ReelReviews #113: The Orville, Ep. 1: “Old Wounds”

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2017: The Orville (pilot episode)

 

“The wait is over”.   Those words, spoken by Eric Bana’s Nero character in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, seem to resonate far more eight years later.  At long last, Star Trek is returning to television after a twelve year hiatus.  But the kicker now is that another television show has already beaten them to the punch to win over Star Trek fans before the “official” Star Trek has released a single episode.  That unofficial rival is Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which made its debut on Fox after Sunday night football.

 

I actually hesitated before blogging a full review, trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t seen the episode yet, and feeling that a review that appears on 9/11 might be a pretty bad time to talk about a comedy show. Still, a slew of negative reviews about Orville from ‘professional critics’ (e.g. people paid to write stuff like this) have convinced me that “the wait is over” and the time to discuss the show is now.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the pilot episode of Orville.  Is it a bit crass at times? Yes. Do some of the jokes fall completely flat? Yes. Do I wish Seth MacFarlane had cast someone besides himself to play the lead? Yes.  Still, the bottom line is the show has tremendous potential and it successfully accomplished its goal of engaging me as a viewer and making me eager to tune in next week to see what they are planning for the future.

 

There weren’t any “laugh at loud” moments in the pilot, but I hardly expect a single television episode to create the definitive humorous event of our era during its first attempt.  There were plenty of scenes that make me chuckle and put a smile on my face, and – perhaps more important – the show piqued my interest and presented a fun and engaging sci-fi adventure, even though it was saddled with the problem bogging down most pilots – having to spend half of its one hour running time introducing us to the characters and the world they inhabit before the story can get rolling.

 

Overall, you could say that “Old Wounds”, the show’s first episode, was fun but uneven, and gives us a nice glimpse of what is to come even though the series hasn’t found its footing yet.  The same can be said of the two pilots of the best known Star Trek series:  “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1966) from the original Star Trek, and “Encounter at Farpoint” from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). If “fun but uneven and yet to show full potential” is damning for Orville, then the show is in good company, seeing how it seeks to emulate Star Trek.

 

Talking to other Star Trek fans online, the vast majority of those who viewed the episode were glad they did so, and reported that they also thoroughly enjoyed it. I spotted only two “meh” responses from fellow Star Trek fans, and the reason both of them gave for not liking the episode was – and here is an exact quote: “it seemed they were making fun of Star Trek, so I stopped watching it”.  Gee, you think? To me, this is along the lines of tuning into Young Frankenstein and saying “Hmmm. It appeared to me they were poking fun at old 30s Universal horror movies. That irritated me. Turned it off.”

 

There was little doubt before I tuned into this show that Orville would attempt to emulate TNG era Star Trek in attempt to be a homage/parody of it. Indeed, they not only got the “look” of TNG down, but also many of the characters (Bortus, for example is a very “Worf” like character), but also the music and action beats and so on. Even some typical “Star Trek” style scenes played out, like the famous “beauty pass” where a shuttlecraft drives around the starship giving the audience an idea of its size and scope – a scene first made famous in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

 

Still, critics of Orville have repeatedly argued that people rooting for Orville on the internet are only doing so because they are blinded by nostalgia and looking for a duplicate of the old Star Trek they are “used to”. While Orville does capture a lot of that spirit (again, much of it as intentional parody, for example, there was a fun send-up of the “holodeck training programs” in TNG), it is more than just a trip down memory lane. “Old Wounds” had a nice original sci-fi story in its own right, and it certainly doesn’t try to capture late 80s/early 90s television effects or anything really cheesy like that.  It is a 2017 television show taking bits and pieces of what audiences liked best about 90s era Star Trek, and putting a clever new spin on them.

 

Orville will also be episodic TV with each episode being its own “stand alone” story.  That’s certainly good news for me, as it’s the format that TOS and TNG used, and it would work best for this show, as an episode that “picked up” right where this one left off and continued the storyline about the age acceleration device in the pilot would probably get old quickly.  It is clear the writers intend to carry on several character threads into future episodes – the main being the unique circumstance of a divorced husband and wife being forced to work together as the Captain and First Officer of the vessel.  Whether that will give the show additional gravitas and make it evolve over several years, or whether it will quickly become an irritating unfunny “comedy routine” in future episodes will depend entirely on the skill of the writers and actors as the show continues.  As it stands, this setup did have a really good payoff in the final scene of the pilot, and one that I will not reveal to readers since the episode is brand new.

 

Orville is off to a decent start. Had Orville disappointed me and turned out to be another “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (Seth MacFarlane’s obnoxious, vulgar, and painfully unfunny “western” spoof that had only one good scene — and perhaps a catchy and mildly amusing theme song), I would be the first to express my disappointment, and pray the show gives me something better the next time around. I will simply say at this point that the critics mercilessly bashing Orville from day one are simply wrong.  Orville is worth a watch and hopefully the show will grow and last a while. The real test will come when we find out what the “official” Star Trek has to show us.  I have been saying for months that Orville looks like it will be much exciting and fun for Trek fans than Star Trek Discovery will be. Nothing I saw in Orville’s first episode has swayed me from that stance.

 

 

*** out of ****

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ReelReviews #15: Grindhouse (2007)

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APRIL 7-11, 2013 SCREENING: “GRINDHOUSE” MOVIES (2007-Present)
I watched a series of five films over two weeks ago, and then spent another week mulling over how the heck I would review five different films that are meant to be seen as a package deal. I’ve put it off until I reached a solution: write one review that its own five segment mini-reviews, just the movies its analyzing. You see, the basic concept from directors Robert Rodriquez and Quintin Tarantino was that they would each do a cheesy, low-budget, trashy movie that resembled the type of schlock you’d get in the ’60s and ’70s, and package the movies together as a “double feature” to watch back-to-back in a theater, complete with fake trailers and commercials between movies, and intentionally grainy, scratchy film to replicate stuff that was thrown together. After the double feature came out, it inspired three movie silly “grindhouse” type movie spinoffs. Did they succeed in this strange little parody/homage? Well, yes and no.

 

PLANET TERROR (2007)
Planet Terror is basically a “zombie movie”. I use the term in quotes because its made to look like a movie from an era where they probably wouldn’t call it a zombie movie (as the George H. Romero variety hadn’t become the definitive image of a zombie yet) and what’s more, the movie is actually about some kind of extremely grotesque mutated humans, rather than undead corpses eating human flesh. They do eat people, though, and it’s a heck a lot of more fun than people find in a lot of “modern” zombie movies like World War Z. The poster image of the girl with a machine gun for a leg is certainly exploited for all its worth in this movie, and even though they use modern CGI, the concept and execution definitely mimics the feel of a old low-budget garbage movie. There’s lot of extreme over-the-top violence as well, and this film certainly brought a smile to my face because it made me think back to the stupidest set of 70s horror movies I watched, like Laserblast (1978), along with some terrible blaxplotation movies of the same era. Where I think the film fell short were two elements where it simply ignored its own premise: 1) The movie was too long for a “Grindhouse” movie, and certainly as one half of a double feature that you’re supposed to watch back-to-back in one sitting. It should have been between 75-85 mins., tops. Second, although intentionally made it to look like it was shot in the 70s, the movie takes place in “modern times” and uses modern technology and so forth. I found that distracting. They went through so much trouble to give us scratchy looking 16mm film, why the cell phones that reminded us that this movie was not made in the era it pretends to be?
**1/2 out of ****

 

DEATH PROOF (2007)
Death Proof is the second half of the original “Grindhouse” experience, and considered the much weaker film of the two. Some people have even gone as far as to say its Tarantino’s weakest movie. But in many ways, I actually enjoyed it more than the first film. Like Planet Terror, the grainy film and ridiculous opening credits immediately make it look like you’re watching some piece of crap made around 1972 or so, but instead of just being an over-the-top splatter film, this one has something completely lacking in the first: atmosphere Apparently the “in-joke” is that it’s supposed to look like two different movies spliced together (which they actually did for really bad MST3k fodder like “They Saved Hitler’s Brain”), but the fact its obviously Kurt Russell in both halves of the movie – playing the same role – ruins this effect. As for me, I loved the first half the movie (where had a very good, creepy “70s stalker movie” vibe like I was watching The Last House on the Left or something), and I was indifferent/bored by the second half, which had a “70s stunt race car movie” feel. To convey that its “Two different movies” the second half was almost grain-free, and that didn’t work for me at all because you could tell it was shot on modern film equipment. Again, the same flaws from the first film were present, and even more apparent: the running time was too long, and it was obvious taking place in 2007. Nevertheless, I consider this film to be its own little modern cult classic, and the lap-dance scene in the movie’s first half is unforgettable
*** out of ****

 
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011)
Machete is by far the better known and more popular of the Grindhouse spinoffs, but for me there was only one true heir to the original project, and that’s Hobo with a Shotgun. It was based off one of the “fake trailers” from the original 2007 double-feature, and expanded into its own feature length movie. Ironically, its got a completely different director (the little known Jason Eisener) and a different actor from the 2007 fake trailer (in this case, the far better known Rutgar Hauer), but I felt it was the most faithful to the whole grindhouse experience: It looks incredibly low-budget, trashy, over-the-top, gory, and tongue-in-cheek hilarious In many ways, this was actually more faithful to the concept, and really nailed the feel of a movie from another era. For example, the music soundtrack sounds exactly like some MIDI synthesizer score from the early 80s, making it seem like you’re watching a lost John Carpenter movie. I’d say the only jarring part of the this is because the earlier Grindhouse movies looked like they were attempting to copy films from the late 60s/early 70s, whereas Hobo definitely looks and feels like a mid 80s movie. Despite having no sci-fi elements and having a storyline more along the lines of Death Wish, Hobo With a Shotgun is pretty much the spiritual successor of 1987’s Robocop. If you liked Robocop, you’ll love with (complete with the excessive violence and biting satire). In fact, forget about watching the remake of Robocop and watch this instead, as its far more true to what the original Robocop was aiming for. This may be the best of the “Grindhouse” movies. Be prepared to be grossed out, offended, annoyed, and mesmerized by it all.
*** out of ****

 
MACHETE (2010)
I think Machete is probably the most financially successful of the five Grindhouse movies, but it was one of the least creative, in my opinion. I still liked it, but I had a blast with the first three movies and I felt that was missing here. Despite this being directed by Robert Rodriquez, it is not a Grindhouse movie. It based on one of the fake trailers from one of his Grindhouse movies, and the opening credits even continue the same style, but it quickly becomes a very modern Hollywood movie. The only difference between this and a typical action comedy is that the script here is still obviously a satire of the whole genre. The actors play it straight, but Lindsay Lohan is here for one reason and its not to display her acting talent (ironically, she finally gets naked in the movie but you can’t see anything). Robert de Niro even shows up here, playing a buffoonish right-wing politician. There has been much talk about the movie having a liberal agenda, and I would agree that political conservatives will probably not like the film’s storyline or message, but the film is just too silly and frivolous for me to take offense as any kind of preachy liberal sneer It has some genuinely funny laughs, and its quick paced and quick witted, but nowhere near on the level of the three real Grindhouse movies. The “fake” trailer for Machete is better than the real one, because the real one is just another typical Robert Rodriquez movie like Once Upon a Time in Mexico, or Spy Kids. The best scene may be Lindsay Lohan’s slutty character disguising herself as a nun. Oddly enough, it disgusted me, intrigued me, and had me cracking up at the same time.
** out of ****

 

MACHETE KILLS (2013)
The latest, last, and least of the films spawned by the whole Grindhouse concept. Naturally, it’s a sequel to Machete, but the best part of this movie was yet another “Fake trailer” for what eventually could become the real third movie: “Machete Kills Again… In Space” It cracked me up and every scene in the “trailer” was better than the real scenes in this movie, and made me wish that the still unconfirmed third film was the sequel instead of this movie. The actual film has plenty of action and a brisk pace, but goes nowhere and just isn’t very funny or interesting. Instead of de Niro like the first movie, this time we have Mel Gibson showing up in a “major role”, and it actually made me feel kind of sorry for him because his career has been reduced to doing this pathetic movie. Machete Kills is the opposite of the original intent of Grindhouse: rather than be made to intentionally parody the look of low-budget, crappy films, It’s a big budget, slick film that unintentionally looks very crappy. The best part of the movie may be former child actress Alexa Vega now appearing as a smoking hot, bikini-clad voluptuous adult character, but I got so bored with the movie I think I missed that part. I give it points for trying, but its just throwing a lot of crap at me, and thankfully, nothing is sticking.
* 1/2 out of ****

ReelReviews #10: Frozen (2013)

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MARCH 27, 2013 SCREENING: FROZEN (2013)

 

Disney has finally done it!

I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s when the Disney Renaissance was in full bloom, having been kick started by The Little Mermaid in 1989. At that time, Disney was making their best animated films since their heyday in the 40s and 50s. Unfortunately, the track record couldn’t be sustained, and it seemed as though Disney was losing their ability to make great animated films at the same time that I was going through my teens and losing interest in Disney films. This eventually lead to a dry spell for Disney in the early 2000s. The “Walt Disney Animated Masterpieces” during those days were films like Dinosaur (2000), Treasure Planet (2002), and Home on the Range (2004). films which I doubt you’ll be telling your grand-kids to see.

As we entered the 2010’s, Disney had somewhat of a “comeback”, and the era has been dubbed the Disney Revival. Of course, their all CGI movies like Toy Story had always been strong, but Disney finally made something decent in the traditional fairy tale genre when they did The Princess and the Frog (2009). It was a very creative film, and loud and colorful, but it was hard to follow and didn’t connect with audiences the way their past classics had. (I also thought the music was fairly bland, aside from the awesome villain song) Then came Tangled, and it was also pretty decent but perhaps in the opposite way – audiences and especially kids flocked to it, it really seemed to capture that old Disney style and strong musical traditions, but it was pretty bland and predictable. Finally, we had film’s like 2013’s Wreak-It Ralph, which did great at the box off, got great reviews, and were overall excellent movies that were perhaps underrated, because Wreak-It Ralph lost the “Best Animated Feature” Oscar to Disney’s own “safer” princess film, Brave, despite the fact Brave wasn’t nearly as memorable or fun as Wreak-It Ralph.

Finally, in 2013, Disney seems to have hit the jackpot. Here comes Frozen. I didn’t see it in theaters, so I managed to catch this one on DVD when it was first released on video – figuring that it might be my last chance to see a famous “winter” themed cartoon while it was still freezing outside.

Frozen, simply put, is the best Disney animated film of the 21st century. They get everything right in this film – its an old fashioned fairy tale story, it has a memorable princess (actually, in this case, a queen) character. The music is amazing and catchy, the story captures your attention and keeps you interested – the art design and effects are awesome, the acting is inspired, and so on, and so forth. There’s no traditional “villain” to speak of, but the antagonist in this movie was incredibly well thought out and perhaps one of the most clever and manipulative characters in Disney history – neither the main characters or the audience figure out the scheme until near the end of the film.

Frozen would be on par with the best known and loved Disney animated films like The Lion King, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, etc., except for one – and only one – major flaw in the film: the talking snowman.

Yes, I hated “Olaf”, the “comic relief” wacky sidekick who neither funny nor relief. Another critic described him as the “Jar Jar Binks” of Frozen, and I’m inclined to agree. It would be like taking a bad Jerry Lewis character from a B-movie and giving him a supporting role in an amazing masterpiece like Singing in the Rain. The film is still strong enough to shine through despite his distracting presence, but it makes the film fall just short of being a masterpiece in its own right. What’s really sad is I was pleasantly surprised the female protagonists in this movie didn’t have any “super cute animal sidekick” character like is predictably used in other Disney movies, and it was working fine on own merits. Then along came “Olaf” – more than halfway through the film – to do his “loveable moron” routine and quip unfunny one-liners from scene to scene. Maybe its just seeing it through the eyes of an adult, but the character can’t compare to other “wacky sidekick” characters from true Disney masterpieces, like Timon & Pumbaa from The Lion King (which actually served an important plot point to transition the story in the middle of the film), or frivolous “wacky sidekick” characters like the mouse from Dumbo (who is actually funny, likeable, and helpful, unlike the dorky snowman). “Olaf” does provide one key point towards the end of the film where he helps the lead character make her escape, but another character could have been substituted for this scene and it would have given the film far more depth. Otherwise, you could cut him out completely and the result would be a true Disney masterpiece

There’s also a lot of heated debate from the world of politics on this film. Strangely, fringe groups on both the right and left despise Frozen, for completely different reasons. Some leftists have called for a boycott because the film largely consists of blond haired and blue-eyed characters (apparently they’re shocked people would like that in a film set in Scandinavia, and missed the fact Disney just did a big budget animated film with all black characters and a black princess a few years ago). Some on the right have claimed the movie is “secretly” sending pro-gay rights propaganda. It must be pretty “secret” indeed, since I’m an adult viewer and all I saw was traditional heterosexual romance throughout the movie. So in conclusion, Frozen loses half a star for one of the worst and least funny “wacky sidekicks” in history. Aside from that, this is the perfect Disney film

 
*** out of ****

ReelReviews #9: Instructions Not Included (2013)

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MARCH 26, 2013 SCREENING: INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED (2013)

 

As of the time of this writing, Instructions Not Included (2013) is highest grossing Mexican film in the United States. It surpassed the previous record holder, Pan’s Labyrinth, earlier this year. While I personally prefer Pan’s Labyrinth because I like fantasy films, I had to check out Instructions Not Included for myself to see if it lived up to the hype. My conclusion? It does.
Eugenio Derbez has been a Mexican film actor for many years, but this is first effort as a director. Derbez said he was inspired to make this film after he saw the Academy Award winning Italian film Life Is Beautiful, and he wanted to make a similar type of zany comedy film that “had a heart” and could make you cry as well as laugh. He appears to have succeeded at that goal.

The basic structure of the film is pretty much Three Men & a Baby (plus its sequel, Three Men & a Little Lady, and minus the other two men) meets Kramer vs. Kramer. That is, the film is about a swinger from Acapulco named Valentin. His life is completely changed one day when a former fling leaves a baby on his doorstep, and tells him that he is going to have to be the one to take care of their child. The baby girl eventually ages into a charming seven year old, but Valentin’s journey to raise her takes him through many unpredictable paths and he eventually becomes a Hollywood stuntman. Both their lives are changed once again when the birth mother returns, and eventually decides she wants to reclaim the child.

The plot doesn’t sound all that interesting, and I was on the fence myself when I sat down to watch this movie. Its not really my kind of film, and plenty of movies have come up with similar premises (A Simple Twist of Fate with Steve Martin as a single dad, for example, or the better known Big Daddy with Adam Sandler). The result has usually been something too sappy and sweet (in the case of the first example), or too obnoxious and silly (in the case of the second example).

Here, Eugenio Derbez creates the perfect balance. There are some hilarious scenes, and some really heartwarming and beautiful moments as well. Having been driven insane by an earlier film that kept switching back and forth from French to English (see my review on The Science of Sleep), I wasn’t keen on “Hollywood” being depicted by Mexican actors in this one. However, Instructions Not Included has a razor sharp screenplay and knows how to create fun situations from the language barrier. Although Derbez can speak English fluently in real life, his character in the film barely knows a word, and the film itself is perhaps 70-80% in Spanish and 20-30% in English. The added twist is that the mother of his baby is an American, so the little girl speaks English fluently and translates for her dad. This not only mirrors many real life situations with modern immigration in the United States, but it provides some key moments in the film and its one example where this Mexican film wouldn’t be the same if it was remade as a straight all-American comedy.

The film weaves through many twists and turns before it finally concludes with a very dramatic tearjerker ending. The fact I felt so moved emotionally by a film that mostly a silly comedy shows just how effective the film is at bringing its audience along for the ride. This, along with Pan’s Labyrinth, is a truly great cinematic experience that is probably overlooked by critics in favor of more “serious” artsy foreign films. Not only does that rob audiences of inspired films like this, but it also robs Mexico of having more directors and writers that create edgy films instead of the standard telenovela stuff that is prevalent in Latin America. No matter what your background, see Instructions Not Included. I think you’ll fall in love with it.

 
***½ out of ****

ReelReviews #4: Iron Man 3 (2013)

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 MARCH 12, 2014 SCREENING: IRON MAN 3 (2013)

SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM YET, PLEASE READ NO FURTHER.
For the last several weeks, I’m been doing “RetroReviews” of classic and obscure fantasy films that I screened last summer. Not only has it started to get old, but I’ve run out of fantasy films that I screened. It’s time for something different. Today is a return to contemporary reviews, and the best way to kick it off was by finally taking a look at last year’s big budget action film Iron Man 3. So what can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said in hundreds of other reviews. Let’s find out.

A lot of my friends saw this film in theaters last May, and the consensus opinion was they thought the plot twist and the ending ruined the movie. Nobody would even tell me what the twist was! I managed to accidentally stumble on it myself last month, before I had even watched the movie to judge it on my own. Simply put, the major “bad guy” in this film, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) turns out not to be the Mandarin at all. He’s actually a drunken British character actor that was hired to play the Mandarin in order to fool Iron Man and general public into targeting the wrong enemy. This relevant isn’t a shocker at the end of the film, but is actually revealed a little more than halfway through the movie. Did I like this twist? No, I thought it was stupid.

Now, that being said, I didn’t think the silly twist “ruined” the movie, as others have claimed. It was a bit annoying, but the rest of the movie was funny and entertaining. As others have observed, I also thought the “fake” Mandarin was a worthy villain before the twist, and I wish Ben Kingley had just been the real Mandarin instead of the movie trying to give us a “clever” twist. I also had no problems with the real end of the film, which consisted of Iron Man deciding to be with the girl he loves and giving up his Iron Man persona in a flashy climax where he blows up all his armored suits in a fireworks-like spectacle. The only problem here was Marvel’s PR department: we already know Robert Downey Jr. will be returning as Iron Man in Avengers 2 next year, so the ending is pointless. (Had I not known that, it would have been a much more satisfactory ending)

There are good points and bad points throughout the story. Compared to Iron Man 2, the third installment seemed a lot more exciting to me. I hardly remember the second one and just had a collective feeling of “it was okay” when the film finished. The events in Iron Man 3 are much more memorable, but there’s also more cringe-worthy stuff and much of the movie consists of Tony Stark constantly trying on new Iron Man models and comedic situations that arise from this – it seems he doesn’t really go into full superhero mode and heroically spring into action until the last 1/3rd of the movie. A new twist in this film is that Stark creates an Iron Man suit that launches itself to his destination and automatically attaches itself to him piece by piece. The special effects here are very impressive but the whole idea seemed over-the-top to me, and its used way too much for comedic effect when he’s missing some pieces or they attach themselves to the wrong person, etc. etc. The rest of the humor worked well for the movie, and there’s some very witty exchanges throughout the film. There’s also a lot of name dropping about the events of other Marvel movies and the fact this film is set after The Avengers. Those were fine, and serviced this story. However, there’s no surprise cameos from other Marvel characters. I think that’s actually a letdown at this point.

Iron Man hasn’t worn out its welcome, and I always enjoy seeing Robert Downey Jr. in the title role. I’m also looking forward to Avengers 2 – I hope they find something new to do with the character, and I hope its better than Avengers 1 (I must be the minority, because the first one got rave responses from the public, but I just thought it was an average overblown popcorn movie with an awesome premise). All that being said, the conclusion I have to draw is that the first Iron Man movie was the only one that was truly great and pleasantly surprised me. I have no dog in the DC movies vs. Marvel movies fight, but a quick observation is that Marvel movies have been making a lot more money lately, but they’re also starting to get a bit too predictable. I hopeful that Guardians of the Galaxy breaks out of the old pattern. In meantime, here’s to you Tony Stark, we know you’ll be suiting up against next year. But if you ever return for Iron Man 4, let’s hope its worth it.

** ½ out of ****

RetroReviews #52: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

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JULY 10, 2013 SCREENING: BUCKAROO BANZAI (1984)

While in the middle of a week dedicated to screening Terry Gilliam movies, I decided to take a look at The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, a film directed by W. D. Richter. Why choose a film with a different director? Because it’s really not. Not only does The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai have a similar title to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (the most recent Terry Gilliam movie I reviewed), but sometimes it’s more Terry Gilliam-like than real Terry Gilliam movies! The Adventure of Buckaroo Banzai wasn’t made as a deliberate attempt to mimic Terry Gilliam films, but it gets my vote for best unofficial Terry Gilliam movie ever.

The main difference between this and the real Terry Gilliam movies I’ve looked at is genre. Most of Gilliam’s films are fantasy stories, often with medieval looking settings. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is a sci-fi adventure, and much of the action takes place in outer space and looks futuristic. Aside from that jarring change, the rest of the film stays firmly in the same type of tone and direction as the films I’ve been watching all week. The story is very surreal, the characters are wacky and outlandishly over-the-top, there’s a largely comedic bent to the adventures, and the film satirizes many elements of real-life.

One of the most interesting thing about this film its lead character. I always thought Robocop was the movie that established Peter Weller as a lead, but I was wrong: it’s this movie. Buckaroo Banzai predates Robocop by three years, and stars Weller as the title character: “a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician [who is out] to save the world by defeating a band of inter-dimensional aliens called Red Lectroids.” Weller plays is straight no matter how crazy the film gets, and is surrounded a number of other talented actors playing zany characters, including John Lithgow as the villainous Dr. Emilio Lizardo, Jeff Goldblum as a character named “New Jersey”, and Christopher Lloyd as “John Bigboote”

Perhaps one way where this movie manages to outdo Terry Gilliam is that the “storyline” is so surreal and cryptic that its almost impossible to follow the first time you watch the movie. I honestly had no idea what was going on the entire time. Normally I would consider that a sign of bad screenwriting, but in this case its an example of the film being too clever for its own good. Dialogue flies by a lighting fast pace, and some lines that are seemingly uselessly filler are actually instrumental in understanding what happens latter. It literally is an example of “blink and you’ll miss it”. Terry Gilliam’s movies usually are “mainstream” enough to let the audience get the “big picture”, even if individual scenes really seem incoherent. There’s no such luck here. Once the movie takes off, you’re left wondering what the heck the story is about.

Finally, there’s one element of the film that is minor but my review would be incomplete without mentioning: the end credits of the film feature a simple yet extremely memorable and catchy way to close the movie. Weller and his co-stars march down a strange stadium in a straight line, set to a funky rock music soundtrack. It’s very 80s, but at the same time it’s a timeless iconic moment of cinema, and it really has to seen to do it justice. Many other movies show the main characters walking together in a straight line towards the end of the movie to demonstrate how “bad ass” they are standing together as one, and many use a musical accompaniment, but I don’t think any have ever taken the approach that Buckaroo did, where it’s done post-climax just as a “sign off” to give the character a little encore farewell to the audience. I can see why a sequel never got made, but it still cements Buckaroo Banzai as a cult classic and thoroughly fun little insane movie. No wonder this guy ended up as Robocop. He’s not just a tall and skinny guy who can kick butt, he’s damn cool to watch on screen.

*** out of ****

RetroReviews #51: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

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JULY 9, 2013 SCREENING: BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988)

Terry Gilliam’s fourth solo movie (and the third I’ve reviewed) is “The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen” (I really dread having to keep having to type out that title) and in my opinion, it’s where he really hit his stride. Baron (there, now I don’t have to type out the long title anymore!) is a wildly creative and hysterically funny fantasy adventure, and deserved far more attention than it originally received. It is a classic example of a film that got universally strong praise when it was released, and then preformed weakly at the box office (it has since become a cult classic).

What’s really cool about this movie is that it manages to maintain the classic style of Gilliam’s surreal humor, and also be a mainstream late 80’s adventure film. John Neville stars as the title character, and its clearly the best role of his career (and sadly perhaps the only one of note). One of his co-stars was a young child actress, who stole most the scenes she was in and left me wondering whatever happened to this talented young lady. After screening the movie, I looked up the cast list on IMDB only to discover that the Baron’s precious sidekick “Sally” was played by none other than Sarah Polley in her first film role! Apparently she had a “miserable” time making this movie, although it sure doesn’t show on screen. Even more interestingly, Polley is often described as looking like “a younger Uma Thurman” these days. This is perhaps the only film where both Uma Thurman and Sarah Polley appear, but they don’t play younger and older versions of the same character, or even mother and daughter – but completely different roles. While Polley is Sally, Thurman has a fun appearance as a beautiful mermaid character. Other famous stars have some memorable scenes in this, including an uncredited Robin Williams as “the King of the Moon” (whose head often detaches from his body and floats around the room) and Sting as a “Heroic officer”.

Aside from the wonderful cast ensemble though, the writing and directing in this movie really is terrific as well. The opening caption tells us that its “The Age of Reason” (e.g. the late 18th century), but shows how ironic that name for the time period is by juxtaposing it with images of unreasonable members of the Ottoman Empire battling across Europe. The film begins to cover a play about the life and exploits of the famous “Baron Munchhausen”, and is then interrupted by an elderly man claiming to be “the REAL Baron Munchhausen”, and the rest of the film is a flashback showing how events “really” occurred in his life.

Like his earlier (and later) films, much of what unfolds in Baron is zany non-scene But in the case of this movie, Gilliam seemed to be at the peak of his creative and outlandish prowess. The film has numerous fascinating characters and situations The special effects are also top notch – and seem fresh over 25 years later. Baron Munchhausen doesn’t have any type of deep meaningful effect that would give it a four star review, but it is both visually amazing on screen, as well intelligent , funny, and engaging on the written page. I find it to be rare when films accomplish both feats equally well, so I’d rank it along side great movies like Terminator 2 and The Thing, due to the fact they also excel equally well in both areas. The only difference is the latter two were much more successful commercially than Baron Munchhausen. Furthermore, I’ll add that the only thing that keeps me from keeping Baron Munchhausen three and a half stars is because it lacks any type of interesting message behind the film, or an idea that makes the audience question and debate the events of the story. Rather, the film exists purely as an entertaining escapist fantasy adventure story. In that category, it doesn’t disappoint one bit.

If you’ve never seen Baron Munchhausen, and you’re indifferent about watching the movie like I was, this is one film that you won’t regret taking a look at. Had the film done well at the box office, it would be considered a classic 80s movie now. Give it a shot, you’ll be glad you did.

*** out of ****