Friday, April 27, 2012

The Thing (1982) *****

Best! Movie! Ever! I can’t believe I went all these years without seeing John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” I’m just glad that I rectified the situation before wasting any more of my life!

 Based on a short story called “Who Goes There?” and an earlier movie called “The Thing From Another World,” “The Thing” is, like “Alien,” a satisfying blend of horror and sci-fi. The film starts with a couple of Norwegians in a helicopter pursuing and trying to kill a dog as it runs across the ice fields of Antarctica. The Norwegians wind up dead, and the dog finds refuge with a group of American scientists in a remote outpost. Curious as to what those crazy Norwegians were up to, the Americans, including helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell), go investigate their camp. There they find that the Norwegians discovered something in the ice. Something that left them all dead. Meanwhile, the guys learn to their horror that the refugee dog is not a dog at all, but an alien mutant that infects other life forms with a virus-like vector that takes over all their cells and allows the alien to imitate them. This is horrible enough, but the real terror begins when paranoia takes hold, as the men realize that at least one of them may have been taken over by the Thing.

 Like the best horror films, “The Thing” uses a grotesque monster to explore the horrors that we all carry inside us. First, the gore and slime remind us that we and those we love are full of blood and guts on the inside: a disturbing concept. Then the film plays on the more subtle fear that those we know may not be who we think they are, that they may carry some terrible secret. As shocking as the Thing is when it is spewing slime everywhere, it is the growing distrust between the men that creates the real horror in “The Thing.” There is another element of horror in “The Thing,” perhaps unintentional. The movie is about a virus-like life form that fatally takes over someone’s body and can be passed to others, yet you can’t tell by looking who has it. Given that this came out in 1982, one can’t help but draw parallels to a real-life horror, the AIDS epidemic.

 Many movies from the ‘80’s haven’t aged well, but “The Thing” seems timeless. It helps that the clothing is cold-weather gear rather than day-glow sweaters and polos. It helps that the cast is all men, so the plot isn’t weighed down by an obligatory love story. It helps that rather than a soundtrack of ‘80’s pop, the film has a beautiful, ominous score by Ennio Morricone. It helps that the characters in this horrifying situation mostly make decisions that make sense, separating this film from about 90% of horror movies. Finally, it helps that Carpenter played the story straight and didn’t try to cutesy it up with the catchy one-liners that were de rigueur in ‘80’s horror and action flicks. Carpenter had some help, of course, from a stellar cast, including Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, a whole crew of outstanding character actors, and one outrageous hat.

 Some might disagree, but I even found the special effects to be good. I don’t think the creature would have been any more convincing or terrifying if it had been done with modern CGI. I think one reason I never saw the movie before was that I somehow got the impression it was a schlocky, low budget flick. It is neither. This was apparently Carpenter’s first studio film, and very professionally done. It’s ironic that the movie did not do well at the box office, possibly because it was released right after “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial,” and audiences weren’t up for a second, diametrically opposed, alien movie.

 Fortunately, the film has been vindicated by history, and we can watch it now and feel smug about being smarter than those 1982 audiences that missed it. I suggest watching it on a cold night. I also recommend the commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.

 5 stars out of 5

 Addendum: I tried to watch the 1951 movie "The Thing from Another World," which is also based on John W. Campbell Jr's story "Who Goes There?", but I gave up after 20 minutes or so. It just isn't up to the standards of John Carpenter's "The Thing."

Friday, April 20, 2012

Real Steel (2011) **

This movie is a good example of how looking at movie reviews can get you in trouble. My instincts told me that a movie about boxing robots is just obviously going to be ridiculous and not worth my time. At some point, however, I read a couple of reviews that acknowledged the seemingly silly premise of the film, but said it was really worth seeing. That’s how it wound up on my Netflix queue and how I wasted an hour watching half of it.

The premise is that in the near future, human boxing is replaced by robot boxing, which is able to be much more violent and destructive. Referees in human bouts have a nasty habit of stopping a fight before someone has, say, their arm ripped off, but that’s not a problem in robot boxing. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, one of the human handlers who control the fighting ‘bots. Charlie was once a promising boxer himself, and somewhere along the way his unfulfilled potential has made him a bitter ne’er-do-well. He finds a way to blow every opportunity that comes his way, including the grudging affection of the gorgeous robot mechanic he grew up with (Evangeline Lily). What would be the perfect narrative device to throw into this shop-worn story? A kid, of course, and that’s exactly what the filmmakers introduce, in the form of one of Charlie’s blow-bys from an old girlfriend. Charlie and the kid go through the standard Hollywood playbook for this sort of situation, first being standoffish, then gaining a grudging respect for each other, and yada yada yada. This is the point where we paused the movie, and then found that we just really didn’t care to start it up again. It’s possible that something exciting and unexpected was going to happen later in the film, but I doubt it.

The problem is not that “Real Steel” is a bad movie, it‘s that it isn’t a movie for adults. What I have seen of it is done competently enough that this should be good entertainment for teenage boys. The acting is adequate, the robot action is reasonably fun, and Evangeline Lily is cute as a button. I’ve just seen this story before, and putting it in the context of boxing robots doesn’t really add anything. If a sentimental, predictable movie about a man, a boy, and a boxing robot appeals to you, then give it a go. Otherwise, trust your instincts on this one.

2 stars out of 5

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The King’s Speech (2010) ***

Given that Colin Firth is good in literally anything you cast him in, I was not surprised when I finally got around to watching “The King’s Speech” to find it an enjoyable film. For me, however, this movie is burdened by the weight of all the Academy Awards it won, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay. To me it is ridiculous that this talky, old-fashioned story of English Royalty and WWII so completely beat out movies like “The Social Network,” “Black Swan,” “Winter’s Bone,” and “Toy Story 3.” I suppose it just highlights how subjective the awards process is, and how ultimately futile it is to pit works of art against one another, as if they are Olympic athletes performing before judges.

“The King’s Speech” introduces us to a mildly interesting piece of English history. Prince Albert (Colin Firth), second son of King George V, apparently suffered from a stammer. When the king died, Albert’s older brother Edward took the throne, but he soon abdicated in order to marry the divorced, American party-girl Wallace Simpson. This left the throne to Albert, who adopted the name George VI. Of course, even in the 1930’s, the English monarchy was only ceremonial, but one imagines that the King still served as an inspiring symbol for the British people, and with WWII on the way, the people would need inspiration. The burden of providing that fell to Albert and his stammer.

The story of the efforts of Albert and his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) to control Albert’s stammer enough for him to make public speeches is an engaging one, even if it does drag a bit at times. Both actors are consummate professionals, and their chemistry is excellent. The film can drag when they are apart, but when they are on screen together, I cannot look away.

I do find it hard, at the end of the day, to take very seriously the impact on history of the head of a ceremonial monarchy having had a speech impediment. Until this film, history certainly seemed to have forgotten the issue. When people think of the beginning of WWII, they don’t think of the king’s speech, they think of the inspiring speeches given by Winston Churchill. Nonetheless, “The King’s Speech” is an inspiring little human story about friendship and overcoming personal challenges.

3 stars

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Meet Monica Velour (2010) ***½

If Napoleon Dynamite had a skinnier, dorkier brother, it would be “Meet Monica Velour“’s Tobe (Dustin Ingram.) This guy is such a geek, he practically bites the heads off chickens. Tobe, like most geeks, lives inside his own head, where he thinks about 1930’s music, 1950’s cars, and 1970’s porno flicks. In particular, he is obsessed with a classic-porn actress named Monica Velour. After high school graduation, Tobe has a choice: stay home and finally make a move on the chubby Asian girl who obviously likes him, or go on a road trip to see his idol, Monica Velour, at an Indiana strip club. He chooses the road trip.

Monica (Kim Cattrall) is an attractive, 49-year-old woman, but clearly too old to be in the sex trade. Having saved nothing but a taste for drugs and alcohol from her time as a porn starlet, Monica is still hustling what she has, desperately trying to scrape together money for a lawyer to help her win custody of her daughter. The pathos of her situation doesn’t dim her glamour in Tobe’s eyes, however, and she becomes an essential part of his coming-of-age.

Kim Cattrall should have gotten an Oscar nomination for this role. You remember how impressive Blake Lively was as the drugged-up skank in “The Town”? Kim Cattrall is even better as an aging porn starlet. She gives voice to a woman who has spent her life feeding the fantasies of others and wants some recognition of her own humanity.

I get the impression this film was something of a passion project for Cattrall, who must have been sorely disappointed at its box office failure. As much as I enjoyed the movie, I can see that it just wasn’t made for a mass audience. Dustin Igram plays Tobe with such awkwardness that he is hard to identify with, and his character doesn’t have the kind of goofy kink or catchphrases that made Napoleon Dynamite a star. As good as Cattrall is, her performance runs into a conundrum. Among mass audiences, those who will be interested in a movie about a porn star may not be so interested in a movie about what it’s like for a beautiful woman to get old. That’s a shame, because while this film isn’t nearly as sexy as the premise would suggest, it has surprising depth.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mama, Too) (2001) ****

I recall seeing this back when it came out and won awards. I loved it then, and even more now. It’s just a tremendously good, sexy story. Good, because it has a lot to say about humans and how we are. Sexy, because, well, it has tons of nudity and sex.

Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal play Tenoch and Julio, a couple of Mexico City teenagers freshly graduated from high school. With their girlfriends traveling in Europe for the summer, the guys are left to chase tail and smoke weed. Then they meet Luisa (Maribel Verdu, from “Pan‘s Labyrinth“), the sexy, Spanish wife of Tenoch’s cousin. While the boys are squandering their summer and living easy, Luisa is having a rough time. First she gets some bad news from her doctor, then her husband confesses his infidelity. With all of this weighing her down, Luisa decides to take the boys up on their offer of a trip to a secret, secluded beach. The boys don’t actually know how to get to any such beach. Their offer was just a lame pass at an older woman. That doesn’t really matter to Luisa, however. For the callow youths, the road trip is a lark, with sexy possibilities, but for Luisa it represents leaving everything behind and getting the most out of the time she has left. Being around the boys’ puppyish exuberance distracts her from the things she has to grieve over.

Besides wonderfully convincing performances from the principal cast, the film makes good use of narration to add perspective to some of the scenes and hint at the inner world of the characters, who don’t spend a lot of time sharing their feelings with each other. The narrator also fills in interesting points about the world our travelers are passing through. In one such segment, the trio passes a pair of crosses on the side of the highway, and the narrator explains how a fatal accident occurred there a year prior. The characters don’t even comment or pay attention to the crosses, any more than most of us do when we pass these little monuments. It’s a reminder of the theme of the film, which is that we are all bit players in someone else’s tragedy.

“Y Tu Mama, Tambien” won multiple awards, and deservedly so. Eleven years later it’s still an outstanding film. If you can handle a movie with sex, nudity, and subtitles, then I highly recommend it. (Available on Netflix streaming video.)

4 stars out of 5