Monday, August 29, 2011

Totally Super Galactic...its, like, ORBITAL!

Ok, there are many films and television shows from my childhood that had not successfully stood the test of time.  Mighty Morphin Power Rangers makes my head hurt (though on a dull summer day and you might catch me playing with my old Zords...and then I'll deny it and say I was dusting), "New Kids on the Block" are more campy than cool, and the non-Disney renaissance films from other companies all have the tangy odor of aged cheese.  Does that mean I can't enjoy these elements due to nostalgia?  Certainly not...rather, I embrace the slightly embarrassed "Oh my god, did I watch this?" feelings when I go back to revisit something I thought was amazing as a child.  It is this 'duel-mindedness' that I think helps me to still appreciate my inner-child's memories while also indulging my palate in new experiences.  However, this blog isn't about philosophy...its about movies and I have a humdinger of a film for you today.  It seems caught in a sort of time warp where the 80s bled into the 90s and at the same time, revived the 50s.  Its an odd amalgum, one made even more strange by the pairing of classic animation styles with brand-new computer animated elements.  Even today, it remains a curiosity of the time and one wonders why the movie was even made...still, it was a modest success (mainly on video) and certainly lit up my Saturday afternoons a time or two.  So lets go back into the past...and through doing so...zoom into the future as we visit that Furture-iffic family in Jetsons: The Movie.

The film opens in a darkened industrial plant and sinister music plays as unseen creatures skitter around in the dark and sabotage the complex equipment held within.  Then, with enough enthusiasm to erase memories of the dark opening, we are greeted to a widescreen and stereo sound version of the famed "Meet the Jetsons" opening from yesteryear.  We meet George, Jane, Judy, Elroy, Rosie the Robot, and Astro the Dog and in the space of 30 seconds, we know everything we need to know about our protagonists (well, everything that will matter over the course of the film anyway).  George heads to work for what seems like will be a normal day, but his life is suddenly changed when his boss, Mr. Spacely, promotes George to Vice-President and overseer of the Spacely Orbiting Ore Asteroid.  Little does George know that Spacely is merely hoping for George to be a proxy, a figurehead who pushes a button at the plant and takes the blame for the continual problems it seems to keep having.  After limited protest from his family, George moves them all to the plant to take over the operations.  Of course, soon everything begins falling apart and it is up to the Jetsons to discover what is causing the glitches at the Plant and fix them.

I have to preface this paragraph with the statement that I am about to ask a serious question and intend no snide, rude, or ironic tone....I wonder what the producers were thinking when they decided to make this film?  I can assume that, the suits at Universal who had had decent success with An American Tail and The Land Before Time, saw the onslaught of animated fare flooding the cinemas and saw that their slate was rather light in terms of recognizable animated fare.  Having recently established a partnership with Hanna Barbara that extended even to the Universal Studios theme parks (Elroy Jetson starred in an interactive show at the park for quite some time), it probably seemed like good business to dip into their wide well of source material to make a feature.  Add to that that the late 80s had seemed to embrace some of the more wild elements of the 1950s and absorbed them into its own culture soup, and the fact that The Jetsons were a decidedly retro vision of the future that fit right in to that 50s asthetic, and I suppose it must have seemed like a great idea.  Indeed, the colorful images in the trailers and the promise of the exploits of a rather famous cartoon family in a big feature certainly worked on me enough to convince my mother to take me and see the film.  However, there was perhaps too much 80s in the film and not enough of a homogenous and timeless mixture.  Universal did in fact replace the voice of the original Judy Jetson, Janet Waldo, with that of pop-star Tiffany and inserted a number of songs in the film that Tiffany would perform (pushing the 80s meter up even higher) and filmed at least one music video for one of those songs, "You and Me", that played during the film and featured imagry that looked like it had exploded from the mind of A-ha.  Reviews of the film equated it to nothing but a hour-long television special that had been expanded to film and it dropped off 43% in box office revene after its first weekend and the Jetsons movie was largely forgotten until video where it was indeed successful.  What had looked like a perfect storm, creatively, for Universal backfired and the studio shyed away from animation for a long while (with rare releases like We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story becoming equally forgotten at the box office) and wouldn't have the success of their 80s efforts until Shrek in 2001.  Is Jetsons: The Movie better forgotten?  Maybe...it certainly doesn't offer anything we haven't seen before and adds nothing new or revolutionary to the realm of animated film.  At the same time, it certainly isn't the death of animation either...its merely an average performer among greater brothers and sisters.  If you're babysitting a 4 year old, you could do a lot worse than the late 80s and early 90s charms of Jetsons...but its not for grown-ups unless grew up on it.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

I Love those Plumbers...

The early 90s were a magical time for a child because it seems that every film idea that was based on a 'kid' property was being made.  The Ninja Turtles were tops at the box office for several years in a row, the Transformers had already been a minor hit in the 1980s and Disney was still churning out quality product (and were now entering their Renaissance) but it wasn't long before film companies began developing films based on video games.  It was a great business idea for sure, many game franchises had been big sellers and were well established with both children and adults for several years thanks to Nintendo and Sega and animated programs such as "The Super Mario Bros. Super Show" had already shown that licensing out these characters for filmed work could be successful.  And so it came to be that 1993 saw America's first theatrically released movie based on a video game...and it would naturally be based on one of Nintendo's first and best loved franchises.  So lets get tangled in fungus as we examine the oddity that is Super Mario Bros.

 The film opens with a shot of Brooklyn 65 Million Years ago (which is the first joke) and shows how dinosaurs lived there before a meteorite struck the Earth and killed them all...flash forward to 20th century Brooklyn and we see a strangely dressed woman dropping off an egg and a chip of mineral at a nunnery before running back to a dark tunnel where she is attacked by Koopa, a tall blond man with an evil glint in her eye.  20 years go by and we are introduced to the Mario Brothers...Mario Mario, the oldest and most wise, and Luigi Mario, the younger and more idealistic brother.  The two run a floundering plumbing buisness and find themselves skunked at every turn by the Scappelli buisness...a nationally franchised company run by mobsters.  When checking their messages, Luigi is struck by the beauty of Daisy...a graduate student of paleontology who is currently overseeing a dig near the river where Scappelli has accidentally uncovered fossils due to excavation.  The Mario Bros. help Daisy fix a sabotaged pipe in the dig and before they can blink, Daisy is kidnapped by two odd looking men and dragged off into the caverns below.  The Marios make chase and soon find themselves in another dimension where humans have evolved from dinosaurs, not mammals.  It appears that the impact of the meteorite way back when resulted in a dimensional tear that created the Earth as we know it today and another world where a Manhattan-like city is surrounded on all sides by vast desert.  It seems that the President/Ruler, King Koopa, has discovered that there is a mammal world that mirrors theirs and plans to use Daisy (who hatched from the egg seen at the beginning) and her meteor shard to merge the two worlds and overtake the Earth...and only the Mario Brothers can stop him.

In terms of adaptations...Super Mario Bros. is about as far away from the source material as you can get.  The filmmakers have transformed the bright and colorful Mushroom Kingdom full of strange looking mushroom and turtle monsters from the video games into a dark, dystopian world full of strangely costumed human actors reminiscent of Blade Runner and for many fans that was the first straw of many.  Goombas didn't look like goombas, but rather were de-evolved dinohumans with tiny heads, Koopa was a man rather than a large spiked-crossed-between-a-turtle-and-a-dragon, Luigi was not as old as Mario, tall, or mustached, and the script was full of oddly-placed one-liners and strange jumps in logic.  Needless to say, it is known as one of the worst video game adaptations...which is saying something among all the dreck that exists from that category (to date...none of them have higher than a 35% rating on rottentomatoes.com)...and yet I think many of those fans are missing the point.  Yes, Mario Brothers could have been a bright and colorful film reminiscent of Speed Racer and could have been full of puppet goombas, koopa troopas, and a large animatronic King Koopa and yes it could have followed the story of the games closer with Mario falling into a pipe and emerging in a world where he had to save a princess....but how interesting would that have been?  Rather, I mean, how filmic?  What motivation would Mario have to save a princess he doesn't know from a terrible monster other than he's a nice guy?  I can't think of many Brooklyn plumbers that would...and that's what the writers and designers must have thought as well (with a heavy dose of economic logic thrown in...who has the money for all those goomba and koopa puppets?) because they invented a story of their own and grafted the basic elements of Mario onto it (because lets face it, that's what Mario is...very BASIC elements which is perfect for a game but not for a film).  So we didn't get to see how clever the screenwriters could be by creating good reasons for Mario to bonk his head on a block, grab coins, and slide down a flag pole...but we did get to see a clever use of mushrooms, bob-oms, and fireballs (yes, those flamethrowers were shooting classic Mario fireballs).  Is it a great movie?  Hell no...is it even a good movie?  Hardly...its more of an interesting curiosity of 90s filmmaking that is diverting enough to not be turned off...but which you won't remember after a few days.  In short, the perfect popcorn film for a weekend evening or a drunken gathering with friends.  So lets lay off this movie for being the worst game adaptation...I think Uwe Boll's movies have a corner on that market.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Murder is an Art...

Hollywood has very few genres that they still throw money at, regardless of the product they're selling, and one of those is the serial killer thriller.  Ever since The Silence of the Lambs burned up the box-office and the Academy Awards, Hollywood has been trying to recapture lightning in a bottle.  There has been some success, such as Seven and Saw, then there are minor triumphs like Red Dragon and American Psycho, but like most genres that Hollywood often goes back to the well for there are more disappointments than there are failures.  Of course, like all genres, the films that interest me most are the under-appreciated or underrated films.  The ones that are very good and yet never got the recognition they deserve.  One of my absolute favorites stars one of my absolute favorite actresses alongside another powerhouse actress...which already makes one wonder why it wasn't more successful the year it was released.  However, thanks to being released alongside several other films of the same type, it fell by the wayside when it was released.  Now, thanks to the magic of Blu-ray the world can now rediscover this suspense yarn.  But before I gush too much, I'd better tell you something about the film first.  Strap in chaps, we're investigating the Copycat.

Dr. Helen Hudson is currently at the top of her game in the field of criminal psychology.  She is one of the leading experts in the study of serial murderers and what makes them tick, and she is such an expert that she is often brought in as an expert witness for the prosecution.  In fact, she recently helped put a serial killer named Darryl Lee Cullam in prison, but her life is shattered when Cullam escapes from prison and attacks her in a public restroom.  Although she survives, this sudden exposure to the realities of being a victim so traumatizes her that she retreats to the confines of her San Francisco apartment and becomes an intense agoraphobic.  Meanwhile, a new serial killer is stalking the streets of San Francisco and is currently baffling Inspector Mary-Jane Monahan.  Soon Monahan is knocking on Helen's door and asking for her professional insight and Helen reluctantly agrees, immediately discovering that the killer is copying famous serial killers from the past.  Unfortunately this is exactly what the copycat wants and soon he sets his sights on Helen.  Its up to Monahan and Helen to catch this killer, or Helen may very well be next.

On the surface, Copycat looks and feels like a Silence of the Lambs clone...which is perhaps why audiences chose to ignore this film, especially after the gruelling and groundbreaking Seven was released only months before.  The film certainly has those Silence moments that it hits...a tough cookie cop trying to find a killer and her only way of catching him is by seeking advice from an isolated expert who can't leave the place he/she sleeps.  Of course, what audiences missed was the many differences that made Copycat stand on its own.  First is the opening scene in the restroom where Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Hudson) is attacked by Harry Connick Jr. (Cullam) which shows that the film is not afraid to shoot for the unexpected in that it seems as if the woman we thought was our heroine might be killed off before the opening titles.  Then there is the aspect of agoraphobia imprisoning Helen within her own home which presents an obstacle to the investigation since she cannot look at crime scenes other than through photographs...but also invites and interesting look into 'invasion of personal space' when the killer begins to send her emails and phone messages and effectively spoiling the only space she feels safe before he physically invades it...and Helen is powerless to do anything about it because she is too afraid to leave.  Then there is Holly Hunter's Inspector Monahan, who presents a much different investigator from other films.  In other films, the cops never show any real issue with having to kill their suspect if it comes down to it, but with Monahan, we see a cop who detests killing.  She even chastises her partner Ruben Goetz (Dermot Mulroney) for "shredding" a test target when he could easily hit the gunman's shoulder.  This is a shot she puts into practice twice in the film, with good and bad results.  The decision not to kill unless completely necessary doesn't make her a better cop...but it does make her more complex.  The killer, who I shant reveal here, is also different than many Hollywood serial killers in that he doesn't look 'weird' or 'creepy' and manages to function perfectly well in the real world which ties him much better to real-world killers like Ted Bundy.  Its a change that people often don't accept as they believe that killers always look strange or creepy, even though history shows us that this is often not the case. All in all, Copycat is a suspenseful and solid serial killer film that is equal parts frightening and informative and deserves to be seen and given its due.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Don't Mess With Texas...

Ok ok...I did have a several week period where I was too busy to write here on the blog (namely during production week for Sound of Music, the trip to Universal right afterward, and then a visit to my sister's place in Nashville right after that) but the last two weeks I've had no excuse to get back into the writing game.  To be honest, I just forgot about the blog because there was so much going on.  But don't worry friends, I am back and here to bring you another slice of madness courtesy of my every so eclectic and bizarre tastes.  Tonight I'll be bringing you a taste of terror from the 1970s that is regarded as one of the granddaddies of the still-vital slasher craze.  At a time when the youth of America were living free while conservative elders looked on disapprovingly and doling out restrictions and punishments to these crazed teens, one director decided to use the traditional American family as the base for a tale of terror.  What began then was a franchise of notorious reputation and a title that was many times more sensational than the original work.  So lets go back in time to 1974 and take in the case files of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

It is a hot and sticky August day when Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin travel across the back roads of Texas to visit their grandfather's grave.  It turns out that several of the local cemeteries have been robbed with graves dug up and corpses either posed in sickening sculptures atop the graves or missing parts entirely and Sally and Franklin want to be sure their grandfather hasn't been touched.  Following that, Sally and Franklin convince their friends Pam, Jerry, and Kirk (who are along for the ride) to come with them to visit their grandparents old house.  Along the way they pick up a strange hitchhiker who confesses to having worked at the local meat packing plant before attacking Franklin with a knife.  As if this weren't enough, the kids find themselves running out of gas and with no filling station nearby.  When two of them investigate a gasoline motor sound they find a cute little white house in the middle of nowhere...however on the inside of the house they find a much more sinister aesthetic on display.  Chicken bones hang from the ceiling, furniture and lamps are constructed from in human skin and bones, meat hooks hang next to large man-sized freezers in the kitchen, and a large man in an apron and a mask made from human skin is lurking with a hammer and a chainsaw.  One by one this...Leatherface...kills the teens until only one, Sally, is left.  She then must survive the longest night of her life as she runs from Leatherface and his demented family...and there are still more surprises to come.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was meant to be a shocker and it sounds like one with a title like that...it was such a nasty title that many critics reviewed the film without even actually watching it.  Its rather comical to read some of them as they decry the amount of gore and violence in the film...when in fact there is very little blood or offal in the film.  Yes, people are hung from meat hooks and one scene features murder by chainsaw, but otherwise the film is more frightening based on what is felt in the atmosphere and what is implied by what is shown.  It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the family that is preying on these youths are practicing cannibals who have prayed on the passers by for years...but they never once put a piece of human flesh in their mouths.  It is also implied that the chainsaw is the preferred weapon of choice for Leatherface, even though he only uses it to kill once.  What is more unsettling than the non-gore of the film is the fact that the conservative family is actually trying to kill and swallow up the young and beautiful free spirits of the new generation.  Family values that once stood for good in the 1950s now are twisted and perverted to encourage murder.  Others have commented on how the gritty look of the film makes it feel like a documentary (indeed the promotional materials and the opening prologue proudly proclaim that the story is true) though I don't agree.  A documentary never plays like a linear story with no comments from talking heads or commentators and so its quite clear that the filmmakers are telling a story rather then documenting truth.  However, the gritty feel does intensify the sense of dread and nausea that the viewer feels due to the fact that its simply harder to watch.  When you watch the film you feel like you're there in the heat and dirt and grime, and that is what makes horror effective.  The franchise hasn't lost steam yet and yet another filmmaker is dipping into the well for another go at the story...which shows just how well this little shocker still manages to scare us.