Movies

GUEST MOVIE REVIEW: Eraserhead (1977) – Holen’s Halloween Extravaganza

Review #3 in Holen’s Halloween Extravaganza 2019!

ERASERHEAD (1977 Libra Films)

Directed by David Lynch

“That was even more unsettling than I remember,” said Holen after viewing Eraserhead for the first time in many moons. You see, I hadn’t planned to review this surrealist masterpiece for my Halloween reviews, but then a funny thing happened. Criterion Collection had a 50% off sale, so I decided to order the Blu-ray of Eraserhead, finally adding one of the few missing pieces to my David Lynch collection, and securing one of my favorite films of all time in the process. I’m in pretty good company calling it a favorite, as it’s beloved by talents as diverse as Mel Brooks, Crispin Glover, and Stanley Kubrick. As a matter of fact, Kubrick screened this film on the set of The Shining in an attempt to express the mood he was trying to capture with his own film.

If you’ve never seen it and you believe that the following tidbit is giving you a solid idea of what to expect, you’d be pretty wrong. Eraserhead and The Shining may share similar abilities to cause tension, but that’s about it. Eraserhead honestly has more in common with 2001. It’s an overwhelming barrage of images and ideas, rather than concrete dialogue or relatable characters. Filmed in hazy black and white, the movie can best be summed up as a dream. Not dreamlike, but a dream. There’s very little in this film that we can connect back to our own world, and even the things that we recognize act in ways that we’ve never seen before. That process of making the common seem alien births fear. Like the chickens that come alive on their plates as you try to cut them.

But this fear is anchored in a sense of wide-eyed wonder. We’re unable to turn away, and much like a dream, we’re helpless to resist the unsettling events we’re seeing on the screen. The plot is simple. A man on vacation from his printing job in an industrial town learns he’s impregnated his girlfriend. She gives birth to a premature baby that doesn’t look humanoid at all. She doesn’t have the endurance to take care of the child, so he’s left to deal with it on his own. We see our “hero” Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) struggle with the realities of being a new father, and all the fear and repressed emotions that accompany this time. The film takes an unflinching look at the ID surrounding fatherhood. Henry fears being usurped by his own son, and worries that his status as a father will make women turn away from him in fear. He struggles with whether he should kill his “child”, being egged on by a woman that lives in his radiator with swollen cheeks

None of this is dealt with in a traditional way, and none of it is expressed through dialogue. It’s a visual film that manages to deal with the harsh realities of these subliminal primal feelings by masking their brutal nature in the ambiguous whimsical wrap of dream logic. It would be impossible to feel any empathy towards Henry in a traditional film, but this movie gives us a disturbing look into the inner psyche of a man pushed far outside of his comfort zone, outside of his sanity. None of Henry’s actions until the end of the film could be considered sinister at all, as his worries are almost entirely projected out through the world around him.

At first, Henry seems to be quite caring to his child in every way. He’s there when the mother is not, is concerned when the baby is sick, and generally seems to be a polite mild-mannered man. Like many David Lynch films, Eraserhead searches past the shiny surface into the dark underbelly of reality, however unpleasant it may be. He did the same thing with small town American suburbs in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, and Hollywood in Mulholland Dr.

For my money though, he never created another picture as personal and as inimitable as Eraserhead. It achieves what it sets out to do with no fat, no moment wasted in its brief 89 minute run-time. I don’t understand everything in Eraserhead, but to me that’s part of the charm. It’s a riveting picture more disturbing than most horror, it forces you to be an active viewer by constantly engaging your brain, and it explores aspects of fatherhood most of us would rather deny existed. The 4K restoration done by Criterion looks and sounds wonderful, as the soundtrack is as much a part of this movie as the visuals are. I didn’t know that industrial noise could be so involving and manipulative, but the oppressive sounds reinforce the images on screen with masterful synchronization. The minutes on end of heavy bass make your entire body clench up until it suddenly ceases and you sit wondering what the hell just happened to you. It’s truly a masterpiece of cinema, and an extraordinary debut film. If you can stomach the supreme tension, seek one out today!

5/5 Pencils

GUEST MOVIE REVIEW: Jack’s Back (1988) – Holen’s Halloween Extravaganza

Review #2 in Holen’s Halloween Extravaganza for 2019!

JACK’S BACK (1988 Palisades)

Jack’s Back is the little thriller that couldn’t. It never had a chance with the shoddy distribution that it received. This is the feature film debut of Rowdy Herrington, who was also responsible for a film called Road House. Unfortunately, his debut didn’t receive a fraction of the recognition that Road House did. It got two thumbs up from Siskel & Ebert, and that’s about all the attention that it garnered in its original theatrical run. Nowadays, its status has hardly risen, but I believe that this has the quality to rise to cult status. As a matter of fact, I believe it’s quite a bit better than most thriller/horror films that have gained such distinction, and much more intelligent as well.

Despite sounding like an exploitation film, being shot on a shoestring budget, and a shitty trailer, Jack’s Back succeeds as an intelligent crime caper with enough twists and turns to keep the audience from ever completely solving the mystery or losing interest. The most invaluable asset to this movie may be leading man James Spader, one of America’s best, brightest, and eccentric actors. The man is so well-spoken that you find yourself clinging on to every single word, a true silver-tongued devil. It makes sense that one of his most memorable turns (as Alan Shore on the fantastic Boston Legal opposite William Shatner) was as a lawyer. Here, he has a dual role as twin brothers, and he turns in an impressive performance in each instance. Even more impressive is how the two are so different. The first is a sensitive, caring, hospital worker. He’s a goody two shoes social activist, too good for this world it seems. The second is a tense, rebellious rapscallion, not afraid to break the rules, or get his hands dirty to get the job done. He’s not particularly selfless, and he doesn’t particularly give a shit.

The premise of this film is that it is one hundred years after the original Jack the Ripper murders, something fucky is going on. A copycat killer is recreating these killings, down to every minute detail. The gentle and measured brother (John Wesford) is suspected of being the killer posthumously. The cops are determined to pin it on somebody to calm public fears, so they jump the gun in declaring the culprit. They suspect John because he has the medical know-how to recreate the killings, and because of that fact that he mysteriously ends up hanged at his place of employment one night. They assume the guilt was too much to bear, and he took his own life. The only person that doesn’t believe John is Jack Jr. is his twin brother Ricky. Ricky saw his brother’s death in a clairvoyant dream, and it was not suicide at all in that vision. John was murdered. Ricky races to the scene of the crime minutes after it happens and finds his dead brother, leading the cops to view Ricky with suspicion. They believe that he may have killed his brother. Ricky then has to clear his name, and the name of his deceased brother. He knows that his brother’s killer will surely be the real Jack copycat. Or will he? Who knows? I do, I’ve seen the movie. You probably don’t, because you probably haven’t. Hardly anyone has.

What ensues is a wildly engrossing mystery that keeps you on your toes until the very end. There are moments of cheese of course, this film was released in 1988, but not once does this movie feel like the novelty that its title and tagline would suggest. For its modest budget, Jack’s Back hardly ever feels cheap, tacky, or undercooked. It’s suspenseful, charming, occasionally funny, and unlike many films today, it breathes. There’s life in this picture, and it’s clear that the participants are having a blast making it. Due to the modest budget and its incredibly fast shooting schedule, there was no time to mess around with this picture. That brisk controlled chaos contributes to the manic energy of the film, underscoring the tension of the second act. As of right now I believe it’s free to watch on Amazon Prime, so if you wanted to venture out to something spooky you haven’t seen this year, I’d highly recommend this one. Also the whole thing is on YouTube in HD.

But if you’re a physical media guy like me, and you have a Region A player, you can pick this one up to hold in your hands. The first time this film made it to disc in North America was a Blu-ray/DVD combo release a few years back done by Scream Factory. Surprisingly, I have nothing but praise for this disc. The special features are a little bare, but that’s to be expected for such a minor entry (commercially) in the careers of all involved. The video was meticulously restored in HD from the original negatives in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the picture looks better than anyone had any right to expect. It’s a low budget film from 1988, so temper your expectations, but I don’t see any evidence of print damage, excessive DNR, or shitty compression artifacts. I said surprisingly given that Shout! Factory has been very spotty in my opinion with regards to video quality. I appreciate everything that they do to bring us films that wouldn’t see a release by any other means, but some of their discs have been rather disappointing when it comes to their HD sources (here’s looking at you Wild at Heart, desperately in need of an updated 4K restoration).

Fortunately Jack’s Back had no HD transfer prior to this, so they had no choice but to do it with modern tech, and it’s clear that Pinewood (the dudes that restored this) handled this task with care and attention. The audio track is the film’s original mono mix rendered as a DTS-HD 2.0 track, and it’s as good as you’re gonna get out of such an old low budget film. It’s presented here accurately without any dropouts, pops, or clicks, and that’s all you could really ask for. Overall, I give major props to Scream Factory for this one, it’s a great disc, and well worth the $14.99 they’re asking for it.

4/5 Clairvoyant Spader Visions

And if you don’t trust me, take their word on it. They’re professionals, eh?

DVD REVIEW: Blade Runner (1982) – Tribute to Rutger Hauer by Holen MaGroin

Guest review by Holen MaGroin


BLADE RUNNER (1982, 2007 Ultimate DVD edition, Warner Bros.)

Directed by Ridley Scott

The first time I saw Blade Runner, I was unimpressed. I didn’t believe it to be a bad film, but it inspired nothing inside me. However, something about it burrowed into my mind. It could have been the inspirational aesthetic, the cryptic atmosphere, or something operating deeper in my subconscious. Something I couldn’t place my finger on. Whatever it was, I had an undeniable desire to see the film again. When I acted upon that impulse, I fell in love with it. All the emotion and humanity that had eluded me on the initial viewing became elucidated the second time around. Since then, I’ve viewed the film many times. Each of my viewings reveals more secrets and offers new interpretations to this alluringly ambiguous picture.

I’m not entirely certain why Blade Runner went over my head the first time. If I had to speculate, I’d guess that my mind was so overwhelmed by the sheer visual spectacle, that I had a difficult time focusing on the movie behind it. After becoming accustomed to the astonishing world in which the story resides, it became clear to me that much more than just the design was awe-inspiring. Underneath the electronic digital exterior was a human pulse, one that beat the strongest in the characters that weren’t even human. It poses the existential question of the definition of life, and makes us wonder who should have the authority to define it.

The events take place in the future world of November 2019. Earth has become an overcrowded, polluted, and commercialized urban environment. The Tyrell Corporation manufactures synthetic human beings known as replicants. They are just as intelligent as their creators, while also possessing superior physical abilities. They’re used off-world for slave labor, and are forbidden on Earth. Deckard is a blade runner, the best there’s ever been. His job is to take out stray replicants, a process described by the euphemism ‘retiring’.

 

When we’re introduced to Deckard, it’s clear we’re observing a broken man. He lacks purpose, and hides his feelings of worthlessness behind alcohol and a bitter attitude. Having quit his job as a blade runner, he drifts around going through the motions. He’s living a very shallow existence, numbed by whiskey, afraid to feel, and terrified of self-reflection. He’s called in to do one last job, and does so only after being threatened by his old boss, Bryant. Six replicants escaped an off-world colony, and four made it to Earth with their lives. They’ve travelled to Earth in an attempt to extend their lives, which have been set to approximately four years. Their leader is the tactical and ruthless Roy Batty, an imposing figure played by the recently departed Rutger Hauer (R.I.P.). Deckard’s job is to retire them, as they are considered a threat to the public.

Despite being artificial, these four replicants are the most compelling characters in the film. They possess real emotions, and you can’t help but empathize with their plight for life. Their methods may be cutthroat, but understandable given the abhorrent treatment they’ve received at the hands of humans. Not excusable, but understandable. Roy is the most viscous, yet he is also the one we learn to care for the most. The other three want more life only because of their fear of death. Unlike his companions, Roy is a pensive philosopher that questions the nature of his existence, and sees the artificial manipulation of his life expectancy as an injustice perpetrated by Tyrell, his creator.

Contrarily, Deckard is a classic noir archetype inserted into a science fiction world as a way of contrasting him with his supposedly ‘less than human’ targets. He has no raison d’être, no philosophy, he simply exists. The very machines he’s been commissioned to destroy contain more human characteristics than he does. He has learned to detach himself from his emotions because somewhere inside he knows that his job is immoral. As the film progresses, it’s a truth that he finds harder and harder to deny.

His path to realization begins when he visits Tyrell at the onset of his case. While there he meets the beautiful replicant Rachel and is immediately captivated by her. Rachel isn’t initially aware that she is a replicant, as she is part of a new generation that has been fitted with memory implants. She’s rather sterile and distant at first, but ironically becomes more emotional as she comes to accept the fact that she is indeed a synthetic human being. This coincides with Deckard’s own increased feelings of guilt and empathy towards these machines as he approaches the completion of his job. Both characters struggle with the concept of humanity in a dehumanizing urban environment, falling in love as they relate to each other’s fear and uncertainty.

Meanwhile, Roy and the seductive Pris manipulate genetic designer J.F. Sebastian into leading them to Tyrell. Sebastian is afflicted with a disease that accelerates aging, allowing him to relate to and take pity on the replicants and their limited lifespan. Roy and Sebastian visit Tyrell during the dead of night, under the pretense of a chess game. Roy’s patience has been rewarded. He is finally able to face his creator. His resentment towards Tyrell for manipulating his lifespan culminates in the line “I want more life, fucker.” The profanity underscores the pent up rage. It’s an emotional slip for the previously silver-tongued devil, and a subtle hint for his surprising climactic decision at the end of the film. When Tyrell informs Roy that there is no way to extend his lifespan, he disposes of his creator and Sebastian.

Deckard learns of the deaths of Tyrell and Sebastian on his radio, and decides to check out Sebastian’s place. What follows is the infamous final confrontation between Deckard and Roy. Deckard offers absolutely no challenge to Roy. Roy’s methodical killings of before are replaced by a sadistic playfulness. Driven past the point of caring upon the realization of his inevitable mortality, he plays cat and mouse with Deckard. In the middle of their game Roy’s hand begins to seize up; his time has come. Deckard attempts to jump from one building to the next to escape, but doesn’t go the distance, grasping the edge hanging precariously high above the ground. Roy catches up to him and easily makes the jump to the next building, standing above Deckard as his fingers slip. But just as Deckard’s grip fails, Roy grasps Deckard’s arm and hoists him up onto the building, saving his life.

In this moment Roy realizes that the most human gesture he can make before death is forgiveness. Saving Deckard even after he killed all his companions was an act of mercy and forgiveness that made his final deed a human one. Roy has reached the stage of acceptance, and ponders in his death soliloquy that once someone dies, all of their memories are lost. All their experience is gone forever. As he puts it, “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.” An immortal line written by Rutger Hauer himself, it fixes an image to the human fear that we won’t have a legacy, and that all we’ve learned and experienced will be lost forever. Roy believes that with the loss of his experiences, humans will remain ignorant of the nature of replicant life, and that humans will continue to view them as objects to be used instead of living creatures. As he dies peacefully, a dove ascends out of the oppressive city. The shot seems to suggest that Roy does have a soul, and the dove symbolizes something pure and innocent. Roy has redeemed himself by saving Deckard, and his purified spirit ascends to heaven.

Blade Runner is a pensive film. It takes its time unravelling to give the viewer a chance to think along with it. It’s about a man that learns to embrace his humanity from the very machines he’s expected to kill. He even falls in love with one. It makes us wonder what truly constitutes life, and what value a life has after it’s gone and forgotten. Blade Runner is moody, stylized, and very open to interpretation. It’s certainly not a film for everyone, but for the people that enjoy when movies offer more questions than answers, there are few that have done it better.

5/5 replicants

Version Guide

There are five distinct cuts of Blade Runner available on Blu-ray, so I figured I’d do a quick version guide and offer my opinion on the best version of the film (it’s not the Final Cut).

  • Work print (1982) – The original work print shown to test audiences. It is a few minutes shorter than the other cuts, which are practically all the same length. It contains different opening credits, and one instance of voice over narration during Roy’s death scene different than the one heard in the theatrical cuts.
  • U.S. Theatrical Cut (1982) – Voice over narration was added that elaborates on certain plot points and offers background information. This version also contains a happier ending.
  • International Theatrical Cut (1982) – Identical to the U.S. Theatrical cut, only it has a few instances of unedited violence.
  • Director’s Cut (1992) – This version removes all voice over narration, and the happier ending. It also inserts a unicorn dream that heavily suggests that Deckard is a replicant. This version doesn’t contain the extra violence.
  • The Final Cut (2007) – Everything in this cut is cleaned up. The visuals, the sound, etc. Visible wires were removed from the flying cars, and an obvious stunt double’s face was digitally replaced with the actress’s face. Includes a longer unicorn dream, no narration, Roy apologizing to Sebastian before killing him, a different background for the dove shot, the violence from the international cut, and green color grading. Roy also says “I want more life, father.” This is the only version besides the work print where he says father instead of fucker.

My favorite (short version): The director’s cut.

My favorite (long version): The green color grading of The Final Cut is awful. It buries the spectacular world and neon colors in a gross green. Using CGI to replace a face and cover up wires is also a bit too revisionist for my tastes as well. I also think the assertion that Deckard is a replicant ruins the theme of the movie. Therefore, I don’t like the unicorn dream. I also don’t like Roy apologizing to Sebastian, it’s out of character. And father just isn’t as powerful as fucker, even with the God complex connotations. As for the theatrical cuts, the narration isn’t all that awful in my eyes (it’s performed pretty badly), but it is a better film without it. It has some interesting background information, but it ruins some of the ambiguity. I do like that the theatrical cut doesn’t push the idea that Deckard is a replicant, because it’s missing the unicorn dream. The happy ending is inconsistent with the movie’s tone though. So my ideal version would be the international theatrical cut without the narration, and without the happy ending. But since we don’t have that cut, my preferred version is the director’s cut, with the international cut coming in a very close second. You should watch both of those cuts just to get the full experience. I switch back and forth depending on my mood.

This review is dedicated to Rutger Hauer. Thanks for the films, man. We’ll miss you.

 

Blu-ray REVIEW: Dune (1984) by Holen MaGroin

Guest review by Holen MaGroin


DUNE (1984 Universal)

Directed by David Lynch

Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune is one of the most beloved and influential works of science fiction ever committed to paper. Despite its convoluted plot, world specific dialogue, and the presence of enough supporting characters to fill a football arena, readers have been captivated by the tale of lost humanity and political turmoil for over half a century.* The book’s epic length gave it the time it needed to develop compelling three-dimensional characters. Adapting such a complex story into a feature film proved to be so challenging that Arthur P. Jacobs, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Ridley Scott all tried and failed to bring the book to the big screen. After three misfires, American surrealist director David Lynch was hired to helm the project in 1981. The film took three challenging years to produce, and upon completion, was a substantial critical and commercial failure.

In the years since its release in 1984, the film has developed a cult following, and for good reason. While it’s not everything a fan of the book would hope for, it’s certainly not as bad as it was made out to be upon its release. For people new to the series, the sheer amount of characters, alliances, and jargon can be overwhelming. Especially when Lynch was only given two hours with which to tell a five-hundred page novel. This is easily the weakest aspect of the movie. Much of the exposition is crammed in at the beginning of the film, and its delivery can best be described as clunky. The scene in which Emperor Shaddam IV explains his plan to destroy House Atreides to the Spacing Guild is so poorly written that it calls to mind a moment from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs in which the evil Lord Helmet turns to the camera after excessive exposition and asks the audience if they caught it all.

The sloppy exposition is exacerbated by the literal interpretation of Frank Herbert’s use of internal dialogue. Lynch’s decision to literally adapt the book’s internal dialogue by having the actors narrate each character’s thoughts and motivations is belligerent and awkward. The film too often relies on this internal dialogue that robs the movie of surprise and subtlety for the sake of clarity that it ironically fails to bring. Much of the dialogue is used to further the plot, as opposed to developing the characters. Certain characters are simplified out of necessity due to the relatively brief runtime, such as the formidable Harkonnens of the novel being turned into the disgusting cartoonish characters seen in this film. However, at only one-hundred thirty-seven minutes, the story could have been much more incoherent and disjointed than it ultimately was, but that doesn’t excuse it from being an underdeveloped mess.

While the story falters somewhat in comparison to the novel, it works surprisingly well taken on its own. Many of the theological questions of the book remain unexplored in the film adaptation, but the complex themes of political strife, globalism, and corruption are all addressed in the conflicts between the many groups gifted with power.  Each entity mistrusts the other, but must form uneasy alliances to stay afloat or to destroy common enemies covertly. The film balances these relationships remarkably well. Every group’s selfish motivation is made abundantly clear, yet each motivation prompts thought over their individual plans within plans.

Another area that the movie excels at is its tone. The novel had a very regal atmosphere, which the film captures in strides. It does a remarkable job at humanizing the bombast of the occasion. In a society where humans are trained more and more to act and perform like machines, the protagonist Paul Atreides triumphs with his innate sense of human morality and communal bonds with the Fremen. Kyle MacLachlan perfectly captures the innocence, the exuberance, and the pride of the character in the novel. Dune has a rich supporting cast including Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, and José Ferrer that help to elevate the material and capture its humanity.

Part of the film’s emotional success can be credited to the excellent score, contributed by Toto with one beautiful piece by Brian Eno. Toto fused orchestral arrangements with their instrumental rock prowess to create a hybrid score that is surprisingly exciting. It frames the most overblown scenes in a way that seems triumphant instead of pompous, and prevents the quiet emotional moments from buckling under the weight of the jargon. At the heart of all this technical jargon and political strife is a story about human characters, filled with human virtue, human emotions, and human desires. This score pulsates with humanity, and is something that Toto and Brian Eno should look at with pride.

The film also succeeds in its unique visual aesthetic that perfectly brings the spiritual and transcendental aspects of the novel to the screen with style. Thanks to the surrealistic tendencies of its director, this film is full of striking visual moments, particularly those that depict Paul’s prescient visions. The scene in which Paul takes the water of life in the desert and unlocks his full mental potential is especially breathtaking. It lacks the narrative depth of the novel, but makes up for it by explaining visually what the film’s clunky dialogue often failed to clarify on its own.

Dune is by no means a great film, and it doesn’t live up to the timeless reputation of the novel it’s based on. It is a cult classic from a decade known for producing its fair share of cult cinema. While many fans of the book and members of the general public look at this movie with disdain, I always walk away from it having been entertained, if left yearning for a better adaptation. We may get this adaptation now that Dennis Villeneuve is directing a new version of the film set to release in 2020. This 1984 version is flawed, and even its director calls it his worst film (I disagree; I think 1990’s Wild at Heart would take that position). The fact that I originally sought out the Dune novel because I was such a big David Lynch fan and wanted to read the book before seeing the film may paint me as a biased source, but I consider the positive attributes of the film Dune to (just barely) counteract the many negatives.

3/5 Sandworms

Author’s Note: Get the Blu-Ray if you’re going to watch it. It is a substantial improvement over any other version of the film. Dune was always a bit of an ugly duckling, but this Blu-Ray edition has gone the distance to clean up the visuals to present what is by far the best looking version of this film ever released. And whatever you do stay away from the 3 hour extended/T.V. cut that is so bad the director removed his name from the credits. It’s a butchered mess that mixes up the musical cues and needlessly edits material back in from the cutting room floor. The theatrical cut is the only version available on Blu-Ray, so it shouldn’t be too hard to avoid the bastardized extended version.

 

* Because of its generous detail and epic world-buildingLeBrain

 

 

DVD REVIEW: THX-1138 (George Lucas Director’s Cut)

THX-1138 (Originally 1970, 1998 George Lucas Director’s Cut, Warner DVD)

Directed by George Lucas

Anyone claiming to be a Star Wars fan that hasn’t seen THX-1138 isn’t really a Star Wars fan…yet.  You really can’t grok one without assimilating the other.  They are reflections of each other.  Themes and techniques intertwine.  Sometimes they are opposites, at others, cousins.

This is hard sci-fi. There are no cute furry Ewoks, there is no “villain”, there are only glimmers of heroics. This is a dystopian future brought to you by the once-brilliant director George Lucas, unhampered by his own commercial drives. This is as pure a vision as it gets.  One viewing is not enough to digest THX-1138.  There is little dialogue or exposition. There is no traditional music, and the story plods along in a very Kubrickian fashion.

The setting is not a long time ago, nor far far away.  It is the future right here on Earth, and humanity now lives in a vast underground city.  It is so vast that nobody ever ventures out to its superstructure where malformed, monkey-like “Shell Dwellers” remain. Perhaps they are mutants, victims of a long-forgotten nuclear holocaust.  It is a surveillance society.  Like today, there are few places you can escape the view of a camera lens.  Humanity lives in the bubble of a sterile, pristinely white city that resembles the dullest of shopping malls.  They are told to consume.  At strange Catholic-looking confessionals, one prays to the State and the Masses and a weird Christ-like face. Children are taught entire school courses via a chemical IV. Sexual activity is forbidden unless you are scheduled to produce a child. Sedation by drugs is compulsory. Failure to take your medications will result in drug offences and rehabilition. Some humans are deemed defective and left to themselves in a strange white prison, an asylum that seems to go on forever.

Our protagonist is THX-1138 (Robert Duvall), called “Tex” for short.  He does not feel well. He is sick, shaky, because he is secretly off his medication. Feelings of love and lust are stirring for his roomate, LUH. The lack of sedation has allowed those feelings to surface for the first time. It has also, however, affected his work, and one error is all it takes to clue in the powers-that-be that THX is a drug offender.

Themes turn up again in Lucas’ later films. See the totalitarian faceless government, complete with masked law enforcement (not Stormtroopers but robot officers).  Constant, overlapping staticky background dialogue makes up the most of the soundtrack to this film. Lucas has taken sound effects and used them as music, yet they still convey information crucial to the plot. For further comparison, some shots are even duplicated in Star Wars; see if you can spot them.

THX-1138 isn’t Lucas’ fairytale vision of sci-fi.  Scenes are chilling. THX is channel surfing and comes upon a program of an officer beating a human repeatedly for no apparent reason. This is the entertainment of the future.  The brutality is so iconic that Trent Reznor used the sounds in Nine Inch Nails’ song “Mr. Self Destruct”.  In another scene, two techs are tormenting THX’s body, but their dialogue betrays absolutely no connection whatsoever to the human being they are hurting. “Don’t let it get above 48,” says one, as THX is writhing in agony. “Oh, you let is get above 48, see, that’s why you’re getting those readings.”

The theme of escape, which was common with Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars, is what drives THX. He eventually finds an ally in a “hologram” (Don Pedro Colley) that he meets in the white asylum. SEN (Donald Pleasance) is suitably creepy as a man obsessed with THX and LUH.  Can they escape the city and see what is beyond?

Lucas loves tampering with his films and THX is one of them. CG race cars and cityscapes enhance the film, while CG Shell Dwellers look phony and out of place. I would have preferred the original Shell Dwellers, but in the cityscapes, the new effects certainly add depth and believability.  Just like the Star Wars special editions, some things work and others do not.  Cloud City worked well in the Star Wars digital tweaks, just as the underground one does here.

DVD bonus features are awesome, including ample documentaries.  For a treat, check for the original black and white student film that Lucas made: THX-1138-4eB – Electronic Labyrinth. See how his vision survived intact to the big screen, and see how ideas such as dialogue acting as the soundtrack was present in the original short.

A fantastic visionary sci-fi film, and a warning to us today. We must not allow our society to become as controlled as THX’s.

Not for everybody. Only for those who like thinking man’s sci-fi.

4/5 stars. Near-perfect dystopian vision.

GUEST MOVIE REVIEW: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin

PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987 Paramount)

Directed by John Hughes

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of my top ten favorite films ever made. It’s in pretty good company with 12 Angry Men (the one from the ‘50s), Blue Velvet, Die Hard, The Godfather, Lethal Weapon, The Unforgiven, etc. On the surface it may seem absurd to place what seems like a goofy road comedy from the ‘80s on a list containing films of that stature, but I don’t think that it’s unreasonable at all. This film is the best road film ever made, and I have no reservations about calling it one of the greatest movies ever made. There’s no glowing pretension or aspirations to reach Citizen Kane levels of movie making, or bids for narrative complexity. It is a heartfelt holiday classic about a stubborn irate man just trying to get home in time for Thanksgiving. That man is ad executive Neal Page portrayed by Steve Martin, who is helped out in his travels by the loquacious shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith played by John Candy. The two men are polar opposites that learn to care for each other under the extreme circumstances that impede their journey home. By the end of the film, both men have learned to let down their emotional guards and trust each other, a necessary step for the two of them to arrive at their destination.

It’s not a complicated plot, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s something about these characters and situations that seems to demonstrate real life in such a direct way. It’s not a puzzle, everything is clear cut. Not to say that the movie is all surface level, there’s plenty of stuff to dive into here between the two men, particularly through multiple viewings after you know Del’s secret. The level of character depth in these two men is particularly compelling to watch on screen, as seeing the psyche of two opposites gravitate towards each other giving each other strength is both stimulating and moving. Part of that depth comes from the fact that this film was perfectly cast. John Candy and Steve Martin don’t even seem to be playing characters, but amplified versions of themselves. The dialogue, the movements, the actions are all totally natural, and the responses appear to have weight behind them that suggest the character’s past experiences. Guest appearances from Kevin Bacon, Michael McKean, and Edie McClurg all appear in hilarious supporting roles as well, but I wouldn’t dare spoil them here. Well, maybe one.

Steve Martin plays Neal as an impatient cynical grouch who is dying to get out of the sales meeting he’s stuck in so that he can find a cab and get to the airport on time. Del plays the happy go lucky salesman that accidentally steals Neal’s cab during rush hour in New York City. Fate keeps these two characters together as they meet by chance at the airport again. Neal confronts Del about stealing the cab, and Del feels genuine remorse. He tries to be as affable as possible, offering up Neal a beer and a hot dog. Neal being a bit prudish rejects the peace offering with a snarky type of politeness. Of course, Del doesn’t immediately pick up on or at least chooses to ignore Neal’s hostility. All he wants is to get home in a timely manner to see his family for the holiday. A snowstorm prevents their plane from landing in Illinois, causing the flight to divert all the way to Kansas.

The two men book a hotel room together as the hotels fill up. It is at this point that the exposition ends and Neal lets out all the resentment he has towards Del.  The set up is complete and now the emotional core of the movie really begins to develop. Neal states in no uncertain terms every problem that he has with Del, not holding back any vitriol. Martin’s performance is so wonderful that it actually gets the audience to laugh along with all his complaints, even as John Candy’s face starts to sink. Martin plays it as a man who has seriously contemplated every perceivable flaw in Del’s character, and is eager to list out every mundane detail. When he says he could listen to the most boring insurance seminar for days on end “because I’ve been with Del Griffith!” his vocal inflections are so comically annoyed that the audience can’t help but laugh. The scene isn’t a joke, it’s clear that the man has been pushed to his limit, but the audience laughs because they understand his frustration. However, the way Neal starts and stops seems to suggest that it’s against his better judgement to be so mean. It all just seems to be slipping out, as one complaint leads into the next until he’s too far to back down. When Neal finally finishes venting, John Hughes hits us with the first emotional blast in the movie.

Del’s reply is an often quoted moment from cinema history. It’s so perfect in its raw emotional simplicity. Whereas the cynical Neal has been stewing over his anger and letting it out almost uncontrollably, Del’s reply is a brief calm statement of emotional truth. It’s a tender “take me or leave me” moment, but Del is clearly hurt deeply by Neal’s words. Del’s trying just as hard to convince himself that he’s strong enough to take it because of the love he has from his wife and customers. Candy’s performance completely sells the speech, and makes the audience feel remorse for laughing at Martin mocking him just a few seconds ago. You can see in his face that this isn’t the first time that someone has gone off on him for his sometimes overzealous extroverted personality, and the hurt in his eyes betrays years of pain in the past. Despite all this pain, he can’t help the way he his. He will never fight back. When he says that he doesn’t like to hurt people’s feelings, it makes the cynical viewers and Neal shameful for feeling any malice towards Del. The two men have been forced to share a bed, and they cozy up together for the night as Neal learns to be a little more accepting of other people.

This John Hughes road comedy distinguishes itself from a lot of his work in that it focuses on adult relationships instead of teenagers. The two main characters are middle aged men set in their own ways. These men learn to evolve the more that they learn about each other. This is similar to the plot of Hughes’ more popular The Breakfast Club, only in this film instead of the characters being locked together in one room, Page and Griffith can’t seem to shake each other as they both make their way from the streets of New York to Neal’s home in Illinois.

Every time that the two men try to separate they just end up in each other’s company again. Also every time that Del seems to be gaining Neal’s favor something ludicrous happens that screws it up. Del driving on the wrong side of the highway after falling asleep is one of these moments, particularly after the car is destroyed and lit on fire and it is revealed that Del used Neal’s credit card to rent it. Amazingly the machine is still able to run, and the two pull up to a motel for the night. All their money was stolen by robbers on the first night at the hotel in Kansas, and their cards were burnt up in the fire. Neal has to sell his watch to get a room, but Del cannot afford one at all. This is the climax of the film, as even after rendering Neal liable to the damage of an entire automobile, Neal finally decides to completely accept Del. He is forgiven. This acceptance materializes because Neal cannot stand the site of Del freezing outside in the burnt up car. Neal decides to throw out all his jaded cynicism and invite Del into his room. It is at this point that Neal is willing to forgive Del for anything, and accept him for who he is unconditionally. The journey the two men have been on together and the bond that has formed over just two days is so strong that Neal will never give up on Del again. The two men fall asleep drinking liquor and talking about how much they love their wives. Never again in the movie is Neal the grouch, he’s even a good sport about riding in the back of a refrigerated truck after their rental car is impounded for being too dangerous for the road.

They finally make it to LaSalle/Van Buren CTA station that will take Neal the rest of the way home. It is empty except the two of them now that it’s Thanksgiving day. This is where Del and Neal part ways for the holidays. That is until Neal begins to put the pieces together. Little scraps of what Del has said throughout the film finally begin to add up in Neal’s brain, and the ending scene that follows is one of the most heartwarming in any film ever. There’s no shame for any grown ass man to ball his eyes out watching it the first time. John Candy deserved an Oscar for the film closing smile he gives. For the sake of those that have never seen the movie, I won’t spoil the ending here.

Most comedies are not good movies. They simply exist to generate a few shallow laughs and leave no long term impression. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of the few comedies to transcend the limitations of its genre with genuine heart and characters that the audience can actually feel invested in. We want Neal and Del to succeed, as they seem like genuinely plausible people trapped in improbably unfortunate circumstances. They’re not one-note characters who simply exist for an endless barrage of sight gags to happen upon them, their choices are based on well established character traits, not just moving along because the plot needs them to. Anyone who has had to travel for the holidays feels the plight that these men are going through, even if they have never experienced it to the insanity that Neal and Del have. If you’ve never seen this movie because you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or some other reason, I implore you to seek it out and watch it today. This movie is a classic that stands up even if you don’t celebrate the holiday in the movie. As Neal puts it in the film, after the journey you’re, “a little wiser.”

5/5 Turkeys

 

GUEST MOVIE REVIEW: The Shining (1980)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin

Welcome back to Halloween Wednesday!  Here’s guest writer HOLEN MaGROIN with the next in his series of Halloween themed reviews.  He’s got a scarrry one today. 

Oct 3:  Soundgarden – Screaming Life/Fopp EPs
Oct 10:  Batman / Batman Returns movie reviews
Oct 17:  Fastway – Trick or Treat Original Music Score 

THE SHINING (1980 Warner Bros.)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the rare instances where the film greatly surpasses the animal hedge madness of Stephen King’s novel. King reportedly hated the film because it changed the details of his book so dramatically, but all of the changes made to the film serve to not only translate it better to a visual medium, but also to create a deeper and more compelling story with a much more satisfying ending.* Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is quite possibly the greatest horror movie ever made. It’s a deeply visceral thrill that deals with the supernatural and the psychological, while managing to include enough slasher elements to satisfy those types of horror fans. There’s really something for everyone in this movie, except Stephen King.

Everyone knows the story by now. Jack Torrance procures a job as winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel and takes his wife and young son to stay with him, alone in the mountains. Jack is a struggling writer looking for a place to concentrate on his work. One day his wife decides to make seafood, and accidentally under-cooks the crabs. Jack’s intestines are sent into an uproar. Unfortunately for him, someone has locked the bathroom door. He doesn’t want to run to another bathroom and risk more leakage, so he axes down the door. This leads to the iconic image of his face sticking through the bathroom door that has been used as the cover for all recent home video editions. If you look closely, you can see that Jack Nicholson accurately portrays a man that has liquid shit running down his leg into his shoe, a man about to have an anal geyser. It’s an absolutely brilliant performance of such raw ass… I mean raw emotion that has stood as one of the defining performances in any horror movie ever. Is there a greater horror than realizing you’ve just soiled yourself?

Unfortunately for our heroes, all the food in the Overlook Hotel has been stricken with Salmonella, leaving their butts so raw that they are shining, hence the title. The only one immune to the bacteria is Danny, as he has supernatural abilities to digest anything. That’s where the paranormal aspects of the film come in. Danny talks to some ghosts that try to help him save his parents from the torment of toilet time. Danny sends a telepathic message to the old Overlook cook, and he immediately moves hell and earth to get over to the Overlook hotel.

Once the cook arrives he brings new food to last them through the winter, and decides to stay and celebrate the holidays with the Torrance family. They all laugh and dance around the Christmas tree as Jack Nicholson does his Tonight Show impression.

“Here’s Johnny!”

The whole family laughs in wholesome unison as Jack professes his unconditional love for both his wife and child. It’s a tender moment, as the whole family embraces cook Dick Hallorann as the newest addition to the Torrance gang. Dick has secretly bought Danny the new fire truck he’d been wanting before he made his way up to the hotel. On Christmas morning, Danny’s eyes light up as he had not been expecting to get it. The four get together in a loving embrace and their hearts fill with jubilant joy. My God, I’m tearing up just thinking about it!

The horror has been evaded, or so they think. Everything turns around when they receive a package in the mail, despite no one being able to get up to the hotel. Who could have left this package? They open up the package, and find a VHS copy of Bobcat Goldthwait’s debut standup HBO special, Share the Warmth. What’s odd about this movie is that the standup special was not taped until 1987, and this film takes place in 1980. To film the movie, Kubrick actually was able to send the cast and crew into the future to 2012 in order to make it even more eerie by predicting actual world events.** Rather than predicting natural disasters, or sports scores or anything like that, Kubrick became highly intrigued by this Bobcat character, and decided to abandon the novel to make his own piece of art. This is ultimately why King was not satisfied by the movie, and didn’t understand it when it came out in 1980 given that Bobcat had not reached a world stage yet. When the family finds the movie, everything goes off the rails. After watching the VHS together, Danny learns a whole lot of naughty words that should never be used by such young children. They also all immediately become big fans of the man with such Kaufman style talents and his penchant for social commentary. Bobcat’s earliest fans!

As the weeks go by, the family is pleased to find another VHS of a film called Shakes the Clown in the mail. It’s a lot different than his standup special, and exceptionally strange, but they ultimately enjoy the ride, even if it was not nearly as strong as his standup special. The next week, the family receives the holiday Bill Murray film Scrooged that features Goldthwait as the fired assistant. They determine that the movie ultimately sucks hard, but they love the parts containing Bobcat as the holiday liberator. That’s when the spirits sending the tapes stop being so kind to the family. Next they receive Police Academy 2Police Academy 2 is easily the shittiest of an incredibly shitty franchise (only speaking for the first three, as that’s when I checked out forever), a series of films Bobcat himself would later call Police Lobotomy. The family is distraught over the wasted talents of Bobcat. Another week goes by and they find instalments 3 and 4 in the mail, and are just as horrified at the glaring examples of shit personified in Police Academy fashion. This is a franchise so shitty that the best joke involving them was actually in Wayne’s World. At this point in the film, Danny and Dick begin to have psychic visions. They can’t make out exactly what’s going to happen the next week, but they begin to have visions of a horse, and Bobcat. The horse seems to be talking. Their worst fears are realized the next week when a fresh copy of Hot to Trot is sent to the house.

The family is so horrified by the turn Bobcat’s career has taken that they all suffer terminal illness, an eerie omen of the five Razzie Awards nominations that this piece of shit would be nominated for. The next week, the critically acclaimed Bobcat film World’s Greatest Dad shows up, proving to be a chilling end to the Torrance family. If they had just hung in one more week, they would have been saved by seeing the great movie.

Years later in the early 1990s, Bobcat shows up at the Overlook Hotel to perform for the guests. He’s greeted by a bell boy, and tells him that it’s nice to perform at the hotel for the first time. The bell boy cryptically replies by saying, “I’m sorry to differ with you sir, but you are the comedian here. You’ve always been the comedian.” Bobcat looks puzzled, and spots a peculiar picture on the wall. He looks at it further and sees the picture on the wall from 1980 of the Torrance family all crying holding Hot to Trot in their hands. Bobcat lets out one of his trademark screams, and the credits role.

Kubrick knows to end the film on such a disturbing note, because he knows how to play his audience. That’s why this film is considered to be one of the most classic examples of modern horror cinema released today. The feelings that you experience watching this movie moves you in such a way that you feel afraid to ever travel to a hotel, or watch one of Bobcat’s many shitty movie decisions from the 1980s. This is the greatest horror movie ever made, and there’s simply nothing else to say.***

5/5 Pumpkins

* LeBrain agrees wholeheartedly and is jealous he hasn’t written this one up yet.  But he will.  The soundtrack including music by Wendy Carlos is genius too.

** Not to mention the NASA conspiracies.

*** That sure was something!  I hope readers get it.

GUEST MOVIE REVIEWS: Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin

It may be considered a childish holiday, but it’s not about candy!  Here’s HOLEN MaGROIN with the next in his series of Halloween themed reviews.  For the last, Soundgarden’s Screaming Life/Fopp EPs, click here.

 

BATMAN (1989 Warner Bros.)
BATMAN RETURNS (1992 Warner Bros.)

Directed by Tim Burton

Given the influx of homogenized yet generally consistent MCU movies, and the equally homogenized yet generally inconsistent DCU movies, it’s almost hard to remember a time when superhero films were not guaranteed billion dollar investments, or when they had a shred of character and individuality. The first film that truly hinted at the superhero genre’s potential to be taken seriously was Richard Donner’s Superman. It was a huge financial and critical success, with Gene Hackman giving the movie a professional actor that legitimized the comic book superhero film as an art form, and not just a niche market for children. However, DC was unable to sustain the quality of the Superman franchise, and it slowly fizzled out until crashing and burning with the critically mauled fourth installment The Quest for Peace. The future of comic book movies looked grim. That is until Warner Bros. handed the keys to the Batmobile over to the artsy and dark visionary Tim Burton, who created two acclaimed and commercially successful Gothic Batman films that work great as Halloween viewing.

At this point in his career, Tim Burton had only made two films, the eccentric road comedy Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and the twisted paranormal comedy Beetlejuice. It’s not evident what Warner Bros. saw in those two comedic movies to make them think Tim Burton would be the proper choice to direct a Batman movie, but choosing him to helm the franchise would turn out to be one of the least controversial moves. The much more derided decision would be the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman, an actor primarily known for his comedies. Because of his credentials, physique, and height, many believed that Keaton was the wrong choice to portray the Dark Knight. Thankfully, these fears were unfounded as Keaton would go on to become one of the most beloved actors to don the cape and cowl. Fears were also alleviated by the casting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker, a man who does what Gene Hackman did for Superman in granting the movie a certain ethos just by being present.

To say that Batman was a success would be an understatement; it was a cultural phenomenon. People were getting the bat logo shaved into their head, before anyone had even seen the movie. It became the highest grossing movie of the year in North America in 1989, being beat out internationally by the third Indiana Jones picture.*

The film opens at night as a family of three leaves the theatre, and I’m pretty sure anyone seeing this movie for the first time assumed that they were the Wayne family. No, the movie was playing a trick on you. It’s just a normal family in the present time being mugged, with Batman running to apprehend the criminals as they make their way up to a rooftop to count their loot. As one criminal discusses his fear of being on the roof because of mysterious bat rumors, the other tells him that it’s all hogwash and that he needs to shut his mouth. That’s when Batman glides in behind them, ready to strike. The two criminals look up at a creature that they can’t fully identify. One opens fire and they see the bat creature fall to the ground. The fear reignites in their eyes as they see it menacingly rise off of the ground, presumably from the dead. After incapacitating one of them with a kick to the chest, he grabs the other and holds him above a ledge, as the bat creature asks him to tell all his criminal friends about him, and to be very afraid. “What are you?!” the criminal asks. The creature simply replies, “I’m Batman.” He sees Batman walk off the building, and the criminal scrambles to look over the ledge to see the Batman nowhere in sight.

This opening scene sets the tone for the film, and illustrates the brilliance of Michael Keaton’s Batman. This is a far cry from the campy ‘60s movie. While Adam West was a public servant, and Christian Bale was a ninja, Keaton is a creature that no criminal understands. No one even knows if he’s human, and by allowing himself to get shot, he creates the illusion that he can’t be killed when he rises from the ground. This iteration of Batman is fully committed to theatricality and mystery. Keaton’s portrayal is very effective at representing the tortured soul of Batman, how he feels completely obligated to fight crime because no one else can. He feels the need to avenge his parents, and his dedication to fighting crime has left him lonely and obsessive over his one goal. His motives had never been clearer, and the film also makes the wise call of making Bruce Wayne more of a recluse in this film than a playboy. While it is ridiculous writing that a man as famous as Wayne does not even have a picture on file at the newspaper for reporters to find, the idea of Wayne’s isolation as a character makes perfect sense in this movie. He is a man driven to fight crime no matter the personal sacrifice or threat to his own mental health, which happens to be pretty unstable throughout the movie.

More unstable is main villain Jack Napier, a nasty gangster that is sold out by mob boss Carl Grissom after Grissom learns that Napier is boning his girlfriend. Grissom sends Napier to clean out a front company, and then calls a Lieutenant that happens to be on his payroll to kill Jack. However, Batman turns up and ruins the operation. Napier opens fire at the Batman, who deflects the bullet sending it straight through Napier’s face. Napier then stumbles over a rail above a vat of chemicals. Batman extends his hand in an attempt to save him. In this scene you see a close up of Batman’s eyes. This creates ambiguity. It’s almost as if he recognizes the man that killed his parents, leaving the audience to decide whether he lost his grip or intentionally let the man go as Napier takes the plunge into the chemicals that will turn him from Jack to Joker. This is another point in which Keaton’s acting deserves praise. He’s able to convey so much emotion with only his eyes visible, something that he’d carry over to the next film.**

The film proceeds with a dark atmosphere, reminiscent of a noir story from the 1940s based on the clothing and set design. Gotham City is a very repressive setting because of all the Gothic architecture. The movie is grim. Napier transforms from a nasty gangster into a full on “homicidal artist”. Nicholson sells the material with great conviction, and manages to be simultaneously hilarious and absolutely terrifying. He strikes this crucial balance arguably better than even the late Heath Ledger, a tribute to the ethos Nicholson lends the picture. We see the Joker proceed with his plans of anarchy and death as the world’s greatest detective does all he can to stop him, culminating in a final steeple confrontation.

Since the Batman creates the Joker in this film, and Burton decides to make the flimsy and misguided creative decision to make the Joker the murderer of Wayne’s parents, a fundamental aspect of the movie is how these two characters are connected. They are two sides of the coin as Ace Frehley would say. They’re both highly motivated and highly intelligent characters set on achieving their own goals without any regard for the law, and they’re both a little crazy. Even after all Joker has done to him, after Batman knocks him off the bell tower, he still tries to save him by looking over the ledge, only to be surprised by the Joker and put into a precarious situation. While Joker does end up getting killed, it’s more of his own fault for not telling his chopper to land on the roof so he could detach the rope from his leg.

By no means is it a perfect film, there are some pacing issues with the third act dragging on too long, the Prince songs don’t work particularly well,*** the issue of Batman killing in this movie, and the fact that the cops don’t just arrest the Joker when he held the bicentennial in the streets after he announced it. Main love interest Vicki Vale is also completely disposable, as is proven by her absence in the second film with only a few sentences explaining where she went. Many of the secondary characters in this movie aren’t needed or even interesting, something remedied in the second film. The main draw of these pictures is the adversarial relationship between Batman and the Joker, good and evil. The first two Nolan Batman movies are ultimately better, but this movie has a 1980s charm and a personal directing style that makes it feel uniquely enjoyable, and it still holds up remarkably well today.

The film itself is highly stylized thanks to Tim Burton’s direction. It also has a camp factor that would disappear from superhero movies altogether after Sam Raimi’s very personal and excellent Spider-Man trilogy.  Camp isn’t necessarily bad, it’s actually very pleasing to see a movie acknowledge its own ridiculousness, and bask in it. Relish the goofiness in order to make a more entertaining picture. This actually feels like a Tim Burton movie, whereas many superhero movies today are devoid of any style or originality. They take themselves way too seriously, and sacrifice being fun. This movie manages to blend serious story telling while still acknowledging the inherent silliness of a man that fights crime dressed up like a bat.

When the time came for a follow up picture, Burton was initially not interested. He felt he had done all he could with Batman, until the studio offered him total creative control, something that he hadn’t had the first time around. If the first movie felt like a Tim Burton film, this one ups the ante by a factor of 100. This was an improvement in some areas, and a detriment in others. Tim Burton has never been overly concerned about a coherent plot, or the quality of the plot, tending to focus more on characterization and style. Batman Returns is arguably the most polarizing film in the Batman cannon, and it’s really easy to see why. Burton has little regard for the comic book origins of the characters, and decides to make the film in his own way more so than the first one. Because of this fact, both Michael Keaton and Tim Burton have expressed their preference for this sequel over the original.

A creative move like this would never be allowed today. There is no way that a studio would agree to a film so warped, dark and sexually charged. It takes place at Christmas time, to provide an interesting contrast to all the dark mayhem. Burton loves monsters, and his love of freaks is the engine of this second film. Danny DeVito plays the penguin, who is not the sleek slimy opportunist of the comics, but an actual deformed baby with flippers abandoned by his parents and raised by penguins in the sewers under Gotham City.  Now, if that sounds absolutely ridiculous it’s because it is. The suspension of disbelief in this movie is very high. As a matter of fact, to enjoy this movie you have to give in and let it all happen. The movie is absolutely absurd, but the imagination and the character development that went into making it is breathtaking and deserves appreciation.

The plot of the movie is ridiculous, and a little dumb. Cobblepot runs for mayor at the suggestion of corporate tycoon Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken) because Shreck knows he can control the Cobblepot in order to get his power plant built, that will ultimately suck power from Gotham so he can store it and sell it for a higher price. The citizens of Gotham line up behind the Penguin as a serious candidate after his gang creates chaos to make the current mayor look bad. He becomes a heartwarming story around Christmas time as he creates a public image of goodness by forgiving his deceased parents for abandoning him. Batman reveals Cobblepot for the sleazebag he is in public, and the city immediately turns on him. He responds by trying to kidnap their first born sons as he feels betrayed by his fellow humans and has abandonment issues from his parents. This movie isn’t really about the plot; few Tim Burton movies actually are. This movie succeeds in its own way because of the strength of the characters, and the affection with which Burton treats them. Penguin elicits great sympathy despite being an absolutely grotesque monster, because he was never given a chance. Businessman Shreck is the true monster, as the movie makes the point that not all monsters are disfigured, ugly, or even hated by their fellow man. As the Penguin himself puts it to Shreck “We’re both monsters, but you’re a well respected monster, and I am to date…not.” Shreck is the real monster, it is impossible to feel sympathy for him at all. The first time I saw this movie, I disliked it because of the outrageous plot and the high campiness factor despite being an even darker and more Gothic film that its predecessor. However, on subsequent viewings it became clear to me that the story in this movie is really just sandbox for the characters to play in, and they’re the main reason to watch the movie because they’re so damaged and complex. The movie is like a fairytale, ungrounded and not obeying the normal laws that govern reality. While the first Batman movie seemed to be a studio compromise with Burton’s vision, for better and worse Batman Returns is a true Burton piece of work.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Catwoman, who is licked back to life by alley cats (just go with it) after sifting through confidential files by her boss Max Shreck. There really is no competition, Pfeiffer is the definitive live action Catwoman, and the movie should have focused on her character more in the movie. Her suit in this movie is intimidating, and at the same time strangely alluring. Her antagonistic relationship with Batman is one of the most interesting parts of the movie, and her life as Selina Kyle with Bruce Wayne represents how uncomfortable the two are as themselves. Before becoming Catwoman, Kyle was a ditzy, timid, awkward secretary. Bruce Wayne, when not being Batman, looks uncomfortable in his own skin and the two together seem to sense there’s more to each other than a lonely secretary and a reclusive billionaire. This tension in the relationship comes to a head in the scene where they both show up to a costume party being the only two people seemingly not wearing costumes, because their day personas are their costumes. They both feel more comfortable as Batman and Catwoman than as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. You can see it in Keaton’s face as he stumbles around as Bruce Wayne, but looks right at home in the Batcave. It’s apparent in Pfeiffer when Batman implores her to spare Shreck’s life at the end in order to come and live with him. He rips off his cowl and tries to appeal to Selina Kyle as Bruce Wayne to live a normal life, but Kyle ultimately decides that she has to be Catwoman and “couldn’t live with myself” if she settled down again as the pushover Selina Kyle. The Penguin’s attempts to fit in and be accepted as mayor under his Cobblepot name are also thwarted, and he ultimately only reacts in anger because of the rejection, crying “I am not a human being, I am an animal!” This statement could be equally true for any of them. The three characters find different ways to handle their isolation, and they are all essentially animals that cannot be tamed. Catwoman knows that both she and Batman could never be content living together as Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne.

Possibly one of the best aspects of this movie I have yet to mention is the score. Danny Elfman brought his absolute best to the first movie, creating the definitive Batman theme and a fantastic score. He ups his game even more for this sequel, creating the perfectly dark and enchanting soundtrack to match the movie that elevates each scene to that surreal fairytale level that Burton seems to be operating on throughout the movie. The soundtrack is absolutely perfect, especially the sections that deal with the Penguin. They generate actual sympathy, and the theme that connects to him is melancholic. It achieves Burton’s goal of making you sympathize with the monster, because even as he commits all these egregious acts of violence and hate, the theme calls back to early in the movie where he was ostracized by his own parents at birth near Christmas time. The theme of the movie seems to be that people can only act in their own nature, and that society’s view of monsters is only skin deep. That is why Penguin can never truly be accepted, and Max Shreck can.

Despite the blatant disregard for the source material, I find both of Burton’s Batman pictures to be thoroughly enjoyable entertainment that contain enough thought provoking content to merit repeated viewings. Some people say that these movies are all style and no substance because of the stunning atmosphere yet underdeveloped plots, but those people fail to realize that the substance in these movies aren’t found in the plot, they lie in the complex characters, their motivations, and the superb acting that goes into portraying them. While I consider the first Batman to be the superior film in a traditional sense, Batman Returns is more enchanting, captivating, visually stunning, personal, and unrestrained. They both have their own merits that make ranking them a tough call. If I’m being objective I’d say…

Batman 3.5/5 stars

Batman Returns  3.25/5 stars

If I was to state my personal feelings and attachments to the movies…

Batman 4/5 stars

Batman Returns 3.75/5 stars

 

 

The Last Crusade, which ironically LeBrain reviewed for his Grade 11 Film Class essay, comparing and contrasting it with Steven Speilberg’s first film Duel.  And I lost a mark for using the word “picture” instead of “film”, which is why I applaud Holen MaGroin for describing it as a “picture”.

** Holen MaGroin has convinced LeBrain to watch these again soon, to pick up on all these things I apparently missed when I was a kid.

*** Before Prince fans get all medieval on Holen, let me point out:  he’s right.  Every time a Prince song comes on, it causes a mental “skip” in the brain.  Like, “Hey, it’s one of those Prince songs from the album.”

Blu-ray REVIEW: Family Guy – “It’s a Trap!” (2010)

FAMILY GUY – “It’s a Trap!” (2010 20th Century Fox)

First, they did Star Wars. Due to popular demand, they did Empire next.  And just as Jedi was the weakest of the original trilogy, so is Family Guy’s version.

The full 57 minute episode “It’s A Trap!”, available on its own for those who only like the Star Wars spoofs, follows the same concept as the first two.  Favourite Family Guy characters portray the legendary characters from Star Wars.  After two, though, the well seems rather dry.  Presumably running out of original characters, they peppered the cast with characters from both American Dad and The Cleveland Show.  Rollo Brown, Klaus the Fish and Roger the Alien are some of the characters making a Family Guy appearance in the Star Wars universe.

Still, it must have been awful dry in that well when they were writing this.

“It’s A Trap!” had moments that were as funny as any previous Family Guy Star Wars.  Then there were stretches that that were as dull and uninspired as Seth MacFarlane’s worst. It was very much a rocky ride, but luckily the good outweighed the bad in this episode.

Likes:

  • As always, the surprise of what characters are playing who (which I won’t spoil, google it if you must know).
  • Many celebrity cameos (again I won’t give you spoilers).
  • The Emperor rocked.
  • Looked awesome in 1080p.
  • Ample bonus features (similar to previous instalments). Even the Trivial Pursuit challenge was fun for one viewing.

Dislikes:

  • Boring Yoda.
  • One scene where Peter/Han snaps and torments three Imperial officers…just took it too far.
  • MacFarlane likes jokes that go on too long, but they didn’t work this time.

Pick it up and complete your trilogy.

Or, you know, just watch it on Netflix.

3/5 stars

And, no — there is next to a 0% chance that Disney will let Seth do any more Star Wars.

MOVIE REVIEW: Solo – A Star Wars Story [MINOR SPOILERS]

It is a lawless time.

CRIME SYNDICATES compete for resources – food, medicine, and HYPERFUEL.

On the shipbuilding planet of CORELLIA, the foul LADY PROXIMA forces runaways into a life of crime in exchange for shelter and protection.

On these mean streets, a young man fights for survival, but yearns to fly among the stars….

SOLO: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Directed by Ron Howard

We are dangerously close to Star Wars overkill.  With the announcement of:

  1. A new trilogy helmed by so-so director Rian Johnson.
  2. A new trilogy brought to you by the folks who gave us Game of Thrones.
  3. A live action TV series from Jon Favreau.
  4. And not to mention more Star Wars Story spinoffs (Obi-Wan? Boba?) and the only movie that really matters: the final chapter of the Skywalker Saga, Episode IX.

We are very close to oversaturation indeed.  Remember when you had to wait three years between movies and much longer between trilogies?

Fortunately, Solo is a welcome addition to the crowded Star Wars family.

Solo was one of the spinoffs conceived by George Lucas before he abandoned ship.  He’d been trying to do “young Han” since at least Revenge of the Sith, when he was pictured in concept art as an orphan raised by Wookiees.  Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) and son Jon wrote Solo, so you can be assured there is a level of authenticity here.  Who better to write that space scoundrel?  Nobody.

And who better to direct than Ron Howard?  He came in under difficult circumstances after the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, re-shot 70% of the movie, and pretty much nailed it too.  Howard also brought in some of his regulars (brother Clint Howard and Paul Bettany) and threw in a literal ton of Star Wars references and crossovers.  Solo is Easter Egg heaven.

Finally, composer John Powell created a soundtrack that is different yet founded in the Star Wars universe.  Powell hybridized new and old themes together into a memorable score.  He too included Easter Eggs, in his music.  Listen closely when [SPOILER] the marauder Enfys Nest and her gang arrives.  Powell utilised a children’s choir, as a clue foreshadowing Enfys’ young age under the mask.

Everybody was worried about lead actor Alden Ehrenreich as Solo.  Admit it, you were too.  Fear not, for young Ehrenreich (who is signed on for three films) nailed the role.  His higher voice is the only niggle that consistently reminds you that he’s not the Han you remember.  Similarly, Donald Glover fits into Lando Calrissian’s capes comfortably, including the suave talkin’.  Billy Dee Williams should be very happy with the new Lando.

The concept of Han as an orphan is retained, but instead of being raised by Wookiees, his backstory is more aligned with the old Star Wars novels.  He is a thief on planet Corellia, where he and girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) try to stay under the Empire’s nose.  Corellia is a shipbuilding world with huge, expansive scenes of Star Destroyers under construction.  When Han and Qi’ra are separated, he joins the Empire, as he did in the comics.

Han wanted to be a pilot, but got stationed in the muddy trenches to quell an uprising on planet Mimban.  Han, you see, isn’t the best at taking orders.  While enlisted on Mimban, he meets Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his best friend to be, Chewbacca (now played by Joonas Suotamo).  Solo is swept into the seedy world of organised crime where he is delighted to catch up to Qi’ra, and is introduced to her boss played by Paul Bettany.  They both work for the dark, shadowy crime syndicate Crimson Dawn.

From an exciting pulse-pounding train heist to the Millenium Falcon, Solo keeps things moving.  It’s one big set piece after another, including the Kessel Run.  And yes, they used the novels as the source material.  The Falcon does indeed make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, getting a little beat up in the process.  By the end of the film, she’ll look a little more like the ship you remember.

The plot has its twists but you can foresee that some backs are going to get stabbed.  Han’s backstory is over-explained a bit too much for a single film, but there is still enough left to explore should Solo 2 be somewhere in pipe.  The truth is, the first viewing of Solo is less paying attention to the plot, and more looking for cameos.  Speaking of which, characters tie Solo into movies as diverse as Rogue One and The Phantom Menace.  You’ll see some stirrings of the early Rebellion, and Han’s intrinsic sense of right and wrong.  You might even see a giant “fuck you” to the Star Wars special editions.  [SPOILER] Han is definitely a “shoot first” kind of guy.

Things get a little muddled with a side character (Lando’s droid L3-37 played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) with a passion for droid’s rights.  Perhaps a droid-based Star Wars movie would be interesting for the future, but it was extraneous here.  Solo is best when it’s giving you a tour of the Star Wars universe, from crime lords to the trenches on the front lines of the Empire.  Trench warfare on Mimban is directly inspired by the muddy fields of World War 1, and it’s far better than any of the Clone Wars stuff in Revenge of the Sith.

Unlike The Last Jedi, a spinoff movie doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.  In many measures, the pressure was off.  Solo aims to be a fun movie that requires no connections to the Force or Skywalker family.  It’s a shame that it has not performed well, but that is not a reflection on its quality.

3.75/5 stars