Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

 

 

It’s been a strong year for mainstream animated movies. Toy Story 3, How To Train Your Dragon, Tangled, and Megamind all range from good to great, with varying degrees of inventiveness and warm humor. Despicable Me is no exception.

It’s true that Despicable Me’s story of an evil genius whose heart grows in size is also one told by Megamind. [Read my review!] It doesn’t have to be a competition, and I like both, but especially writing this after having seen both, it’s hard not to mentally link the two. Despicable Me had the advantage of getting to theaters earlier on the calendar, but the two are distinct enough that there’s room for both, and any similarities that the two share are ingratiating.

For one thing, the sensibility and the voice cast of both movies is completely dominated by the comedy boom of the last ten years, for which we can thank comedy masterminds such as Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, and the Upright Citizens Brigade. Watch this:

Despicable Me features the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Ken Jeong, Mindy Kaling, Jemaine Clement, Rob Huebel, and Danny McBride (among others).

By contrast, Megamind features Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Justin Theroux, and Ben Stiller. Not much of a contrast! Most of these people have worked together in all kinds of permutations over the last several years – not that I’m complaining one bit, mind you.

The ubiquitous Hans Zimmer is also present as composer on the scores of both movies – again, not a problem for me because I like what he does. And it plays out differently, primarily because Zimmer is joined by hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams. It’s a nice change-up from the usual orchestral thunderings in movies of this kind: Pharrell adds a jaunty playfulness to the sound of Despicable Me that makes it just different enough to be interesting. [Here’s the main theme.]

Another main difference comes from the sensibilities of the two vocal stars: Whereas the villainous Megamind initially has a lot in common with the mock-arrogance of many of Will Ferrell’s characters, Steve Carell’s Gru is a little sadder and lonelier. It helps that he looks not unlike the Danny DeVito version of the Penguin. Gru is more efficient and effective than most of Steve Carell’s more clueless characters (Michael Scott from The Office, Brick Tamland from Anchorman), and in fact he’s got a better shot than most supervillains do at achieving his villainous goals – in this case, stealing the moon. But there’s something missing. He has a mad-scientist sidekick (Russell Brand, surprisingly decent at playing a character other than himself) and an army of yellow rubbery Minions (kind of the Smurfs to Gru’s Gargamel, and by far the most memorable scene-stealers of the movie), but there’s a younger, nastier supervillain (Vector, voiced by Jason Segel) trying to steal his thunder, and Gru is losing his top-dog status. The moon heist is to be his last great grab at the supervillain gold, but the lack of an emotional connection to humanity – he has flashbacks to failed attempts at impressing his mother, voiced by none other than Julie Andrews – somehow seems to be sapping his mojo.

In a bid to derail Vector’s competing schemes, Gru comes up with the idea to adopt three orphan girls, so that he can teach them how to sneak into Vector’s lair, under the guise of selling Girl Scout cookies, so that they can help to steal the younger villain’s secrets. Instead, they steal Gru’s heart. Sorry, did that sound corny? It doesn’t play that way, although it occasionally comes close, and of course having three young girls involved in a war between two evil masterminds does necessarily reduce some of Despicable Me’s more manic possibilities. This isn’t a movie for adults, it’s not meant to have the anarchy of a Wile E. Coyote/ Roadrunner cartoon – it’s a family movie, and understanding that makes it easier to get into the portions of the story where sentiment gnaws at the edges. But the kid characters are more scrappy and likable than most (someone’s been taking notes from Pixar) and when all else fails, Steve Carell’s surprisingly-undistracting silly-accented vocal performance and the sponge-y, skittery Minions liven up the movie with an unusual, off-kilter sense of humor.

In a year that had its share of A’s, it’s popular to dismiss the B-plus’s. But Despicable Me is a whole lot of fun, and when it comes time for you to watch a kid’s movie, if it’s possible you could do better, it’s also possible that you can do plenty worse. If more movies worked as hard to be entertaining (and succeeded as often) as Despicable Me does, then the overall movie landscape would be a much better place.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

 

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From here on out, I’m just going to refer to Lockout by my preferred title of Space Prison, if you don’t mind too much.  Lockout sounds like a GI Joe code name, and a movie as brutishly high-concept as this one demands to be named as on-the-snout as possible.

I loved it, by the way.  I know it can get confusing, but when I call a movie “stupid” it’s not always a putdown (or a lockout.).  In local parlance here in the multiplexes of New York City, to exclaim “Yo that shit is stupid, son!” does indeed imply that a movie has some inherent stupidity, which Space Prison has in abundance, but it also connotes that said stupidity is very enjoyable, which Space Prison also is.

Space Prison was co-written and directed by the team of Saint + Mather, otherwise known as the Irish filmmakers Stephen Saint-Leger and James Mather, who got hired off the strength of their pretty cool short film, Prey Alone.

The man who hired them, basically, was Luc Besson, the writer-director who has made action films as influential as La Femme Nikita and Léon (The Professional) but has had an even more prolific career as a producer of  films of drastically varying quality, including Taken, Columbiana, the District 13 movies, the Transporter movies, and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada.  (!!!)  Here Besson wrote the script with Saint + Mather based on his original idea, which, as you can tell from the title I am insisting on, Space Prison, is about a space prison.  The idea is that in the near future, the nation’s worst criminals are put into cryo-sleep and stored about a facility which orbits the Earth.  When they get woken up and abduct a member of the Presidential family, the last-ditch effort of the authorities in charge is to send in a lone man, a specialist, to get in and get out.

Call it Star Wars meets HBO’s Oz.  Call it Demolition Man meets Escape From New York, In Space.  Just don’t call it late for dinner.  This movie is hungry and what it likes best to eat is scenery.  In a lighter-hearted turn than he usually gets to take, Guy Pearce (LA Confidential, Memento, The Proposition) is a lot of fun as a cantankerous rogue named Snow, which I think is the Eskimo word for “Snake Plisskin.”  Snow is a captive of the future government, wrongfully imprisoned, about to be shipped off-planet to a state-of-the-art jail in Earth’s orbit.  You can tell he doesn’t play by the rules because he wears a T-shirt that reads “Warning: Offensive” and he sneers a lot. 

Not a lot of movie action heroes would be caught dead wearing a novelty T-shirt, but I guess on the sliding scale of novelty T-shirts, “Warning: Offensive” is a touch witter than “I’m With Stupid” and a touch classier than “I Fucked Your Girlfriend.”

So this guy Snow is introduced as he’s being beat up by police-state thugs.  That’s the title sequence, for the record.  Every time Snow takes a punch, his head drops out of frame, and then another screen credit comes up.  How can you not immediately warm up to a movie that starts that way?  

Elsewhere, while Snow is taking his lumps, the plot starts happening.  The President’s daughter (Maggie Grace from Taken) is making a standard publicity visit to the Space Prison.  When one escapes and frees the others and she’s taken hostage by armies of belligerent convicts, that’s when her dad, Liam Neeson, springs into action.  He has a very particular set of skills, skills he has acquired over a very long career…

…Sorry, wrong Luc-Besson-produced movie.

No, instead, Snow’s adversary, Langral, agrees to send Snow on a suicide mission to infiltrate the Space Prison as the inmate he was slated to be anyway, and instead bring Future Chelsea back to safety.  This standard officious-prick character, apparently a Southerner, is played by all-purpose-European Peter Stormare, a great character actor whose strength is not accents.  Hey wait:

Somebody asked Peter Stormare to do a Southern accent for this movie.

Somebody asked Londoner Idris Elba to do a Southern accent in Prometheus.

Neither Southern accent is a good fit.

Guy Pearce is in both movies.

Coincidence?

Or space-conspiracy?

Anyway, when it comes to Space Prison I know you guys are still stuck on thinking about Escape From New York, but let me just tell you that this guy Snow escapes from New York in the first ten minutes of the movie.  See?  Totally different.  He gets on board the Space Prison and almost immediately gets into a zero-gravity fight scene that actually reminded me a lot of that “Burp, Charlie! Burp!” routine from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.   

That’s the thing about this movie, for everything that feels a bit fresh about Space Prison — such as the “voice sensor” grenades which are throwable explosives that are sound-activated (like the Clapper!) — there’s an equal and opposite moment that feels like a blatant and occasionally bizarre reference to a movie you’ve seen many times already.  If you watch Space Prison expecting it to be as hardcore serious and straight-up badass as Escape From New York or Die Hard or No Escape or Lock-Up or any of the other cool movies it owes a beer to, you’ll see it as a missed opportunity.  It’s such a silly movie that as long as you’re willing to go with the silliness, you’ll have fun. 

I mean, let’s talk about the villains.  They’re supposed to be these horrible felons, the worst of the worst, murderers and rapists, but at the same time everyone cracks jokes as if they they share ghost-writers with Dane Cook.  All of the bad guys look like they come from that Marvel Comics storyline back in the 1990s where all the X-Men had tattoos and scars and everybody carried guns and knives. 

The main bad guy, “Alex”, looks like that hilariously awful X-Men character Cable.

 

Even Guy Pearce looks like he was drawn by Todd McFarlane or something in this movie.  He looks like he was redrawn to look like Brad Pitt, or like Liev Schreiber (but only in X-Men Origins: Wolverine).  Check it out — there are literally a couple of scenes where you can see him thinking, “I’ve uttered words written by Brian Helgeland, the Nolan brothers, and bloody Nick Cave, and now… I’m not doing that at all.”

Space Prison is an enjoyable, energetic, good-looking movie, and I had a good time, but let’s face it, there’s a climactic scene where the main characters literally jump out of space and land safely on what looks for all the world like Southern California’s 10 Freeway.  (The story started out in New York, remember?)  It’s a very, very stupid movie.  In the press notes for the movie, Stephen St. Leger talks about Billy Wilder being a pivotal influence on the interplay between Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace, and also says that “The relationship between Emilie and Snow brings to mind Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. In other words, two polar opposites who are forced to get along.”  Which is great.  Even the press notes are stupid.  To watch Space Prison, you’d have guessed they had John Carpenter on the brain, but it turns out it was John Huston all along.

But hey, they can’t all be The African Queen.  Not even the ones that apparently wanted to be.

Shout at me on Twitter, son!  @jonnyabomb

 

Review originally filed to CHUD.com.

Been thinking about the 3-D format lately, due to Hugo.  Seems a good reason to review some thoughts from two years back. 

Avatar is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, even though you’ve absolutely seen this story many times before.  Is that a coy contradiction?  Is it a negative statement?  I hope not.  I think you can love something while still seeing and understanding its flaws.  Bottom line up top:  I loved watching Avatar and I entirely recommend the experience.  I saw Avatar on the IMAX screen in 3-D, and I can’t imagine wanting to see it any other way.  This movie is meant to play big.  It’s supposed to fill your peripheral vision and take you to places no one’s ever been.  It does that.  It takes you to an imaginary planet called Pandora, drops you directly into the atmosphere, and alongside lead character Jake Sully, forces you to experience a new world for the first time.  The world is convincingly detailed and absorbing.  If only for the thorough immersion in a foreign landscape it affords – hell, if only for the strange and intimidating animals that populate it – Avatar is a good movie, even a special one.  But is it a great movie?  I’m not sure.  What we ask our greatest movies to do is to make us believe in things that aren’t real and to care about characters who never were.  For the most part, Avatar made me believe.  I only wish it could’ve made me care more.  That didn’t stop me from loving the movie, but it does keep me from loving it unconditionally.

James Cameron has entertained and influenced a generation of film nerds.  I’m very much one of them.  His two Terminator films, in particular, are a model of how to balance explosive action filmmaking with relatable and sympathetic characters.  Aliens, his entry in the Alien franchise, remains my personal favorite of the four.  The Abyss is an underrated film, full of suspense and wonder and blessed with arguably Cameron’s best lead actor, Ed Harris. True Lies remains a pleasant diversion, a mix of old-school Hollywood playfulness and new-school Hollywood spectacle.  Titanic is not my favorite of his movies, but a serious filmmaker wouldn’t overlook Cameron’s ability to mix effects with story and to orient both characters and audience in a believable landscape.  If you’re interested in action cinema, it’s foolish to overlook Cameron.  He’s just plain a canon filmmaker when it comes to action and believable sci-fi environments.  One could convincingly argue that he’s not much of a writer of dialogue, as Titanic in particular suggests, and Avatar unfortunately corroborates, but Cameron can make the places seem real in a way that few other filmmakers can, to the point where it’s easy to forgive the frequent clichés of speech.

What makes Avatar a problematic movie is that the clichés extend beyond the dialogue to the story itself.  A corrupt, greedily imperialistic society sends a pale-faced emissary into harm’s way – the hero gets to know and fall in love with a native culture of differently-colored people who worship more earthly and simple spiritual things.  Because this is a Hollywood film, that love is personified in female form.  While the hero proves himself and wins over the family of his love interest, she has another suitor who becomes his fierce rival.  Eventually, the hero is faced with the decision to stand with his adopted culture or to return to the civilization he once knew.  A friend of mine described Avatar as “Dances With Wolves on mescaline.”  He’s right, and it’s unavoidable:  Dances With Wolves is certainly a movie that Avatar thematically resembles to a tee, but this kind of stuff goes all the way back to John Ford and Anthony Mann (see Broken Arrow), and has only continued and proliferated, in the Western genre particularly, as feelings of racial apology have increased over the years.  It’s not limited to Westerns and Native Americans – movies as diverse in content as Witness, The Fast And The Furious, and The Karate Kid Part 2 all traffic in similar scenarios – but Avatar so specifically evokes the Native American situation that it just has to be discussed in any serious discussion of the movie.  The Na’vi, the nine-foot-tall blue-skinned alien race who are at the center of Avatar, ride horse-like creatures barebacked, wear their hair in ponytails and their loincloths in thongs, and pray gently to creatures they’ve killed for food.  Their leader is played by Wes Studi, Hollywood’s go-to Native American actor, who really deserves to work more often in more varied parts.  (His wife is played by CCH Pounder and his chosen successor played by Laz Alonzo, both great African-American actors whose casting adds another layer of racial confusion to the film.)

My issue is this:  The treatment of the Native American people by the United States is something that this country has never properly addressed.  It involves crimes of race and history that there may never be any atoning for, even if atonement were possible.   It’s not an escapist topic.  You can’t disappear into a movie if you’re thinking of the mistreatment of the Native American people throughout the entire movie.  If Cameron wanted to probe these questions with Avatar, he should have acknowledged the complexity of the issue.  Unfortunately, when it comes to matters of race and history, Avatar’s conclusions are disappointingly simplistic.  I don’t want to spoil any of the plot details here, so if you disagree with me, please feel free to let me know in the comments or at the provided addresses where we can continue the discussion.  But when I started thinking about the politics of Avatar, I started to think that it makes District 9 look like all the more of an impressive achievement.  If you feel the need to slip real-world subtext into your escapist science-fiction film, you ought to make sure it’s subtext worth stating (or re-stating) in the first place.

The other, possibly greater, problem for me in unreservedly adoring Avatar is that its lead characters didn’t resonate within me as deeply as the protagonists of earlier Cameron films did.  Since there is a love story at the heart of Avatar, this is a problem.  Think of the tragic one-night-only true love of Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in The Terminator, the fierce maternal instinct that bonds Ripley to Newt in Aliens, Virgil Brigman pleading with Lindsey Brigman to return to life in The Abyss, young John Connor pleading with the T-800 not to leave in Terminator 2, even Jack risking everything for Rose in Titanic.  Some writers believe that an audience must fall in love with the two participants in a movie love story in order to truly buy into it.  I suppose that’s true, but for me, all I ask is that when I watch the movie, I believe that the two people love each other.  I’m no Kate Winslet fan, but DiCaprio makes me believe that he loves her in Titanic, so I cared.  I certainly believed in and related to all of the other examples I’ve just quoted.  I really can’t say the same for Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

She’s nine feet tall, blue, and as much like a cat as a person.  He’s confined to a wheelchair and quintessentially human.  The one moment where they appear in frame together, a dramatic moment late in the game, is unavoidably humorous.  I was taking the movie pretty seriously by then and I still couldn’t suppress a chuckle.  A Woody Allen/Diane Keaton moment at best.  Short guy/tall chick is just internally received as comedy by modern filmgoers; that’s just how it is.  Believe me, as a vertically challenged man myself, I wish it weren’t.

Here now, some words from James Cameron himself, in the pages of this month’s Maxim, when asked about how much effort was put into making Neytiri look hot:

“…We figured the story wouldn’t work if you didn’t want to do her.”

 That’s a somewhat telling statement.  I will admit that I spent about an hour searching for a glimpse of blue nipple, but to me, the most exciting moment of the movie in that regard was when Michelle Rodriguez showed up in that tank top.  And I’m not much of a Michelle Rodriguez guy.  In other words, when it comes to the giant blue cat lady, I don’t want to “do her.” At all.  So I guess the story doesn’t really work.  As talented and convincing as the voice actors are and as brilliantly believable as the movements of the Na’vi are, there are still moments where you break free of the illusion and remember that you are watching a computer-aided performance.  For me personally, that moment was the sex scene.  Again, I chuckled ever so briefly – I felt for a moment like the entire packed theater was watching that weird Japanese anime porn.  The thought of that scene scored to the end-credits Leona Lewis love ballad just seemed comical to me.  As much as I liked everything else about the movie, I just wasn’t hot for the cat lady.  I didn’t take her seriously enough.  Ultimately, nothing beats the real un-animated Zoe Saldana.  And so on.

 

All of that constructive criticism out of the way, there is so much about Avatar that I loved.  The magnitude of imagination on display from Cameron and his technical crew is astoundingly thorough.  I loved the meticulous design of the various spaceships, equipment, and weapons.  Predictably, I loved the creatures the most.  At its most transcendent moments, Avatar feels like an Animal Planet documentary filmed in your wildest dreams.  I loved the dragon birds and the snake panthers and the rhino dinosaurs and the jellyfish spirits.  The human cast is uniformly good, despite my earlier stated reservations about how some of them were used.  In particular, I loved seeing Sigourney Weaver in a movie like this again – there are few actors who can be so firm and sympathetic and genuine amidst such unbelievable backgrounds.  And those backgrounds, particularly in the IMAX/3-D format, are breath-taking.  You truly feel the depth and scope of the world created.  As dangerous as the jungles and skies of Pandora prove to be, you still feel like diving right in.  That’s not just a case of me loving the format – the craft gone into the movie is what achieves that; the format only accentuates the effect.  Cameron has done something special here.

Avatar is a movie that demands to be seen by everyone who truly loves movies.  It’s one transitional moment in a probable string of many future transitional moments for this mode of mass entertainment.  The writer in me sees the flaws, small controversies, and problem areas, but the rest of me is damned if any of that stops me from enjoying what was otherwise such a great trip to the movies.

[December 20, 2009]

http://twitter.com/jonnyabomb

BAMcinématek is running a somewhat surprising film series between July 11th and July 19thA tribute to screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who authored or co-authored or worked on some of the more influential films of the last couple decades in horror and science-fiction.  O’Bannon has credits on John Carpenter’s first movie, Dark Star, along with Paul Verhoeven’s unforgettable Total Recall, Tobe Hooper’s Invaders From Mars (which I haven’t seen), John Badham’s Blue Thunder (which I haven’t seen), and his own Return Of The Living Dead, which he also directed.  Return Of The Living Dead is an important flick when it comes to the zombie genre, because it has this guy (who is probably the source of the zombies-eat-brains guideline), it’s one of the first scary movies to be more of a comedy than anything else, and because of its insane gonzo ending.  But probably O’Bannon’s greatest contribution to the canon is his work on the script for 1979’s Alien, which is playing this Monday July 11th and which you absolutely must see, ideally on Monday on the big screen.

Here’s a few words I once wrote about Alien

 

Alien is science-fiction before it’s anything (future, spaceships, aliens = sci-fi) – but it plays like straight-up horror.  It’s a haunted-house movie, a ghost story, but one where the supernatural being who is stalking a trapped bunch of people also happens to be an alien.  And it’s an alien of a kind no one’s ever seen in movies before or since. The Alien, as designed by HR Giger, is one of the iconic movie monsters, one of the few monster icons from the second half of the twentieth century. And Sigourney Weaver is the ultimate “last girl” – like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, she plays a character of depth and resourcefulness that is rare for genre films.  She’s a true survivor.  Well, her and the cat.  Good old Jonesy…

This movie is so crucial, for so many reasons.

It brought a gloss to horror and a new prestige to sci-fi, and it’s the movie that truly launched director Ridley Scott’s career.  It has [at least] one of the great shocks in movie history.  It has one of the great female leads in action, sci-fi, horror, whatever.  And it’s the movie that established how the Aliens are cat people rather than dog people.

Like I said: crucial.

 

Find me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb