REVIEW: Apollo 13 (1995)

Directed by Ron Howard
Written by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, Based on the Book “Lost Moon” by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
Starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Kathleen Quinlan, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris

How can you tell a historical drama is good? When it keeps you at the edge of your seat despite you knowing the outcome because–after all–it already happened. Apollo 13 is that good and more.

It had been less than a year since man first walked on the Moon, but as far as the American public was concerned, Apollo 13 was just another “routine” space flight–until these words pierced the immense void of space: “Houston, we have a problem.” Stranded 205,000 miles from Earth in a crippled spacecraft, astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) fight a desperate battle to survive. Meanwhile, at Mission Control, astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), and a heroic ground crew race against time–and the odds–to bring them home.

If I were teaching a film class, Apollo 13 would be under the suspense category, despite being more a drama than anything. It can roll with the best Hitchcock ever put out, and the reason is obvious. It is so damn suspenseful despite have the handicap that the events it portrays already occurred that I’m always on edge during the drama and moved to tears by the end. Call me sentimental, call me ridiculous, but this is among Ron Howard’s finest works, if not his absolute best.

Beginning with a watch party at Jim Lovell’s house during Neil Armstrong’s historic moon walk, Apollo 13 already steams full ahead into creating  flawless period atmosphere, capturing the cultural zeitgeist and optimism of the era in just under a few minutes. From there, we enter a protracted period before the fateful mission in which human drama over personnel changes force Ken Mattingly off of the 13 crew. Gary Sinise, one of my favorite actors of his generation, easily pulls ahead of his peers in the film, going through a whirlwind of emotion in the film from his devastating grounding to becoming the tireless professional working to save the men when their spacecraft is suddenly crippled in space.

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With Mattingly on the ground are a heaping of wonderfully-relatable character actors portraying the Houston flight control team, headed by the great Ed Harris as Flight Director Gene Kranz. Playing a very different character than his rendition of John Glenn in The Right Stuff, Harris’ Kranz is unpolished and upfront, ready to move mountains to bring his men home, all while keeping a straight face that only contorts to shout when the more doubtful of his team suggest failure is inevitable.

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But of course, the real stars of the film are Hanks, Paxton, Swigert, and the incredible depiction of spaceflight by Howard and his crew. The three astronauts, despite already being big names by the time of the film, are completely convincing, helped along in their jobs by the great strides made toward total scientific accuracy. The interiors of the Odyssey and the Aquarius are faithfully recreated with stunning attention to detail, and Howard even managed to stuff the sets into a KC-135 to create believable microgravity conditions, resulting in shots that leave the audience shaking their head in disbelief before finally accepting that, “they must have really gone into space to make this movie!”

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One more actor to mention is the exquisite Kathleen Quinlan, playing Lovell’s wife Marilyn. Quinlan could have easily disappeared into the background with this role, but she is so stunningly authentic that not only did she garner an Oscar nomination, but she impressed the real Marilyn Lovell herself, who heeped the highest praise upon Quinlan when the film was released.

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In the end, Apollo 13 stands on its own as great film and as a worthy companion piece to another Space Race film I have recently reviewed, The Right Stuff. Both depict a time when America was at a difficult and painful crossroads but still had a heaping of pride to swell over that was pure and incredible. And even when that pride turned to fear and terror before our very eyes as three courageous men faced death in the most inhospitable environment known to life, we pulled through together, and showed that anything is possible when humanity feels that it is.

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REVIEW: Aliens (1986)

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Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron, David Giler, and Walter Hill
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope, Al Matthews, Mark Rolston

While Ridley Scott’s Alien will always be my favorite, Aliens fights valiantly with Prometheus for the close Number 2 spot. It’s a great reference piece for Cameron’s early output, in which unlikely heroes prevail against a sabotaged establishment and inhuman forces. Just what the doctor ordered for Ellen Ripley, the last survivor of the Nostromo.

Fifty-seven years after Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) survived her disastrous ordeal, her escape vessel is recovered after drifting across the galaxy as she slept in cryogenic stasis. Back on Earth, nobody believed her story about the “aliens” on the moon LV-426. But after all communication with a colony on LV-426 is lost, the Company enlists Ripley to aid a team of tough, rugged space marines on a rescue mission to the now partially terraformed moon to find out if there are aliens or survivors. As the mission unfolds, Ripley will be forced to come to grips with her worst nightmare, but even as she does, she finds that the worst is yet to come.

James Cameron certainly knew what he was doing by subtly shifting the focus more toward an action-oriented military sci-fi thriller, giving this sequel a unique voice compared to its predecessor. While Scott’s film presents several menaces, from the evil Company to the terrible Alien, it doesn’t seek to provide a viable alternative to these facts of future life. Alien was very much a ’70s film, with nothing cynicism toward government and society. Cameron’s Aliens is most certainly an ’80s film. It throws these rules out the window, and provides the answers that he thinks this new reality needs. It’s a faster-paced film of action compared to Scott’s slow-burning horror, and the switch actually works.

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Picking up over half-a-century after the first film, Ripley finds a changed world. The Company still exists, however it seems to be more of a bureaucratic mess than a sinister syndicate. LV-426 is now a terraformed colony, which becomes the main setting of the story, and a combination of the two main environments of Alien. There, the stakes are raised considerably; instead of a solitary monster, there is an entire hive of the beasts, each and every one even more ferocious than the first, turning the colony and its inhabitants into a nasty simulation of the Derelict’s otherworldly walls. Whereas Scott delights in the shades of darkness and sterility that the Alien hides in, Cameron opens up the screen ratio from 2.35:1 to 1.85:1, and fills his blue-lit sets with fog, smoke, and dirty air wet with alien slime.

The Aliens are more than mindless beasts this time around, led by a royal caste of Cameron’s own conceptualizing: the Queen, the ultimate Anti-Mother and nemesis to Ripley. The Queen, portrayed by several miniatures and one full-size animatronic puppet, is an exceptionally-realized character, expertly shot to avoid giving away the trick and articulated with a mean personality that gives Ripley a definitive enemy to vanquish.

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For fans of military hardware, Aliens will be a delightful romp for you. The militaristic designs, most of them conceived by Cameron, evoke vehicles and weapons in use during the Vietnam war, adding fuel to the fiery theory that Aliens is an allegorical reference to that conflict, and the visual effects portraying them won an Academy Award. In a way, Cameron gave us the version of Starship Troopers we should have had, and then threw in a mega-dose of extraterrestrial horror for flavor.

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But this is Aliens, and it wouldn’t be so without Ripley. Sigourney Weaver is given a meatier serving of character development to work with, fully earning the moniker of the badass heroine that was shakily bestowed upon her last time around. Cameron adds a new dimension to our heroine, one to balance the Alien Queen: Ripley the Mother. In the colony, Ripley finds a sole survivor: Newt, a young girl played by Carrie Henn, traumatized by the attack but possessing a resourcefulness that Ripley recognizes. They end up forming a bond much like motherhood, rounding out the family-prevails thesis that Cameron plucks from common conservative thought of the 1980s.

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The rest of the cast doesn’t slouch either, embodying the best of the genre, from Hicks’s cool, collected soldier, to Hudson’s macho-masked instability, to Bishop’s creepy, yet calming android. These excellent characters populate a world just as detailed and dark as the one Scott envisioned in the first film, proving that Cameron’s eye is just as sharp.

In 1992, the Aliens Special Edition was released to home video, adding seventeen minutes of footage to the theatrical cut. While the Special Edition’s pace is slightly weighed down by the additions, they greatly benefit the narrative, providing greater clarity to Ripley’s and Hick’s characters, and a glimpse of the colony and the Derelict before all hell breaks loose. I’m still not sure which I prefer, but if it helps at all, Cameron’s choice is the Special Edition.

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Aliens is a film of high popularity. While Alien elevates the classic haunted house story to Lovecraft levels of existential and bodily horror, its outlook is bleak at times and as we all know, horror movies aren’t everyone’s thing. Aliens shifts the focus towards that of a conservative war story, offering clear answers to society’s problems whereas its predecessor presented no easy ways out. This is sure to alienate some of the franchise’s more cerebral fans (no pun intended), but if one has an open mind and a love for unconventional action, Aliens is a tour de force that isn’t to be missed.

REVIEW: Predator 2 (1990)

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Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Written by Jim Thomas and John Thomas
Starring Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Rubén Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso, Bill Paxton, Robert Davi, Adam Baldwin, Kent McCord, Morton Downey Jr., Kevin Peter Hall

Predator 2 has an interesting reputation both inside of the Predator fanbase and out of it. At once regarded as enjoyable but a letdown, this sequel failed to recoup it’s budget yet became something of a cult classic in the years to follow. So how does it hold up against its predecessor? Not quite as well, but its legacy is a little more complicated that that.

Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover), a brash policeman who is fighting drug lords in a decaying L.A. finds that the criminals are being killed in a very odd fashion. The federal authorities keep telling him to stay out, even though his own men are also being killed. His instincts are right when he discovers that the person behind the murders is none other than a human-hunting alien out to collect macabre trophies. Finding himself in the middle of a government attempt to capture the hunter, Harrigan is in the fight for his life.

Taking place in the then-future setting of 1997, the film presents to us a Los Angeles in the middle of a heat wave with temperatures reaching 109 degrees, and writhing under the throes of a vicious gang war between competing drug lords. We open with a loud, exposive gun battle between police and Colombian drug runners, which sets the stage for Danny Glover’s Riggs-style police officer, Mike Harrigan. He shouts and swears through his scenes, blowing away any violent opposition with firearms that I’m sure are not standard police issue. His police team, consisting of Blades, Alonso, and later a riotous Bill Paxton, are all of a similar ready-aim-fire persuasion, definitely fitting the Hollywood peace officer stereotype with just heart to at least raise a chuckle.

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Oddly, considering the first film’s over-the-top bunch of macho badasses, this film’s set of characters seems even more outlandish and unrealistically one-dimensional. Not that they aren’t enjoyable; everyone here most certainly is, especially Paxton, who crafts a slimeball of a detective who nonetheless is easy to root for. And what can be said about Gary Busey other than he is definitely Gary Busey. He’s an actor that is fun to watch even as he utterly craps all over the floor, and in this film, he cleans up quite nicely; as the chief government agent out to capture the Predator, his raspy voice uttering frankly hilarious threats really upped the entertainment value of the picture.

But let’s be honest, here: the real star is the Predator, once again designed by Stan Winston and performed by Kevin Peter Hall. The “City Hunter” is just as deadly and crafty as his jungle counterpart, yet subtle differences introduced by both Winston and Hall set him apart and expand Predator lore probably more so than any other film in the franchise. The City Hunter seems to be more daring, attacking large groups at once instead of picking them off one by one, and he rarely relies on his plasma gun like his predecessor, instead preferring to tangle up close with all sorts of bladed, gore-spewing weaponry. In Predator, the main draw was the suspense of the unseen hunter; Predator 2, having to deal with the fact that you know who is doing the killing, eschews suspense for red-blooded thrills and copious amounts of gore.

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After the first film’s success, Dark Horse Comics began publishing a monthly series, delving into a new expanded universe for the Predator. Predator 2 borrows heavily from that mythos, and as such established much more of what we know as the character of the Predator than even the previous outing. From this film, we are given the other iconic mask design, a more coherent sense of their code of honor (as witnessed by its refusal to kill the unarmed, children, or pregnant women), their engineering and architecture, and of course, more Predators in the final scene, which sheds light on their hierarchy and society. Predator 2, even if it couldn’t have believable human characters, really nailed its portrayal of the so-called Yautja race.

On a technical level, the film excels as well, serving up several great action pieces, and lots of bloody slaughters by the Predator. The film rivals the first two RoboCop entries in its brutality, a fact that tends to turn a sizable portion of possible audiences off. But if blood and gore is your thing, there is lots of it here, and some of the best early ’90s visual effects to offer, rivalring Terminator 2 in the scope of its techniques and the skill with which they’re handled. Alan Silvestri also turns in another masterful score, blending the original Predator themes with heavy Latin and African tribal beats, effectively painting the urban jungle around the title monster.

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Predator 2 sits in a not-so-happy medium between greatness and mediocrity; its characters teeter on the edge of blandness while its title beast reaps the rewards of an expanded portrayal. It’s loud, explosive, bloody, and well-paced, yet it doesn’t seem memorable unless, like myself, one grows up with the film or has an undying love of the Predator universe itself. I, for one, like the film. It doesn’t live up to its mighty progenitor, but it’s an enjoyable and fun way to waste an afternoon, and in the end, what more can one ask for?

REVIEW: Haywire (2011)

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Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Lem Dobbs
Starring Gina Carano, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Michael Angarano, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas

Ah, my first Steven Soderbergh review of the Movie Maestro. Been looking forward to this, wondering off and on which film of his would draw the first honor. And that film is Haywire, the action-packed spy thriller that introduced to the cinematic world that pioneer of women’s mixed martial arts, Gina Carano.

Freelance covert operative Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is hired out by her handler to various global entities to perform jobs which governments can’t authorize and heads of state would rather not know about. After a mission to rescue a hostage in Barcelona, Mallory is quickly dispatched on another mission to Dublin. When the operation goes awry and Mallory finds she has been double crossed, she needs to use all of her skills, tricks and abilities to escape an international manhunt, make it back to the United States, protect her family, and exact revenge on those that have betrayed her.

Ask any Soderbergh fan why they love him so much, and invariably, the answer will be his cool, minimalist style. Haywire is an actioner that benefits heavily from his milky smooth touch with camerawork and editing; I wish more action directors were like him. Every set piece is clean and simple, allowing Carano and her exquisite stunt work (she did them all on her own, of course) to take center stage, free of the stupid, unnecessary shaky camerawork that plagues the action genre these days.

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The screenplay by Lem Dobbs matches Soderbergh’s visual punch with a deft, swift narrative that bounces between flashbacks telling the bulk of the story and the framing flight of Mallory and innocent bystander Scott (Michael Angarano) in his car. While most audiences seemingly didn’t appreciate the story, feeling it to be too hard to follow, but I disagree with the masses yet again. It doesn’t spoon-feed its audience, rather, it tells you only what you need to know, letting the plot naturally unravel, like the best of the classic spy thrillers from the days of Hitchcock and early James Bond.

Image result for Haywire filmSoderbergh’s other trademark, a highly capable cast, is also on prominent display, with regulars Tatum and Douglas supporting MacGregor, Banderas, Fassbender, and Paxton. In reality, however, all of these incredible actors are playing the supporting fiddle to Carano as the main star of the film. This is a bold and uniquely feminist move, swapping the normal action dynamic clean across gender lines. To put it bluntly, it’s like watching Jane Bond and her gaggle of Bond Boys. It’s actually quite fun, especially when any number of the confident men underestimate Mallory.

I don’t know if Mallory herself works as well as the concept, however. Carano is extremely commanding in the combat scenes, but does tend to fall more on the flat side in the more quiet dialogue pieces. It doesn’t help that apparently her voice was significantly altered in post, although I do not know to what extent this affected the performance. I also have found references to Laura San Giacomo, another Soderbergh regular, having overdubbed her voice, however I cannot find proof and there are other contradictory statements on this matter. In short, this being Carano’s first film, she isn’t exactly A-grade material yet.

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This doesn’t discount Haywire‘s strengths. It’s a tight and fun spy film, smart in execution and filled with enough action to please die-hard enthusiasts. All in all, it’s a worthy addition to Soderbergh’s catalog, and a great 90-minute stunt film to fill an evening with.

Double Bill Drive-In: Waterworld / Apollo 13

Double Bill Drive-In

Maestro’s Double Bill Drive-In is open for business! Pull on up in your stylish convertibles (or dinky bicycles, we don’t judge) for a double-dose of cinematic bliss!

For our first showing, we are bringing you a page from the past, an actual double feature once viewed by The Movie Maestro himself, in the bygone year of 1995. He may have fallen asleep halfway through, but go easy on him. He was six years old! You should have no problem staying awake for this night’s selection!

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No theme, no weird, tenuous connection–just two big 1995 Hollywood pictures back-to-back for you enjoyment. Transport yourself back to a time when Kevin Costner and Tom Hanks battled it out for the title of the Most Bankable Star in Tinseltown. Relive the days of Bill Clinton and Alanis Morissette with (not-so-bad) bomb and a ‘spaced-out’ hit, with Waterworld and Apollo 13!

First, the trailers! You, our beloved audience, will have two explosive previews before the main feature:

And now, the first feature of the night!

Waterworld Movie Poster

Often times described and derided as “Mad Max on the water,” Waterworld presents a very different kind of Costner, one much more mean and cold, and very, very fishy. Thrill at the Mariner as he navigates the oceanic world of tomorrow, thwarting the schemes of the evil Smokers as searches for the mythical Dryland. Snicker at the boisterous dictatorial swagger of Dennis Hopper’s Deacon, who plans to turn Dryland into his own, personal parking lot. This is Waterworld. Prepare to get wet.

Intermission time. Three more trailers!

And now, our second feature!

Apollo 13 Movie Poster

Ron Howard brings you the exciting and pulse-pounding story of what could have been the worst space disaster on record. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon star as the three astronauts of Apollo 13, struggling to stay alive in the most inhospitable environment of all, while Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, and countless others work around the clock to bring them home.

“When I was six years old, my parents took me to the local drive-in to see this double feature. I was crazy into astronauts and space at the time, so it seemed a perfect fit for me to watch Apollo 13. And here comes this crazy post-apocalypse actioner called Waterworld to start off. I was absolutely fascinated by that flick. I don’t know if it was the novelty of the high seas setting or the ‘Man with No Name’-type hero in Kevin Costner, but it stuck with me. And then I fell asleep at the intermission, completely missing Apollo 13. Oh, the horror! Luckily, I got to see it soon after, but this double feature has always stuck with me. Now, you can enjoy it on your own, just as I remember it…with a few little additions of my own.”
– The Movie Maestro, Theater Owner

That’s all for tonight, folks! Please remember to take your trash with you, and enjoy your night!

 

REVIEW: Titanic (1997)

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Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton

Is this movie still fondly remembered anymore? I like to think so, but it seems like it’s more the brunt of jokes by the likes of hipsters and young teenagers these days anymore. Hey, at least they still know what it is, right? Only a few 90s films have that kind of staying power.

A group of American oceanic explorers led by Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) welcome 101-year-old Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who reveals her experience of the Titanic disaster and her emotional connection with another passenger, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). Jack was an American starving artist who won a trip home on the Ship of Dreams to a lucky hand in poker, leading to his fateful meeting with the young Rose (Kate Winslet). Rose is unhappily engaged to a wealthy steel tycoon named Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), and when Jack enters her life, her inner fire is rekindled, and they embark on a passionate love affair that becomes a race for survival when the ship collides with an iceberg in the northern Mid-Atlantic. 

In what was to become his magnum opus (yeah, it still is. Not Avatar), James Cameron wrote an amazing allegory for current human civilization, and more specifically, its headlong course towards disaster. In the film, it is the iceberg that the Titanic struck at 11:40 PM on April 14, 1912, 105 years ago. In real life, the disaster we are happily cruising toward is the destruction of our environment through pollution and urbanization. It’s a poignant comparison to draw, and everything about this film is a master class on how to get an audience to swallow it without ever consciously being aware.

Cameron begins this sleight of hand with an intriguing opening to the film, depicting underwater explorers poking about the wreck of the ship, looking for a priceless diamond that belonged to passenger Cal Hockley. Cameron commissioned several dives to the actual Titanic, and some of this footage is incorporated into the film, seamlessly combining with miniature footage to create an excellent mini-documentary, right in the thick of a drama film. And once Old Rose, played charmingly by Stuart, begins her story, the film shifts into the bright and colorful past of 1912, dazzling the eyes and ears with as accurate a historical production design as I’ve ever come across. Cameron’s “go-big-or-go-home” attitude results in half of the ship literally being built to shoot on, and no detail and nuance is spared. Titanic is surely a worthy addition to Hollywood’s proud epic tradition.

Image result for Titanic Jack DawsonThe next phase in his grand magic trick is to hook us as an audience into our characters, and he does this effortlessly with another of Hollywood’s grand tropes: romance. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson is wild and free, yet such a genuinely caring soul that its no surprise the young and soul-crushed Rose falls head over heels for him. Leo’s and Kate’s chemistry is undeniably the focal point of the picture, one that brings everyone else into sharper clarity, displaying the useless formalities of the Edwardian world on course for the bottom of the icy Atlantic. It’s a triumph of acting as well as screenwriting, that Leo and Kate so sell us on this Related imageforbidden pairing that we sit on the edge of our seat when it is placed in mortal danger, despite the fact that we know exactly where the ship ends up. Because we care about Jack and Rose, we come to care about Tommy, Fabrizzio, Captain Smith, and the rest of all the poor souls lost that night. (I will say though, special emphasis to Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown, whose homespun American personality almost steals the film from the star-crossed lovers.)

It is on this night that the last act of the film takes place, where Cameron lets the allegory loose, spilling the carnage onto the screen with every tool at his disposal. On-set stunts, miniature photography, CGI effects, all are used to the greatest ability and efficiency to portray one of the worst sea disasters on record, and leave the audience with a bittersweet ending to chew on.

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I do have a few nit-picks with the film which I will probably get to in a later post, but in all honesty, Titanic is simply a great film. James Cameron may be a bit cocky or way too invested in blue aliens from Pandora, but boy, did he outdo himself with this one. You know you’ve accomplished something when it becomes a pop culture phenomenon, one that is guaranteed mentioning in everything from books to trivia games. For awhile, Cameron really was King of the World with Titanic, and rightfully so.

REVIEW: Twister (1996)

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Directed by Jan de Bont
Written by Michael Crichton and Ann-Marie Martin
Starring Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Cary Elwes, Jami Gertz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lois Smith, Alan Ruck

There are things that humans instinctively know: the world is out to get you, your people are your family, and respect the wind. Some people respect it so much, they race toward it to get it on film, up close and personal. That sounds rather contradictory, but as the characters of Twister will tell you, it is all too true.

TV weatherman Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) is trying to get his tornado-hunter wife, Jo (Helen Hunt), to sign divorce papers so he can marry his girlfriend Melissa (Jami Gertz). But Mother Nature, in the form of a series of intense storms sweeping across Oklahoma, has other plans. Soon the three have joined the team of stormchasers as they attempt to insert a revolutionary measuring device into the very heart of several extremely violent tornados.

Jan de Bont’s follow-up to Speed is just as tense, even after 20 years, and pretty damn fun as well. Stacked with wonderful actors portraying lovable underdog scientists, supported by a top-shape crew and a script by respected novelist Michael Crichton, Twister proudly stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its disaster film brethren.

And yet, it is unique. After all, Jo, Bill, and the gang aren’t trying to escape nature–they are actively chasing it, cataloging it, studying it. The sweeping helicopter shots and in-your-face visual effects amp up the tension and action past typical genre levels, but the nature of the story arc presents a different kind of film, one easier to swallow on a free afternoon than, say, The Towering Inferno. Sure, the CGI looks pretty bad now in some spots and Rabbit’s endless supply of road maps date the film considerably, but fun is in the eye of the beholder, and the fans have consistently showered this exciting romp through the stormy countryside with all the love it deserves.

Why? Characters, characters, characters! This film has some of the best out there. Like James Cameron’s The Abyss, Twister is partially saved from the depths of B-movie hell by the fully-realized people in front of the lens. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt beautifully deliver laughs, tears, and genuine emotion as former spousal storm chasers, pushed together by the work day of a lifetime, forced by Nature herself to either confront their failings or fall apart completely, whilst also trying to simply survive. Their team of chasers, while much less fleshed out, are a lovable set of idiosyncrasies and charms, from Rabbit’s (Alan Ruck) and Beltzer’s (Todd Field) typically-male humor, to the shy, innocent screw-ups of Laurence (Jeremy Davies), to the wild, belly-laughing, rock-spewing Dusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), everyone is a joy to watch and probably would be a riot to hang out with. Even Aunt Meg (Lois Smith), a minor character of less than ten minutes of screentime, instills in me the feels of farmhouse living.

In light of the truly unfortunate passing of Bill Paxton, rewatching any of his films has become a priority for me. Twister has always been a trusty standby of mine and my girlfriend’s (she’s truly a keeper), so it seemed like a no-brainer. Hopefully you will feel the same way, because with as much talent that it took to bring this fun romp to the screen, two of whom are sadly lost to us, it damn well deserves to be remembered.

Rest in Peace, Bill Paxton and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

REVIEW: Mighty Joe Young (1998)

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Directed by Ron Underwood
Written by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, Based on the original screenplay by Ruth Rose, Story by Merian C. Cooper
Starring Charlize Theron, Bill Paxton, Rade Sherbedgia, Naveen Andrews, Regina King, David Paymer, Peter Firth

Ah, the memories of this film. I was nine years old at the time this box office bomb ended up underneath the Christmas tree for my brother and I, and I’ve never had a bad memory associated with it. Most critics will tell you that this is a bad thing to allow when reviewing films, but I’ve done my best to set aside my childhood memories, and even without them I can’t find much to hate about Mighty Joe Young.

Having both lost their mothers to a particularly dangerous poacher (Rade Sherbedgia), Jill Young (Charlize Theron) and Joe, a 15-foot tall giant gorilla, are forced to leave their home in Africa to avoid an influx of illegal hunting. Trusting in animal conservationist Gregg O’Hara (Bill Paxton), they set Joe up in the Los Angeles Animal Preserve. At first dazzling potential investors, Joe’s luck swings to the worst when his old poacher enemy returns for vengeance.

If you haven’t yet read my recent review of the original MJY, I’ll just sum it up by saying that it was the true follow-up that Kong deserved, and played very well with the formula to deliver a heartwarming little film that happened to have two of the undeniable masters of visual effects, Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, behind the camera. Disney’s remake effort, while nowhere near as groundbreaking and by no means a modern-day classic, hits just the right notes to be fondly remembered by kids and still manage to placate any cynical adults nearby.

The script modernizes the tale fairly well: Jill grows up in Africa due to her mother’s Jane Goodall-style work studying gorillas in the wild instead of on her father’s farm, and the loss of her mother to poachers is a bittersweet sucker punch early on that isn’t present in the original. Max O’Hara the nightclub owner and love interest Gregg have been combined into one role played by Bill Paxton, and he now works for an animal conservancy effort. Both changes help to remove the exploitive tendencies of the original characters that have become viewed as unsavory in modern years and strengthen the environmental message of the film without appearing too overbearing or pretentious.

Paxton plays his part just as well as you’d expect him to, but Theron is a bit wooden at times. I feel like it may just be that her career was still new, but she has certainly had better days. Rade Sherbedgia brings his always-creepy and intimidating presence to Strasser, providing the villain that the original never had. Naveen Andrews unexpectedly plays a small comedic role that nevertheless works well. Rounding out the cast are bit parts by Regina King and David Paymer, who are always enjoyable to watch.

Cinematography and music are about as bland to as to be expected in a late-90s film by Disney. There are times when the film looks and sounds like a TV movie, but considering how much of Disney’s live action output from this era shares this observation, I suppose it can be forgiven. Where the film truly shines, aside from the sweet-sensibility, are the special effects by Rick Baker.

Having already designed the title character for the ’76 Kong and gorillas for several other features, Baker almost passed on the project, but his love for Harryhausen’s work on the original lured him in. A fortunate thing, for the animatronic suit used to portray Joe is still stunning to this day. To have created such an expressive face whilst remaining, for the most part, anatomically correct is astounding. Blue-screen compositing was then used to integrate the suit into the scene, and likewise, the work still holds beautifully; there is not a weak composite to be found. CGI was also used in a handful of shots, and frankly, even those look better than most mid-budget features today.

It’s a sadness that Disney has not afforded MJY with a high-definition home video release; I for one would love to see if my observations on the effects hold true in a better transfer, but even without a blu-ray, the picture is still a fun and heartwarming treat. If you have kids or are still a kid at heart, I recommend Mighty Joe Young.