#59 - BAT BOY ADOPTS ALIEN BIGFOOT BABY!
1979 - 2007
If we can call a moratorium on the deaths of filmmaking legends for awhile, maybe the Electric Theatre can get back to the business of reviewing movies. There’s a few to catch up with this week but first, a word or two on a passing that’s almost as heartbreaking to me as any I’ve written about: this week’s dedicatee, the Weekly World News.
Self-described as “the world’s only reliable newspaper”, WWN has been a supermarket fixture for pretty much as long as I can remember. It was recently announced that the print version would be ceasing publication, with no real explanation given and contradictory reports over the fate of the paper’s website. No doubt it’s something as mundane as falling circulation, although I prefer to believe that one of their stories came a little too close to the truth and a sinister cabal of Men in Black had them shut down.
Either way, this couldn’t come at a worse time for America. As we enter another election cycle, how will we be able to cast our votes without knowing which candidate has been endorsed by the Space Alien? Where will we turn to find out where the face of Satan has appeared? And what of Bigfoot, the Merpeople, and the world’s fattest animals and people? If there is a silver lining to the demise of the Weekly World News, perhaps now Bat Boy can finally lead the quiet, normal life he’s always longed for, without the ceaseless hounding of WWN’s reporters that have followed him since he was discovered in a cave lo these many years ago.
I hope the Weekly World News continues online or, better yet, is discovered years from now frozen in a block of ice…ALIVE!!! But for me and the rest of WWN’s loyal fans, standing in the check-out line just got a whole lot more ordinary.
NOW IN THEATRES
The A-Picture - Sunshine
As limitless as the possibilities of science fiction are, the movies tend to rely on three basic subgenres: aliens, cyberpunk/virtual reality, and space travel. Of these, my favorite is probably space travel, in part because it’s tackled so infrequently. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is an ambitious, worthy attempt at crafting a serious sci-fi drama with almost as much emphasis on hard science as fiction. In fact, it comes so close to being a truly great film that its shortcomings are all the more frustrating. Cillian Murphy stars as a scientist aboard a manned mission to our dying sun, with the objective of reigniting it using a massive bomb. Turns out this is actually Earth’s second attempt at doing this, as the original mission disappeared without a trace seven years earlier. When the crew receives a distress signal from the first ship, they must decide whether to go on with the mission as planned or detour to salvage the other bomb and possibly look for survivors. What’s disappointing about Sunshine is that Alex Garland’s story is pretty standard issue, especially if you’ve ever seen an SF movie or read an SF novel before. This is particularly evident in the first and final acts, which combined feel like a mash-up between Solaris and Event Horizon (or, as I prefer to think of it, Hellraiser In Space). But these flaws are comparatively minor to what Boyle and company do right. The cast is top-notch, creating characters who feel not just like individuals but like actual astronauts. The real surprise is Chris Evans who, in one fell swoop, earned my complete and total forgiveness for two crappy Fantastic Four movies. And when Sunshine is firing on all cylinders, as in the spectacular sequence where Murphy and ship’s captain Hiroyuki Sanada go outside to repair some broken solar panels, it holds its own with any science fiction movie I’ve ever seen, up to and including 2001: A Space Odyssey. Is it necessarily fair to complain that Sunshine isn’t as good as 2001? Not necessarily, although at its best it feels as though it could have been. As it stands, it’s a strong contender for one of the year’s best movies and easily one of the best of the summer. Seek it out and go.
(* * * ½)
The Bourne Ultimatum
Summer must be winding down as the last two Part Threes of the season get reviewed here this week. The Bourne series has revealed itself to be one of the more pleasant surprises of recent years with every entry a solidly entertaining spy thriller. The Bourne Ultimatum is happily no exception and if it isn’t the marked improvement over its predecessor that Supremacy was to Identity, it’s still very, very good. Matt Damon is back as amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, still not sure who he is and still pissed off over the murder of girlfriend Franka Potente in the last movie (I sympathize with you on that one, Bourne old buddy). This time, his travels take him across Europe and back home to Manhattan where he finally gets the answers he’s been seeking, no thanks to this year’s CIA bad guy, played by David Strathairn. As in Supremacy, Paul Greengrass directs the action sequences with you-are-there urgency, creating fight sequences and car chases that could only have more impact if the ushers were actually throwing things at you from the back of the theatre. Damon once again proves himself to be a solid action star (remember when the idea of an action movie starring Matt Damon sounded like a bad joke?). If The Bourne Ultimatum has a flaw, it’s that it’s basically the exact same movie as the last two. But this is only a problem if you didn’t like either of those. I did and I enjoyed Ultimatum just as much. However, now that Jason Bourne’s story has been told, I kind of hope the series is put to bed. Bourne isn’t Bond, no matter how much Universal would like it to be, and these three movies stand as a near-perfect action trilogy. For once, I’d like to see a studio let something run its course and end. (* * * ½)
Stardust is based on an illustrated fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman, a writer whose work I alternately find endlessly fascinating (as in his epic run on Vertigo Comics’ Sandman or, my favorite of his works, the graphic novel Mr. Punch) and irritatingly precious (see the BBC miniseries and/or novel Neverwhere). I haven’t read Stardust but based on the movie, I suspect it would fall into the latter camp. Charlie Cox stars as Tristan, a young man in unrequited love with a shallow, vacuous blonde (Sienna Miller). To prove his love, he vows to cross the wall the separates his village from the magical land that borders it, retrieve a fallen star and bring it back. Turns out the star took the form of Claire Danes when it touched down and she’s not all that keen on being an engagement present. The two of them embark on the journey back, pursued by an evil witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) who wants the star’s heart for its magical properties and a prince (Mark Strong) who needs to retrieve the ruby that knocked Danes out of the sky to begin with in order to claim the throne. For something like this to work on screen, it needs the visual flair of someone like Terry Gilliam, whose The Adventures of Baron Munchausen offers an infinitely superior version of similar material. Director Matthew Vaughn doesn’t have that touch and everything on screen in Stardust is shockingly ordinary, a far cry from the magic and wonder that the plot description would seem to promise. Cox is an amiable enough screen presence but Tristan isn’t much of a hero. He often seems distracted and forgetful of what it is he was seeking in the first place. He also never seems to be all that impressed by the strange sights he’s seeing, including a flying ship crewed by pirates who harvest lightning led by Robert De Niro, who at least seems to be having a good time camping it up. Ricky Gervais turns up too briefly in a funny cameo and both Pfeiffer and Danes turn in entertaining performances. But while the movie sparks a bit toward the end, most of what we see is nothing new. At best, Stardust is a mildly entertaining throwback to the short-lived fantasy cycle of the 1980s that included such non-classics as Legend, Ladyhawke and The NeverEnding Story, down to a truly awful end credits power ballad. If that’s your cup of tea, knock yourself out. (* * ½)
Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex - Rush Hour 3
If there has ever been a good second sequel to an action/comedy/buddy cop franchise, I haven’t seen it. Lethal Weapon 3, Beverly Hills Cop III, and now Rush Hour 3 all prove that franchises like this need to die sooner rather than later. This time Lee and Carter (Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker yet again) go to Paris to uncover the secret identities of the leaders of the Chinese Triads. Why Carter is allowed to go or even allowed to keep his job is never made clear but who cares when there’s kung fu to be fought and exotic international babes to hit on. This is rote, depressingly generic stuff. The comedy trades on clichés and stereotypes so cartoonish that to be offended by them would be giving them too much credit. The stunts and action scenes are bland, coming nowhere near the level of Jackie Chan’s best work. Pretty much everybody seems bored and Chris Tucker in particular should really just stop making movies altogether at this point. He’s obviously not that interested in the work, having made nothing but Rush Hour movies since hitting the big time with the original way back in 1998, so he should just stop. Certainly if he was planning to make Rush Hour 4 his next project, he won’t be missed. (*)
NOW ON DVD
The A-Picture (DVD Version) - The Lives of Others
I missed Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning The Lives of Others when it had its theatrical run, but had I seen it I would have been sorely tempted to find a place for it on my list of last year’s best films. Ulrich Mühe (who sadly died just a couple weeks ago) gives an amazing performance as a member of the East German secret police. He oversees the surveillance of a seemingly non-controversial playwright (played by Sebastian Koch, as good here as he was in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book) and slowly begins to have misgivings about the government’s motives for spying. The Lives of Others bears certain similarities to Coppola’s The Conversation but its setting, in pre-glasnost East Germany behind the Berlin Wall, gives it a weight and atmosphere that hasn’t been seen much in films until now. Mühe’s performance is pitch-perfect, a solitary man who has had total conviction in the rightness of his actions and is so effective in his work because he can blend into the background almost completely. The Lives of Others is a methodically paced but riveting film that I highly recommend you catch up with now that it’s on disc. (* * * ½)
From Emilio Estevez, director of Wisdom and Men At Work, comes this odd, ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful dramatization of the day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen of L.A.’s now-sadly-demolished Ambassador Hotel. This was clearly a personal project for Estevez and I admire what he was trying to do, following twenty-some characters whose lives all revolved around the Ambassador that day. Unfortunately, Estevez’s own screenplay often lets him down. Every subplot has its high-school-social-studies connection to "the turbulent 60s" and while there are moments of power and emotion, too many of them ring hollow. The all-star cast is generally good but none of them disappear into their roles, so we end up with a parade of famous faces awkwardly wearing period styles. As each actor makes their entrance, it momentarily kicks you out of the movie as you say, “Hey, that’s Sharon Stone! Hey, that’s Demi Moore! Hey, that’s Lindsay Lohan! Hey, that’s Shia LaBeouf!” And if you think that’s annoying, try saying it twenty more times and you’ll get the idea of how jarring it really is. The moments that work in Bobby are good enough that it’s doubly frustrating when the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to them. However, I respect Emilio Estevez for even trying a project of this scope and I’m very pleased that this was one of the last movies shot in the oft-filmed Ambassador before it was torn down. It was once a glorious hotel and I’m glad that we got a chance to see it one last time.
(* * ½)
Kansas City Bomber
Sometimes a mere plot description can’t do justice to a movie but in cases like this, it pretty well sums things up. Raquel Welch plays roller derby star K.C. Carr, groomed for stardom by manager Kevin McCarthy but troubled by friction between her teammates and her life as a single mom. Basically all you need to know, right? This is a fun but non-essential 70s movie with some exciting moments on the skating rink, although they don’t make much sense if you don’t know the rules of roller derby since Kansas City Bomber makes no effort at explaining them. Raquel is surprisingly effective and if nothing else, the movie is worth watching for Norman Alden’s sweet performance as K.C.’s teammate Horrible Hank. But if you’re already convinced that you don’t want to watch a Raquel Welch rollerskating movie, nothing here will prove you wrong. (* * *)
The Last American Hero
Jeff Bridges, arguably America’s most underrated actor, delivers a solid early performance as Junior Jackson, a good ole boy who learned to drive running moonshine for his daddy. When pops is sent to jail for a spell, Junior tries racing to earn some extra cash and not surprisingly, becomes a champ. This is apparently a heavily fictionalized version of the real Junior Jackson’s life and as an action movie, it’s badly dated. But the movie’s structure and characterizations make it interesting, particularly Valerie Perrine’s role as car groupie Marge and Art Lund as Junior’s dad. (* * ½)
Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex (DVD Version) - Copying Beethoven
This is not a proper review because frankly, I couldn’t be bothered to watch the movie properly. After about 45 minutes, I gave up on it completely and just let it run in the background while I cooked dinner and talked on the phone. I stand by that choice as both my dinner and my conversation were more interesting than what I'd seen. This is a stodgy, often ridiculous melodrama about the last days of Beethoven’s life (the composer played by Ed Harris in a performance that vacillates wildly between effective and overbaked). Diane Kruger plays the young copyist sent to assist him. Directed by the once-great Agnieszka Holland (see Olivier, Olivier for a start), Copying Beethoven is a mish-mash of forced accents and hopelessly forced drama that finally convinced me that I will never see a good movie about Ludwig Van. (*)