Category Archives: Movie of the Day Blog

Movie of the Day: Jaws (1976)

Most of us have never known a summer without Jaws, and those of my generation can’t remember a time when the movies existed without Steven Spielberg. We grew up on a healthy diet of his films at a time when he was still a wide-eyed kid, bursting with ideas, filled with a passion for the medium and always keenly aware of how to entertain the heck out of his audience.

Whenever I see Jaws, I am always aware that I am witnessing some sort of miracle. This is a movie that by all measurable reason should not have worked as well as it did. It was based on a clunky, overwritten pulp novel; the plot was rail thin; it was directed by a 27 year-old film director best known for a TV movie; It starred a broken mechanical shark that had so much downtime that we saw it for less than 10 minutes on the screen. The entire production was the working definition of Murphy’s Law, and yet it all came together so well that even after 40 years we’re still talking about it.

In what must be the strangest bit of irony, the best parts of Jaws were the product of piecing together all the things that weren’t working. Steven Spielberg wanted the shark to be the star of Jaws. The way he story-boarded it, the shark would have appeared in half the movie. Remember the attack on Chrissie Watkins? That was to have featured the girl and the shark at the same time, but since the mechanics of the shark didn’t work right, he borrowed a note from Hitchcock by hiding the antagonist for most of the film. Fortunately for us, it was a tactic that he would use to great effect.

Jaws does best by what it does least. When we see the shark it is rarely in the cold light of day. Revisiting the film again – for the first time last week in a movie theater – I counted the number of scenes in which we actually see the shark, and I could only count three and they all take place in the film’s third act. Spielberg’s use of empty space was what made the movie work. We see point of view shots; long shots; cut-aways; a fin here, a tail there. At times we aren’t sure what we’re seeing and that absence of a clear view plays on our imagination.

The lack of visual reveal leaves our minds to fill in the blanks, and that creates an unexpected intimacy. Again, consider the death of Chrissie Watkins in the film’s opening, which many consider to be Spielberg’s equivalent of the  shower scene in Psycho. Chrissie goes in the water at night. As she swims around there is a point of view shot from under the water. She’s jostled by something that scares her, then for the next several minutes, she is thrashed about by a shark that we never see. The scene plays with our senses. At one point, she grabs a buoy nearby thinking that the attack is over, but she is then pulled away and disappears beneath the water. What makes the scene work is that we aren’t seeing these events from a distance. We’re in the water with her. There’s a startling intimacy to her death scene and for the rest of the movie, we have a template in our minds of the terror that our protagonists are up against.

The streamlining of the story is what works best here. Human characters are important but the plot needed to focus just on the shark. Screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and the book’s author Peter Benchley took out some of the book’s clunky narrative including the subplot involving Amity’s government being bankrolled by the mafia (which is why the mayor doesn’t want the beaches closed); and a bit of infidelity between Matt Hooper and Ellen Brody. Plus, the ending, which is spectacular in the movie is kind of underwhelming in the book as the shark simply succumbs to a harpoon wound and drowns.

The absence of the mechanical shark also leaves us with a lot of time to get to know the characters, and that’s where the heart of the movie lies. It might have been easier to fill the roles with cardboard cut-outs, characters who are propped up as fodder for the mill, but Spielberg’s screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and the book’s author Peter Benchley streamlined the story and focused on the main characters, giving us a family man, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who suffers from a touch of aqua phobia; Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) an ichthyologist who is in love with sharks; and a crusty old sea salt who isn’t a million miles removed from Captain Ahab.

All three of these characters are given dimensions. Brody’s familial bond is felt in a tender moment at the dinner table when he plays the “same game” with his youngest son. Hooper’s youth and experience could have been a tiresome joke, but there is a lot of weight to what he knows, he serves the audience with nuggets of information about the shark.

But the best role in the film goes to Quint, an old sea salt whose motivation for catching the shark are laid out in the film’s single best scene, a harrowing four minute monologue in which he recounts his experience on board The Indianapolis, the WWII naval vessel that was sunk by a Japanese sub leaving 3000 helpless sailors to be fish food for the sharks. Late in the film when Quint busts the radio with a bat to keep Brody from calling for help, his motivation is crystal clear.

Even the tinier roles are given dimensions. There’s the town’s mayor Larry Vaughn who could have been just a foil but reasons that the town needs tourism to survive despite the shark. There’s Brody’s wife Ellen, who naturally worries about her husband, but is also cool and laid back: “Wanna get drunk and fool around?” And there’s Mrs. Kitner, the mother of a boy who is killed by the shark, a reminder that in most monster movies, victims are dispatched with little fanfare, but she gets a moment when she is in mourning, reminding of the dire gravity of this situation.

Without human interaction Jaws would fall flat on its face. This is a very strange, very specific story that could be just a monster movie whose only destination might have been late night television. Shark attack stories are hard to tell. How many shark movies have been a success after Jaws? Even the sequels decline sharply in quality after this (all were sans Spielberg). Jaws 2 was entertaining but basically unnecessary. Jaws 3D was a silly excuse for 3D, and Jaws: The Revenge? . . . well, we all know how that turned out.

Seeing the film for the first time in a theater two years ago – my entire exposure up until then had been on television –was something special. First, the print. It was crisp and beautiful where most older films that have returned to theaters, especially those originally shot on film like Top Gun and Raiders of the Lost Ark, look grainy when transferred to digital. Not so with Jaws. The picture was beautiful, the colors popped and the immersive quality was something that I realize that I will never get in my living room.

Another advantage was the sound. Remember that great scene where the three men are in the hull of the boat drinking? That scene ends with the shark bumping its nose against the side of the boat. On television it makes a knocking sound. In a theater there’s a startling BOOM!  Also, John Williams now legendary score is enhanced. The music is in a slightly different pitch then the dialogue or the natural sounds. That makes the stinger cues, like the head that pops out of the side of Ben Gardner’s boat, arrive with a jolt.

Looking back over 40 years, it’s hard to believe how movies have changed in such a short time. When Jaws was released in June of 1975, there was no summer movie season. Film, at the time, was just emerging from the downfall of the production code and filmmakers were working with darker subject matter. This was the era of personal filmmaking from which emerged talents like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and of course, Steven Spielberg.

The most enduring legacy of Jaws was Spielberg. Here was a kid from the mid-west who had his heart firmly planted in the canvas of the movies, not simply as an artist, but as someone who wanted to entertain. If Jaws hadn’t worked, his career might have ended before it had even started. But it did work. Everything that went wrong with the movie bred something right with the final result. His career would redefine the movies, making them fun again, anticipating and in many ways creating the era of the blockbuster – both for better and for worse. His filmography is a tapestry of some of the greatest works of popular American culture from the last third of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Jaws helped redefined the art and the business of the movies. Spielberg gave the movies what it needed most, a bigger boat, a party boat, that we’ve happily been sailing on for more than forty years.


Movie of the Day: The Hangover Part III (2013)

As a comedy, The Hangover Part III is a colossal waste of time, a laugh-impaired detriment to the entire genre.  As a thriller, it actually works.  Let me put it this way, I was never bored by the movie when it was trying to take me on a thrill-ride.  Yet, I was nearly rendered comatose when it tried to set up a joke.  I actually mean that as praise.  Up to this point, critics have been mauling this film with razor sharp fingernails.  I’m not going to be one of them.  I come either to praise The Hangover Part III nor to bury it.  I liked the parts that I liked and I’ll defend it on those grounds.

Walking into the movie, I expected a washout meshed with a retread wrapped inside a movie that I was generally ready to write off as unwatchable.  Having seen it, no, I can’t say that.  For one thing, it is a true sequel in that tries to build on what has been established.  Todd Phillips takes the characters in a different direction by ditching the morning-after formula in favor of playing off that actions of the previous films and dealing with consequences that must be resolved.  The Wolfpack created chaos on two continents and now it has come back home.  I appreciated that.  Yet, my appreciation comes wrapped in a thick layer of unfunny comedy.

First, the bad news.  The focus of The Hangover Part III primarily settles on the problems of Alan, played again by Zach Galifianakis who was a bizarre third-wheel in the first two films, a character that I never really found all that funny. He’s such a bizarre doofus that I’m never sure if I’m supposed to be amused by him or afraid of him.  He says and does things that no human being on the face of the Earth would do or say without medication and time in a prison cell.  Galifianakis is a probably a nice guy but he has a comic persona that I find creepy and off-putting.  His character in the first two films was wisely third-string since a little of him goes a long way.  Here, he gets a much larger role and that’s a mistake.  His antics are more aggravating then funny.

As this movie opens, Alan has stopped taking his medication and has somehow acquired a very cute giraffe that is unceremoniously killed while in his possession.  It’s not funny, it’s just quizzical and sad.  Returning home, he’s given a talking-to by his very understanding dad (Jeffery Tambor) who immediately drops dead in a scene that I found heartless and cruel.  These two scenes really have nothing to do with the rest of the movie.  They are bizarre comic set pieces that could have easily been excised from the film.

The good news is that the larger plot is really kind of interesting.  It involves The Wolfpack’s re-association with Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), the mean-spirited Chinese gangster whom they met in the first film when he jumped naked out of the trunk of their car and, in the second film, watched as he was carted off to a Bankok prison as part of a sting operation.  As the movie opens, he’s broken out of prison in a scene that, I think, is supposed to be a reference to The Shawshank Redemption.  I dunno, as I say, the attempts at comedy don’t really work here.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, The Wolfpack – which again consists of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Doug (Jason Bartha) and Alan – is still dealing with Alan who soon becomes the focus of an intervention.  The guys want to put him in an institution for his own good, but while driving him there they are ambushed by an angry gangster Mr. Marshall (John Goodman) who was robbed by Mr. Chow of $42,000,000 from a gold heist.  Marshall assumes they know Chow’s location because he’s been in correspondence with Alan.  And just for insurance, they decide to hold on to Doug.  From there the adventure begins, to locate Chow, get the gold and return it to Mr. Marshall.

As an adventure, I’ll say it’s a good one.  Having run through the morning-after plot of the first two films, I was glad to see this second-sequel moves in a different direction.  I was interested in what was going on.  It took turns that I didn’t expect and it held my attention.  I was interested in the fact that the movie was bound to be a sequel rather than another boring repeat of the same formula.  It seems that I’m alone in that opinion.  Maybe that’s just me.  Maybe I’m just punch drunk from recent sequels that have no energy or aspirations; sequels to Men in Black, Taken, Paranormal Activity, The Bourne movies, Star Trek, Ice Age, Die Hard and Iron Man – sequels that have no ambition to work toward anything but processing a brand name.  While it isn’t successful on all counts, The Hangover Part III gives me the feeling that someone was trying.  I appreciate that, I really do


Movie of the Day: Catwoman (2004)

Catwoman is mounted on one incontrovertible truth: Halle Berry looks great in black leather.  This is a fact displayed all through this laborious hemorrhoid of a movie.  It is virtually unwatchable, yet you can’t deny the fact that she is a natural wonder to behold.  Great pains have been taken to properly photograph her eyes, her lips, her legs, her shoulders, her bare back, and at one point even her tongue.  Yet, the producers of Catwoman have overlooked another unavoidable fact: All that organic lovliness is meaningless if you have no movie to build around it.  Might as well buy a calendar and get it over with.

What is here isn’t really a movie, it’s a perfume ad that’s permitted to go on for two hours.  At its center is a script that even photogenic black leather and ruby lips can’t fix.  Ms. Berry is a talented actress but you have to wonder at the thought process that went into this property.  The poster is the movie.  The rest is more or less innocuous.

Berry plays Patience Phillips, who begins as a frumpy insecure graphic artist working for George Hedare (Lambert Wilson), a megalomaniac cosmetics magnate who is secretly selling a toxic skin cream that will keep women looking young so long as they keep using his lousy product. Patience finds out about this little scheme and is killed and dumped in the river for her troubles. Emerging later, apparently having been brought back to life by cats (groan) she re-imagines herself as Catwoman. A trip to the leather shop, a new hairdo and – VOILA! – she’s a superhero. She can leap from building to building like a badly rendered CGI jungle cat and she’s crazy with a whip. Other than that, she ain’t much in the way of functionality. Somewhere in her transformation, she gets Yoda-like advice from a mysterious woman called Ophelia (Frances Conroy) whose role is more or less superfluous.

On her mission to destroy the Hedare and his evil toxic cosmetics factory (read that sentence again), Patience falls in love with a cop played by Benjamin Bratt who is really reeeeeeeally slow to catch on. Patience is not only his love interest, but also apparently the only black woman in town. He is working the case to bring Catwoman to justice, but he doesn’t even recognize her through the mask when they’re face to face. How did he get to be a cop?

The director, who calls himself Pitof, has graduated from television commercials but hasn’t left them behind. He’s great with the photography but as a dramatist he’s got a long, LONG way to go. His scenes are set pieces in which Berry twists and kicks and snaps her whip and throws out stupid double-entendres (“Cats come when they feel like it. Not when they’re told.”) They’re probably pretty pictures by themselves, but look just plain stupid when strung together.

He’s also made a movie that’s a bit confusing. Who is this character? The opening credits tell us that the movie is “Based on the characters by Bob Kane,” but as far as I know, there has never been a Catwoman named Patience Phillips. The movie doesn’t take place in Gotham City, there’s no mention of Batman and this Catwoman isn’t Salina Kyle. Who is she? Is she an imposter? A clone? A wannabe? Based on the evidence, she seems to fit all three.

During this terrible movie, I had a lot of time to think. How would a movie about a cat woman really play out? She’s be sullen, ignore you when you call her and sleep all day. Occasionally she’d find a corner to get at a bad itch, and she’s spend most of her day sleeping in whatever window is getting the best sunlight. Maybe Catwoman should have been played by a teenager.


Movie of the Day: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Something happened to me during Transformers: Age of Extinction that I found rather curious.  Somewhere around the third hour, the movie was filled with 700 ton robots were falling from the sky on a rural highway backed up by a soundtrack louder than a B-52.  At that moment, I caught myself daydreaming.  Not voluntarily, mind you.  My mind drifted off to a project I was working on for my website.  This is not good.  Here is a two-hundred million dollar movie that can’t hold my attention.  That’s serious.

Still this is one of the most obnoxious tentpole movies that I have ever seen.  It’s loud, dumb, incoherent and endless. And yet, while it’s nearly identical to its predecessors it’s not nearly as bad. That is to say, while it still numbs your mind with explosions your mind comes to expect it. This fourth go-around, the cacophony isn’t as damaging because it’s isn’t fresh or new anymore. Is that a compliment? Hard to say.

Bay has the unmitigated gall to call his third sequel a “reboot.” Not quite. The cast is different and that’s about it. Gone are Megan Fox, John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, and most blatantly Shia LeBouf whose sudden abundance of free time isn’t any more wisely spent then when he was bilking the public with this unending stream of cinematic indifference.

What’s different this time is that Bay seems to have abandoned the palette by which he created the other three films – that is to say this is the first Transformers movie that isn’t totally an ugly and unhappy experience. That doesn’t make it good, necessarily, what he created previously as dark and grimy has been replaced by a visual look that is aggressive, colorful and seems more childish than off-putting. That’s a nice way of saying he’s traded an ointment for a suppository. It still the stupidest film of the summer, but you don’t feel filthy when the movie is over.

Despite the recasting, the story isn’t any better. The planet Earth is still reeling from the destruction of Chicago which has forced the government to set in motion the reasonable plan of eliminating all remaining Transformers in order to get them off the planet. In charge of the plan is Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) whose dialogue seems completely made up of apocalyptic statements. He has a bloodhound at his side, an angry little man named Savoy whose private army travels around in those ominous black vans that always signal that the government is hunting for something in the movies.

Savoy heads out to “Texas, U.S.A.” where a particularly pesky piece of metal is in the possession of an inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg). While looking for spare parts in an old movie theater, he runs across a truck whose cab is littered with bullet holes. He takes it home, tinkers a bit and – bim bam boom! – up pops Optimus Prime. Savoy arrives on the scene to destroy the robot; Cade grabs his daughter and her boyfriend and the rest of the movie has them running from giant, hulking hunks of metal.

That, in essence is all there is. There’s a running gag about Wahlberg’s paranoia over his teenage daughter’s budding sexuality, but it’s a joke that it repeated over and over and wasn’t all that funny to begin with. Most of the movie has the pair running from giant monsters with her new boyfriend in tow.

The characters are all bland caracatures save for the one played by Stanley Tucci. He plays Joshua Joyce, a robotics expert whose personality ebbs somewhere between Steve Jobs and Eckhart Tolle – at least in his first few scenes. His company has been studying Megatron’s head and come up with a pretty cool new technology that can allow his robots to transform without all the bending and contorting. They transform by breaking up into thousands of tiny pieces of metal and twisting around like a swarm of bees before reforming into something else. It’s a neat effect. There’s a lot of personality to Joshua initially that unfortunately blows away as soon as he leaves his lab. For most of the movie, Tucci is just part of the foreground, ducking and dodging and buildings and giant robots come crashing down.

The robots themselves haven’t changed. They are the selling point of this enterprise but they are ugly, ungainly and no fun to look at. They are 50-foot scraps of metal that punch each other when they aren’t shooting things or knocking over buildings. They have shiny faces that can’t be recognized as faces, so we feel no connection to them at all. They are nearly impossible to tell them apart.

Not to mention, if you have a quizzical mind, you can’t help but ask logical questions. The robots are on this planet to fight one another, but what are they fighting about? What makes a robot good or evil? Who decided which side they would be on? What makes them intelligent? What makes them able to think and talk? What do they do when they aren’t fighting? Who sent them here? Who built them? Why were they built? Why do they transform into a automobiles? The robots are all male, but are their fem-bots? Is this trip really necessary?


Movie of the Day: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

I had a conversation once with a former associate who argued that the best way to enjoy the films of director Michael Bay was to simply sit back, turn off my brain and enjoy them. What he was saying essentially is that I needed to simply lower my standards and ask for less. Note that I said this was a former associate.

Michael Bay makes blockbusters. He makes them loud, crude, violent and profitable. He made ‘Armageddon’, about rocks that threaten to destroy earth. He made The Rock, about a terrorist that threatens to destroy San Francisco. He made Pearl Harbor about how the Japanese destroyed a navel base. Are you seeing a pattern here? He makes profitable films in which things get blow’d up real good. His excuse is that he makes films for audiences, not critics. Well, so did Hitchcock, but at least Hitch wanted to play us like a piano, not like a set of drums.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a loud, crude, dumbbell action picture that has the appeal of throwing a set of cookware down a long staircase. The heroes and villains are robots from another world who can disguise themselves as mobile objects like cars, jets, tanks etc. They can even take the form of household objects like toasters or blenders. The reason they are here on earth is laid out in incomprehensible dialogue that is difficult to follow. It really doesn’t matter anyway. The final scenes are an assault of noisy special effects and whip-cut editing that never allow you to get your bearings. It plays like a two-and-a-half-hour commercial for itself.

The robots are seen early and often. There is no build-up or mystery about them at all. They are built of a convoluted mess of shiny metal pieces formed into something 40-feet tall with arms and legs. They have faces that aren’t expressive but rather hidden by all the metal – it takes you a second or two to decipher where the eyes or the mouth are or if they even have them (why do they need them?). When they speak, they having nothing interesting to say. Their speech comes in three forms: Formal comic book boilerplate (“Die, like your brothers”) and pop culture buzzwords (“Punk-ass Decepticon!”).

They make no logical sense in that you shouldn’t ask how a 50-foot robot can contain enough metal to transform into a half-sized pick-up truck.Worse then trying to figure them out is watching them. All they do is fight, smash things and shoot lasers. A lot of things get smashed and a lot of lasers get fired. There are a lot of things that get blown up, a lot of things that get destroyed. The robot’s bodies are made of metal, wires and gears. They look like moving scrap-heaps and when you get a bunch together to fight, you can’t tell one from another.

You have to ask why creatures from another planet would be metal robots anyway? Why is their speech such a mess of stale mechanical blandness? What do they have to offer besides weapons that can destroy stuff? What is their planet like? Where do they come from? Are there other organic beings out there? Do they know about us? Who built you guys? What’s your technology like? How were you able to convincingly create a robot who was a human look-a-like? See, they wouldn’t want to visit me because I would never shut up with the questions.

The human characters in the movie aren’t smart enough to ask those questions. The males in the movie are either college slobs or military archetype. The female are all gorgeous, smoldering in heat, and dress like Playmates. Shia LeBouf, the hero, runs through this movie looking dazed and confused while shouting at special effects. Megan Fox doesn’t fare much better but at least I can give her credit for tiring of this material and bowing out of Transformers 3. The only romantic conflict between LeBeouf and Fox is the idea that he won’t tell her that he loves her. Trust me, if a guy has the heart of a girl who looks like Megan Fox, the problem would be getting him to STOP saying it.

Movies like this anger me. They are a determent to this art form that I love. They seem to have been made by people who don’t know what movies are suppose to be about. Made by committee, they are filmed deals, made for box office, merchandise and beverage tie-ins. I like movies that ask something of me, they engage me and have a narrative that plays with my senses and my expectations and my sense of wonder. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is, I’m told, a movie that I am suppose to simply sit back and enjoy but, for me, that would be asking me to enjoy getting smacked repeatedly upside the head with a frying pan.


Movie of the Day: Transformers (2007)

Michael Bay has a style that I like to call “yutz charm.” He makes movies presumably for an audience that doesn’t ask for much beyond having their movies be loud and pretty to look at. That’s not to say that the audiences for his movies fit the term “yutz” but Bay likes to treat them as if they are. He’s the brainchild behind such box office hemorrhoids as “Pearl Harbor”, “The Rock”, “Armageddon” and “Bad Boys.” His movies are loud, crude and colorful; they move fast and stuff gets blow’d up real good.  What do you expect?  Quality?

Bay makes movies at two speeds: Pathetic and passable. Most of the time his work falls into the former, but “Transformers” falls into the latter. There are good things in it, moments that could almost be mistaken for being “inspired.” Yet, for every effective scene there are two that aren’t. You get a funny line of dialogue and then a robot that urinates on a man sitting in his car. Scene like that kind of make you lose faith.

“Transformers”, of course, are based on a line of toys first introduced in the 1980s. It was clever, you could bend and twist these toys and turn them from robots into cars and other things – sort of like what Bay is doing to his audience. It wasn’t exactly food for the mind, but it was a clever idea. Added to that was a TV show, then a rather superfluous 1986 animated movie and now a $150,000,000 retro exercise that is entertaining while you’re watching it but means nothing when it’s over.

The story isn’t much, but here goes: Two cults of ancient robots have arrived on Earth having battles one another for centuries across the galaxy. In this corner are The Autobots led by Optimus Prime who fight for right and might and want to spare the human race their war. In this corner are the Decepticons, who could give a rip about the human race and want to turn all of our technology against us. They’re in a battle to retrieve something called The All Spark, which sounds like a set of spark plugs but is actually device that can turn a mundane object into a transformer. Why they need it is somewhat unclear. Actually, it would have made more sense if they were looking for a set of spark plugs.

The robots themselves are 50-feet tall and have an arsenal of weapons. They can contort themselves into vehicles – trucks, cars, planes, you name it. Bay’s spirit of “yutz charm” assumes that you will overlook the question of how a robot the size of a small office building could contain enough metal to transform itself into a half-ton pickup truck. On the bright side, several of the robots do have personalities. Their dialogue is more or less perfunctory but there was, at least, an attempt to give them something more than big weapons. More might have been done, however, to make the robots more appealing. The Autobots and the Decepticons are incomprehensible when you look at them. Their faces aren’t expressive, but hidden within all the metal. They have mouths but why do they need them?

The All Spark is in the possession of a teenager named Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBouf), a kid so nervous that he runs the risk of developing hypertension before he gets into college – maybe it has something to do with the fact the his name is WitWicky. His parents are no help. His mother is a jabbering idiot and his father takes pride in making his son’s life a living nightmare. As the movie opens, Sam is about to receive his first car. No points for guessing that the car is More Than Meets the Eye – see I went there. Also into his life falls Mikaela (Megan Fox), a rapturous beauty who falls for Sam because – gasp – she cares about him. They briefly have a relationship that in another movie might have been interesting. Ms. Fox, it should be said, is the most appealing special effect in the whole movie.

This is a strange movie. Every action, every moment is ramped up beyond the ordinary. Even moments of calm between the human characters have the urgency of a cartoon. Most of it is given over to the clatter and bang of the visual effects department namely the fights between the robots. When they fight and their bodies are pressed against one another, you can’t tell one from the other. They’re metal; therefore they can’t get hurt, so why do we care? If they get destroyed, they can be rebuilt. Right? Maybe that’s what the All Spark was for? It’s hard to ask questions, just be mesmerized by the Yutz Charm and don’t ask too many questions.


Movie of the Day: The Gallows (2015)

There is a tiny moment late into The Gallows that is so restrained and so steadily terrifying that I felt a great lurch in my stomach.  Cassidy, the buxom cheerleader is trying to pull herself together after her boyfriend goes missing.  She sits at the top the of stairs trying to pull herself together.  The camera holds one shot for a what seems like an eternity.  A figure emerges from the darkness behind her and to her left.  It emerges so slowly that it takes our eyes a moment to register that something is there.  It’s the kind of terrifying moment that horror movies are made for.

I wish I could say the same about the rest of the movie!

The Gallows a heap of towering vapidness wrapped in a gimmick that doesn’t work, juggling a handful of characters who are pawns not people.  It’s a colossal miscalculation of character and tension built on a flimsy idea and padded out by a shopworn gimmick that doesn’t build tension so much as get on your nerves – this is, you guessed it, another found-footage movie.

The movie doesn’t have a plot so much as the meager beginnings of a concept.  Back in 1993, at Bernice High School in Nebraska, the senior class is putting on a production of a play called “The Gallows” starring one Charlie Grimille – the climax of which is a hanging.  For whatever reason, the prop people apparently built the gallows to be fully functioning so Charlie is actually hanged onstage in front of a live audience.  A generation later the students still talk about Charlie and the infamous mishap.  Despite the infamy, the school has decided to allow another performance of the same play.  Why?  Because we wouldn’t have a movie, that’s why.

What follows is a found-footage train wreck following four kids as they break into the school at night to trash the stage so that the lead actor will be spared the indignity of humiliating himself in front of the entire school.  The kids are nothing special.  There’s Ryan, an over-caffeinated jock who is filming the whole thing for . . . reasons.  There’s Reese, the clueless hunky guy who is the lead actor in the play.  There’s Pfieffer, the pretty lead actress on whom Reese is crushing hard, and there’s Cassidy, Reese’s cheerleader girlfriend.  These people don’t have personalities, they are placeholders.

Seen through the advent of shaky-cam, the kids sneak into the school in the middle of the night to trash the stage and, upon making their exit, find that all the doors are locked.  Worse, they find that the stage has been untrashed.  Throughout the night, the camera passes between each of the kids in a fit of panic (who wouldn’t?) as they very slowly begin to discover that the ghost of Charlie Gimille is hunting them down.  The kids run through the bowels of this school which seems to go on and on and on and seems to have no floor plan.  Admittedly some of the set-decoration could be scary as you might feel the disorientation of being in a dark school in the middle of the night.

The basic problem is, there are no rules here.  Charlie can appear out of thin air, but he can move objects and even kill someone.  There’s no real reason why he should be killing these kids other than the fact that they happen to be in the school.  So why does Charlie only attack intruders?  Has he never attacked anyone in the 20 years since his death?  Does no one go missing?  Why did he wait until this exact night to strike?  And again why is this found footage?  Why is the camera still running after it should have run out of battery power?  Why is Reese still running around after he breaks his leg?  I have a headache.  I’m going to go lay down.


Movie of the Day: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981)

I guess my view of the prophecies of Michel de Nostradamus – the 16th century French prophet who is said to have written down accurate predictions of at least 2000 years of forthcoming human events – holds about as much weight for me as The Da Vinci Code.  There are a lot of holes in the Nostradamus’ predictions so I tend to chalk it up as nothing more than an interesting curiosity.

The people behind the documentary The Man Who Saw Tomorrow don’t see it that way.  Here is a movie that offers a tiny bit of biography about the supposed prophet, and then cobbles together footage from every source under the sun in an effort to prove his accuracy.  Did he have fore-knowledge of the future?  Did he, while sitting in his secluded attic room in the 16th century accurately predict The French Revolution? Napoleon? The American Revolution? The Civil War? Hitler? World War II? The Atomic Bomb? The Kennedy Assassination? The Moon Landing?  Is he also right in his prediction about World War III and the end of the world?  Well, I don’t happen to think so, but I am confused about whether the movie does.  It spends 90 minutes reiterating that Nostradamus wrote down 2000 years worth of prophecies that came true and then adds a tag at the end to tell us that the producers of this film are actually less convinced of his accuracy than I am. At least they’re honest.

Hosted by Orson Welles, who sits in his stuffy office behind a desk smoking a cigar, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow attempts to lay out all of the major turning points of history by way of Nostradamus’ writing.  Before diving head-long into his predictions, we learn that Nostradamus was a hard-working student who had ambitions to be a doctor, but after losing his family in the plague, turned his ambitions toward writing down his predictions in something called “quatrains’, and hid his verses in anagrams and secret code in an effort to avoid being prosecuted for witchcraft.  Early on, we learn, he kissed the robes of a young Franciscan friar who would someday be Pope Sixtus V. He predicted that a king would die in a jousting tournament by having his eye poked out.  Later he was invited to the home of a dignitary where he accurately predicted which pig they would be eating for dinner. Yeah . . . okay.

The historical predictions put forth by Nostradamus are interesting, but the methods in which the movie presents them are, in a word, baffling.  Nothing is off limits here.  There is footage of the Kennedy assassination, the holocaust, The Moon Landing, the revolution in Iran.  Then, for events where there is no footage, sometimes actors are used in recreations and other times we get footage from old movies like War and Peace.  Sprinkled into the mix also are old newsreels, short films, documentary footage, color illustrations and cheap special effects shots from old science fiction movies.

The only center of logic in this chaotic mess is a very brief interview with former astronaut Edgar Mitchell who argues that the future is nothing more than our summation of present events. I would have liked to have heard more from him and less from Jean Dixon, who appears absurdly satisfied that she predicted the deaths of both Jack and Bobby Kennedy.  That’s before Welles informs us that we can see Nostradamus’ accuracy if we simply keep one eye on the quatrains and the other on our daily newspaper. For me, that’s just too much work. I think I’ll just let the future surprise me.

The movie also insists over and over that Nostradamus laid out a historical time line that revealed three men who would try to take over the world – Anti-Christs he called them. The first was Napoleon, the second was Hitler and the third is said to be a future tyrant who will come from the Middle East. This man, it is said, will plunge the world into a catastrophic war that will last 4 and 20 years, whatever that means.

That prediction lays out the film’s final act in which Nostradamus apparently predicted that a Middle Eastern Warrior in a blue turban would start World War III at or about May of 1988.  That leads to an embarrassingly silly scene with cheap sets right out of “Battlestar Galactica”, with the governments of both The Middle East and The United States firing nukes at each other until civilization is obliterated.  After that, the movie helpfully reminds us that Nostradamus predicted a thousand years of peace before the world ends in the year 3797.  Yet, even with all of his predictions, Nostradamus forgot to mention exactly how the world would come to an end.  I guess he wanted to save that spoiler for us to discover.

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow is nothing more than a curiosity. Any attempt to take it seriously requires the kinds of fruitless insights than are often attached to things like The Da Vinci Code, Roswell or Bigfoot. I’m no skeptic but I had to smile at most of this. It is a professionally made film that probably takes its subject more seriously than it deserves. I find the predictions of Nostradamus to be a curious but not essential element to human history. He seemed to have a good track record even if he did predict that Ted Kennedy would become President of the United States in 1984. Hey, nobody’s perfect.


Movie of the Day: Rango (2011)

Rango is a brilliant, insane act of genius. Here is an animated comedy that is outrageously funny, but also endearing, smart and strikingly original. It expands the art of animation by creating an entirely new world populated by well-defined characters and presents both with depth and detail and imagination. Its story lovingly borrows elements from great movies of the past, everything from Apocalypse Now to Chinatown to Stagecoach and A Fistful of Dollars, yet it has the crazy, madcap pace of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

The story is wonderfully inspired. It involves the titular hero, a skinny, bug-eyed lizard who has spent most of his life alone playing in an aquarium until one day it falls out of a family car and crashes on the highway and he finds himself lost in the Nevada desert. He is Rango (with the voice of Johnny Depp), and through the winds of fate, he is blown into the tiny town of Dirt, a filthy burg populated by every western movie stereotype you can imagine, but played by a host of western varmints: turtles, ravens, prairie dogs, moles, rats, you name it. They are running out of water, which is kept stored in a 5 gallon water cooler jug. They need it for their very livelihood. Rango knows that Dirt has a problem and wants to be the guy that the townsfolk look up to even though their problems are much bigger than he initially realizes. His love interest, a rancher’s daughter named Beans (with the voice of Isla Fisher) is a little more intuitive than Rango and suspects that the water is being diverted and dumped into the desert.

The immediate threat to the town of dirt is the presence of a menacing hawk that flies overhead and threatens to eat the townsfolk for lunch. Rango – sort of by accident – kills the hawk and is degreed the town’s sheriff by Dirt’s Mayor, an aging turtle voiced by Ned Beatty. Excising the hawk, however, creates a larger problem. That comes in the (very impressive) form of a new villain named Big Snake Jake, voiced by Bill Nighy, who was afraid of the hawk but now has nothing to fear. He intimidates the population of Dirt with an underlying purpose that only gradually becomes clear. There is a lot going on in Rango, the plot is much larger and far more compelling than we are led to believe. In fact, the story, once it gets underway, is borrowed very wonderfully from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (the water part, not the incest). It took me a moment to realize that the character of The Mayor is actually designed to look and sound like John Huston’s Noah Cross and I smiled with great delight when he informs Rango about “The future, Mr. Rango. The future.”

The whole movie is like that. The more you know about movies and American myth, the deeper the movie’s roots go, and even if you don’t, the movie it still very entertaining. The story is full and generous It doesn’t telegraph it’s story in advance but reveals it gradually. At once it is a slapstick comedy, the next a wild western adventure and then a bizarre murder mystery. It creates an entire world based on western mythology and pays homage to great movies of the past without using pop culture references as a crutch.

The film is dazzling to look at. The texture of the western town has such depth and presence that you forget that all of this was manufactured by animators. There’s a great action sequence in the middle of the film in which the heroes are engaged in a gun battle int he middle of a canyon and you stop to remind yourself that this isn’t Monument Valley of all those John Wayne pictures.

The character designs are wonderful too, especially Rango, played with a sort-of Don Knotts flare right down to the Hawaiian shirt hanging from his bony frame. Johnny Depp provides the voice and it is really a good performance. Through his voice, he gives Rango as much personality and dimension as he did to Jack Sparrow or The Mad Hatter or Sweeney Todd. In fact all of the characters have a particular depth, they are all western movie types of all shapes and sizes, they are fun to watch and fun to listen to. I especially liked the presence and depth of Big Snake Jake, a rattlesnake who seems to have been inspired by Lee Van Cleef with his narrow eyes, his pencil-thin mustache and that bandolier strap wrapped around his limbless middle.

There is so much to Rango that I haven’t even touched on, I could go on and on about it. Here is a movie that has so many wonderful things in it, and such wonderful humor (There are many very big laughs here) just in the way the characters are presented and the way they talk to each other that you find yourself feeling that you feel that your second or third viewing will reveal things that you missed the first time around. I wish more animated films were this ambitious. Here is a movie so generous with its story, its visual texture and its characters that it is an example of what great animation can be.


Movie of the Day: Life, Above All (2010)

Oliver Schmitz’s Life, Above All is a very touching human drama. It is deeply effective, sad without being maudlin, heartbreaking without feeling phony, and hopeful for all the right reasons. It is a film from South Africa, about Africans, speaking Sotho (a bantu language spoken in South Africa) rather than simply having all the actors speak English. Most refreshingly, this is a film that focuses on women, African woman, not as women who stand behind men or behind White women. These African women are strong, well-drawn and, like the women of The Color Purple, are allowed to occupy the center of their own story.

Based on the award-winning book “Chanda’s Secret” by Allan Stratton, Life, Above All focuses on 12 year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), who is wise beyond her years and far more mature than the elders that surround her. She and her family live in the small community of Elandsdoorn, a South African village on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Life in the village is quiet, and peaceful despite the political unrest and guerrilla warfare just over the horizon. Chanda stands as the strong center of her family, which is coming apart under the weight of grief over the death of her younger sister. Chanda’s mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) slips into a deep depression and her stepfather Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) chooses to waste himself away in bars and whore houses. Therefore it is left to Chanda to take charge of her mother and two younger siblings.

Chanda’s problems begin when her mother becomes ill. The neighbors immediately assume that the illness is caused by AIDS and grow paranoid and suspicious. This child is caring for a woman who has developed a plague soon after her daughter has died and they think it will destroy them all (it never occurs to them that the sickness may have come from Jonah). A friendly neighbor called Auntie Tafa (Harriet Lenabe) tries to help by urging Lillian to leave. But Chanda is too caring and too stubborn to give in.

Chanda is what makes the film work. Played by first time actor Khmotso Manyaka, she is a force to be reckoned with. She is intelligent, undaunted and never stops asking questions. She has a view of the world that peers under the surface to see the truth that is being hidden. She is bold enough to ask tough questions and keep asking even when the adults would simply pat her on the head and send her in the other direction. There is a brilliant moment deep in the film when she takes her mother to a local doctor and focuses on his degrees hanging on the wall. Based on the framed documents – written in English, which the villagers cannot read – it is clear that this man isn’t a doctor, merely a man who sells herbal placebos.

Chanda is also willing to take chances. She refuses to move her mother out of the village, despite stern warning and is further bold enough to associate with a school friend who has run off to make money in prostitution and returns with AIDS. Chanda doesn’t turn her back on the girl but invites her into the home as a kind of safe haven.

What I like about Life Above All is that it raises a lot of difficult issues about fear and prejudice and does so through the eyes of a girl who is like no young person I have ever met. This isn’t a precocious kid but a wise young girl who will, when she grows up, become a great humanitarian, a politician, a doctor, or an activist.

My only reservation is that I am not sure I was completely sold on the ending in which Chanda is threatened by neighbors in the village who are angry over her decision to take people into her home who have AIDS. Their position is that having these people in their midst will curse the village and bring about their doom. The problem is that the movie allows the scene to develop into a passionate speech about tolerance, and the townspeople are sold on this speech. I don’t believe that such prejudice can be undone simply by a passionate speech. To one or two people, maybe, but not to a mob of thirty. Still, that limitation aside, this is a very good drama, tightly told and with characters that we come to know and care about.