Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I Saw This!! -- Rewatch Central

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our all-too regular feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so.  Here's five old movies Graig has probably written about before, elsewheres on the intertubes.

Rewatch: Ghostbusters - 1984, d. Ivan Reitman (TMN on demand)
Rewatch: Ghostbusters II - 1989, d. Ivan Reitman (TMN on demand)
Rewatch: 5 Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit) - 1968, d. Roy Ward Baker (TCM)
Rewatch: Soylent Green - 1973, d. Richard Fleischer (TCM)
Rewatch: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - 2010, d. Edgar Wright (Blu-ray)
Rewatch: Beverly Hills Cop - 1984, d. Martin Brest (Much)
Rewatch: Into the Night - 1985, d. John Landis (Shomi)
Rewatch: Oz, the Great and Powerful - 2013, d. Sam Raimi (Netflix)
Rewatch: Zardoz - 1973, d. John Boorman (DVD)

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How many times have I seen Ghostbusters in my life?  I couldn't tell you, but it's been a lot.  It's not one of my favourite movies, and it doesn't hold a super special place in my childhood (certainly not like Masters of the Universe or Star Wars).  If I've seen it so many times, it's because it's a damn entertaining movie.  But at the same time, coming out of the modern reboot and all the unwarranted controversy around that film, I felt it best to go back to the original and have another look.

It is, quite frankly, just as entertaining today as it ever was.  It's got some absolute classic moments in cinematic history, ones that the reboot just can't replicate, and in trying it hurts.  But what the classic Ghostbusters doesn't really have is much cohesion.  There's no sense of what Peter Venkman and Ray Stanz' relationship is really about.  Any character and relationship building seemed to have wound up on the editing room floor in favour of Bill Murray's amazing quipping and skeevy come-ons.  It is an ensemble piece, but Murray is its de facto star.  Venkman's sheer brassiness make him the loudest and most visible, putting Ray, Egon, and especially Winston deep in the background.  The only character able to steal scenes from Murray is Rick Moranis' Louis Tully (Moranis, more than anything, makes the movie for me).

I went into this latest viewing looking for flaws, and I found them... again, largely in the fact that there's almost no interpersonal dynamics between the lead characters, it's all Murray playing off them (and on top of this, Venkman is a skeevy douche, teetering between charming and gross at every moment).  It's only Moranis and Sigourney Weaver who get outside of Murray's sphere of influence and have a chemistry of their own (both as Louis and Dana, and as Vinz and Zuul).  What the reboot lacked compared to the original, besides Rick Moranis, was both the maturity and immaturity.  It was a film more clearly designed to appeal to a younger audience (and be approved by parents), while the classic Ghostbusters' appeal with children was a happy accident out of a film intended for adult audiences.

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Now, people complain about the rebooted Ghostbusters tarnishing the original's impact, which is complete bullshit.  As I just said, watching it again today, it hasn't lost its entertainment factor one iota.  At the same time, there already was a movie that quite possibly could have tarnished the original's impact and destroyed the franchise for good, and it starred the same cast as the original, was directed by the original director, and was written by the original's creator.  So let's call a spade a spade, these's fanatical "critics" of the new Ghostbusters are sexists and racists, and not really fans of anything other than trying to make others feel bad about themselves.

Ghostbusters II isn't a great film.  Most of the charm of Ghostbusters is missing, primarily because very few of the people involved really wanted to be doing it.  The success of the first film, and subsequent cartoons and toys meant the studio pressure was on to make another.   Many complain about the fact that the film starts out with the Ghostbusters down on their luck, pretty much forgotten as saviors, and with paranormal activity on the wane.  Dana and Peter dated for a time, but broke up because, well, Peter's an asshole, as we kind of surmised from the first movie, but now she's a single mom (the dad took off to Europe).  Dana becomes a target for paranormal activity because her new boss (Peter MacNichol, speaking with an overblown, indeterminate European accent) is even creepier than Venkman in his advances, and becomes the servant of a demon trapped in an old painting at the museum where they work.

On purely a story front, Ghostbusters II is decent, with a great villain and some memorable ghost detecting moments (the sewers of slime have been seared into my memory for decades), but the film fails in the comedy factor at almost every turn (MacNichol, really, is the only exception).  Annie Potts and Rick Moranis get Janine and Louis together, but they really can't make any magic happen comedically.  Once again, Venkman is so focused on Dana in the script that he has no time to build relationships with the other characters, so in two films over 5 years, they establish zero chemistry between the Ghostbusters.   Egon is twisted from antisocial to just plain weirdo, while Ray and Winston are there, but really not presences in the film at all.

The film also fails in structure, following the beats of the original far too closely, including yet another visit to the mayor (same mayor) and suit of some kind trying to shut them down.  It's redundant.  There are plenty of points in the film where things happen solely to advance the plot, logic be damned, and while passably watchable, the film just isn't all that fun.  At least in the remake everyone wanted to be there and you could sense there was some fun being had. With Ghostbusters II everyone fell asleep at the comedy wheel.

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5,000,000 Years to Earth, also known as Quatermass and the Pit, is a wonderful slow-burn science fiction thriller from Hammer Studios, based on a teleplay from the mid-50's.  Quatermass was Britain's first TV hero, a template for Doctor Who and paranormal investigators for years to follow, Kolchak, Sapphire and Steel and the X-Files all owe Quatermass at least some small debt.


It's wonderful to see 50's compressed sci-fi executed on a bigger (relatively) 60's film budget.  There's a congested feel to the story, which involves tunnel workers discovering a spacecraft, a millennia old, as they're digging new tunnels.  The properties of the ship have a disastrous effect on people who touch it, so investigating it must be taken with the utmost care.  Of course, nobody really knows what they're doing with it, and ultimately, it's purpose is revealed to be cataclysmic.  Bernard Quatermass is a man of science, but he's also a man of caution so there's no rushing into action here, and he's respected, mostly, so there's not a lot of disregarding his expert opinion.  Almost everything negative that happens is the result of an accident and not foolish, script-dictated behavior.

If you're familiar with Hammer's horror catalog, you know that they take their fantastical quite seriously.  There's not a hint of camp in a Hammer Horror film, and that follows suit into this, one of their rare excursions into science fiction.  This is a direly serious, methodical film, but the better for it.  Like all Hammer films, it's sumptuously lit, and looks fantastic, even though it's obviously all sets and sound stages.  The craftsmen and women, from sets and costumes to lighting and sound design, all deliver to create a film so very much a part of its time, and yet somehow timeless.  It's perhaps too dry for the casual viewer, but genre fans should find much to appreciate.

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If you're of a certain age, your main reference for Soylent Green was as a driven-into-the-ground bit on Saturday Night Live where Phil Hartman (R.I.P.) would pull out his Chuck Heston impersonation screaming "It's people!!!", mimicking the end of this film with only slight exaggeration.  This totally spoiled the ending and made an utter mockery of the film.  I didn't watch the film for a long time because I thought it was MST3K-worthy camp, but when I finally watched it (probably on Space or Bravo near the end of the 20th Century) I was not only wrong, but captivated.  Here was a film from the 70's that was feeling a lot of anxiety about our potential future.  Set in 2022, the world is massively overpopulated, the temperatures are brutal, natural vegetation is almost impossible to grow (and thus reserved for only the rich), as is livestock (again, for the rich).  Most of the population survives on Soylent rations, processed bars that are enough to keep one alive, if not satiated.  The Soylent rationing days, however, are a mob scene, a nightmare of angry, hungry hordes.

Charlton Heston is a police detective, called in to investigate the murder of one of society's upper class.  In this not-so-far-fetched future, Heston is middle class, since he has a home (a small apartment which he shares with a book-loving older gentlemen who helps with research in his investigations), and doesn't sleep in the stairwells or live in a car village.  The gap between rich and middle class is a hypothetical extension of today's examination of the 1% vs the 99.  The gap between middle class and destitute is not far off at all.  Through Heston's investigation of the murder we get a fascinating tour through this completely fucked-up, frightening, and all-too-possible future world.  There's such a tangible sense of malaise to the whole thing, as if almost the entirety of humanity has given up and are just waiting for death.  In fact, for some, this is the case, and death centers offer a spacious, peaceful and tranquil assisted end to your own miserable existence.  These centers are bright beacons in the toxic, sweaty, greasy world, the shiny lure to bait the fish.

Obviously we know where this story ends.  Soylent Green is made of people, indeed.  But it's the procedure that the film takes us through that makes it more than worthwhile in getting to that "twist" ending.  This is the film M. Night Shyamalan has been trying to live up to his entire life.  But the twist isn't even remotely what makes the whole experience worth it.  It's compelling, and visually arresting.  The effects are mostly practical, so New York feels utterly claustrophobic and dank beyond comprehension.  The film's spartan soundtrack leaves the ambient noise to fill the gaps in dialogue, which, along with the visuals and a never-less-glamorous Heston (and that's saying something) will have you feeling parched and in need of a shower by the end.  It's a movie set in the (at this point) very near future, but it's still a future as envisioned from the 1970's so it's a weird hybrid of futuristic and retro at the same time, but it makes clear that fashion and technology virtually ceased advancing from the 70's.  It's a bottle city, stuck in time with no way out.  Honestly, I'm not sure this isn't a masterpiece of science fiction.

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I love Edgar Wright's movies.  His Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End) are each equally fantastically entertaining movies.  Some very prominent critics list Shaun as his masterpiece, a game-changing blend of comedy, romance and horror, and I can't argue too much with that.  At the same time, I personally am so attached to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World that I can't possibly agree.  Scott Pilgrim is an aberration of cinema, it shouldn't exist.  It doesn't work the way cinema is supposed to work.  It doesn't tell a story the way cinema wants its stories told.  It's at once infatuated with video games and indie rock, but it doesn't center its story around them, they're just two of many aspects of the story.  It pretends to be a romantic comedy, but it's got far too much Anime-inspired action to give that an earnest whirl.  Plus, it's not really about romance... it's not a "boy chases girl" story, even though that's kind of exactly what it is.  It's really a "boy chases girl but really is chasing himself".

I could live quite happily if Scott Pilgrim were one of, say, 10 movies left in the world.  It's such a sassy, snappy, hilarious, sensitive, passionate, dazzling, adjective,...just, experience.  It will visually and audibly overwhelm you at the same time, and in alternating fashions.  It dares not to make a lot of sense sometimes (Vegan Police?!?) but that's part of what makes it so wonderful.  It's its own surreal reality existing inside a very real, very tangible Toronto of 2009.  It's a snapshot of this awkwardly glorious cultural stew pot of a city, one that's already changed in the intervening half-dozen years, and will continue to change.  But Scott Pilgrim, by its end, is comfortable with what it is.  Wright isn't reaching for timeless, he's making a pill of a film, a capsule to be swallowed that's like taking the red pill and the blue pill simultaneously.

Some criticism levied at the film is that Ramona Flowers, Scott's object of affection, is a cypher, with no real agency, and it's true, from a certain point of view...that view being Scott's.  This strange surreality exists in Scott's point of view, and from Scott's point of view, Ramona doesn't really become her own person until the very end of the film.  Until then, she is his ideal, she is what he wants/needs/thinks her to be.  He doesn't see her for who she truly is, until the end, and at that very end, where they walk off together, it's all possibility with no certainty.  Scott and Ramona could be a real-deal couple forever and ever, or they could break up a short time later.  But at least they will give it a shot with both eyes open to themselves and each other.  This is a film about growing as a person.  And indie rock.  And kickass fighting.  And funny shit.

(My 14-year-old bad-mouthed this film the other week, saying it was awful, that it made no sense.  His current viewing preference is crappy Nickelodeon teen comedies and cartoons so I can't really take his opinion seriously.  After much discussion, he didn't concede his standpoint, but I realized that he's too young to get it.  It's so saturated in pop culture concepts from the 90's and 00's that someone his age hasn't had time to intake much of that pop culture, especially given his undiscerning viewing tendencies.)

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The first Beverly Hills Cop movie is pure magic.  Eddie Murphy is utterly magnetic and completely ego-free.  He struts around the screen with confidence in his character and his performance, it all seems so easy and natural for him.  There's no questioning who he is... he is Axel Foley, a full fledged detective from Detroit.  Even though Murphy was only 22 at the time of shooting, it`s not hard to buy him in the role of a smart, capable, and more than a little reckless.  He owns this movie almost completely, only Bronson Pinchot's Serge is able to steals a moment or two from him.

I`ve seen the film about a dozen times, almost always on late night TV, and even if it`s halfway through I still get sucked into it.  It`s just a goddamn charming movie, every time Axel smiles, I get giddy.  He`s such a good guy character.  He really cares about people, except maybe the bad guys, but he will go to great lengths for them.  He`s not a malicious prankster, he`s not solely self serving.  I mean, there`s a tremendous amount of bending and outright breaking the rules that Axel does in this movie (so many cop and lawyer shows in the years since this film have made us all somewhat amateur experts in what is and isn't kosher in police procedurals) but either the film doesn't acknowledge the rules or it`s letting Axel get away with it (and sometimes not).

The soundtrack, from the Pointer Sisters` "Neutron Dance" to the immortal "Axel F" by Harold Faltermeyer make the film as much as they date it.  But the songs just work, in part because they haven't been overused since then (though the sequels did their best to try and drive "Axel F" into the ground) and that they are so complimentary to the film's bright 80's aesthetic.  Martin Brest's direction is so innocuous, it gets the story told and the job done without ever really calling attention to itself, which means there's no creative flourishes, but also very little wrong with it either.

It's hard to write a review about Beverly Hills Cop, because its a film that just is.  There's not much to be critical about, and most people who are reading this are in all likelihood quite familiar with it.  It's straight up entertainment, I would be curious to find someone who didn't enjoy it (I'm basically setting David up here for a patentent "we disagree" moment).  It's not terribly deep or artistic but even still it's an essential part of the cinematic landscape, a touchstone of the 80's that continues to live on.  The sequels offer diminishing returns on an exponential level (the third one finds Murphy practically sleepwalking his way through it), but they can't tarnish the original.  It's just a pleasure to come back to time and again.

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The write-up on Shomi for Into the Night seemed to indicate that Michelle Pfeiffer was a spy who disrupts Jeff Goldblum's life.  Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum?  I admit I was curious.

From the opening moments of the opening credits, with the thudding BB King-sung theme I had a feeling of familiarity.  By the time we get to Jeff Goldblum and his insomnia problem (and David Cronenberg as his not so understanding boss, just one of many directors John Landis stunt-casted into this film...see also himself, Jim Henson, Amy Heckerling, Lawerence Kasdan and Jonathan Demme, amongst others) I knew I had seen the film before.  I checked this very blog but entering "Into the Night" in the search bar pulled up a whole swath of results with it's trio of all too common words.

Turns out though, I have already done a write-up, and I was a little harsher on it then than I would be now.  I think I didn't give Ed, as a character, enough credit.  Goldblum has to play exhausted, so it Ed is a little laissez-fair throughout the film, it's a decided choice on his part.  Really though, once I realized I had seen it, I still kept watching, so it really can't be that bad.  And it isn't.

Pfeiffer is absolutely gorgeous, but she's playing a real character, not just a pretty face.  The fact that Diana (seen by others as a gold digger) seems to genuinely care for the much, much older man who was her sugar daddy speaks volumes about her as a character.  She's savvy and tough, reckless and fearless.  She's not a diva, she's not a femme fatale, she's not a vixen, she's a woman who got herself in a tough situation and she's grateful that Ed's there to help her dig her way out.

My original assessment that "Landis was trying, and trying hard, to make a big-time romantic-action-comedy romp" was kind of wrong, while also being right.  I think Landis was trying for all these things but not trying to be all these things at once.  The film is flavoured with those genre's but feels more like a stew, a precursor to Coen Brothers' kind of unclassifiable films.  It's just that Landis didn't make a career out of these kind of undefinable "all dressed" projects, so it sticks out as an admirable effort, but not necessarily a thoroughly successful one.  The flourishes like Diana's brother, the Elvis impersonator, or David Bowie's assassin character, or even the last minute FBI intervention are all of the almost too crazy to not seem real (as Noah Hawley, creator of the Fargo TV show has said, the "Based on a true story" conceit/lie allows them to intone from the outset that any bizarre thing is so out there that it must be plausible)

What I appreciated the second time around was the lack of forcing Ed and Diana into coupledome.  They technically run away with each other at the end, but it's more a sense of escaping with each other, and less an outright romantic attraction.  Diana is far too concerned with resolving her situation to look at Ed with anything but gratitude, while Ed, despite Diana's remarkable beauty, is far too tired, far too worn down by life to think anything about her, running on autopilot with a sense of decency to help her out.  It's not a romantic action comedy, because there's no real romance, but watching two good looking people get chased around 1980's LA at night and happen across all manner of strangeness ...well, there really are worse ways to spend two hours.  I'm glad I caught it again...and I look forward to the next time I forget I've watched it.

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I've become a bit of an Oz buff in the time since I last reviewed Oz, the Great and Powerful, doing a fair bit of reading and research into the background of Oz and its creation, even catching up on some of Frank Baum's follow-up stories to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  I'm no where near a hardcore fan but I've really become endeared to this curious and fantastical land.  I like that Baum's expansion of his fantasy universe didn't immediately involve retreading the same plot or even the same characters, but unlike, say, Narnia, it doesn't feel radically different, the terrain begins to feel familiar.

In the intervening years since I saw Oz:TG&P in theatres, I've been less kind to it in my memory than my initial review would indicate.  A criticism that the film puts a male protagonist as the central figure in what was historically, and by design, a female-led series (Baum's mother-in-law was a leading feminist thinker of the time, and her influence is felt in his series) has weighed heavily on my opinion of the movie.  And it is indeed a valid criticism.  Particularly Mila Kunis' Theodora (who eventually turns into the Wicked Witch of the West) seems to be reduced to a lovesick/jilted woman cliche (Kunis does play the hell out of it though).  She is, however, being strongly manipulated by her very manipulative older sister, Evanora (fated to get crushed by Dorothy's house), so it's not that there aren't strong female characters here.  Even Glinda is played by Michelle Williams with a soft-spoken, almost demure facade that betrays the incredible strength and power that she has (and Williams adeptly hints at).

But the character arc is almost solely James Franco's Oz, a stage magician and con man whose self-serving attitude seems to be a betrayal of his true nature as a caring and loving individual.  The film doesn't really explore why he does what he does (beyond his own shortsighted self-satisfaction) and while it seeds his goodness enough throughout, it's a bit too cliche that it's the love/respect of a good woman that can only bring it out of him.

Despite these philosophical flaws, I actually am quite fond of the end result as a piece of entertainment.  The works of Baum were exactly that, fantasy fuel for young minds.  They were stories meant to delight, not necessarily to educate in any great fashion.  Oz, The Great and Powerful certainly lives up to that, and it manifests the Land of Oz visually in a way we've never seen on the big screen.  Certainly there was money put into it.  If I had one story gripe, it's that it doesn't fit into Baum's original Oz stories where the Wizard was responsible, if perhaps inadvertently, for keeping Ozma (the land's rightful ruler) from her throne.  Of course it would make him less sympathetic (and even less redemptive) if this were the case, but it essentially blocks Disney from adapting Baum's novels as sequels.  However, the Land of Oz, now in public domain, has had countless iterations over the past 100 years from a multitude of writers and artists and filmmakers, and even in Baum's own stories there's a disconnect in continuity, so I can't hold that against the film.  It does still very much feel like an Oz story.

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What doesn't feel like an Oz story, at all, is Zardoz, despite the fact that it takes its name from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  There's no actual parallel to the journey of Sean Connery's Zed to Dorothy's here (except in finding the powerful leader of the realm isn't exactly what it's represented itself to be).

No, instead Zardoz is a a plodding head-trip of a dystopian distant future where a very small group of elites enjoy what's left of the world, while those outside are left to struggle, worship and die in ingnorance and poverty.  Zed is an infiltrator into the world of elites, the savage outsider whom they deem inferior, treat like a pet, an object of study.  But Zed is far smarter than he seems, and is in fact the one studying them.  Some of the outsiders aren't pacified by false gods and are all too aware there's another life hidden, unavailable to them.  Zed is their Trojan Horse.

Zardoz is a very, very strange film.  It opens with a giant floating head spewing out guns to the masses chanting "The penis is evil, guns are good"... a decree that is ridiculously charged with sarcasm, if not in-reality than at least as presented to the viewer.  If there's a moral to the film, it's likely about the nature of class systems, of how the elite can so easily manipulate the reality of those lower than them in the class system.  And yet it also posits that the elite are simply far too bored without any of life's challenges hindering them. 

This film's elite society have discovered immortality and in the process forsaken sex and almost any desire at all.  On the surface it's utopia, utter harmony, and yet the facade is almost entirely made up of cracks, tenuously holding together, ready to fall apart with the slightest provocation.  Zed's purpose is to see it shatter.

It's a trippy film, somewhat obtuse, but not illogical.  It's true meaning can be hard to decipher, because it's obvious that it's not meant as speculative future fiction, but rather allegorical.  Yet, the film progresses in a manner that I think was well ahead of its time, perhaps still is.  It doesn't guide the audience by the hand but it's not unwilling to give the audience what it needs to understand.  It's actually in its methodical nature that the film suffers, for it at times becomes a bit of a chore to understand the motivations of the characters at any moment.  There's so much deceit, so many facades, everyone's wearing masks almost all the time. 

It's a fascinating and unique watch for fans of weird sci-fi.  The average viewer would probably have little tolerance.