80s Odyssey: Romancing The Stone (1984)

romancing the stone I’ve mentioned this before in regards to Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies, but when I was a kid there were certain movies that just seemed to be on cable all the time. You’d be flipping around channels, land on one of them and just start watching wherever the movie happened to be. While the previously mentioned franchises might be huge deals these days, one movie and its sequel that were also on a lot happened to be the Michael Douglas/Kathleen Turner/Danny DeVito outings Romancing The Stone and Jewel Of The Nile. It’s been probably 20 years since I watched either of these movies, but I still got jazzed when I saw them pop up on Netflix Instant.

As it turns out, Romancing The Stone is a pretty fun movie. Some people say the Robert Zemeckis film rips off the Indy movies a bit, but I don’t think so. The plot follows romance writer Joan Wilder (Turner) as she heads to Colombia with a map to trade for her kidnapped sister’s life. She’s being trailed by a super cop called Zolo (Manuel Ojeda) as well as one of the two kidnappers (DeVito) and eventually finds herself crossing paths with Jack T. Colton (Douglas). She hires him to get her where she needs to go and the two go on a fairly epic journey in order to save her sister.

Romancing The Stone is a fun comedy-adventure that plays that great trick of making things feel safe, but also just dangerous enough to keep the plot running along. Turner and Douglas really shine in the film. Turner has the biggest metaphorical journey on screen as she goes from a clueless-to-the-real-world, sheltered person who invents adventures to one who’s able to handle herself pretty well. Meanwhile, Douglas does get to fill the role of swashbuckling, roguish hero. He had more of a Han Solo vibe to me than an Indiana Jones one if we’re talking Harrison Ford characters. Oh, and seeing DeVito in these roles he used to play that equally mix his trademark exasperated temperament with some physical comedy was a lot of fun.

I wouldn’t say that Romancing The Stone is a really solid movie, but it doesn’t topple other Zemeckis films like the Back To The Future movies or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but it is probably one that more people should give another shot.

Christmas Stories: Batman Returns (1992)

While I do love traditional Christmas movies like White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Elf and even Love Actually, I’m also quite fond of genre flicks that happen to be set around the holiday like Gremlins (in fact, I wrote a whole list about just that over at Topless Robot). All of which reminded me that Batman Returns–the movie I almost wore out on VHS from watching so much–is set around Christmas time with major moments revolving around tree lighting and other festivities. It’s been a while since I watched this flick and the first thing I was surprised by was how well I know this movie. I don’t just know scenes or lines, but how people are posed in scenes. I knew the exact way that Michelle Pfeiffer was holding herself when she used the taser on her would-be attacker. It’s kind of crazy.

The next thing that stood out to me was how unlikely it would be to see another Christmas-based superhero movie. Even though this one, directed of course by Tim Burton who readers will remember I think is Awesome, doesn’t get into any of the religious aspects of the holiday, it still seems like the kind of thing that studios would shy away from now (what would foreign markets think?!). Heck, I’m surprised they did it back then, frankly.

Anyway, I love how cartoony this movie is without ever being too silly. It really is a comic book movie with a gang of evil circus performers, a mutant being carted around as a mayoral candidate and penguins with rockets tied to their backs! What Burton does, though, is that he makes it all seem real and plausible by creating a world like our own, but clearly different. Yeah Penguin’s kind of ridiculous, but the scenes of him researching his background are pretty heartfelt and you can’t help but be on Selina Kyle’s side because she’s being bullied by the real villain of the movie: corporate crazy asshole Max Schreck played pitch perfectly by the one and only Christopher Walken.

The action’s not as cool as you might see in a recent Batman flick (though you can always tell what’s going on at least) and it might seem kind of over the top, but I would completely recommend this movie if you haven’t seen it and you’re a big fan of Grant Morrison’s run on the book. I highly doubt there’s someone out there reading Morrison’s Batman who hasn’t seen this movie, but I guess it’s possible for people who missed out the first time around or might be younger. Anyway, this is an all time, childhood favorite of mine that I will always cherish, but I think still holds up as a particular kind of movie that will probably never get made again. At least I’ve got it on DVD, plus a butt-ton of toys so I can recreate it on my own if the world ever looses power. I’m pretty sure I could recreate at least 75% with little trouble.

Revisiting Twins (1988)

Like many people my age, I have fond memories of Twins. I didn’t remember much and only saw it a few times in my younger years, but it stuck with me as a pretty good movie, though never reaching the upper echelon of 80s comedies like Ghostbusters or Meatballs, which Ivan Reitman also directed). For some reason, I added it to the top of my Netflix Queue recently (someone brought it up in conversation and I thought “hey I should watch that again” but I can’t remember the convo). Anyway, I watched it again and was struck by how weird it is. The premise as I remembered it was already pretty strange: a bunch of high quality dudes gave sperm samples to create an ultimate human being, then all that got put into a hot, young Heather Graham. Graham would go on to give birth to twins who would grow up to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Arnold was kept on a tropical island paradise where he grew and developed into a fully actualized human being while DeVito got put into the foster system in LA and became a con man. Once Arnold finds out about his brother, he leaves the island to find him. It’s a fish out of water tale mixed with a journey of discovery (they want to find their mother) and some “con man learning the error of his ways” thrown in on DeVito’s part.

Of course I also remember the gags like Arnold driving on two wheels and the chain one at the end, but I had forgotten how harshly the movie treats its characters at times. Sure DeVito’s a sneaky crook, but when the doctor says “All the crap that was left over is what you see in the mirror every morning” to him I shuddered a bit. That’s some cold shit. Then later when they meet their mother, she straight-up lies to them, saying their mom died because she thinks they’re trying to get her land! Damn, lady, you could at least ask for some proof or something.

There’s also a weird bit at the end where the twins, now separated, start feeling what the other one felt and mimicking the other’s motions. It comes kind of out of nowhere (sure they had similar styles of dancing and washing their hands before, but no psychic links like this). I can get behind some weirdness in a movie especially because this based on the idea that some twins feel each others’ pain, but it doesn’t really serve much purpose to the story. DeVito says he felt Arnold in the setting of the climax, but he could also hear him. And the way they dispatch the assassin called back to an earlier interaction with the pair not this mystical connection. It might have been how they explained Arnold tracked DeVito down, but that could have just as easily been a recall from something said earlier in the script.

Even with the problems I had–by the way, the DVD had one of the worst transfers I’ve ever seen on a major studio movie, it looked constantly grainy, I’ve got VHS tapes that give a better visual–I still had fun watching the movie. Those gags I remembered are still good after all these years (though the chain one IS a bit cheesy) and even though the movie is uneven in many places, it’s still got a good heart at the center of it that is something a lot of movies forget about nowadays. I hope you enjoyed the pictures of man goo, Heather Graham, Rambo and chains (separate pictures, though I’m sure that will get some interesting hits from Google).

Tim Burton Is Awesome

Over the past two days I’ve had the pleasure of watching two Tim Burton movies on the train and realizing how much I like his directing. Monday I watched childhood favorite Beetlejuice (1988) and yesterday I checked out Mars Attacks (1996) for the first time. I also recently realized that Burton is probably the first director I was a fan of before I even realized what a director did. I remember watching Frankenweenie on the Disney Channel, I liked Batman, but Batman Returns was my favorite superhero movie for years and I have memories of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure like anyone else my age, but wasn’t too obsessed with it. In fact, Burton was probably the first director whose work I did recognize. And, perusing his credits on IMDb and realizing I’ve really enjoyed most of what I’ve seen, I’ve decided to give him the “… Is Awesome” tag, I’m sure he’s super excited.

Before jumping into the movie reviews, I do want to note that I still haven’t seen Edward Scissorhands or Sleepy Hollow, but I have seen all of his other big movies. I didn’t really like Sweeney Todd (apparently, I have a fear of razors against throats, who knew?) and I’m not particularly partial to Nightmare Before Christmas (which he didn’t direct, but produced) or Corpse Bride, but I think that’s because I resented paying full New York prices for a 76 minute movie. Anyway, not liking three movies and not seeing two movies puts him in that rare category of directors with a lot of movies which I have seen and liked. It’s easy to say I like Tarantino or Kevin Smith, but they don’t have all that many movies.

So, now onto Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks specifically. When I say I was a Beetlejuice fan as a kid, I’m talking full-on. I had the movie on tape of course, watched the cartoon, got as many of the toys as I could (I’ll take pictures of what I have and do a separate post soon) and even dressed up as him for Halloween one year (Mom made the suit and we bought the official Beetlejuice toy mask with pop-out snakes!). And, the craziest thing about all this is that I was a fan even though I saw something on TV about Beetlejuice that scared me so much I had nightmares.

I’ve been searching YouTube and the internet for any reference to this, but can’t find it. Around the time the movie came out, I saw this talk show aimed at kids either on Nickelodeon or Disney Channel where they interviewed some of the ghosts and monsters from the movie. I think the shrunken head hunter was on there, but I definitely remember the file clerk who got run over by a truck. There were a few others but I can’t remember them. I also don’t remember the details, but it scared me so bad I had nightmares for a while. Also note that this was well before I even entertained the idea of watching horror movies. Just the previews scared me. Ah, how far I’ve come.

It’s been probably 10 years since I watched Beetlejuice all the way through (I picked the DVD up on the cheap sometime in the past year, but hadn’t watched it). I still really dig this movie. It’s got a great mix of comedy, action and horror, plus great performances by everyone involved from Michael Keaton as the Ghost With the Most down to Jane, the annoying real estate woman.

The only part that doesn’t hold up is the special effects, which, according to the internet, Burton did on purpose as a reference to older sci-fi and horror movies (hence the stop motion animation of the sculptures and sandworms). But, other effects still look great, and mostly because they’re practical. I love the ghastly faces Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam (Alec Baldwin, he looks so young and thin!) put on to scare Lydia (Winona Ryder, also super young).

A couple of funny things I realized while watching this movie before Mars Attacks. First off, this is the second movie in two weeks I’ve watched where rich New Yorkers move away from the city to a quiet place somewhere north of the city. At least in Beetlejuice, they eventually tell you they’re in Connecticut so I wasn’t driving around trying to find the school house. Also, I realized while watching that Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones will always be “the people from Beetlejuice” in my head. I remember when O’Hara lated played the mom in Home Alone, I was psyched. And, while Jones will always be Ed Rooney to most, he’s the dad from this movie and the bad guy from Who’s Harry Crumb and that’s the way it is.

Which brings me to Mars Attacks, which doesn’t have single character/actor who I haven’t seen in something else. Hell, even Jack Black’s in this bad boy and he looks only a little less svelte than he did in Airborne. Heck even the kid from Solarbabies is in it, but to me he’s still the whiny kid from that movie (though he’s way more awesome and less girly now).

I can’t think of a recent movie that has brought together so many famous actors in one flick (check out the full roster here). Sure, you could argue that some people like Sarah Jessica Parker or Lisa Marie weren’t really all that famous at the time, but you’ve got Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Natalie Portman (also probably not super famous at the time) and Pam Grier! For the record, that’s also the Joker, Cruella de Vil, James Bond, Penguin, Amidala AND Foxy Brown. That’s a pretty epic team-up. (Any artists out there want to draw that up? It’d be rad?) Anyway, what I liked most about this star studded cast is the fact that so many of these big time starts got killed in really great and kind of gruesome ways. You really don’t see THAT nowadays.

I know I’m late to the game by 13 years on this one. I’m not sure why I didn’t see it when it came out or why it took so long for me to finally see it, but I’m really glad I did. It was very slow going at first and I kept wondering how all these different characters were going to fit together and really just wanted to get to the aliens blowing shit up, but I see why it all works. It’s a satire on movies like it, but also society. Parker’s character could be taken out of this movie and put on the NYC streets I walk everyday to get to work (I might have seen her last week actually, she just has a Blackberry now). That Burton fella’s ahead of the curve methinks. Plus, the effects are cool and it’s damn funny.

And dammitall if those aren’t the cutest little aliens blasting the crap out of humanity. I loved their “ack ack ACK” dialogue and loved it even more when their heads exploded. Watching the second half of the movie really made me want to play whatever the latest Destroy All Humans game is. It also made me want to check out the original card series that the movie is based on (huh, basing a movie on a card set seems just as crazy as basing one on a board game, no?), which brought me to Zelda’s Mars Attacks site, check it out!

Book vs. Movie: The Virgin Suicides

2008-08-07
4:34:13 am

So, remember when I said that I didn’t read books too often? Well, after finishing Slam I looked at the growing stack of novels I have next to my bed and picked one kind of at random. It was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (1993). Someone had put it on the free table at work and I snatched it up, not really knowing anything about it.

So I started reading it and was hooked instantly. It only took me about three dedicated days of reading to get through it (so about a week, real time) and it was one of the most moving, ghostly reading experiences I’ve ever had. The story follows the Lisbon Family as all five of the daughters kill themselves over the span of a year, the first of which Cecilia, predates her sisters by a full year. What really grabbed me about the telling of the tale was that the narrator speaks in the “we” and comes from the point of view of one of the boys in the neighborhood who fell in a sort of love with the girls and desperately wanted to help them. After they killed themselves, the boys spend the rest of their lives (at least to the point we find them in the book), trying to figure out why these five young women took their lives.

Another element of the book that got me was the way that Eugenides packed each page with so many characters, either actually involved in the story or just mentioned by name. Almost all of them seem incidental at first, but come back into play later on. The great thing about it, though, is that I never felt lost. Maybe I didn’t take much stock in such casually mentioned characters, but they all came back in one way or another, which really makes the reader feel like a part of these boys’ (and later mens’) club of failed avenging heroes.

The sense of not being able to penetrate another person is one that I’ve often thought about. Even the girls’ own father who lived under the same roof as them had no idea what was going through their heads as they planned an elaborate suicide plan that involved a number of the neighborhood boys. No matter how hard you try to decode someone’s thoughts and actions, you just can’t get inside their heads. The best you can do is gather accounts to try and put the puzzle together.

Sophia Coppola’s adaptation (1999) is pretty faithful to the book, but not necessarily to the version in my brain. But I think a lot of that comes from the basic differences between books and movies. For instance, in the book, you don’t really get a sense of the girls as individuals until the narrator does which is well into the book. Of course, in a movie, you can obviously see the differences. Though, I do have to give props to the casting folks for making the non Kirsten Dunst sisters all look pretty similar and easily confused.

Aside from Dunst who nails the promiscuous and evocative Lux to a T, the casting didn’t quite do it for me. I didn’t get the same feel from Kathleen Turner’s mother character as I did in the book, even though she looks almost exactly like how I pictured her. The way its conveyed in the book, it’s hard to not feel like she’s majorly to blame for the girls’ suicides. Again, I’m thinking this is because we actually see her reactions to things like her first daughter’s suicide.

I was really most curious to see how Coppola and Co. handled the first person plural narrator of the book in the film (he always uses “we” and never deviates). She got Giovanni Ribisi, an actor I’ve liked since I randomly rented Suburbia at the age of 16 and developed a pretty deep man crush on. Anyway, he does a great job, but isn’t utilized enough to really set the same tone as the book. The lack of entrenchment along with the neighborhood boys leads to more focus on the girls, which almost completely removes the element of being an outsider looking in on them which is central to the novel. Heck, it’s hard to be an outsider when you’re right in their living room as they play Chinese checkers and watch wildlife shows.

One of the downsides to watching such a faithful adaptation so soon after reading the book (I finished it Saturday in between and after errands I didn’t want to run) is that you know when everything’s coming and what’s going to happen. I didn’t feel that way watching Virgin Suicides. I was mostly curious to see how Coppola translated such an artfully crafted novel onto the screen. And kudos to her for doing such a great job. The movie never lags (it’s just over an hour and a half) and, while you’re nowhere near as firmly entrenched with the neighborhood kids as you are in the book, you still develop an attachment for these girls and desperately want to help them, even though it’s a forgone conclusion from about the second line of the script that they’re not going to make it.

All in all, I enjoyed both works, though obviously I liked the book better. I can’t recommend the book enough to people. Heck, if it only took me a few days to read, you should be able to get through it quickly. But, if books aren’t your thing, I also give the movie my thumb’s up.