Saturday, August 4, 2012

Total Recall (1990)

Year 4, Day 217 - 8/4/12 - Movie #1,207

BEFORE: In another bit of unplanned synchronicity, I'm watching this film just after the remake version is hitting theaters.  But I've never seen the original - I think I was quite busy in 1990, it was the year after I got out of college, and I was working quite a bit.  Plus I think at the time I considered myself above seeing a Schwarzenegger movie, and that's another sort of movie sin - pride.  I still have a few more movie sins to atone for, but I feel like I'm closing in on redemption.

Linking from "Red Planet", Benjamin Bratt was also in "Catwoman" with Sharon Stone.  But perhaps it's best that we all forget about that.

THE PLOT: When a man goes for virtual vacation memories of the planet Mars, an unexpected and harrowing series of events forces him to go to the planet for real, or does he?

AFTER: I was just talking about "The Wizard of Oz" yesterday, and how open to interpretation it is.  Did Dorothy really travel by twister to Oz, or was it all just a dream?  The film works either way.   Something sort of similar happens in this film.  "Brazil", "12 Monkeys", "Memento" - some of my favorite films leave the door open just a bit, so if you're part of the audience that wants to read it the other way, you're welcome to do so.

Is our main character having a dream, or going insane, or experiencing a different reality?  What is reality, anyway?  I'll be delving more into that topic later on this week, so this is a good kick-off for a chain that will be asking some interesting questions.  But let's get into tonight's film. 

All we know for sure is that everything changes once Arnold's character visits the Rekall headquarters, to have a memory implanted of a vacation on Mars.  Now, what's the point of a vacation if you don't actually go to the place, and taste the local cuisine?  But I digress.  In this film Mars seems like a nice place to visit virtually, but you wouldn't want to actually go there.

But when the imagineers try to implant the memories of a nice vacation, they realize that he's already working with mind implants (or, is he?) and this leads him to discover that he's not who he thinks he is, and his life is just an implant (or, is it?) and suddenly he's heading for Mars for real, on a secret mission (or, is he?).

I'm not sure which is more implausible - that his real persona would so closely resemble the fantasy implant he requested, or that a character played by Schwarzenegger, who we've seen play a warrior/agent so many times, would be a lowly construction worker.  It's a toss-up.   Perhaps something did go wrong with the implant, and our hero took an action that prevented him from waking up, which means he's still in the chair, and nothing is real.

I realize this is a sci-fi classic, and I'm glad I watched it, but it's definitely showing signs of age.  The special effects may have been groundbreaking at the time, but they look really low-rent compared to what studios can do now ("Avatar", "Lord of the Rings").  But without this film, there might not have been "The Matrix", the two films do share some things in common.  Assuming that is, that you see the last 3/4 of the film as a dream implant. 

NITPICK POINT: Good to know that in the future, people still use jackhammers, escalators, and good old regular light switches.  The film shows us some futuristic technology (robot cabs), and some that's now current (full-body scanning at airports) but it's just not good enough.  Really, bullets and not lasers?  Come on.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (last seen in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines"), Rachel Ticotin (last seen in "Man on Fire"), Ronny Cox (last seen in "Forces of Nature"), Michael Ironside (last seen in "The Next Karate Kid"), Marshall Bell (last seen in "Nancy Drew"), with a vocal cameo from Robert Picardo.

RATING: 5 out of 10 ID cards

Friday, August 3, 2012

Red Planet

Year 4, Day 216 - 8/3/12 - Movie #1,206

BEFORE: Another example of two similar films being released at roughly the same time - here's the other film from 2000 about a manned mission to Mars.  Linking tonight comes courtesy of "Top Gun", which featured both Tim Robbins from "Mission to Mars" and Val Kilmer (last seen in "Thunderheart") from tonight's film.

I've been waiting for a good (no commercials) airing of this film on cable, but no luck.  So I'm renting it from iTunes, and I'll have to grab it off of cable and put in on DVD at a later date.

THE PLOT:  Astronauts search for solutions to save a dying Earth by searching on Mars, only to have the mission go terribly awry.

AFTER: This film had to walk sort of a thin line, since after getting its crew to Mars, they've got to struggle to get home, despite things going wrong.  I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that things went wrong, I mean, if you watched a whole movie about a space mission where everything worked exactly as planned, how boring would that be?

But just like in "Due Date", the film keeps throwing obstacles in the path of the astronauts who are trying to make it back.  If the situations are too easily overcome, we won't feel like they accomplished much, but if the situations are impossible, we won't get to see them succeed.  Unless the situations are impossible and they succeed anyhow, which can feel like the solutions were contrived.  I think that's what happened a few times during this film.  

An extension of the "always darkest before the dawn" situation, which should only occur once during a film, but here it feels like it's hard-wired right into the entire picture.  Just when you think things can't get any worse, they do, so it's back to the drawing board to figure out the best way to get where they need to be, and hopefully get off the planet.  

In a similar vein, there are two schools of thought when it comes to special effects.  One notion says that they should be used to create any kind of fantastical situation one can imagine, from aliens to robots - the things that we don't have in real life.  The other plan is to use effects to recreate real-world situations, but one that would be difficult to film, like extreme weather conditions, or the surface of another planet.  At its best, this 2nd type of effects is essentially invisible - only the film geeks among us might look at a spaceship and wonder whether it's a model, or a live-scale constructed set, or entirely made of pixels.  

This film has both kinds of special effects - the less noticable "background" effects, depicting the surface of another planet and its conditions, and the more prominent "foreground" ones, like the Rover/robot character.  Not quite as blatant as, say, the liquid metal robot from "Terminator", but fairly close.  So it comes off as a bit of a mixed bag for me.

 I can believe, however, that humans would use up all the resources on Earth and start looking for the next closest semi-habitable planet to colonize.  The only thing in question is probably the timetable - can we get off this rock before the ecological tipping point?  And if our descendants can get to Mars, will their descendants someday have to figure out a way to colonize Jupiter?

NITPICK POINT: If modern science can make Mars hospitable, why can't it fix Earth's environment?  For that matter, why aren't we working on fixing the goddamn hole in the ozone layer?  Haven't we known about it for some time now?  C'mon, less talk, more action - somebody just send a rocket up there with some more ozone, right?

Also starring Carrie-Anne Moss (last seen in "The Matrix Revolutions"), Tom Sizemore (last seen in "Born on the Fourth of July"), Benjamin Bratt (last heard in "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs"), Simon Baker, Terence Stamp (last seen in "Legal Eagles").

RATING: 5 out of 10 solar flares

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mission to Mars

Year 4, Day 215 - 8/2/12 - Movie #1,205

BEFORE: I've been thinking that I messed up, by watching all of the sports films on the list, so I can't possibly tie in to the Olympics.  But I found out today that there IS a Mars mission going on right now, with a Rover scheduled to land on the red planet in just a few days.  So my schedule, which was planned out months ago, now seems sort of prophetic.  Linking from "Mars Needs Moms", Joan Cusack was also in "High Fidelity", and so was Tim Robbins (last seen in "Green Lantern").

THE PLOT: When the first manned mission to Mars meets with a catastrophic and mysterious disaster, a rescue mission is launched to investigate the tragedy and bring back any survivors.

AFTER: Ah, after starting this one I remembered that a few years ago, I did watch the ending of this film - which counts as a movie sin, since one should never watch the ending without having seen the beginning.  I had no idea at the time that I'd want to watch the full movie later on.  Unfortunately, that ruined most of the suspense for me.

In addition to the upcoming rover landing, there has been some talk lately about a manned mission to Mars, which made me want to investigate the parameters shown in this film.  A couple times in the film, the astronauts talk about traveling "100 million miles" from Earth to Mars, and the timeframe shown is about 6 months.  I wondered if this was accurate - so I checked the web.  The closest Earth and Mars have ever been is about 35 million miles, and the farthest possible distance is 249 million miles.  With an average distance of 140 million miles, I guess the movie got the numbers right, but now it makes me wonder why they didn't wait until the two planets were closer.

Using the speed of the Apollo 10 mission, the time to travel from Earth to Mars at their closest distance would be about 8.4 months.  I think we can assume that spacecrafts might get a bit faster by the year 2020, so I'm going to allow the 6 month trip seen in this film.  I still have some concerns about how much fuel would be needed, and whether the ship could carry enough food for 4 astronauts, but let's not bog down this film with a bunch of logistics.

Besides, the second mission seen in the film is a rescue mission, and time was critical, so obviously they couldn't wait for the planets to align.  All of this is to prevent me from talking about the plot, which is nearly impossible to do without giving away spoilers.  I'll just say it has a lot to do with that notable mountain on Mars that appears to look like a face when seen from space.

And the movie feels the need to answer questions about the origin of life on Earth, in a way that (I'm guessing) probably annoys both the evolutionists and the creationists.  In addition, it's sort of a non-answer about how life began on Earth - and if life began elsewhere, how did it begin there?

Also starring Gary Sinise (last seen in "Impostor"), Don Cheadle (last seen in "Brooklyn's Finest"), Jerry O'Connell (last seen in "Kangaroo Jack"), Connie Nielsen (last seen in "Permanent Midnight"), Kim Delaney, and Armin Mueller-Stahl (last seen in "Avalon").

RATING: 6 out of 10 duststorms

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mars Needs Moms

Year 4, Day 214 - 8/1/12 - Movie #1,204

BEFORE: Not much progress was made during July, thanks to the addition of 19 James Bond films to my list, plus taking a week off for Comic-Con.  Now that August is here, I'm hoping to reduce the size of my list, it's really my best chance while the Olympics are on, and most channels have given up and are not premiering too many new movies.

I was tempted to watch "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" next, since it's another sci-fi film set in San Francisco, but I'm going to stick with the alien abduction theme.   Here's the rough plan for the month: films about Mars, followed by some mind-f*ck films and questions about the existential nature of things, which leads nicely into films about god and the devil (not necessarily in that order), which leads into back-to-school week, which will lead into colonial times and the Old West - THEN I can begin the world tour.  Don't worry, the transitions will all make sense when we get there. 

Linking from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", Jeff Goldblum was also in a film called "Nine Months" with Joan Cusack (last seen in "Friends With Money"), who plays the Mom in the title of tonight's film. 

THE PLOT: A young boy named Milo gains a deeper appreciation for his mom after Martians come to Earth to take her away.

AFTER: I know it's a movie for kids, but did the Martians all have to act so stupid?   And sound so much like old Chinese ladies?  These characters made Jar Jar Binks look like Laurence Olivier!  

They're so dumb ("How dumb are they?") that they've been manipulated into discarding half the born babies into the trash-pile - the boys, not the girls, because that would be too much like China...  The females, of course, are needed to run Martian society, while the men dance around in the trash like morons (who wrote this?  I'm guessing a woman...) but the women are no better, because none of them will stand up to their feminazi leaders and say that something is wrongs.  So Martian men are idiots, and Martian women are submissive - there's a great message for the kids.  

They need Moms, or more accurately, A Mom, to program their nannybots based on the parenting skills locked in her cranium.  So, if their society is so dumb that they don't know how to raise their own kids, how did they invent hyperdrive space travel?  

The bigger problem here is that the movie is way too full of itself, it takes itself too seriously, when a ride to another planet where an advanced civilization lives should be FUN.  And this isn't, it's too frantic, too panicky, and everything is an emergency.  "Oh, my GOD! We have to save her right NOW!"  Umm, no you don't, because the Martians hooked her up to a device that takes a full 6 hours to power up properly, so you could probably walk there backwards and save her.  Somewhere James Bond (or his screenwriter) is watching this supposed deathtrap and saying, "Seriously?"  

Every silly line or almost-joke is treated like comedy gold, which it isn't, and every little plot point is treated like a genius idea, which it isn't.  I haven't seen those awful talking-puppy films like "Space Buddies", but this is what I imagine they're like.  

NITPICK POINT: Which is correct: the Martians are constantly monitoring us through satellite images, or they can only pick up our television transmissions every 25 years?  At some point, a writer has to make a choice.  Pick a horse and run with it.

Also starring (CGI versions of) Seth Green (last seen in "The Italian Job"), Dan Fogler (last seen in "Fanboys"), Mindy Sterling (last seen in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"), Tom Everett Scott (last seen in "An American Werewolf in Paris"), Elisabeth Harnois.

RATING: 3 out of 10 space helmets

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Year 4, Day 213 - 7/31/12 - Movie #1,203

BEFORE: Because not all alien invasions are so overt.  Last night we had spaceships taking over Los Angeles, tonight it's plant pods taking over San Francisco.  There are a few different versions of this film, but I'm going with the 1978 one, because that's the one I remember being parodied in MAD magazine when I was a kid.  Besides, last night's film reminded me of "Independence Day", and one of that film's stars is also in this film.  Linking from "Battle Los Angeles", Aaron Eckhart was also in "Any Given Sunday" with Charlton Heston, who was also in "Cats & Dogs" with Jeff Goldblum (last seen in "The Big Chill").

THE PLOT: In San Francisco, a group of people discover the human race is being replaced one by one, with clones devoid of emotion.

AFTER: Damn, I forgot to remember that this film was set in San Francisco - I could have launched into my around-the-world tour from here, but the schedule is set, and I won't start the tour for another month.  Now that I've been there, I did recognize a few sights, like the prominent TransAmerica pyramid and some of the streets around Union Square.

What I learned about San Francisco in my brief time there - everyone seemed a little crazy.  Not all were psychotic crazy - some were the good kind of crazy, like artists and musicians.  From what I understand, there are also a bunch of hippies and health nuts.  So it's a really natural and devious place for the plant people to start their invasion from.  There's probably not a bottle of weed killer for miles, since that would be interfering with nature, man, plus those chemicals are really toxic, you know?  Plus it's bad karma to go around killing plants, dude.  Oh, really?  What if those plants are trying to duplicate you and take your place in the new herbal world order?

NITPICK POINT: Mark Twain supposedly once said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco".  Given the nature of the S.F. climate, is it really the best place for plant people?  I guess they'd enjoy the misty wet weather, but wouldn't the cold get to them?

The effects here were pretty low-rent, only slightly better than the old version of "Little Shop of Horrors".  Plus they hired some actors known for their deadpan nature, a general lack of expression.  Was this so the audience wouldn't be able to tell who was brainwashed by the pod people, and who wasn't?

Between this and "The Stepford Wives", there seemed to be a real fear in the 1970's that people would lose their identity somehow, or be taken over by another set of ideals.  I should take a look at some of the other versions, if I get a chance.  I suspect that the 1950's version was based on a thinly-veiled fear of Communism - so considering the liberal nature of the setting here, the plant people could symbolically be representing Republicans.  A version made today could have New Yorkers turning into hipsters, developing a sudden fondness for wearing wool hats and carrying guitar cases.

Still, this story is a classic - the template for not only the remakes, but countless other projects, like Marvel Comics' mega-crossover "Secret Invasion", and possibly also the Yuuzhan Vong in the "Star Wars" universe, noted for shapeshifting and taking over planets also.

Also starring Donald Sutherland (last seen in "The Italian Job"), Brooke Adams (last seen in "The Dead Zone"), Leonard Nimoy (last heard in "Land of the Lost"), Veronica Cartwright.

RATING: 5 out of 10 forklifts

Monday, July 30, 2012

Battle Los Angeles

Year 4, Day 212 - 7/30/12 - Movie #1,202

BEFORE: The third alien film in a row that was released in 2011 - was that some kind of trend last year?  I guess so.  Timothy Olyphant from "I Am Number Four" was in a film titled "Meet Bill" with Aaron Eckhart (last seen in "The Missing"), who stars tonight.

THE PLOT:  A Marine Staff Sergeant goes back into the line of duty in order to assist a 2nd Lieutenant and his platoon as they fight to reclaim the city of Los Angeles from alien invaders.

AFTER: I think this week I proved that everything old is new again - or Hollywood is out of ideas, depending on how you look at it.  We had near-remakes of films like "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" as well as the TV show "Smallville".  Taken in that context, this film is closest to "Independence Day" and "District 9" with a bit of "Signs" mixed with, I don't know, "Black Hawk Down", or perhaps the video-game "Call of Duty".  

I say that because this shows an alien invasion, as seen through the eyes of a Marine combat unit tasked with rescuing civilians from behind enemy lines.   I'd compliment the film on its gritty realism, except that "realism" isn't really the best word to describe a work of science-fiction.  But this is someone's view of what it might really be like if our planet were to be invaded by plundering aliens.

Which leads me to a few questions - is our military prepared for such an occurence, should it arise?  And if you screen this film for soldiers, would it be considered entertainment, or a training film?  The elements of a standard war film were all here, so it's a blend of war film and sci-fi film.

The special effects were quite decent, so really my only knock tonight is about how derivative the film is.

Also starring Ramon Rodriguez, Michael Peña (last seen in "30 Minutes or Less"), Michelle Rodriguez (last seen in "S.W.A.T."), Bridget Moynahan (last seen in "The Sum of All Fears"), Ne-Yo.

RATING: 7 out of 10 grenade launchers

Sunday, July 29, 2012

I Am Number Four

Year 4, Day 211 - 7/29/12 - Movie #1,201

BEFORE: It's still July, but if I'm shooting for 300 films this year, then I'm 2/3 of the way there.  I'm gearing up for the final push, the final hundred - if I can make it to the virtual round-the-world trip, it's going to feel like all downhill from there.  8 of my last 10 films were released in 2010 or 2011, so it kind of feels like I'm getting caught up, but the location-based chain's going to have some real classics in it.

Linking tonight is a little tough, because there are no real a-list stars in this film.  So it's up to the Oracle of Bacon, which informs me that Teresa Palmer from this film was in "Bedtime Stories" with Adam Sandler, who was also in "Funny People" with Seth Rogen.  That's probably the best I can hope for.

THE PLOT: Aliens and their Guardians are hiding on Earth from intergalactic bounty hunters. They can only be killed in numerical order, and Number Four is next on the list.

AFTER: I just wasn't feeling this one tonight - it's based on a book, which I assume is aimed at the teen sci-fi market, but the story seemed very derivative of other things, almost familiar.  When I saw the writing credits at the end, I recognized the names from watching 10 seasons of "Smallville", and that's when it hit me.  This story isn't just like that show, it IS "Smallville", in all the ways that matter.

Check out the similarities - a hunky teen with powers that he has to work to control, various alien beings who track him and show up to kill him, strange alien artifacts that glow under certain conditions, meanwhile our hero tries to blend in at school and live like a normal earth teen.  Doomed father figure? Check.  Pet dog?  Check.  It's got everything but a stylized "S" on his chest.

So they merged Lana Lang + Chloe Sullivan into the girlfriend character, it's the same story at heart.  Worse, it feels like it only tells part of the story, like one episode of a TV show.  There's a big difference between setting up a sequel and only telling half of a story, and I feel like the latter is what happened here.

Jeez, don't waste my time with stories I feel like I've seen already.

Starring Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, Callan McAuliffe, Kevin Durand.

RATING: 4 out of 10 fake IDs