Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Horror, Humor, and Redemption: Bubba Ho-Tep lives!

The moment I heard the title of Bubba Ho-Tep, I was enchanted. It reminded me of a sleazy little "roadside attraction" I remember from a trip during my childhood, a place in which a creepy Egyptian theme turned a few lethargic snakes and an alligator into sinister ambassadors of King Tut himself. To the grownups, the whole thing was a waste of time (and money) but they were simply not looking carefully enough.

I am sure there are some grownups who didn't like Bubba Ho-Tep, although most of them were probably put off by the title and never actually saw it. Based on the Bram Stoker Award-winning story by Joe R. Lansdale, it is a tale about the nature of heroism. Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) and John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis) are alive, if not exactly well, and they are living out their last days in the Mud Creek Shady Rest nursing home in East Texas. No one else believes that they are Elvis and JFK, of course, but they know who they are, although both of them are so tired of life that they've ceased to care. Someone is killing the old people in the home at night: Elvis and JFK see him, and realize he is an ancient Egyptian mummy gone redneck, stalking the nursing home halls in snakeskin boots and a cowboy hat, looking for souls to suck from the bodies of the living. They dub the horror "Bubba Ho-Tep" and launch an effort to drive him away and save the nursing home.

Are the two old guys crazy, or are they really Elvis and JFK? Probably crazy, although there are moments in the film when their stories seem almost plausible. No matter who they are, or what they are really up against, they have the souls of heroes, Don Quixotes climbing onto their walkers, getting ready to do battle. Taking the battlefield against death, they rediscover the sweetness of life. It would be saccharine, were it not wrapped in such outrageous nuttiness and tacky horror.

Bubba Ho-Tep rocks: Thumb's up.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

"Shaun of the Dead" is definitely a severed thumbs up!

"Shaun of the Dead" is one of those little British films you never thought you'd see at the neighborhood cinema. Small budget, nobody in the cast you've ever heard of (except for Bill Nighy), no car crashes or explosions. Just a very cleverly written script with perfect casting, probably the funniest you'll see this year.

Shaun and his roommate Ed live in a pigsty, and nothing is happening in their lives. Shaun's girlfriend, Liz, is becoming more and more aware that she can't change Shaun, and that maybe Shaun loves his mate Ed a bit more than he loves her. After all, he and Ed make each other laugh, enjoy the same video games, and like to drink a bit. There's a staunch loyalty there, but it's rather obvious that Ed, who is a bit sloppier, more crass and more unemployed than Shaun, is dragging his mate down.

Enter the zombies. Only Shaun and Ed don't notice them. They're so involved in their tiny little lives that the news reports and the bloodshed around them don't affect them. And, blimey, there's more than a little resemblance there -- Shaun and Ed have their own zombie thing going for them, as their lives are adding to a big zero as well. And they do move and think a-w-f-u-l-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y in total un-clue-osity. "You are a fucking idiot!" yells the upstairs neighbor at Shaun. "What do you mean by that?" Shaun asks. (I tell ya, just typing that made me laugh!)

But the zombie population has grown so large that it becomes impossible for even the living living-dead to ignore them. In fact, they're wandering, like stray cats, into everybody's lawn, making it impossible to enjoy the simpler things in life, like a cold brewski and that soccer match that's been cancelled because of these attacks. The sight of Shaun, still in his work shirt and tie and his nameplate, carrying a cricket bat to whack the zombies' heads off is one of many hilarious scenes.

Add in some superb casting like Bill Nighy (truly memorable in "Love Actually" and the best thing in "Underworld"), who resembles a zombie to us anyway, and the two male leads, and you have the most original and, yes, poignant film in the last few years.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Toto, this isn't Oz: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

"Mom!" my sophisticated 22-year-old said to me, "I can't believe you recommended that movie!" "It was a thumbs-up for 'stupid fun,'" I said. "Well," he grumbled back at me, "I can agree with you about the 'stupid' part."

OK, so Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is not great cinema. I like to think that Kerry Conran knows that; if he doesn't, the de Laurentiis tribe, who are all over this film, certainly do. This movie isn't intended to be great cinema. It revels in its formulas: the bickering lovers, the plucky blonde bombshell, the tough-guy hero, the over-wrought segues, the comic-book machinery. If the formulas were all there were to it, Sky Captain would be a giant bore. (By the end of the movie, I was so annoyed with that blonde bombshell and her stupid camera that I could not for the life of me figure out why the Sky Captain was interested in her.) Plot and character are not the reasons to see this film.

As Linda rightly points out, the eye-candy is irresistable: this is a beautiful movie, full of fun stuff to look at. Imagine a thirties-noir film set in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, inhabited by comic-book people and robot monsters (hmm, or robot people and comic-book monsters? I'm not sure). It's one heck of a moving, talking picture book.

On another level, it's a parlor game for film buffs and Oz-ophiles. The references to The Wizard of Oz of 1939 go far beyond the clip early in the film and the music at the end (think, "I am Oz, the great and powerful" when you see the face of Sir Laurence Olivier, for instance.) But there are also references to the later Oz books which will delight those who always preferred the books to the movie, great as it was.

So yeah, it isn't great cinema -- but it's fun, it's pretty, and when it comes out on video, I'll probably rent it to see if there are some Oz references I missed the first time.

But there are movies I'd rather have seen. The first is the back story they alluded to again and again: what happened in Nanking? I'd like to know more about Joe and Frankie's fling, and I'd like to see pretty Polly cut that fuel line, if she did (I'm not convinced she'd have been able to find it.) Why is Frankie so attached to Dex that she'd put her troops and her career on the line to rescue him?

And there are some truly troubling aspects to this film. The women in the film boiled down to a dumb blonde, an Asian bad-babe martial artist, and Frankie, the one character who did something interesting with a stereotype (but she doesn't get the guy, and her plotline goes nowhere.) The bad guys were cast from Xenophobia central, with a tad of anti-intellectualism thrown in.

Upon reflection, I'm giving this film a thumbs-down. I wanted to see the other stories referred to, and neglected, in this one. It would have been so much fun to see the gorgeous artwork employed to tell the backstory in Nanking, or an adventure tale about Frankie (and Linda, did you catch her resemblance to the Ivanova character in Babylon 5?) I want to see the army of artists employed making something not just pretty, but something great.

So yeah, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore. But it isn't Oz, either.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow movie review

By Linda

Hold your thought processes at the door. This movie isn't a good exercise for those who want plot lines which make sense, dialogue that builds to suspense, a linear progression from one point to another. An intellectual exercise it's not.

From the very first scene of the Hindenburg III, docking at the Empire State Building in New York, though, you know you're in for a visual treat with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. (And yes, they actually built a docking port on the top of the Empire State Building so many years ago, but never used it.) But the eye candy doesn't stop there: the movie increasingly surprises as we go from one theme and one setting to another.

Instead of a more appropriate black-and-white background, they chose to go with a faded-out, retrograde color, heavily suggesting the cinematic techniques of the late '30's and early '40's. A lot of its plot and character-building devices are terribly predictable, typical of this neo-classic genre. Talk about telegraphing your punches! When Jude Law's Sky Captain Joe actually punches out Gwyneth Paltow's early-Lois Lane reporter, you're thinking, "What next?" This movie has every overplayed bit, and we loved every minute of it. It is a bit irritating, perhaps, to have things explained to you over and over so that you "get" it. And, yes, every little segue is explained cinematically (even though most of it still doesn't make logical sense) so that you know you're flying to Nepal, or going to Sky Captain's secret island (right next to Manhattan?). Maybe audiences needed that in the '40's. While the sophisticated audiences of now don't need such tricks to help us, why not? Such devices only help to convince us we never really left 1939.

Jude Law is fine as Joe, a Sky Captain who should have been an American. But he plays it with a bit of flair, emotion when it's okay for a hero to display such things. Gwyneth Paltrow is a good blonde, and is equal to Sky Captain's banter. Giovanni Ribisi has a nice role as a quick-thinking sidekick, the brains behind Law's brawn.

What we're seeing is definitely The World of Tomorrow. This is the way movies will be made in the future. Jon Avnet recognized this immediately when he saw Kerry Conran's computer-created short. A movie which has three large stars (four if you count the dead one) in it, at fantastic locations, costing $75 million? Only a movie with EVERY scene built from CG could do this. This is the future. While the unions of set builders may complain, matte painters and visual effects houses rejoice.

The only faults with the movie? I grew a little restless at the predictable premise, but then they'd throw something at me to renew my interest. Angelina Jolie -- there weren't enough scenes with her "Franky" in them. In a black aviator-leather outfit, a patch and a spiffy British accent, she lights up every scene and steals them from Law and Paltrow easily. Nice dirigibles.

Monday, September 13, 2004

The problem with "Vanity Fair" is....

By Linda

The 2004 version of William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" pulls you into its world immediately, a richly embroidered world of early 19th century lords and ladies, as well as the unwitting (and often poor) souls upon whose backs they stepped on to get there. When you walk into the drawing room, the detailed set has layer upon layer to it, an actual home where that entire English family would live for generations. Pity those who lost their fortunes, however, and were sent to debtors' prison or, worse in some respects, out to their gardens to toil for their supper in front of the neighbors.

But don't pity Becky Sharp. Becky was born poor, her father a gifted painter but not money-wise, and her mother, never seen, an opera singer. Upon her father's death, she was destined for the orphanage and eventually to work for the rich. Becky learned early that her beauty, her talent with song, and her wit raised her above her humble beginnings. She wanted to be one of those on the high rung of the social ladder. She didn't care whom she used as a rung on that ladder. Her mistake was thinking that she could truly become one of the high-born, accepted in that world. Our mistake, however, is sitting through this dreadful version one hour too many.

After the first hour of introductions regarding Becky's life and her first and best opportunities to make her move, we expect more to happen in terms of drama and character development. However, the truth is that Witherspoon is not the Becky Sharp we have come to expect from Thackeray. She is not, well, sharp: not sharp-tongued enough, nor sharp-witted. She has a sparkle here and there, and the dialogue, when taken directly from the book, crackles with humor and intensity. The actress, director and playwright all want us to like Becky. We should never like Becky. We should be intrigued by her always, watching her as the calculating, scheming woman she is, willing to do anything to get what she wants. If you want nice, read "Jane Eyre."

Apart from problems with the script, Witherspoon never captures the real Becky in this version. Her Becky never changes. Witherspoon plays her the same way in the first minute as in the last.

The problem with this movie is that it's too long; the problem with this movie is that it's too short. It should really be six hours, and not a minute sooner. And this movie should have ended sooner if it could not accomplish this. It could not. The movie employs several trite devices to speed up time. For instance, Becky's husband Rawdon Crawley (actor James Purefoy) takes to drink when he's frustrated with the current situation, over and over. That sort of device gets irksome.

The best actors in the film are the women in the background. Rawdon's aunt is wonderful as the matriarch who is terribly "democratic," but jealous enough to fly into a lifelong rage when Becky marries Lady Crawley's favorite nephew. And the various mothers, aunts and nieces are very watchable, as, indeed, in this world their station is a reflection of the men in their lives. The best dialogue blurts out of the mouths of these women. They are terribly funny in their wry postulations, synopses of their stodgy lives.

There are other problems with the screenplay, again mainly with the pacing. Several times we find we're in India, although we're not sure why. There is one scene where we see Rawdon in a tropical setting, but he's only there for a few seconds and we never see him again.

Due to the problems with pacing in the movie, the moments that should matter land flat. The only golden moment in Becky Sharp's life when she tells the truth to her best friend -- revealing that Amelia's husband was not worthy of her sacrifice -- is gone in a moment. The following moment where Amelia throws herself upon the long-suffering Dobbin does not resonate accordingly.

The real problem with Vanity Fair is that there's no vanity, and it's certainly not fair to us who paid our money and our time to see this version of the movie. If you want to see a truly memorable version of Thackeray's book, take a look at the 1967 mini-series starring Susan Hampshire. Hampshire chews up the scenery in this film, as well as the men in it, but it's a film which takes the time to get the characters and the pacing right.