Tuesday, August 25, 2009

At long last, a sequel to "ALF": "District 9"

Although the special effects aren't quite as good. Still ...

Like most of the nation, I had no clue about this movie until the trailers started popping up a couple of months ago. Sure, Peter Jackson was a producer, but with no stars and an unknown director, we weren't exactly talking "Independence Day." Another issue: This is a sci-fi movie that -- gasp -- deals in larger sociopolitical issues. Say what? Gimme sum more of dem laser guns, dammit!

Our story is set up in neo-classic fashion: through a documentary/news report of sorts. Twenty years ago, an alien ship came to rest over Johannesburg, South Africa. Inside were more than a million down-on-their-luck aliens -- kind of skeltal with a Davy Jones Lite face -- who took up residence in a refugee camp that turned into a shantytown. Now the government wants to move them to a new camp way outside the city.

Heading that effort is a nerdy office guy who struck me at first as the little brother of Michael Scott from "The Office." With military help, he sets to clearing the shantytown, all the while narrating the action for the cameras. When he stumbles across a cylinder with some weird fluid, though, things start to get a little crazy. Our hero becomes hunted, and find he has more in common with the misunderstood aliens.

Playing this unfortunate soul is a guy named Sharlto Copley, who is absolutely brilliant in his first big-screen role. Seriously, for someone just out of the gate, he delivers the goods in a fairly tough role. Much credit goes to the story, of course, which takes the tired "aliens come to Earth" premise and draws parallels with apartheid and social ostracism in general. Only this time, with gross aliens who sound a little like the guy from "The Gods Must Be Crazy."

As you well know, I'm a sucker for sci-fi. But the larger themes, the filming style and the ticking clock aspect of "District 9" -- not to mention the refusal to have the safe ending -- elevate the movie from the normal mediocre fare. Plus, we get all sorts of explosions, shooting, etc. So that's good.

In all, a very worthwhile entry in the late summer season, which is kind of nice after the dust from the one-two sh!tpunch of "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" has settled. Playtime's over, kiddos. Let the grown-ups talk for a while.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I'm sorry, mama ... I didn't mean to hurt you

But tonight, tonight, I'm cleaning out my closet.

(Eminem? "8 Mile?" Anyone?)

While enjoying yet another viewing of "Romancing the Stone" -- love it, and not just because of Kathleen Turner's legs and Michael Douglas's wisecracks --I figured it's time to clear off my plate of about a million movies from the last few months. That's right, here comes the lightning round!

Rachel Getting Married: This is going back to the spring, I think, but in any case, it's overrated. Yeah, yeah ... Anne Hathaway makes like a SERIOUS ACTOR, and does fairly well as the effed-up sister. But I don't think it was that hard a role, and in the end, this tale of family dysfunction after a vague tragedy plays like a version of "The Family Stone" with fewer jokes. (And "The Family Stone" wasn't even funny. It sucked, actually.)

Chopper: Or "Eric Bana Getting Noticed." He plays a con who comes into some notoriety while in prison and doesn't have that great a time after getting out. It starts out straight, then gets a little weird, complete with our hero whipping out his wang in the middle of a bar. And you know about our rating system here. All in all, though, an interesting, gritty introduction to the man who would be (the non-Norton) Hulk.

Millions: The Danny Boyle movie that doesn't have the hip cred, mainly because it's a family-friendly film about two young brothers finding a bunch of English pounds right before the country is switching to the Euro. What to do, what to do ... . There's all sorts of other stuff -- widowed dad, menacing guy looking for the lost money -- but it's really about the younger brother's struggle to do right in the way of the Catholic saints. That allows for some oddball visions, but then again, what do you expect from Boyle?

Wall Street: Hey, Michael Douglas! Just a few years after bouncing around Colombia, here he's greed incarnate as Gordon Gekko. I had seen this before, but it was a long time ago, and it holds up ... OK. Charlie Sheen, before he picked up 1 1/2 men, is an ambitious trader who falls under Gekko's spell while romancing a miscast Daryl Hannah and disappointing his dad, played by ... wait for it ... *Martin* Sheen. For all the fawning over Douglas, the story is a little thin and rife with melodrama. But hey, so were the '80s.

The Simpsons Movie: Have you seen the TV show? Same thing. That's good, but nothing different.

P2: For those of you wondering whatever happened to Ricky Fitts from "American Beauty." Was he disturbed enough to become a security guard who would stalk a busty twentysomething in a locked-down parking garage? Yes, he was. Does that make for a great thriller? No, it does not.

The Wicker Man: This movie, on the other hand, is intriguing. The guy who would become "The Equalizer" is an English cop dispatched to a weird island to investigate a teenage girl's disappearance. As it turns out, the island is full of pagans, and our hero is a devout Catholic engaged to be married. So yes, hijinks ensue, with the cop confounded by weird stuff and realizing the case isn't all it seems. Oh yeah, and Britt Ekland shows her boobies (and a double shows her butt) during a dance around her room. Throw in other bacchanalia, and you could spend 90 minutes in worse ways.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Meanwhile, I couldn't get Printshop to work on my Commodore 64: "WarGames"

Continuing our '80s movie tour, I recently watched yet again the movie that launched Matthew Broderick into stardom and gave my generation our version of HAL 9000. (All together now ... "Shall we play a game?") Dated as some parts of "WarGames" -- now more than 25 years old -- are, it's still a fun movie that moves along nicely. Plus, Ally Sheedy is pretty cute.

You know the deal: Precocious teen hacks into what he thinks is a computer game company but turns out to be NORAD. That sets into motion what looks like a countdown to WWWIII, and gets our hero into some deep doo-doo.

Along with the premise -- firmly anchored in the Cold War -- other aspects are woefully outdated. Like, say, those floppy disks and the modem that requires a phone in the cradle. Then there's our girl Ally riding around on a moped. Whoa.

Still, some parts hold up. That Galaga video game Broderick plays in the beginning? You can still find that in plenty of places. Can you say the same for Q-Bert? Some other reasons why it's inexcusable to not enjoy "WarGames":

Broderick's breakout: Some say "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" made him. Eh ... maybe. I mean, sure, he was Mr. Cool there. But this really was the first movie to show his baby-faced charm and flouting of the rules. Heck, he hacked into the school's computer here, too!

Ally being Ally: Before she got weird in "The Breakfast Club" and preppy in "St. Elmo's Fire," she was just a fresh-faced girl in a leotard and leg warmers. Great smile, too.

The NORAD set: C'mon ... admit that it still looks cool after all these years. You could even argue this ushered in the fascination with flatscreen TVs.

Dabney Coleman vs. Barry Corbin: Two great character actors face off as the tech wiz and the general, leading to this classic exchange near the end:

"McKittrick, after very careful consideration, sir, I've come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks."

"I don't have to take that, you pig-eyed sack of shit."

"Oh, I was hoping for something a little better than that from you, sir. A man of your education."

Introducing ... Mr. Blonde: Yeah ... Michael Madsen! He's one of the soldiers manning the nuke station at the start. Honestly, I'm not sure I noticed that before this last viewing. Damn ... he looks young. Of course, this was before he starred in about a bazillion movies. Seriously, check out his IMDb page. The guy likes to work. That has to take a toll. (Oh, and the other soldier? Leo from "The West Wing," classic "that guy" John Spencer.)

So yeah ... "WarGames" still does it for me, even if the W.O.P.R. now would be the size of an iPod these days. And I mean a Shuffle.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Show me "knee the 'nads ... ": "The Karate Kid"

Yeah, this classic safely falls into the category of movies I never tire of watching, mainly for three scenes/elements:

1. The character of John Kreese, evil sensei, who occupies minimal screen time but owns every bit of it.

2. The scene midway through when Daniel "gets it," and realizes he has been learning karate. Gets me every time, and I pretty much can't turn off this movie until that happens.

3. The climax at the karate tournament. Where to begin? The cheesy song (Which is now in your head, I bet. "You're the best ... around!") The lineup of Cobra Kais, including sadistic Dutch and Lamar from "Revenge of the Nerds." The "sweep the leg" line. And ... wait for it ... the timeless "Get him a body bag!" cry. Oh, it doesn't get any better than that.

But guess what? "The Karate Kid," worthwhile for those three things alone, really is a nice, solid movie throughout.

You know the story: New Jersey kid moves to El Lay, gets picked on, meets girl, learns karate from the handyman at his apartment complex, triumphs in the end. It's so simple, and yet nearly everything in the movie is pitch perfect.

Start with Ralph Macchio, who was, what, 34 when this came out? Yet he looks like a Jersey kid and is a convincing fish out of water with attitude. And the more I see the movie, the more I buy Elisabeth Shue going for Daniel-san. She's rich, yeah, but bored and still packing that baby fat, which makes her attainable (and still cute).

Everyone else is spot on: Billy Zabka as Johnny, the first of his trio of Aryan bad guy roles (along with "Just One of the Guys" and "Back to School"); Randee Heller as Daniel's mom, loving but clueless; and Martin Kove as Kreese, sadist extraordinaire.

But who got the Oscar nom? Yep, Pat Morita. It's hard to fathom now, but this was such a game-changer for Mr. Miyagi. Up to then, Morita was best known as Arnold, the diner owner in "Happy Days." Yet the funnyman landed this semi-serious role, in which the humor was far more subtle. And he simply clobbered it. Really ... watch "The Karate Kid" with fresh eyes and tell me Morita didn't put on the Capital-A Actor boots for this. He surely knew he wouldn't get a better chance as a meaty role, and man ... he's good.

Maybe I'm a bit biased because of when this came out and it's rock-solid place in pop culture. But I have even more appreciation for "The Karate Kid" during this latest viewing. Not enough to go start waxing floors and painting fences, mind you, but still ...

Saturday, August 01, 2009

This will do until "Galaxy Quest 2," I guess: "Moon"

Here's a movie that's out right now but that you probably never heard of. While those "G.I. Joe" trailers get more ridiculous with each viewing, "Moon" dares to exhibit some (gasp) intelligence, or at least raise a few decent questions. Shocking among summer fare, I know.

Before we start, I should reveal that I'm a Sam Rockwell fan. Don't recall where I first saw him, but he has never failed to deliver the goods. Let's tick off a few examples: "Matchstick Men," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Heist." Then there are supporting roles in "Frost/Nixon" and "The Assassination of Jesse James." (And I suppose "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," although I thought the movie was dumb.) Hell, he was plenty good in goofy ensemble stuff like "Galaxy Quest" -- as the equivalent of a "Star Trek" red shirt who kept waiting to get killed -- and even "Charlie's Angels." (Love his little evil dance number.)

So yeah, "Moon" already had that going for it. The story isn't bad, either. We meet Rockwell as Sam Bell, the only guy manning an outpost on the dark side of the moon in the future. It's a mining deal that send back a vital mineral or whatever to Earth. But it also is mostly automated, with Sam and the computer, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), keeping an eye on things.

Sam is nearing the end of his three-year tour as the movie opens, and we get a good sense of how he's been killing time and fending off loneliness, especially with his hot wife and little girl at home. But when Sam suffers an accident, we learn that all is not what it seems with his role in the operations. Or with his very existence, for that matter.

What opens as a fairly normal -- albeit moody and slow -- sci-fi movie takes a strange turn, and no question that it could test the patience of some viewers. But Rockwell is pretty good in a role that asks him to do a lot more than expected. Spacey is solid, too, with his even, measured voice a perfect choice for this less-dysfunctional HAL. And having a computer screen showing a smiley face to reflect GERTY's moods -- smiling, questioning, unhappy, etc. -- is a nice touch.

"Moon" is the first film from director Duncan Jones, who happens to be David Bowie's son. Regardless of his pa, Jones does a nice job here, and I applaud his choice of story and actors. Add the authentic feel of the moon base and the atmosphere throughout the picture, and I enjoyed the movie. Might seem odd, given some IMDb posters equate this with "Solaris," which I panned. But give me Rockwell talking to himself over Clooney moping on a space station any day.