eventually racing against each other for the all time record.) After a big win, Speed is approached by Royalton (Roger Allam), head of Royalton Motors, who wants him to race under their banner. However, Speed decides to stick with the family, and this infuriates his would-be boss, who vows that from then on, Speed won’t win, won’t place, won’t even finish a race.

A lot of major companies make a lot of money off of racing, and they negotiate and plan the outcomes of major races. Sure enough, Speed is forced off the track at Fiji, and Pops comes under investigation for alleged IP infringement. But the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) has been investigating the link between the big companies and the underworld (represented by some downright Victorian British gangsters), and on finding out that racer Taejo Togokhan (Korean pop sensation and Stephen Colbert nemesis Rain) has been in their pay to protect his sister Minx (Nayo Wallace), he and the wonderfully named Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) try to get him to testify. In exchange, Taejo wants to protect his family’s company from a buyout, and to do that he plans to win the Crucible, the team cross country race that ended Rex’s career. Speed Racer is offered the third position on the team, and sneaks off, over his father’s objections.

All this and more takes place in a universe that is a giant live action and CGI cartoon, rendered in bright basic colors. The drivers race along impossibly twisted tracks, and are saved from crashes and explosions by being encased in spheres of foam. This encourages the racers to get a little violent, and even the good guys have to fight and inevitably force competitors off the road. The race sequences are insanely kinetic, but though the flood of color and motion is overwhelming at first, a rhythm soon emerges, and usually a shot will focus on a specific car or racer. In a way this mimics the look of the cartoon, in which, as in many anime shows, static characters would be surrounded by speed lines and signs of motion. The same balance of images is shown in the less actiony scenes- even though we’re seeing lots of things on screen at once, there are clever emphases and patterns that emerge. Royalton’s office is bedecked in royal purple, and when he tries to convince speed that the racing world is driven entirely by money, background colors fade and we’re surrounded by black and white.

This is a film full of whimsy and imagination, and tiny details and not-quite-necessary things are everywhere. The Crucible race is started when the Queen of Casa Christo looks out and sees the sun; various on-track “assassins” take the form of sexy pink-haired girls with phallic tire spikes a la BEN HUR (Speed combats them with tire shields, and right now Freud wishes he were still alive to analyze that), Viking marauders, and mercenary soldiers; Speed’s younger brother Spridle (Paulie Witt) and his monkey pal Chim Chim imagine themselves in the action of a superhero cartoon they watch; out-of-focus hearts appear in the background when Speed and his best girl Trixie (Christina Ricci, whose looks are made for anime) lay eyes on each other. There are vicious gangsters and ninja and caverns of ice, and the cars themselves have useful gadgets a-plenty, though some are less legal than others (the Mach-5’s jumping springs, which get it out of tight situations, are A-OK, but the spearhook, used to catch cars in a deadlock, is bad form indeed.)

All of this is handled with a good sense of humor; there’s an inevitable level of camp in the proceedings, obviously, though the movie tries not to let that undermine the story. We end up laughing with the film’s absurdities more than at them; we’re not asked to really accept anything as plausible, just as cool. This is a universe where logic and physics are subservient to aesthetics, and everything that happens, happens because it would be totally awesome if it did.

One doesn’t expect much from the acting in a movie like this, but some thought seems to have gone into this as well. To be sure, we’re dealing with cartoon characters, who must be strong and basic in their motivations and drives, but the cast works hard to make these personalities come across. Nobody breaks character, or goes through the motions; in particular Goodman, and Susan Sarandon as his wife,are very strong as Speed’s ever-supportive parents. One part of the film that works very well is its emphasis on family; a lot of kids movies will try to tell us that a given family is strong and supportive and so on, but this one makes us feel it; a bond between the characters is always apparent. Ricci is a treat as well, and there are a few fun cameos here and there. Hirsch carries the lead well, and though there’s not a lot to really distinguish his performance, it’s the kind of work that we would have noticed more had it gone horribly wrong.

Family is one of the main themes of the film, of course, as is the struggle of the athlete against corporate corruption of the sport. Some critics have made a point of calling out the film as insincere on this point, since it is, after all, a big budget summer movie replete with merchandising tie-ins; obviously SOMEONE involved cares about the money. But the point really seems to be that corporations are a bad thing when they try to reduce it to be ONLY about money, when they work against the passion that drives sports as well as filmmaking. The big message of the movie, I think, is a very idealistic one- that you CAN stand against the system. That nothing is so big that it cannot be brought down. And on this point the film is very strong.

I can, off the top of my head, name one flaw in the movie. Spridle and Chim Chim have a little too much screen time. They’re the film’s big comic relief, and though they’re not unfunny, they pop up a little too often. I’m also trying to remember the exact point at which Rex’s fortunes turned, but maybe in a film this overstuffed it’s inevitable that something will slip one’s mind. There is an interesting point where we get what seems like the climax, and an unusually long denouement, until we realize that the third act is in fact still around the corner. This is a long movie, to be sure, but despite that weird shift it’s never dull, and I do have to give the film credit for actually making me buy into the false crisis and false dawn.

And so here I am. I have to give this an A; the film almost never steps wrong, and there were many chances for it to do so. Not only is it fun, not only do we see John Goodman fight a ninja, but so help me God it is genuinely a compelling experience. You want Speed to win and to root out the corruption in his world, and there are moments of true suspense and elation. I cannot fault it. I honestly do not see the problem.

See this picture while you can. The box office apparently has not been good (nowadays we can predict these things before the opening weekend is even over, and if that’s not a grim bit of fatalism infecting the movie world I don’t know what is), and this blast of color and cheer does call for the big screen. SPEED RACER is a wonderland, a feast, a glorious over-the-top sports opera that looks wide-eyed at the drive we feel to be our best and what we have to do to stand up to a world which seeks to crush ambition. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s clever, and it’s downright heartfelt. It’s honestly better than THE MATRIX, and I think the Wachowskis have genuinely redeemed themselves for the missteps made in the sequels. This film works when it really shouldn’t, and perhaps if you go in skeptical from the start it won’t appeal to you. Better to see it with an open mind and let it wash over you. Trust me, it’s an experience you should have.

Based on characters created by Tatsuo Yoshida
Written and Directed by the Wachowski Brothers

Grade: A

Friday, May 09, 2008

Random Movie Report #47: All Monsters Attack


And now let’s go back a bit. ALL MONSTERS ATTACK (or GODZILLA’S REVENGE as most in the US know it) was a turning point for the series in a number of ways- it marked the departure of Eiji Tsubaraya, the special effects director, it was Inoshiro Honda’s last movie for a while, and it was the first Godzilla movie aimed explicitly at children. Fan opinion on this one has long been divided at best, and there’s an obvious reason for this; it’s not really a Godzilla film, or even really a monster film at all. All of the familiar genre elements that we see exist inside the head of a young boy, and it’s a film about his imagination and how he uses it to confront real world problems. An abundance of recycled monster footage also does little to endear the film to fans, but of course we here try to take movies on their own terms. The movie is a slight one, barely reaching 69 minutes (hey, you in the back, stop giggling) and not as fully developed as a lot of fantasy-as-gateway-to-maturity narratives, but it has a certain integrity to it and also makes a few good comments about the state of Japanese society circa 1969 (I said stop it!)

The protagonist of the film is Ichiro (Tomonori Yazaki), a latchkey child whose parents are almost never shown outside of their place of work. (His dad works on trains, his mother is some kind of very well-dressed maid. At least I think so.) Ichiro is a shy kid, picked on frequently by the local bully, named Gabara. To escape his troubles, he dreams of travelling to Monster Island, home of Godzilla and all his monster pals, including his son Minilla- who in this installment can talk and shrink himself down to kid-size. Minilla is being picked on by Monster Island’s own bully, a big blue demon thing that also goes by the name of Gabara. Minilla’s too scared to stand up to Gabara, but he says that Godzilla wants him to learn to fight on his own. Ichiro, however finds himself with more than bully problems when a couple of local robbers try to hide out in the area, and eventually hit on the idea of using the kid as a hostage, forcing him to outwit them in a way that thankfully only slightly resembles HOME ALONE.

A number of elements behind the scenes worked to make ALL MONSTERS ATTACK the movie that it is. Primarily, and sadly, Eiji Tsubaraya, who had handled the effects for the entire series to that point, was bedridden throughout production, forcing director Honda to handle a limited amount of original effects footage and rely on stock footage from earlier Godzilla adventures (most prominently SON OF GODZILLA and GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER) to fill out Ichiro’s Monster Island adventures. Tsubaraya, who died of a heart attack in January of 1970, is credited out of respect and, one suspects, because most of the footage is stuff he did anyway. So much of this is a sort of clip show, and we all know how popular those are. (One side effect of using this much stock footage is that, since Godzilla frequently changed appearance between films, you’ll see different versions of him popping up in different shots.) To be honest, seeing this again is still fun, and I do have to give the shorthanded effects team credit for Gabara, a nicely surreal monster with warty blue skin, red eyes, and a truly bizarre cry.

Aiming this film at the kiddie crowd was, apparently, a calculated response to the success of the Gamera films, which had portrayed their heroic turtle monster as a friend to all children and featured a child protagonist in all but one entry. Ichiro is reasonably sympathetic, if not hugely detailed; maybe a little self involved, but who isn’t at that age? The scenes with the robbers don’t quite work that well- they’re not memorable characters themselves, and that part of the plot seems padded and not very well planned out. It might just be that there’s not a lot to it, but I will give Honda credit for setting the human drama in a particularly drab and bleak part of town. There’s actually a good sense of loneliness and isolation conveyed by the small cast and decaying warehouses and the like- not too intense, mind you, but unexpected. I also wonder if the film isn’t making a comment on Japanese society overall, my certainty hampered by the fact that I don’t know recent Japanese history and can’t say whether or not latchkey kids and working class families having to work excessive hours were particularly big problems at the close of the Sixties.

It’s hard to divorce one’s perceptions of ALL MONSTERS ATTACK from one’s expectations of what a Godzilla movie will be. But if you can see what Honda and company were trying to do- albeit with limited resources (it’s around this time, as I’ve mentioned previously, that the budgets for these kinds of films started to drop precipitously)- it’s a qualified success, not quite as compelling as other takes on this narrative but well done. Knowing that this was the last film Tsubaraya was connected to- if only through previous footage- makes the proceedings a kind of tribute to him as well. In a film that deals with Godzilla and company as fictional characters, we’re reminded of the iconic power they possess, especially through the eyes of children. In a line near the end, the father even describes Minilla as a kind of “god” for children (the word may also mean “spirit” in Japanese), and this heads right back to the idea of kaiju as mythological figures. So it’s got some neat things going on, even if it passes too quickly for them to leave an impression.

Written by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: B-

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Random Movie Report #46: Terror of Mechagodzilla


Classic Media has released a couple more Godzilla films on DVD, though actually they were available much earlier as part of a box set (they held off separate releases until the market died down a bit, as they had to with the last couple of films.) TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA is a much anticipated release among Godzilla fans, as for years the picture was only available on video in a version cut from a PG to a G, the editing removing quite a bit of material including a key climactic plot twist. That actually makes this the biggest American release since the company put out the original GODZILLA some two years ago (though GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN also is good to see in its original form, and I’ll get to that eventually.)

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this one, and I was looking forward to how it held up. TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA was the last of the original series of Godzilla films, and the last film directed by Inoshiro Honda (though rumor has it he handled directing chores on a segment of Akira Kurosawa’s DREAMS.) It’s not quite as good as I remember, brought down a bit by the general malaise of the Japanese film industry of the 1970s and effects films in particular, but it’s quite ambitious and oddly dark for what had become a series of children’s movies. Marking Honda’s return to the series after five years, the film has a classical, back-to-basics feel, and is a respectable finale for the King of Monsters.
A submarine looking for the remains of Mechagodzilla (returning from GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA, and we see his defeat there under the opening credits) is attacked by a giant dinosaur. The Oceanographic Institute sends Dr. Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki), along with Interpol agent Jiro Murakoshi (Katsumasa Uchida), to try and dig up some information on why a dinosaur has been hiding in this area, and their investigations lead them to the home of Dr. Shinji Mafune (Akihiko Hirata), a brilliant but slightly crazed scientist who was drummed out of the institute for claiming he had discovered the living dinosaur known as Titanosaurus, and could actually control the beast. Dr. Mafune has faked his death, leaving his attractive daughter Katsura (Tomoko Ai) to look after the house and deflect nosy investigators, and it turns out he has in fact gained control of Titanosaurus through some kind of radio transmitter, and is now intent on using it to seek revenge on the people who shunned him.

Where does Mechagodzilla come into this? Glad you asked. See, Mafune is being helped by a group of aliens from a planet orbiting a black hole- they’re understandably eager to move, and Mechagodzilla led their first invasion attempt. They’ve rebuilt the mechanical monster and plan to use it and Titanosaurus to level Tokyo and build their own city on top of it. (One presumes they will extend this plan to other cities once it works there, unless they’ve got a very small population.) As a trump card if Mafune’s desire for vengeance isn’t enough, he owes them for bringing Katsura back from the dead as a cyborg after she died in a lab accident. Unfortunately Katsura is falling in love with Ichinose, and this gums up the works on both sides.

Like a lot of the seventies Godzilla films, the movie keeps Gojira himself offstage for a substantial time while it develops the other monsters. By this point Godzilla had become a good guy- he only rose from the depths to fight evil monsters who wanted to destroy the Earth, and tried not to step on too many buildings while doing so. This was particularly beneficial because not only had original effects maestro Eiji Tsubaraya died some time ago, but the budgets for the films had been dropping steadily. The Japanese film industry was in a bad state, hit hard by competition from TV, and SFX spectaculars had the worst of it. There’s some very impressive work in this movie, but it’s mostly near the end, and building up to it you have a lot of low-key sci-fi espionage that starts to resemble an AVENGERS episode. A good AVENGERS episode, mind you. But it does go on a bit.

The whole film has a funereal atmosphere- it wasn’t intended as the last of the classic GODZILLA films, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. There’s a slightly washed-out, almost autumnal look to everything, composer Akira Ifukube contributes some rather grim fare (even including organ music in flashbacks), and some of the previously excised footage includes slow motion gun deaths and the villain whipping his guards when they let someone get away. It’s said that this adult tone probably contributed to the film’s financial failure; by this point, these were supposed to be films for children, and Honda’s approach was too dark for them but not grown-up enough to lure back the adults. (While we’re on the subject of adult material, one restored scene features the closest the series has ever come to female nudity, as Katsura’s obviously-false breasts are visible on an operating table.)

The tale of Dr. Mafune and his daughter is an appropriately melodramatic one, though I’m not sure it has quite as much impact as it should; somehow, whether it’s due to the writing or the acting, Mafune doesn’t seem so crazed that he would have his monster destroy cities just to prove he was right to all those fools at the institute who called him mad, MAD I say! He’s more a low-key crazy than a Bela-Lugosi-in-BRIDE-OF-THE-MONSTER crazy. There’s a vague formlessness to the human drama for most of the picture.

That said, the end of the film makes up for a lot. The climactic battle is hugely impressive, featuring some of the most elaborate model work Toho had done in a while. Godzilla’s appearance was slightly tweaked to be more menacing, as the suit, introduced in GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, originally gave him a kind of puppy dog look. It’s not entirely gone, but at least now he looks like an angry puppy. Titanosaurus is a unique creation, with a long neck, a sweeping tail, and an ululating roar that gives him quite a bit of personality. Mechagodzilla is less shiny here than in his debut, to reflect his rebuilt status and fit in with Honda’s grimmer aesthetic. There are still a few naff shots (mostly involving the monsters being thrown through the air by punches and the like- you can tell when the suits are empty), but overall it looks nice, and some work seems to have been done outside a studio, using natural light and shooting up from very low angles. The human drama comes to a head just in time too, and the restored ending is kind of powerful.

TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA falls a bit short of what it was trying to do, but it’s a respectable last outing for Honda. He deserves credit for closing the series on a classy note, and making the most of very limited resources. Of course, Godzilla’s career was not yet over, and when Toho started to recover in the 80s it was only a matter of time before he would rise again. And now you know the rest of the story.

Written by Yukiko Takayama
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: B

Monday, May 05, 2008

In Theaters: Iron Man

Poster via IMPAwards.com
It may be a good sign that the first summer blockbuster of the year is as intelligent as IRON MAN. (I just know that statement is going to backfire on me.) It’s a solid action film, but what’s memorable about it is how much thought has gone into it. A superhero film that technically follows the structure of such things but does so with an offbeat attitude, the big screen debut of Marvel’s armor-suited guardian doesn’t pander to its audience the way big movies are expected to. Which isn’t to say it’s a great movie, or without its flaws, but it’s well put together, and the acting alone is of a caliber you don’t expect to find in films like this.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, head of Stark Industries, which manufactures weapons, aircraft, communications systems, basically anything big and metallic that the government pays lots of money for. He’s a brilliant inventor and a millionaire playboy without Bruce Wayne’s angst, bedding beautiful girls and jetting around the globe, always with a drink in hand and a dry quip at the ready. He’s in Afghanistan making a sale to the Army when his convoy is ambushed by a mysterious terror group, who take him prisoner. In the scuffle he is injured by shrapnel from one of his own missiles, and a doctor who’s also being held prisoner comes up with a crude mechanical heart plug that stops the one unremovable shard from burrowing in further and killing him. The terrorists (known as the Ten Rings, and being more would-be conquerors than religious fanatics) want Stark to build missiles for them, but he takes advantage of their resources to instead build a giant suit of powered armor which he uses to escape. On getting back to civilization, Stark wonders how his weapons ended up in the hands of the enemy, and shuts down the weapons division of Stark Industries, rousing the ire of his partner Obadaiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who once ran the company. Stark develops his suit technology further, unaware that Stane and the Ten Rings are conspiring against him.

While most superhero movies seem to be driven by a particular script or director’s vision, it’s clear that IRON MAN is built around the casting of Downey. In the comics, Stark has struggled with alcoholism and bad-boy behavior (unfortunately current continuity has him in a rather dour authoritarian role), and though it’s hard to say how much the actor drew on the parallels to his own life, he’s obviously worked hard to create a fully realized character. Downey’s droll, deadpan attitude always works just right against his character’s excesses, both as playboy and superhero. It’s really fun to watch the performance, and the character created by it; it infuses a spirit of wild anarchy into a $186 million franchise picture. Movies like this aren’t allowed to take these chances, in theory, and though the film isn’t quite as radical with genre conventions as, say, Ang Lee’s underrated HULK, it shows what you can sneak in while still delivering what audiences come to see.

The writing is surprisingly strong as well; I have a feeling that Downey was allowed to take liberties with the script, but the dialogue is sharp overall, full of memorable quips. The story is literate, and though it actually takes a while for “Iron Man” himself to make his debut, the material leading up to it is good enough that it doesn’t matter. I would complain that the film doesn’t really have the time to deal with some of the things it gets into; the arms smuggling plot in particular doesn’t feel quite resolved. But then, delving too much into any one aspect of the film’s plot would probably slow things down, and though there are a couple of slow bits the filmmakers wisely keep up a steady pace, with no time for detours. The emphasis the film places on banter between its characters is also welcome; because studios depend on international grosses to cover overhead for almost every film they release, and because witty repartee isn’t guaranteed to translate at all, it’s often sacrificed in favor of physical humor. (Of course, as I write this, the film has made $96 million outside the US, so maybe the conventional wisdom can at last be put to bed.) There are some really funny lines in this film, and not just because Downey delivers them.

Actor/director Favreau demonstrates a solid grasp of pacing, and both the action and humor benefit from good timing. As much as Downey dominates, Favreau is sure to surround him with a strong supporting cast; Gwyneth Paltrow is decidedly strong as Pepper Potts, Tony’s long-suffering secretary, Bridges injects a very odd sense of humor into his villainous role, and there are strong turns by Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub, and Faran Tahir (as well as an uncredited appearance that- well, just wait through the credits, is what I’m saying.)

Upon initial viewing, the film lacks whatever extra quality that would make me put it into the A range, but that may just be the first viewing. It’s solid enough that it’ll definitely hold up well over time, and I absolutely recommend it. It’s pleasing to see such a big movie being as smart and spry as this, and to see a film as smart as this to be an apparent hit. If IRON MAN falls short of epic, it’s still a damn good time.

Based on a character created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack
Kirby
Screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway
Directed by Jon Favreau

Grade: B+

(I now realize I've given out that grade three times in a row. Am I getting predictable?)