The ‘Burbs again

burbsLast night I returned to Joe Dante country, that cinematic landscape that shines so brightly from decades past. More specifically, I returned to The ‘Burbs, his 1989 movie that landed (and disappeared) to little fanfare. I remember going to the cinema one afternoon and quite loving it- especially, as I remember, the Jerry Goldsmith score that took a few years to eventually get released (and I got the revised Deluxe Varese edition a few years after that). I can understand why the film didn’t find an audience- its a little too arch, perhaps too subversive, to find traction with general audiences, although I’m certain its stock has raised and it has found an increasingly positive reception over the years since. Its certainly not perfect but all the same, I find so much good in it that I find myself retuning to it often. The cast is terrific, littered with geek favourites with nods to genre trivia. Its actually peculiar how some of this stuff just gets weirder with age- even the innocent casting of Tom Hanks, as when the moment lands in the film of Tom’s character waking up to the opening of preschool tv show  Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood – Hanks having starred in a biopic of Fred Rogers (A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood) some thirty years later. Carrie Fisher, rest her soul, looks so incredibly young and beautiful – still close to how she looked in the original Star Wars films, its like watching Princess Leia in a bedroom and like her appearance in The Blues Brothers a reminder of when her appearance in any film could get men of a certain age ridiculously excited. Living with Carrie Fisher in the ‘burbs sounds a little like heaven to some of us (I know the reality was likely a hell of a lot different to the picture Dante paints here, but hey, that’s the magic of movies).

I was reminded, watching the documentary that is included with Arrow’s excellent Blu-ray edition, that The ‘Burbs was originally envisaged as a spoof of Hitchcock films, particularly Rear Window. That’s one of those weird movie factoids that can instantly surprise but also make perfect sense when you consider it. Anyway, I see that as the perfect nudge to get me watching the 4K UHD  of Rear Window that came out in last year’s Hitchcock 4K boxset tonight. Sometimes one film just leads to another….

Ready Player One (2018)

The problem with Ready Player One is that it is, essentially, four different stories, and the film-makers concentrated on the wrong one.

rp1aStory one: Its 2045, and its a dystopian world of economic collapse and (presumably) environmental disaster. People seem to be mostly poor and living in over-crowded shanty-towns, and unemployed. Everyone -and I mean, seemingly everyone– seems to spend their waking hours in a virtual world called The Oasis. Reality is so desperately depressing that escape is everything, even if its only virtual. But that, pretty much, is all we know about 2045. We don’t know any details of the social-political climate, who’s in charge, who’s paying the bills. The company behind The Oasis is the richest on the planet, worth trillions, but its not clear how it makes any money, because The Oasis seems to be free. The film doesn’t not examine why everyone feels the need to escape into a virtual world or how that might mirror our own current preoccupation with our ‘escapes’ be it films or television or video games. We see nothing of any counter-culture that might perceive The Oasis as a threat or blight on society and the world, or if humanity escaping to this virtual haven means it has given up on reality and we are all doomed. The Oasis is there, and everybody’s playing it- that is the world of 2045.

rp1bStory two-  genius recluse James Halliday (Mark Rylance), in the mid 2020’s creates a virtual world, The Oasis, that in a bleak and downward-spiraling world becomes a bright haven for a desperate humanity. Halliday was a solitary child who grew up a secluded life in the 1980s and whose only comfort was predominantly the 80’s pop-culture of that decade, and so The Oasis is dominated by that culture. Somehow this obsession seduces everyone who experiences The Oasis. It becomes a 1980s Heaven.

READY PLAYER ONEBut Halliday, although the richest man on Earth at this point, is deeply unhappy, sinking into morose regret for what he considers is his biggest mistake- not having the courage to have a relationship with the one love of his life- KIra, who ended up marrying his one-time business colleague, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). His obsession in creating a virtual world seems to have stopped him from living properly in the real world, and he only realizes in his old age that reality is better than virtuality. Perhaps it finally dawns on him that his invention overtaking the world is detrimental, humanity obsessed by his virtual world and not dealing with reality’s problems. But instead of shutting down The Oasis or sharing his wisdom, he instead creates a magic virtual quest to find an Easter Egg hidden within The Oasis, involving three magic keys and clues and riddles that er, might do something like making someone fabulously rich. The he dies.

rp1d.pngStory three- Nolan Sorrento during the mid-2020s works as a lab/office assistant to Halliday and Morrow at Gregarious Games, the company that makes The Oasis. A lowly assistant who fetches the coffee, somehow this downtrodden rat becomes the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the second biggest company in the world and rival to Gregarious Games, as if his whole life has been one hellbent on revenge over his old bosses who didn’t care for his coffee. Seriously, his rise through the ranks to lead a rival company sounds a better story than anything else in Ready Player One. I want to see how he did it, because he’s patently a jerk and an idiot, but at least it’d be interesting to see the snake on his corporate climb and see the trail of misery in his wake.

rp1eStory four- uber-geek dead-end orphan Wade Watts spends all his time in The Oasis, his virtual alter-ego Parzifal trying to decipher the clues/riddles that will lead to the keys to Halliday’s fabled Easter Egg. He befriends Art3mis, a beautiful girl-avatar who fortunately is also a  girl in the real-world (and hey, incredibly pretty too although she doesn’t think so and she secretly seeks self-validation and the love of a good guy so you can guess where that goes) but she is also cool at videogames etc and together with his own group of teenage virtual super-heroes they go on a great adventure in The Oasis and try to thwart the attempts of IOI to secure the Egg and control of The Oasis for its own nefarious corporate ends. BIt like Harry Potter for videogame geeks.

So they went with story four and shoved the rest into dull exposition/skimpy background details. Maybe they went with the right choice. It looks pretty.

The thing is, all the attention seems to be on The Oasis and its spectacular CGI effects and all the nods to pop-culture references (there’s Robocop! look there’s Valley Forge from Silent Running! Look there’s a pod from 2001 hiding in the background! He’s driving a goddam Delorean! etc etc) and its really very boring surprisingly quickly. And as you might expect, its so full of crazy shit being thrown on-screen its hard most of the time to tell whats going on. I was surprised because I thought Spielberg would have demonstrated more control and keyed things back, but he seems too enamored of his CGI toys that he gets quite carried away. Bit like how Pete Jackson lost his shit on The Hobbit films.

Meanwhile in the real world there’s possibly a more interesting story or stories to tell but this isn’t that movie. This is Tron x100 (even though, ironically,I can’t recall an actual Tron reference, funnily enough) full of cartoony extravaganzas that made me yearn, funnily enough, for the Matrix films.

So its not a bad film. Its just pretty dumb. But I guess its just that kind of dumb spectacular blockbuster entertainment with one-dimensional characters and simple plot-lines and a comfortably-predictable story. But this is Spielberg. He made Minority Report, Close Encounters, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark– as far as pop-culture/ sci-fi/fantasy movies he’s much better than this. Maybe I should cut this film some slack instead of it bugging me for what it isn’t.

But deep down, I wish Joe Dante had made this movie. My God it would have been bloody incredible, I’m sure. Crazy, irreverent, clever. Everything that this film really isn’t, unfortunately.

(But it looks nice).

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

cabin1I’m currently playing a sly game with Avengers: Infinity War, in which I’m carefully filtering all media -internet, print, word of mouth- and avoiding any spoilers. At all. Its a tricky game and one can’t always win, but so far I’m winning. it’s a game I’m also playing with Marvel’s Black Panther movie and a few others that I haven’t seen at the cinema or on disc yet. Avoid reviews. Avoid internet articles. Avoid forums. Its the only way to avoid spoilers. I mean, sure if you’re not bothered, relax and the hell with it, but if you think a film deserves being unspoiled, you’ve got to make some effort.

Sometimes it can be a long game. Witness The Cabin in the Woods, which I finally got around to watching last night. I’ve dutifully avoided all spoilers and reviews for all these years. Not so sure the effort was duly warranted, as it turned out, but yeah, I managed to watch the film last night fresh-faced and blindly ignorant of what I was about to watch. I didn’t even know that Chris Hemsworth was in it until his name came up in the credits. In yer face, spoiler-net.

So anyway, it’s a film about a bunch of typical American college teens spending a weekend in an isolated cabin in the woods that is inevitably only going to end one way -loud music! booze! sex! gore!- and the horror tropes are, as you might expect, flashing by in an almost whos-who almanac of horror films, classic and bad. But there is always something weird going on, unseen by our protagonists, the events being orchestrated…  Clearly the whole cabin in the woods setting is a knowing wink towards all those horror tropes and the film has an agenda lifting it beyond the b-movie horror cliches it seems happily content to put onscreen. When the twists/meta-story unfolds the film actually descends into the wildest Joe Dante chaos not-actually-directed-by-Joe-Dante that I have ever seen and is all kind of fun. Gremlins on steroids. Wouldn’t say it was actually scary though. Which raises the question, shouldn’t a horror story be scary rather than clever?

Oh well. It was rather good fun and I enjoyed it, particularly some of the casting choices, such as Amy Acker and Fran Kranz, who set me off reminiscing about Dollhouse.  And it’s always a  pleasure being surprised by Sigourney Weaver turning up.  That’s worth all the effort of staying spoiler-free all by itself.

 

Hail the King

2017.38: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

kong1If Lara Croft was a photographer, then she’d look like Brie Larson in Kong: Skull Island. Not that Lara Croft: Tomb Photographer is a likely prospect for a future film/videogame, but its definitely the ‘look’ they were going for.

Kong: Skull Island is immense fun. Its one of my biggest genuine surprises of the year so far- its a film that from the trailers looked pretty lackluster to be honest, so the film didn’t really interest me too much- I gave it a miss at the cinema, as I expected it to be just another cgi snore-fest. Boy, was I wrong.

As it turns out, yes it is a cgi-fest in places but that cgi is very well done, indeed technically audacious and quite imaginatively executed with some thoughtful design choices and while it is a fairly dumb film,  its also great fun. The cast is great, the script witty and the direction has considerable flair. Its a far better film than I expected and really much, much better (and decidedly less calculated/by the numbers) than the recent Jurassic Park reboot.

Kong himself is huge here- I mean, crazily, ridiculously, mentally over-sized, but I suppose its all part of the intentional, over-the-top fun of the whole piece. This Kong is literally Godlike, a gigantic force of nature to finally put puny man in his place. This Kong won’t get beaten by humans in their war planes- this King tosses around helicopters straight from Apocalypse Now as if they are playthings. Its like monster-movie revenge for the 1933 original finale (and that of the 1976 and 2005 remakes); gloriously rewriting the traditional Kong story- I can almost imagine this being a Joe Dante movie, its so like Gremlins in how it has such naughty fun subverting conventions of earlier Kongs. Its glee could only be intensified had it somehow got a Jerry Goldsmith score similar to his riotous Gremlins score.Yeah, a Joe Dante King Kong movie- this is nearly it.

With credentials like that, this film is a must-watch. I can still hardly believe it, and can’t wait to watch it again. If they can keep the creative team together,  the Godzilla vs Kong mooted to follow will be an absolute riot. Hail the King indeed.

Half Man, Half Ant, All Terror!

matinee2017.35: Matinee (1993)

One of the few Joe Dante films I hadn’t seen, I admit I’m spectacularly late to the party with this one. As it turns out, it’s an utterly charming film that deserves a reappraisal- it may turn out to be one of Dante’s very best. It has the feel of The Burbs, and if you enjoy that film, I’m sure you will love this one. It has that same gentle tone of warm comedy and pokes fun at its characters and its situations- anyone who grew up watching the sci-fi b-movies made in the 1950s, full of Cold War paranoia and wild fears of radiation will find much to enjoy with its film-within-a-film, Mant! which serves as a delicious tribute to all those old movies (“oh, Bill….!”).

And of course, being a Joe Dante picture, there are plenty of actor cameos from other Dante films, which offers a great drinking game for genre fans- it is like meeting old friends and it is fun noting them and the other Dante films they appeared in. It even has a great little score by Jerry Goldsmith that serves to remind us how much films have lacked since his passing, and how much soundtrack music has changed for the worse.

What surprised me was just how substantial the film is. It doesn’t just poke fun at old 1950s b-movies, it recalls with some sincerity the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and an era when nuclear apocalypse was a very real fear. There is a wonderful juxtaposition of the real crisis and the real drama, reflected in  the exploitation of horror movies of the time with their giant insects and science gone horribly wrong.

Sometimes films are made and released at just the wrong time, and for no fault of their own fail to find an audience. Thankfully, sometimes they eventually get their due and I suspect that this Arrow edition on Blu-ray will ensure that Matinee is now discovered by genre fans who missed it first time around, if only they will give it a try. Certainly it is a must-see for any Joe Dante fan. Why in the world is he no longer making films?

 

Dr.Phibes Rises Again (1972)

phibes2016.49: Dr.Phibes Rises Again (Blu-ray)

Now this film is a hoot. More a comedy than a horror film, the campness that runs throughout the film is irresistible once you’re in the right frame of mind- although the film is set in 1928 there is something oddly perfect when Phibes sings “Over The Rainbow” at the end, a song not written until ten years later in 1938. Likewise at the start of the film, when Phibes and the beautiful Vulnavia rise via church-organ elevator to the surface from his underground tomb, they are suddenly wearing completely different clothes in a reverse of the Batcave gag from Adam West’s Batman tv series. There’s all sorts of oddness like that which you just have to go with.

Of course, chief joy about this film is simply that it’s a Vincent Price movie. This guy has such a flamboyant, larger than life screen charisma that he carries it all with consummate ease, tongue firmly in cheek as his murderous Dr Phibes returns to once more try to raise his beloved wife from the dead (or half-dead, as Caroline Munro looks pretty gorgeous for an ageless corpse, another one of the films crazy oddities). While this film is weaker than the original The Abominable Dr Phibes it’s nonetheless a wonderful, odd little film littered with all sorts of craziness and the sort of intricate deaths that have you guessing where the next one is coming from.

One of the films particular pleasures is simply its cast of largely British thespians (the film was shot chiefly at Elstree). The wonderful Terry-Thomas displays his perfect comedy timing in a charming cameo, and we even get Peter Cushing in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo he likely shot in just half an hour. Fiona Lewis (who some will remember from Joe Dante’s Innerspace years later) plays the villain’s girlfriend, and Caroline Munro reprises her finest acting role -that of a pretty corpse. Added to that we get the wonderful Hugh Griffith, Beryl Read and a very young John Thaw as a hapless archeologist, and Peter Jeffrey and John Cater reprising their roles as the most inept detectives England ever produced. Of course we also have the beautiful ice maiden Valli Kemp as the mysterious Vulnavia and Robert Quarry, seemingly channeling Christopher Lee as Phibes’ chief foil, the villainous but oddly conflicted Biederbeck.

phibes2The sets are colourful and camp but oddly impressive, and there is a pervasive art deco/Seventies pop-art feel to it that is rather bizarre from the vantage-point of 2016. The score by John Gale is really so good it seems it must have originally been destined for some other (better) film.

Its just a shame this was the last appearance of Dr Phibes, although him singing “Over The Rainbow” is perhaps a worthy and fitting send-off. We won’t see films like this again, just as we won’t see charismatic charmers like Vincent Price chewing up the scenery like this again either. This is a better ‘bad’ movie than most people give it credit for, I’m sure.

Revisiting ‘Innerspace’ (1987)

inner2

The central premise of Innerspace, the miniaturization of someone in order to inject them into someone else, is preposterous- the film makers knew this, so rather than maintain the po-faced seriousness of Fantastic Voyage, they decided to have fun with it, and made a better movie because of it. Innerspace is a comedy, an unlikely buddy movie in which the buddies actually never really meet until the end, shot through with a storyline concerning technological espionage and rather inept and unlikely arms dealers. That said, Innerspace is really surprisingly sophisticated, treading a fine line between comedy and action, a really tricky thing to pull off, but here it really works. I’ve always championed Innerspace, ever since I first saw it back at the cinema when it landed with a box-office thud in spite of generally favourable reviews.

Recently released on a region-free Blu-ray disc Stateside, watching it today it has not lost any of its charm- indeed it seems better now than it did back then, a reminder of, frankly, simpler times. Pre-9/11 times, certainly (its sobering to consider how the the events of 9/11 have culturally changed things, but there’s an innocence to Innerspace that places it in a certain time, a certain mindset. The bad guys would be foreign terrorists in a modern-day Innerspace, no doubt, and it also lacks the cultural cynicism that it would likely be saddled with today).

Innerspace is definitely of its time. Back when summer blockbusters came armed with witty scripts with endearing characters, sparse but effective miniature visual effects that served a story rather than dominated it, and maybe even a great score. I’ll labour that last point further- Innerspace had a really good melodical score by a genius film composer with his own identifiable ‘sound’ rather than the generic noise we hear in so many films today (well I’m glad I got that of my chest). When a film could be just cute and funny and entertaining without worrying about selling toys. That last bit may not be entirely true, I don’t recall toys being marketed around Innespace but they may have been, it’s just that it is more ‘in your face’ these days.Certainly there is little of the product placement that riddles films so much now- I can well imagine a ‘new’ Innerspace and all the product placement it would be saddled with in the lab scenes. It’s nice just to watch a film that doesn’t shove brands in front of your eyes all the time.

inner1But the pleasures of Innerspace are many, and I wonder where to begin. Maybe I should go on further about Jerry Goldsmiths wonderful score.  A mix of orchestral and electronic textures that epitomized his work at the time, it’s a brilliant score that carries me back to those days in an instant, and prefigures his work on Dante’s later The Burbs. Thrilling and funny it supports the narrative in ways that film music simply isn’t allowed to these days. I recall being horrified when the CD soundtrack release turned out to be the then-typical mix of songs with a too-brief selection from the score. Thankfully a full score release eventually came out a few years ago, so there you go- a complete soundtrack release and a reasonable HD edition on Blu-ray: all is right in the world for Innerspace fans.

Maybe I should go on about the cast – the main trio are great; Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Martin Short make a great team. Quaid’s hero has a cynical edge at odds with Short’s innocent hypochondriac, and Meg Ryan has a sort of dizzy charm that surprisingly convinces. But perhaps more importantly, the supporting cast are a geeks utter dream; Kevin McCarthy as the delightfully slimy baddie, somehow both threatening and hilarious, Robert Picardo a treat as The Cowboy, with Henry Gibson, Kenneth Tobey and Dick Miller in delightful cameos. Its got great old-school visual effects that are pretty much as effective as any CGI and haven’t dated at all (which can’t be said of the early CGI-dominated films that followed).

But the deft direction by Joe Dante is the real star of the show. He handles the subtle comedy (throwaway one-liners) with the wacky slapstick stuff so well, manages to shoot great action sequences and stunts with aplomb, and ensures that the pretty much seamless effects work doesn’t distract viewers from the story but rather supports it. The whole thing is a masterclass in direction, really, whatever one thinks of the film itself. The realisation that Dante is pretty much relegated to working in television these days is a sad indication of what movies are now. I thought Innerspace was great back in 1987 and I still do today.