Month: June 2011

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

 

2008
20th Century Fox

Directed by Chris Carter
Produced and Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz
Based on the television show “The X-Files”

To be totally fair with you guys I think I should say right up front that I was never much of an “X-Files” fan. Dana Scully’s stubborn refusal to believe in the existence of the supernatural and alien life even when the evidence was shoved in her face seemed to me to border on delusional psychosis. And Fox Mulder should have been ashamed to collect his paycheck every week as he is the worst investigator in fiction. And I gave up on trying to make sense of the so called ‘alien mythology’ that just dragged on and on with no resolution. I did like many of the ‘monster of the week’ episodes such as “Home” which remains one of the scariest hours I’ve ever seen on television. That thing was so freaked out that Fox only showed it twice: it’s original airing in 1996 and it’s rerun four years later. And there was “The Unnatural” about a baseball loving alien who disguised himself as a black ballplayer during the 1940’s. My wife Patricia is the real “X-Files” fan in the family and she watched it religiously during its run on Fox and usually that’s how I got roped into watching it. And that’s how I ended up watching THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE.

We pick up on Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) six years after the show’s end. They’ve both resigned from The FBI but Mulder is still wanted by them on unspecified charges. They’re apparently living together and while Mulder stays at home clipping out stories about Bigfoot and UFO sightings, Scully has returned to her first love: medicine which she practices at a Catholic hospital. She’s become emotionally involved with one case: a young boy with an apparently incurable brain disease. Scully refuses to give up on the boy and plans to use an experimental stem cell procedure to try and cure him. But that’s put on hold when she’s approached by FBI Agent Mosley Drummy (Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner) who asks her to persuade Mulder to assist in finding a missing FBI agent.

Mulder is as paranoid as ever and initially refuses but as Scully calmly and rationally explains, if the FBI really wanted him, they’d have had him by now. Mulder remains skeptical until he finds out that a defrocked pedophile Catholic priest (Billy Connolly) has been having psychic visions that Drummy’s partner, Special Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) is convinced can lead them to the missing agent. But she needs Mulder to confirm the truth of his ability. The investigation uncovers a whole bunch of body parts in places where body parts have no business being and there’s this weird Russian guy in a beat-to-shit snowplow abducting girls and taking them to a secluded West Virginia farmhouse where experiments worthy of Frankenstein himself are being performed.

Mulder and Scully soon find themselves hip-deep in this mystery, pulled back into the darkness they’ve been trying to get away from as they attempt to uncover what’s happened to the missing girls. And there’s the question of the priest: is he in on the abductions or is he really having psychic visions and simply trying to help? And if he is, why would God give such a gift to a pedophile? And does Scully have the right to perform such a radical treatment on her young patient and cause such great physical and emotional pain to him and his parents?

That’s a lot of questions and that because that’s what THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE is all about: questions. Some of them get answered. Some don’t. Others I didn’t care if they got answered or not. But the characters stand around having long discussions about belief, faith, trust in God, morality and in between they remember that oh, snap! we’re supposed to be solving the disappearance of an FBI agent, ain’t we?

I think that if you’re a dedicated “X-Files” fan then you’re going to get a lot more out of this than I did. It’s not that it’s a bad movie. The performances by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson will definitely make their fans happy as they slip back into Mulder and Scully with no problem. Duchovny and Anderson actually show some emotion in their scenes together as they well should because a considerable amount of screen time is taken up with them discussing their relationship. Xzibit is wasted in his role as it could have been played by anybody and I strongly suspect that Chris Carter just wanted to have a black face in the movie somewhere. I liked Amanda Peet a lot and it was nice seeing Mitch Pileggi as Skinner again. Billy Connelly also turns in a strong performance that I enjoyed. I also liked the look of this movie a great deal. It’s set during the winter and some scenes are actually quite beautiful even though there’s some grisly stuff happening.

But the pacing of this movie is so slow that I actually dozed off once. Watching this movie is like listening to a speech where the speaker talks in the same boring monotone without changing expression on his face or inflection in his voice. And as I said earlier, most of it is the characters standing around and talking to each other. It’s a top contender for the most un-suspenseful suspense movie I’ve ever seen. The ultimate resolution of the mystery behind the abductions eluded me completely and by the time the end credits rolled around I turned to Patricia and said: “This should have been named THE X-FILES: I WANT MY TWO HOURS BACK”  It doesn’t feel like a story big enough to warrant feature film status. I didn’t like “The X-Files: Fight The Future” either but at least that movie felt and played like a feature film and had a story big enough to justify the upgrade.

If you’re a fan of the TV show then you’ve probably seen THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE already. And that’s more than cool. This movie was made for you. It’s not a totally unworthy movie but the bottom line for me is that it’s essentially a two-hour episode of the TV series.

105 minutes
Rated: PG-13

 

Flash Gordon (1936)

1936

Universal Pictures

Directed by Frederick Stephani

Produced by Henry MacRae

Written by Basil Dickey, Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton

Based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond

Say whatever you want about The Internet.  It’s done all right by me so far.  It’s a never ending source of delight to me that I can find and rediscover movies, books, comics and old TV shows that I thought I’d never see or experience again.  But it’s all out there and thanks to the wonderful technology we now have, it’s a joy to be able to relive some of my childhood pleasures.  This is one of ‘em.

Set The Wayback Machine for pre-Netflix days, Sherman. (I’m talking about the 70’s and 80’s, folks) when the only way I could see cliffhanger serials from the 30’s and 40’s was to either borrow them from the library and hope the VHS tape hadn’t been dubbed from a poor copy or wait until they were shown on PBS.  Usually during the summer PBS would have a Saturday night marathon showing of “Spy Smasher” “Perils of Nyoka” “The Masked Marvel” or “Manhunt of Mystery Island” in their original form.  Much more common were the edited versions of cliffhangers that Channel 9 or Channel 11 here in New York would show on Saturday afternoons.  15 chapters were edited down into 90 minutes.  It gave you a good flavor of what cliffhangers were like but that was all.

But now we’ve got Netflix and it was while accidentally finding they had “King of The Rocketmen” available, I hunted up some other serials as well.  Including what is probably the best known and best loved cliffhanger serial of all; FLASH GORDON starring Larry “Buster” Crabbe.   The man was known as The King of The Serials due to his playing in serials arguably the three most popular comic strip heroes at that time: Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Tarzan.  Talk about your hat tricks.

But there’s a reason why Mr. Crabbe got to play such heroes.  The cat looks like a hero.  He had the genuine square chin, steely eyes and a build most guys would give ten years off their life for.  But I think that Buster Crabbe’s real appeal in this serial lay in his Everyman quality.  His Flash Gordon isn’t the smartest guy in the room.  And he’s okay with that.  He’s more than happy to let Dr. Zarkov be the brains of the outfit while he does the dirty work.   He’s clever and resourceful.  He’s got morals and compassion for the little guy.  And when it comes to kicking ass all over Mongo, just step back and give Flash some fightin’ room.

By now, the story is legend.  The planet Mongo is hurtling toward Earth on what appears to be a collision course.  Earth’s weather is going crazy as well as the populace.  Flash Gordon is on one of the last cross country flights as he wishes to be with his scientist father when the end comes.  Also on the plane is Dale Arden (Jean Rogers).  Due to the severity of the weather, Flash and Dale are forced to bail out by parachute and happen to land right near the spaceship of Dr. Hans Zarkov (Frank Shannon) who talks them into a suicide mission to fly through space to the planet Mongo and somehow stop it from crashing into Earth.

Flash and Dale agree to go along and our intrepid heroes successfully make it to Mongo where they are promptly captured by Captain Torch (Earl Askam) who takes them to his Emperor: Ming The Merciless (Charles Middleton) who rules Mongo by fear and terror.  Ming and Flash take an instant dislike to each other.  However, Ming’s daughter Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson) falls immediately in love with Flash and tries to save him when her daddy throws Flash in the Arena of Death with three brutal ape men.  Now mind you, this is just the first chapter and I didn’t even describe half of what happens.

The next 12 chapters are a goofy blizzard of classic space opera pulp adventure as Flash and his friends are chased, captured, enslaved, escape, battle and struggle against Ming while making friends and allies with Vultan (John Lipson) King of The Hawkmen, Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) the rightful ruler of Mongo and Prince Thun (James Pierce) of The Lionmen.

First off let me say up front that you have to have a love of this kind of thing from Jump Street or at least be curious to learn more about this genre.  This entire serial was made for less than a million bucks which today wouldn’t even pay for the catering for some of today’s movie.  So we’re talking about production values that are downright laughable by today’s standards.  The acting is nothing to brag about.  But it is sincere.  Buster Crabbe sells it with all his heart.  When he’s up there on screen he convinces you that he’s in the deadliest of peril even while fighting the most obvious rubber octopus in the history of movies.  And the rest of the cast follow suit.  Especially John Lipson as Vultan who I was afraid would belly laugh himself a hernia, that’s how much he’s enjoying playing the Falstaffian King of The Hawkmen.

Jean Rogers as Dale Arden is kinda blah, even for this material.  She mostly just stands around looking gorgeous in her flowing, gossamer robes.  Mongo must really be hard up for women since everybody who meets Dale wants to marry her.  Her contribution to the story consists of either fainting or screaming at least once every chapter.  I gotta give her props, though.  Not many actresses even today could give so many inflections to one line; “What have you done with Flash?” which is usually all she gets to say.

Princess Aura is much more fun to watch as she’s the real woman of action here.  She’s always pulling a ray gun on someone to rescue Flash, something she does a surprising number of times.  There’s even a scene where Aura tells Dale that if Dale really cared about Flash, she’d do something and not just stand there cramming her fist in her mouth to hold back yet another scream.  Whenever she hears Flash has been captured yet again, Aura grabs the nearest ray gun, hikes up her dress so as not to trip on her marvelously high heels and runs off to save him.

Frank Shannon is amazing as Dr. Hans Zarkov, one of the greatest Mad Scientists in fiction.  There’s a scene in the spaceship that made me laugh out loud:  Our Heroes are heading for Mongo when Flash asks Zarkov if he’s ever done this before.  Zarkov admits that he hasn’t but he’s tested with models.  “What happened to them?” Flash asks.  “They never came back,” Zarkov sheepishly admits.  If you watch this serial, check out the expression on Flash’s face.  Priceless.

And while I’m sure that Mr. Crabbe didn’t mind having to wear shorts through the whole production, I would think Frank Shannon and Richard Alexander did since they don’t have the legs to pull that look off.  At least Charles Middleton didn’t have to.  He doesn’t have the fabulous wardrobe Max Von Sydow sported in the 1980 movie but he does have the sufficient gravitas to make us take Ming seriously.  Flash Gordon vs Ming The Merciless is one of the most celebrated hero/villain pairings in heroic fiction and I believe it’s largely due to the work Mr. Crabbe and Mr. Middleton do in this serial as well as the two sequels.  They are never less than convincing and in their best moments they make us forget the cheapness of the production.

So should you see the 1936 serial version of FLASH GORDON?  It depends.  Are you just looking for a casual Friday or Saturday night movie? Then  go Netflix the 1980 version starring Sam J. Jones as Flash and Max Von Sydow as Ming with the absolutely kickass Queen soundtrack.

But if you consider yourself a student of pulp fiction, of heroic fiction in film, of the cliffhanger serial or of the science fiction movie genre or of just plain movies then I say that there is no way you can call yourself a student of any/all those genres and not watch the 1936 FLASH GORDON at least once.  It’s the great-grandfather of 90% of filmic space opera that came after it and need I remind you that the major reason George Lucas created “Star Wars” is because he couldn’t get the rights to do FLASH GORDON, which is really what he wanted to do.  If things had turned out different we might have been watching Flash Gordon, Prince Thun and Prince Barin wielding those lightsabers.

Ideally you should do it the right way and watch one chapter a week on Saturday to get the real effect of watching Saturday morning cliffhangers but I’m a greedy bastard and watched it all in one day with 15 minutes breaks in between.  No, it’s not the same but I kinda think that after the first two of three chapters, you’re gonna keep watching.

Taken as a cultural artifact it is a superior example of a style of film storytelling that isn’t done anymore.  As a gateway drug into pulp in general and as cliffhanger serials in particular, there are few better examples than FLASH GORDON.  Load it up on Netflix and enjoy.

FLASH GORDON has no rating but be advised that it is a culturally and racially insensitive movie by our standard today.  If you’re willing to overlook that and understand it was made in a less socially enlightened time, fine.  If not, give it a pass.

245 minutes (13 Episodes)

Con Air

1997
Touchstone Pictures / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Directed by Simon West

Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer

Screenplay by Scott Rosenberg

The surest sign that a movie is boring me or isn’t making sense to me is this: I start rewriting it in my mind while I’m watching it and recently I watched CON AIR for the first time since it originally hit the theatres back in 1997. I thought maybe the distance of a few years would make the movie play better and to be honest, it does. I had previously dismissed CON AIR as a typically noisy Bruckheimer production that was all about the explosions and skimped on the plot. Well, it’s still a noisy Bruckheimer production but I found that I enjoyed it far more watching it now, mainly because of the performances of a number of actors who have since become really big names in the business. Guys like John Malkovitch, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle and Danny Trejo who have since blown up big time in the movie business and all who have wonderful roles in this big budget action fest. But I think that CON AIR missed the plane story wise and I’ll get into that later. For now, let’s stick with what the movie actually is about:

Cameron Poe (Nicholas Cage) is a decorated Army Ranger who returns home after serving a tour of distinguished service overseas. The Army has done some good for Cameron, made him grow up a little as he used to be a wild kid who wasn’t really bad but just had a knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That knack still follows him as he gets into a fight with three drunks who were hitting on his wife Tricia (Monica Potter) and during the fight; Cameron kills one of the drunks. I guess the testimony of his wife didn’t mean a thing to the judge because Cameron is sentenced to 10 years in prison but he’s paroled out in 8 as he’s been a model prisoner, encouraged to keep his nose clean by the letters written to him by his wife and his daughter Casey (Landry Allbright)

Cameron and his cellmate Baby O (Mykelti Williamson) are placed aboard a massive transport plane that is a prison with wings nicknamed The Jailbird. Cameron’s going home and Baby O is being transferred to a minimum security prison and they’re naturally concerned when they find out that most of the other prisoners on the plane are some of the most dangerously psychotic criminals in the country, being transferred to a brand new escape proof prison: Cyrus The Virus (John Malkovitch) who is totally insane and totally brilliant. Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames) is a black militant revolutionary who wrote New York Times best selling books describing his revolutionary manifesto. Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo) is a serial rapist boasting 23 tattoos of roses on his body for each one of his victims who confides that his name should actually be Johnny 600 but it doesn’t have the same ring. Garland Green (Steve Buscemi) is a serial killer who slaughtered 37 people and drove across three states wearing the head of one of his female victims for a hat. Billy Bedlam (Nick Chinlund) caught his wife in bed with another man. He didn’t lay a finger on her. He drove four towns over to where her family lived and killed her mother, father, brothers, sister, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, in-laws and all their pets. Pinball Parker (Dave Chappelle) is a junkie con man grifter whose joking nature hides a sick violent streak.

What we’ve got here is a collection of maniacs that have no business being together and it wasn’t surprising to me that such a collection of such brilliantly deranged minds successfully take over the plane. Cyrus has made a deal with another prisoner on the plane: a Columbian drug lord who has promised Cyrus and his crew that if they get him back to Columbia, they can live like kings, free of extradition. Now if I had written CON AIR, I’d have had the plane make it to Columbia and then have had Cyrus and crew double crossed by the Columbian drug lord and spent the rest of the movie having this deliciously goofy cast of murderers wreak bloody revenge in an orgy of mayhem and violence. Instead we get U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) and DEA Agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) flying around in attack choppers trying to find The Jailbird and recapture Cyrus and crew. Cameron has his hands full trying to find insulin for Baby O who is rapidly going into shock and trying to prevent the only female guard on the plane (Rachel Ticontin) from being raped by Johnny 23.

CON AIR was one of three high-energy action movies Nicholas Cage made after winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and in my opinion it’s the weakest of the three. ‘The Rock’ and ‘Face/Off’ were much better in terms of story and acting since Cage’s Cameron Poe is the least interesting character in the movie and spends most of his time trying to find insulin for his buddy as well as continually talking Cyrus and Diamond Dog out of killing a trio of prison guards being held as hostages. It isn’t until the end of the movie where The Jailbird crashes in Las Vegas where Cage goes into full-blown action hero mode and has to chase down Cyrus and Diamond Dog.

It’s the rest of the cast that walks off with the movie in terms of acting. John Cusack is always a delight in anything he does and he looks as if he’s having a great time as he and Colm Meany bicker and argue about how to deal with the situation. Few actors play a psychotic genius better than John Malkovitch and he has 90% of the good lines in the movie.  Steve Buscemi’s character makes a really cool entrance, being brought to the plane in an armored car in which he’s strapped down like Hannibal Lector with a dozen guards covering him with automatic weapons. There’s a really strange scene halfway through the movie involving Buscemi’s character and a little girl he meets in a trailer park and they have a tea party while singing “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hand” that really makes no sense and I have no idea why it’s there and it’s nowhere near as good as Buscemi’s final scene in the movie which again, reminded me of Hannibal Lector and the last scene of ‘Silence Of The Lambs’

CON AIR has some spectacular action sequences involving the giant prison plane, including the finale where it crashes on The Strip in Las Vegas and it’s one of those scenes where you have no idea how they filmed it since it’s convincing as hell but ultimately that’s all it is, one spectacular action sequence after another that have no real meaning other than spectacle for spectacle’s sake. So should you see CON AIR? If you’re an action movie junkie you most likely have seen it already. I’ve got friends of mine who claim they watch it four or five times a year but even once a year would be more than enough for me. The real entertainment value of CON AIR comes from watching Malkovitch, Rhames, Chappelle, Trejo and the other lunatics on the plane and the efforts of Cusack and Meany to capture them. The movie should have concentrated on them and cut Cage’s character out of CON AIR altogether. Now that would be a helluva ride indeed.

115 minutes
Rated R

Better In The Dark #109

 

Episode 109: HAIL TO THE CHIN!–A BRUCE CAMPBELL CELEBRATION

The Summer of Great, Great Men Begins Here! Join Tom and Derrick as they spend the next three months celebrating some of the great, great men they admire, starting with a free-wheeling discussion about a man like no other (and a man who shares the same birthday as Tom…look, it was either Bruce or Uwe Boell, so shut up!), the Chin himself! The Guys Outta Brooklyn discuss Bruce’s entire career, dissecting all his hits on the big and small screen, and try to explain why Campbell deserves to be revered as a true genre movie icon. Plus Tom and Derrick discuss their recent travels to such places as Pulp Ark and Larry Fine’s Birthplace; somehow end up in a digression where they sing the praises of Doctor Who’s Rory; and manage to sing from memory the theme song for Jack of All Trades! It’s groovy, baby…so get to clicking!

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Green Lantern

2011

DC Entertainment/De Line Pictures

Directed by Martin Campbell

Produced by Donald De Line and Greg Berlanti

Screenplay by Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, Michael Goldenberg

Based upon characters appearing in comic books published by DC Comics

The superhero summer of 2011 was one that didn’t disappoint me.  Out of the all the superhero movies I saw, two I consider outstanding: “Captain America” and “Thor” One really good: “X-Men: First Class” and then there’s the enjoyable time-waster: GREEN LANTERN.  And don’t get me wrong.  I liked GREEN LANTERN a lot.  In fact, I saw it in 3D and I still liked it a lot.  But it’s not enough of a liking for me to put it on the same shelf with those others

Hot shot test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is skating on very thin ice.  During an important demonstration he crashes his plane and blows a defense contract.  This forces Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) The Vice-President of Ferris Aircraft to ground Hal.  Or so she thinks.  Hal is whisked away by a glowing green bubble of energy to a crashed alien space ship.  The pilot of the ship is Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) an honored member of The Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic peacekeeping force 3600 strong who police the known universe.  Abin Sur gives Hal his power ring which can create or do anything its wearer can visualize.  Abin Sur is dying and he sent his ring to find a successor.  The ring has chosen Hal.  He barely has time to let all this sink in before the ring snatches him far into space to Oa, the home planet of The Green Lantern Corps and their immortal masters, The Guardians of The Universe.

Once on Oa, Hal is trained how to use his ring by Tomar-Re (voiced by Geoffrey Rush) and Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clark Duncan) under the watchful and distrustful eye of Corps Leader Sinestro (Mark Strong).  Hal is the first human ever to have been inducted into The Corps and Sinestro makes it quite plain he doesn’t think the brash, irresponsible Hal can make it in his beloved Corps.

But they don’t have much time to get him battle ready.  Abin Sur crashed on Earth because he was fleeing from Parallax (voice by Clancy Brown) Once a Guardian himself, Parallax harnessed the energy given off by fear and himself became a creature capable of destroying worlds with that power.  He escaped from the prison planet Abin Sur locked him away in and now Parallax is on his way to Oa to destroy The Corps and The Guardians.  But first he’s got to stop off and have Earth for an appetizer.

Notice that so far I haven’t mentioned the Hector Hammond subplot.  That’s because I didn’t like it and thought it completely unnecessary to the story.  We’ve already got more than enough with establishing Hal and The Green Lantern Corps.  I’d much rather the movie had spent more time on Oa with Tomar-Re, Kilowog and the rest of The Corps.  When we’re out in space with Hal the movie snaps, crackles and pops.  But when we get back to Earth and we’re stuck with the antics of Hammond and the boring-as-boiled-cotton romance between Hal and Carol a lot of the energy goes out of the movie.

That’s not to say that the movie has bad performances.  Peter Sarsgaard as Hammond and Angela Bassett do their best with what they’ve got to work with and they’re actually very good, even though it’s totally unnecessary for Amanda Waller to be in this movie.  They could have given her scenes and lines to Hammond’s dad (played by Tim Robbins) and it would have worked much better.

I liked Ryan Reynolds a lot as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern.  I’ve got friends of mine who say they don’t like him because they see him as cocky, arrogant, hyper-confident and maybe that’s true.  But it also makes him a helluva lot more interesting to watch up there on screen than a mopey Tobey Maguire whining about not being able to pay his rent.  The acting honors I’d have to give to Mark Strong.  Even knowing what Sinestro eventually becomes, I was impressed by how Mark Strong was able to give a depth of honorable nobility and commitment to his belief in the Corps and The Guardians to Sinestro.  But Blake Lively…sigh…if she had any kind of artistic integrity, she’d give the check back.  Is her performance that bad?  Yes.  Yes it is.

And even though I stay away from 3D movies as if they were Ebola, I did see GREEN LANTERN in 3D and I was honestly surprised at how much I liked it.  When the movie was in outer space I thought the 3D worked well.  Superhero space opera like GREEN LANTERN is the kind of stuff that 3D should be used for and they suckered me in with it.  I haven’t enjoyed a 3D movie so much since 2008’s “Journey To The Center of The Earth”  I’ve read other reviews that dump on the movie for having too much CGI but for a movie like GREEN LANTERN I don’t think there’s such a thing.  Hey, it was worth the price of admission just to get scenes such as Sinestro addressing the entire Corps and see all the various alien Green Lanterns taken straight out of the comic books.

The director Martin Campbell has done way better movies (his two James Bond and two Zorro films) but he’s got nothing to be ashamed of here.  I really appreciate directors like Mr. Campbell who know how to direct action scenes so that we know exactly what is happening, who is hitting, who is being hit and why.

So should you see GREEN LANTERN?  I say Yes.  Despite the disappointing ending and the unnecessary Hector Hammond subplot and the boring performance of Miss Lively, the movie is faithful to the spirit of the character and that’s enough for me.

Rated PG-13

114 minutes

The World’s Fastest Indian

2005
Magnolia Pictures
Directed, Written & Produced by Roger Donaldson
Based on the documentary: “Offerings To The God of Speed”

Sir Anthony Hopkins has been around for so long that I think it’s easy to forget just how really good he is as an actor. Most people only became Anthony Hopkins fans when they saw his mesmerizing, frightening performance as Hannibal Lector in “Silence of the Lambs” back in 1991. But I enjoyed his performances and acting style in earlier movies such as “The Elephant Man” “The Bounty””Magic” and what I think is the most quotable movie of all time: “The Lion In Winter” He has a real gift for disappearing into his characters and a great example of this gift is the biopic THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN.

It’s 1967 and Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) is something of the local eccentric in the New Zealand town of Invercargill. He’s in his late 60’s, lives in a workshop and is oblivious to the fact that his grass is almost up to his knees despite pleading from his neighbor to do something about it. He’s more interested in working on his 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle which he’s spent the better part of twenty-five years modifying. Burt may be eccentric but he’s also a minor national hero because of his motorcycle racing. He’s enough of a hero that the town gets together and throws him a fundraising party to send Burt to America. It’s always been a dream of Burt to run his beloved Indian during Speed Week at The Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. And so he just goes ahead and heads off halfway around the world, despite his bad heart for which he takes nitroglycerine pills. He leaves his workshop/home in the care of his good friend 10 year old Tom (Aaron Murphy) and works as a cook on a tramp steamer for passage for him and his motorcycle to America. Once there he meets up with various characters that help him achieve his goal as he makes his way from California to Utah.

You may have noticed that I’ve been extremely lean in describing the plot of THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN and that’s because there really isn’t a whole lot of plot and not even a whole lot of suspense. Burt Munro was a real guy and he did run his motorcycle at Bonneville in 1967 and returned there several more times after that, setting speed records that still stand today. THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN isn’t the kind of movie you watch to figure out the intricacies of the plot and story. Instead you sit back and allow yourself to watch the adventures of this slightly daffy old coot that despite his age is still a speed freak. Burt is only interested in one thing: seeing how fast his beloved Indian will go and then tinkering with it to make it go even faster. I liked the early scenes set in Invercargill where it’s amusing to see that even though Burt exasperates and aggravates the hell out of his friends and neighbors they genuinely like him and care about him. Even the neighborhood motorcycle gang chips in and gives Burt ‘beer money’ while providing him with an honor escort to the dock.

Once in America the movie becomes a road picture with Burt meeting a variety of colorful characters, all who are charmed and intrigued by the old eccentric with the odd accent and his somewhat unusual goal. There’s the used car salesman (Paul Rodriguez) who sells him a car dirt cheap and lets him use the car lot workshop to build a trailer to transport his motorcycle. There’s the cross dressing night clerk (Chris Williams) of a hot sheet hotel who is utterly smitten with Burt. Ada (Diane Ladd) gives Burt a hand repairing his trailer when it throws a wheel and ends up giving him a whole lot more if you know what I mean nudge nudge wink wink. And once Burt finally gets to Bonneville he’s befriended by Jim Enz (Christopher Lawford) when it turns out that Burt never bothered to register his motorcycle. He figured he could just show up at Bonneville and run his bike. His bike is also far from meeting the safety codes and the officials think Burt is going to kill himself riding that thing. Jim Enz, along with several others (William Lucking, Walter Goggins) succeeds in changing the minds of the officials and they allow Burt to run his beloved Indian.

By now you should have tumbled that this isn’t a high-octane action movie. So if you demand explosions, gunfights, kung fu battles and car chases in your movies then this one you should steer clear of. This just isn’t that kind of movie. I think it really sets the tone of the entire movie in the early scenes when it’s shown that even though Tom’s parents think that Burt is a real pain in the ass as a neighbor they allow their son to hang out with the old guy and befriend him. Burt just has that effect on everybody he meets and by the end of the movie he had that same effect on me. Anthony Hopkins is just wonderful as Burt Munro. You may start out trying to find bits and pieces of other characters Hopkins has played here but you simply can’t. Burt Munro is a unique character indeed and I’m glad I got to spend time with him.

So should you see THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN? Sure. If you’re an Anthony Hopkins fan you’ll definitely want to check this one out. And if you’re in the mood for something that’s truly uplifting without being syrupy sweet or sappy then this fits the bill as well. It’s warm; it’s funny and delightful from start to finish. Highly recommended.

127 minutes
Rated PG-13

The Aviator

2004

Warner Bros.

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Produced by Michael Mann, Sandy Climan and Charles Evans, Jr.

Written by John Logan

THE AVIATOR doesn’t compare with past Scorsese masterpieces such as “Goodfellas” or “Taxi Driver” of course, but it’s a tremendously entertaining piece of work that is a good example of the storytelling power of Martin Scorsese. He’s very good at doing these period pieces and as he’s proved in past movies like “Gangs of New York” “The Age Of Innocence” and “The Last Temptation Of Christ” he’s wonderful at immersing us into the reality of whatever time period he’s dealing with. Nothing seems out of place and in THE AVIATOR he brings the larger-than-life quality of the 1920’s and 1930’s to brilliant life. It was a remarkable time in American history where movie stars were royalty and guys thought nothing of designing and building their own airplanes and flying around the world as the young Howard Hughes did.

As the movie begins, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is hip deep filming his World War I epic “Hell’s Angels”. Howard is looked upon by Louis B Mayer and the rest of the old school Hollywood crowd as something of a crackpot dilettante. A young Texas millionaire with more money than he knows what to do with, Hughes is advised to put his money in the bank and stay out of the movie business. And indeed, Hughes’ obsession with “Hell’s Angels” borders on insanity as he holds up shooting for months waiting for the clouds to be just right and spending days and days editing miles of aerial footage. And even after the movie is done, a new thing arrives on the scene, a talking movie called “The Jazz Singer”.  Without missing a beat Hughes goes back out and reshoots the entire movie with sound.

The gamble pays off and Hughes is immediately catapulted into Hollywood superstardom, a world in which he is clearly uncomfortable but it allows him to meet some of the most beautiful woman of that day such as Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) who he romances with the same manic energy he attacks moviemaking as well as his other major love: airplanes.

Hughes designs revolutionary aircraft for commercial travel as well as military applications and one of his dreams is to build a gigantic troop and equipment transport plane called The Hercules that is made entirely out of wood and weighs 400,000 pounds. Why wood? Well, it’s being built during wartime and a plane that big would take up too much aluminum vitally needed elsewhere.  Hughes grandly envisions the plane as a ‘magnificent flying Spanish galleon’ while his advisors stand behind him making corkscrewing motions with their index fingers pointing at their temples.

But in the meantime Hughes keeps himself busy breaking every existing aviation record on the books, buys controlling stock in TWA, has public and private battles with his main competitor Pan Am president Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and his paid for pet politician Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). But there’s a darker battle being waged inside of the brilliant eccentric as his minor quirks, phobias and compulsive acts grow more and more pronounced and increasingly stranger, threatening his sanity as he is called before a Congressional hearing to face charges of war profiteering.

A lot of what makes THE AVIATOR so enjoyable is Scorsese focusing on the young Howard Hughes during his days as a daredevil pilot/businessman/playboy/adventurer/filmmaker. I only knew of Howard Hughes from his later years when he was reclusive and hid out in his Las Vegas penthouse, rarely seen by anybody until his death and knew very little about his early years. One thing THE AVIATOR did is spark an interest in me about the early days of Howard Hughes and I did do some reading about him, as I had no idea of the tremendous influence Hughes had on modern day aviation. If the movie can be believed (and I take my movie biopics with a big grain of salt) it was Howard Hughes who first conceived of non-stop coast-to-coast flights and commercial overseas flights.

But you don’t wanna hear a history lesson. You want to know if THE AVIATOR is worthwhile movie entertainment and I’d definitely have to say yes. Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent as Howard Hughes. DiCaprio is a likeable, strong actor and he takes us through the many different aspects of Hughes, from the early scenes where Hughes hits Hollywood like a runaway comet to the later, more disturbing scenes where Hughes has locked himself for days in a projection room, lost in his obsessive compulsive behavior, watching his movies over and over again.

But strangely enough, most of the supporting actors come off as being sort of bland and they didn’t stick with me. Kate Beckinsale shows up as Ava Gardner and while it was really nice to see Miss Beckinsale act with human beings for a change instead of CGI werewolves and vampires, there wasn’t anything about her performance that really made her stand out.

John C. Reilly plays Hughes’ right hand man Noah Dietrich but he’s badly underused here. His only function seems to be to yell and bitch at Hughes about how much money they’re losing or to continually give Hughes bad news. I never got to see why Hughes places so much trust in this guy or why he’s supposed to such a business genius. Ian Holm barely gets anything to do as Professor Fitz, except for one extremely brief scene where Hughes passes him off as a mathematical expert to explain why Jane Russell’s breasts aren’t any larger than any other Hollywood actress. Jude Law shows up as Errol Flynn (THE AVIATOR was one of the movies in the 2004 Jude Law Film Festival) but if you sneeze you’ll miss him and Gwen Stefani is simply awful as Jean Harlow.

But Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn is wonderfully goofy and downright nutty. You get the impression that Katherine Hepburn was as eccentric as Hughes and if it hadn’t been for Spencer Tracy (Kevin O’Rourke) coming along; she might have been able to keep him grounded in reality. Next to DiCaprio, it’s the best performance in the movie and unfortunately, once Katherine Hepburn takes up with Tracy and leaves Hughes, the movie loses some of its zip as Hughes’ relationships with Ava Gardner and Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner) aren’t nearly as interesting.

What are way more interesting are the scenes with Howard Hughes building and flying airplanes. Guys who design, build and fly their own planes are unbearably cool and there are a lot of terrific scenes with Hughes delighting in the sheer freedom of flying his planes, especially near the end of the movie where he proves to the world that his five story tall superplane (which has been mockingly nicknamed ‘The Spruce Goose’) actually can fly.

So is THE AVIATOR worth your time? I certainly think so. It’s a Martin Scorsese movie, which should automatically place it on your Must See List, and it’s an extraordinarily well-made movie full of period detail told with energy and excitement. DiCaprio, Blanchett and Baldwin all turn in strong performances and I think that if nothing else, the movie will intrigue viewers enough to want to find out more about Howard Hughes on their own. Most definitely check it out.

And after you watch THE AVIATOR and want to know more about Howard Hughes I highly recommend “Howard Hughes: The Secret Life” by Charles Higham.

Rated PG-13 There’s no violence except for one horrifying crash scene, no real profanity and no sex. There’s some nudity but nothing that would offend anybody’s sensibilities

170 min.