Saturday, April 21, 2012


Year 4, Day 112 - 4/21/12 - Movie #1,111

BEFORE: The obvious follow-up to last night's film, and the start of a new topic - kings and queens.  I avoided this film when it first came out, but I'm not sure why.  Was it the Don Bluth thing, or did I not feel that the Russian aristocracy made a good subject for an animated film?  I can't recall.  Anyway, this project is all about identifying just this sort of past movie transgressions, and rectifying them.

Hank Azaria, Kelsey Grammer and Andrea Martin all carry over from "Bartok the Magnificent", though two of them are voicing different characters. 

THE PLOT: The only surviving child of the Russian Royal Family hooks up with two con men while the undead Rasputin seeks her death.

AFTER: I'm going to take the opportunity this week to look up the REAL facts behind the subjects depicted - so that means a look at the real mystery of Anastasia.  Just a sec...

And, we're back.  Read up on Anastasia, the youngest of four daughters born to Tsar Nicholas II, and her mother had a close association with Rasputin.  But there was some scandal when it was discovered that Rasputin often visited the four daughters in their nursery, and was accused of raping one of their governesses.  Rasputin died well before the abdication of Nicholas II, at which time the whole royal family was placed under house arrest, then moved to Siberia as the Bolsheviks took over the country.  Finally the family was executed in 1918 - I'll spare you the gory details, but you can look them up.

However, at least 10 women came forward over the years, claiming to be Anastasia, having survived the execution somehow.  All of these claims were disputed, and finally forensic evidence in 1998 and 2007 supported the original belief that all of the Romanovs died in 1918.

So, that's the jumping-off point for this film, depicting a pair of con artists looking for someone they can pass off as the lost tsarina, to get money from her aunt, the Grand Duchess, in Paris.  The film diverges from reality, however, when it suggests that the impostor they choose, who has vague memories of the Imperial Palace, might actually be the real lost Anastasia.

Further liberties are taken with the character of Rasputin, who rises from Limbo to take his revenge on the Romanovs.  I mean, yeah, it's an animated film and they can do that, provided the plot calls for it.  I'm not going to nitpick about what's possible - if we get into wondering how bats can talk (but strangely, not dogs) in this animated reality, we'll be here all night.

But the real story of Rasputin is worth a look-see also - he may have been assassinated after it was felt that he had too much influence over the Russian royal family.  By various accounts he was poisoned, shot four times, beaten and drowned.  Which may explain why this film depicts him as undead/immortal, and still able to return for revenge on the royals.

 But I'm keeping it real, and I have to judge the film before me, despite its historical inaccuracies, and its attempts to shoehorn the story of Anastasia into the Disney mold, complete with cute animal sidekicks, songs and the like.

Also starring the voices of John Cusack (last heard in "Igor"), Meg Ryan (last seen in "Joe Versus the Volcano"), Christopher Lloyd (last seen in "The Legend of the Lone Ranger"), Angela Lansbury (last seen in "Fantasia 2000"), Bernadette Peters, and Kirsten Dunst (last seen in "Jumanji").

RATING: 6 out of 10 Faberge eggs

Friday, April 20, 2012

Bartok the Magnificent

Year 4, Day 111 - 4/20/12 - Movie #1,110

BEFORE: Speaking of animated films set in Eastern Europe that have a vague horror feel to them...  This is a direct-to-video sequel (prequel?) to "Anastasia", but the Fox Movie Channel was running it the same week that another channel was running that film, so I figured they'd go together.  No John Cusack tonight, but he'll return tomorrow - fortunately he co-starred in "America's Sweethearts" with Hank Azaria, who voices Bartok, so there's your link.

THE PLOT: Russia is being terrorized by an evil witch known as Baba Yaga; the only one who is not afraid of her is Bartok the Magnificent.

AFTER: Animator Don Bluth is no stranger to the countdown, since I've watched "An American Tail", "All Dogs Go to Heaven", "The Land Before Time", and "Titan A.E.".  But it seems he either loses interest in sequels, or perhaps is not offered a chance to work on them.  This is the rare case where he also directed the spin-off movie as well - make of that what you will.

I worried about watching this film before "Anastasia", but it turns out that it IS a prequel, detailing the back-story of Bartok before the events of that film.  So, my instinct to watch it first turned out to be spot-on.  

Bartok the bat starts out in a traveling circus of sorts - it's more like a one-man show, detailing his brave exploits, except he also works with a partner, a bear who attacks the show so that Bartok can pretend to subdue him.  That's about all the action the bear character gets - the rest of the film he doesn't do very much, so it falls to Bartok to perform the heroic deeds.  His reputation makes him the perfect choice to track down the missing czar prince by taking on the evil sorceress Baba Yaga.

Instead of battling her, though, he pretty much ends up running errands for her, only to get totally Super Mario'd when he finds out the prince is in another castle.  I never really found Baba Yaga to be that scary, maybe she's scarier in the original European stories, and softened here.  So, her house has legs - how does that work?  Does she have to chase after it a lot, or does that just make it easier when she wants to move?

The songs here were sort of servicable, not really standouts, but they weren't long enough to get annoying either.

Also starring the voices of Kelsey Grammer (last heard in "Teacher's Pet"), Andrea Martin (last heard in "The Secret of NIMH 2"), Catherine O'Hara (last heard in "Where the Wild Things Are"), Tim Curry (last seen in "Muppet Treasure Island"), Jennifer Tilly (last seen in "Tideland"), with cameos from Diedrich Bader (last heard in "Bolt") and French Stewart (last seen in "Clockstoppers").

RATING: 5 out of 10 riddles

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Year 4, Day 110 - 4/19/12 - Movie #1,109

BEFORE: This will wrap up Mad Science week - I cleared the horror category last October, so this one's a straggler that will find a home here.  The voice of John Cusack carries over from "Hot Tub Time Machine".

THE PLOT: Animated fable about a cliché hunchbacked evil scientist's assistant who aspires to become a scientist himself.

AFTER: OK, I guess another company had the rights to "Frankenstein", because that name never appears in this film.  Instead we get mad scientists with names like Glickenstein, because that's sort of totally different.

The film is set in a fictitious Eastern European country, Malaria (because I guess another company has the rights to the name "Romania"), where the entire economy is based on mad scientists and their evil inventions (what, they never heard of sardines?).  The country turns a profit by blackmailing other countries, getting paid to not release their experiments on the world.  And Igor is not a person, it's sort of an occupation, with an entire class of hunchbacked people apprenticing themselves to mad scientists who are apparently unwilling or unable to pull the switches in their own laboratories.

But this one particular Igor, we'll call him "Igor", aspires to be a scientist himself - because we all know that personal assistants are the real brains behind any successful person, right?  He seizes an opportunity to run his own experiment, and creates a woman from component parts.  But nothing too gory, like using dead bodies, because this is a kids film.  The resulting character is supposed to be Igor's monster-piece, but something goes wrong at the brainwashing stage, and she gets it in her brain that she's an actress instead.

Here's where the movie starts to fall short, in its depiction of good vs. evil.  Since it's hard to create characters that are both evil and sympathetic ("Despicable Me" walked a VERY fine line...) they don't show too many evil acts in this film, except for people stealing evil ideas from other people.  As a result it's hard to demonstrate these concepts, except for falling back on characters who SAY "I am evil" or "I want to be good."  That's lazy storytelling.

So you've got characters who want to win the science fair, to literally do well by being evil, which becomes something of a contradiction.  But then if they fail at that, which are they?  I guess stealing constitutes evil, so if you steal an evil idea and use it to do well, that's still evil.  (Now my head hurts.)

There is one character who may be genuinely evil, and that's the King, whose design looks almost exactly like the mayor of Halloween Town from "The Nightmare Before Christmas"  (What was that about stealing other people's ideas?)  In fact there's a lot here that seems culled from the Tim Burton / Henry Selick genre, but they just can't match the tone of those films.

Other than a couple turn-arounds, the film just sort of treads water for 90 minutes until the credits roll.  The sidekick characters are not particularly well thought-out - there's a brain in a jar/Tom Servo-like character, and a suicidal bunny who's also unfortunately immortal somehow.  Turns out there's no easy way out of this movie for him either.

Also starring the voices of Steve Buscemi (last seen in "Youth in Revolt"), Sean Hayes (last heard in "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore"), Eddie Izzard (last heard in "Cars 2"), John Cleese (last heard in "Shrek Forever After"), Jennifer Coolidge (last seen in "Down to Earth"), Molly Shannon (last seen in "Shallow Hal"), Jay Leno, Christian Slater, with cameos from Arsenio Hall, James Lipton.

RATING: 4 out of 10 pickles

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hot Tub Time Machine

Year 4, Day 109 - 4/18/12 - Movie #1,108

BEFORE: I've got a problem with Hollywood, and it's not the one you think.  No, not that one either.  And not even the problem with making all those crappy movies - I've watched crappy movies, I can handle crappy movies.  The problem is, there is no coherent schedule for exactly when films will premiere on the premium channels like HBO and Showtime.  I've been waiting for this film from 2010, expected it to screen like a year ago, even added last night's film to the list in anticipation, and...nada.  Oh, sure, it was available on PPV for a while, but why should I have to pay $4.99 when I already pay Time Warner so much cabbage for the premium channels?

Don't the cable programmers know I'm on a schedule?  That it's Mad Science week?  And that John Cusack (last seen in "2012") is my link to the next chain?  If I don't watch this film tonight, the whole chain falls apart.  It's like Hollywood doesn't care or something.

I suppose I could have skipped it, or watched random films for another month in hopes it would appear in the TV listings, but why should I have to wait in the digital age?  So, I downloaded it - something I've resorted to only once or twice before when a film seemed otherwise unavailable ("Cashback" - what do the cable channels have against time-travel/naked boobies?)  I realize that's a copyright violation (good luck tracing it, guvmint) but I promise to record the film again once some cable channel finally decides to run it.  And if it premieres on Cinemax next week, then I'm the impatient jerk-off.  Slap the cuffs on me...

It's OK, I believe in the chain.  The chain is correct, the chain is life.  The chain won't steer me wrong - OK, almost never.  But still, I control the chain, the chain doesn't control me.  Set the schedule, and stick to the schedule, unless a better schedule presents itself...

Linking from "Frequently Asked Questions...", Anna Faris was in "What's Your Number" with Thomas Lennon (last seen in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"), who has a cameo in this film.

THE PLOT: A malfunctioning time machine at a ski resort takes a man back to 1986 with his two friends and nephew, where they must relive a fateful night and not change anything.

AFTER: Again, a group of three loser guys finds themselves unstuck in time - the vehicle is a short-circuited hot tub here, not a British washroom, and instead of the far future, the destination is the go-go 1980's.  Conveniently though, the 40-somethings get to inhabit their old teenage bodies, so there's no chance they'll run into themselves at the Poison concert.  And more conveniently, they look like teenagers to everyone else, but they look 45 to the audience, so we don't get confused.

Also quite conveniently, the nerd nephew's along for the ride, and he's written enough fan-fiction to know how the time-space continuum works, and the others have seen enough time-travel movies to know that he's right.  Butterfly effect and all that - you can't change anything, or the consequences could be disastrous.

Or is the chance to revisit a ski-trip in 1986 an opportunity to make things better?  To not make the same mistakes, a do-over, to (probably) make all new mistakes?  What would I, or you, or anyone do if we went back to pre-college days and knew better ways of talking to girls and stuff?  We could improve our connections, do a better job of keeping in touch with people?  What's that you say, take some more college courses, learn some more skills and improve our chances in the job market?  Clearly you have no idea how this time travel stuff works.  Try more drugs and have more crazy sex, now you're talking!

The screenwriters apparently learned all they ever needed to know about the 80's from old music videos, and everything about time travel from "Back to the Future" - namely that if you never get conceived you blink out of existence (or fade-out from a Polaroid) but if you're careful and don't change anything, plus perform a song from 30 years in the future and blow everyone's minds, you can party like a rock star, then get back to your old life.  And if you do accidentally change anything, well, it could even make the future better, right?

OK, OK, one NITPICK POINT: If the characters were brought from 2011 to 1986 by an unlikely yet very specific mechanical/chemical malfunction, how do they know that re-creating that situation exactly will bring them back to where they belong?  It probably will, since it's a ridiculous movie, but it's beyond convenient.  How do the characters know that re-creating the situation won't re-create the result, and send them to, say, 1961?   

Ah, hell, it's junk science and overly vulgar, but it's still a whole lot of fun. There's no moral here, other than you've got to live life to the fullest, even if it's the second time around.

That's it for time travel, the topic is cleared.  Wait, was that a trailer for "Men in Black 3"?  Ah, damn.

Also starring Rob Corddry (last seen in "The Heartbreak Kid"), Craig Robinson (also last seen in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"), Clark Duke, Crispin Glover (last seen in "Alice in Wonderland"), Sebastian Stan (last seen in "Captain America: The First Avenger"), Chevy Chase (last seen in "Memoirs of an Invisible Man"), Lizzy Kaplan.

RATING: An improbable 7 out of 10 snowmobiles

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel

Year 4, Day 108 - 4/17/12 - Movie #1,107

BEFORE: Yeah, I've got a few - what exactly happens if you go back in time and (either accidentally or on purpose) kill your own grandfather?  Is there any way to fix that without (ugh) sleeping with your own grandmother?  If everyone's telling the truth about what they'd do with a time machine, how come Hitler still exists? (Movie idea: Hitler's Mom, portrayed as a real bad-ass, fending off time travelers trying to kill her infant son Adolf...)  Is it because everyone is lying, and what they'd really do is go back and tell themselves not to get married, or not drink so much at the office Christmas party, or get that unfortunate haircut?

If you go back in time and try to fix things, but end up screwing things up worse, how do you fix that?  Do you travel back to right before you first time-traveled, and convince yourself not to change things?  And if you time-travel back and give the inventor the inspiration (or the schematics) to invent the time machine, then who ultimately invented it?  These are the things that keep me up nights...

Linking from last night's film, Nancy Allen was also in "1941" with Dan Aykroyd, who was also in "Yogi Bear" with Anna Faris (last heard in "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs").

THE PLOT: While drinking at their local pub, three social outcasts attempt to navigate a time-travel conundrum.

AFTER: The kicker here is, a couple of nerds and their slightly cooler friend find that a pub's bathroom functions like a time machine, due to a "time leak" - so every time they step out of the 'loo, they end up somewhere else.  Sorry, I mean someWHEN else.  Fortunately, the nerds know what to do, thanks to their comprehensive knowledge of sci-fi.  Sorry, I mean speculative fiction.

The movie takes a couple of storytelling shortcuts, so the target audience is really people like the characters, namely sci-fi nerds.  Sorry, I mean "imagineers". People who know that when you see the same character twice in a split-screen, one clearly is a time traveler, and its very important that the one who isn't the time-traveler doesn't notice the other version of him.  Why?  Because the scene played out before, and the older one doesn't have a memory of seeing his older self the first time, so if the younger one sees the older him, he'll create a paradox.  If you saw "Back to the Future" and wondered how Marty McFly could arrive back in the parking lot 10 minutes before he first left, and why he had to hide and wait for the younger him to leave before he enters the scene, then this film may not be for you.

There's a lot of hiding and waiting in this film, once the 3 friends realize what's going on, they have to hide in closets and bathroom stalls so they don't encounter themselves, and we end up seeing the same scenes over and over again, from different points of view.  If you saw "Primer" and wondered why the characters had to be very careful about when they left the time machine/storage unit, then this film may not be for you.

But if you saw "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and liked the bits about how Bill and Ted would someday be famous, and that future society would (somehow) be based on their music and their principles, well, there's bits of this film that are like that too.  We are led to believe that the actions of these three men are very important (somehow) and that in at least one possible future, their ideas play an important role.

Those same storytelling shortcuts that make this film amusing and enjoyable, however, also have a down side, especially if you're hoping to make some sense of it all.  We never really find out the "big idea" that the characters have, probably because it's like the glowing suitcase in "Pulp Fiction" - any way that the film defines it is going to be a letdown, compared to your own imagination about what it COULD be.  Still, that's a plothole that never gets filled in. 

Turning a men's room into a time machine is also a short-cut, probably a cost-effective one at that.  No need to build a prop time-machine with dials and lights and spinny things, or even convert a DeLorean.  Just build a men's room set and you're good to go.  Still, it's a bit of a cheat.

There are also bits that remind me of "Clerks", the way a bunch of friends who are too school for cool (wait a minute - no, actually that is right) rag on sci-fi films they don't like, falling JUST short of acknowledging that they themselves are characters in a film.  So there you go, this film is like "Back to the Future" meets "Primer" meets "Bill & Ted" meets "Pulp Fiction" meets "Clerks", only not quite as awesome as that combination sounds on paper.

Also starring Chris O'Dowd (last seen in "Gulliver's Travels"), Marc Wootton, Dean Lennox Kelly, and Meredith MacNeill.

RATING: 6 out of 10 packets of crisps

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Philadelphia Experiment

Year 4, Day 107 - 4/16/12 - Movie #1,106

BEFORE: What's more classic Mad Science than time travel?  Yes, it's a topic I've covered before, from "The Time Traveler's Wife" to "Black Knight" to "Terminator 3" (and "Just Visiting", "Kate & Leopold", "Star Trek", "Deja Vu"...)  I can't help it, I love the subject matter.  It's truly where science meets fiction to form science-fiction.

Linking from "Honey I Blew Up the Kid", Rick Moranis was in "Spaceballs" with Stephen Tobolowsky (last seen in "Garfield", but hey, also seen in "The Time Traveler's Wife")

THE PLOT: Based on an "actual event" that took place in 1943, a US Navy Destroyer Escort that disappeared from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and sent two men 40 years into the future to 1984.

AFTER: Not only is this based on junk science, even for a time-travel flick, it's got the look and feel of a TV movie.  There's a distinction we make at my job between "special effects" and "post-production effects", and this is mostly the lesser-quality post effects (nothing special about them).

What this is really based on is an urban legend, more commonly called a "hoax", except for those who are gullible enough to believe the story and blindly pass it on.  There are no military records of any anti-radar experiments that went sideways like this.  Ah, but some might say, "There's your proof!" since if something like this DID happen, the guvmint would destroy all the records and cover it up.  You can keep believing that if you want, but in my book, the lack of evidence is not evidence.

(it's notable that they had to put quotes around "actual event".  Meaning, it wasn't.)

If time travel were invented in 1943, even accidentally, then we would have that technology now - it just stands to reason.  And if you carry the logic further, then it means time travel will never be invented, because a time traveller from the future would have left evidence in the past, or in our present.  Ah, but some might say, "He came back to the past and changed the timeline, so how would we know?"  I know because JFK was still shot, the holocaust still happened, and so did 9/11.  Those would be the top 3 things to come back and change - unless of course, preventing those things made the timeline so much worse.  No, no, the simplest explanation is still the best - time travel, while fun in movies, will never be invented.

What the movie gets right is depicting a guy from 1943 who's suddenly walking around in 1984.  He still sees Ronald Reagan as an actor, not a President, and he's confused by the fact that Germany and Japan are our allies, and Russia is our enemy.  Really, this is how the revived Captain America should be depicted, someone who's just a bit out of step with the times, he wouldn't understand why Americans are drinking German beer and buying Japanese electronics.

One of the comedians I follow, don't remember which, said you can just mess with people's heads by asking complete strangers the date, and when they say "April 16" you grab them by the collar and yell, "but WHAT YEAR?"  Cause that's what a time traveler would do.

I'm sure there are many Nitpick Points up for grab tonight - most notably: where, exactly, did the ship go?  Into the vortex?  Where is that?  But since this is all junk science, I hardly see the point.  I can't really correct things like this, they just are what they are.  Sending someone into a vortex to shut down the generators and reverse the polarity on the time-flux.  You know what?  Good luck with that...

Starring Michael Paré, Nancy Allen (last seen in "Out of Sight"), Eric Christmas (last seen in "Bugsy"), Bobby Di Cicco, Kene Holliday.

RATING: 4 out of 10 roadblocks

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Honey I Blew Up the Kid

Year 4, Day 106 - 4/15/12 - Movie #1,105

BEFORE: OK, taxes done.  Not filed, but calculated, and that's the toughest part.  We just have to plug the numbers into the forms on the computer tomorrow and hit "print".  On with the countdown...

I did see "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" back in the day, but this is also sort of the answer film to last night's offering.  If Mad Science can shrink a housewife, it can also turn a baby into a giant.  A word of warning, though - if you're looking for this film on the interweb, it's very easy to stumble upon its similarly-titled porn parody instead.

Linking from "The Incredible Shrinking Woman", Lily Tomlin was in "All of Me" with Steve Martin, who was in "My Blue Heaven" with Rick Moranis.

THE PLOT:  Disaster strikes the Szalinski family when an experiment causes their new toddler son to grow many stories tall.

AFTER: The key question for me is, how much did special effects improve in the 11 years since Hollywood produced "The Incredible Shrinking Woman"?  The answer is - somewhat.  I think there were still scenes where they put a small child in a tiny room with scaled-down furniture to make him appear 7 feet tall, and other times where the kid was seen from behind and could have been a large man in a curly wig trying to walk like a baby.  And clearly anytime the giant baby's feet were seen without moving, they were probably large phony feet.  But for a lot of the shots, I think they used green-screen, with mixed results.  Often characters in the same scene were lit very differently, and some of the sight-lines were way off.

Of course, it can be unpredictable making a movie with kids, and some of the conversations between Moranis' character and his toddler son seem improvised - or more accurately, Moranis picking up on whatever the kid wanted to talk about.  Which is fine, the dialogue here wasn't exactly Shakespearean.

The MacGuffin here is the ubiquitous "magic ray" device, which is slightly more of a movie trope than a time machine or a bomb that removes people's clothing (trust me, kids, the 80's were a weird decade). And as with any magic, er, sorry, science-based device, there's always some kind of corporation or evil business-person trying to control the technology.  In last night's film, it was John Glover, who played Lionel Luthor on "Smallville", and tonight it was John Shea, who played Lex Luthor on "Lois & Clark".  Sure, it's typecasting, but those guys probably got a lot of work from it over the years.

But, what's the overall message here?   You could say that the kids in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" were so desperate to get their parents' attention that they felt ignored, almost invisible.  And last night's film could be seen as a commentary on the marginalized, almost shrunken role of the 1970's American housewife.  But with a giant baby?  Are kids that hard to take care of, that it feels like they take up gigantic parts of a parent's life?  That's a stretch - maybe I'm overthinking it, and sometimes a giant baby is just a giant baby.

NITPICK POINT: It's tough to explain how the kid's clothing grew with him.  Yeah, he was wearing it when he got hit with the ray-beam, but then he drew more power from the microwave and the TV.  Somehow the kid's brain knew to direct that power at increasing the dimensions of his clothes?  I mean, I don't want to see a giant naked baby either, but how does the science work here?

NITPICK POINT #2: I don't care what else is going on in your life, even if your baby brother has been turned into a giant, there are no circumstances where it's OK to tie up and gag a teenage girl.  Not cool.

Also starring Marcia Strassman, Robert Oliveri, Keri Russell (last seen in "Mission: Impossible III"), Lloyd Bridges (last seen in "Joe Versus the Volcano"), with a cameo from Julia Sweeney.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Vegas casinos