Every so often a film will come along and restores my faith in movie-going. Too many movies are disappointments and rob you of the proper experience (I'm looking at you, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), while others are films that I expect to be good and later prove to be. The most rare kind of movie is the one in which you have little interest that, after seeing, moves itself to the top of your "I hope this movie produces 3,000 sequels" list. This week, such a movie was sent from the Heavens onto the public. That movie was "Star Trek".
By George Rose
May 13, 2009
Keep in mind I have never watched a single Star Trek movie or television show. I wasn't oblivious to the phenomenon but I was definitely a born-and-bred Star Wars fan. It just seemed contradictory to enjoy both. That was before George Lucas ate a McDonald's Star Wars Happy Meal and crapped out Episodes I and II. Episode III was good but not up to the standards of the original trilogy. Despite this decline in interest, I never turned to Star Trek for solace. I may have lost my desire to be a Jedi-fanatic but I was no traitor.
There were many other passing fancies to focus on after the Skywalker legacy was buried (R.I.P. Jar Jar Binks); too many to allow for the boredom necessary to rent and watch all the endless offspring of the Star Trek franchises. One of those fancies didn't pass. He stuck around, creating a trail of successful and interesting brands that kept him on the must-watch list. I'm talking about J.J. Abrams. This is the man that created Lost, made Mission: Impossible III the best of the series (Michelle Monaghan helped, too) and scared the crap right into my pants during Cloverfield. I may have been anit-Star Trek but I was so pro-Abrams that nothing was going to stop me from seeing his reinvention of the franchise. He made me care about Tom Cruise again, so I figured I'd give him of all people the benefit of the doubt. If anyone was going to make me a Trek fan, it would be Abrams. Stars Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana and Eric Bana definitely sealed the deal.
Star Trek was mind-blowing. I wanted to hate it but haven't stopped talking about it since. A friend of mine, who has seen the movie with me twice already, has since downloaded (I mean purchased) and watched the first four films in the series. I know this new wave of fans pisses off most Trekkies (that's right, we're still going to call you that) but I don't care. I'm going to declare it right now that Star Trek is the second best movie of the entire summer, after Harry Potter 6, of course. Maybe I enjoyed it so much because I didn't know the source material well enough to give it proper criticism (cough cough Wolverine was garbage cough cough) but I knew Abrams and that was all I needed. He, unlike others with a past, did not disappoint.
In honor of this rare moment where I expected little yet gained newfound faith, I have chosen a few films that went above and beyond my expectations. I'm not talking about Pixar movies here, the kind that I hold on a pedestal. I'm talking about movies that came out of nowhere and blew my mind, the kind I would rather wet myself watching than miss a moment of. There are obviously more than five but these are the few that have made it to the forefront of my memory or at least were on my DVD shelf when I was looking for movies to recommend.
The horror/thriller genre has become a bit of joke in the recent past, thanks in large part to Michael Bay and Japanese horror remakes. Aside from maybe The Ring, Identity was among the few great fright flicks in the last decade and snuck up on the public to make a name for itself. Nothing about the movie suggested it would be of great quality. The cast has a bunch of established actors that never went full A-list (John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Ray Liotta, Alfred Molina) and seemed to mash two previously successful horror concepts together into an ill-conceived mess (the hotel location and insanity from Psycho and plot from Ten Little Indians). Lo and behold, I was proven wrong.
The plot does contain those two elements but in no way was it an ill-conceived mess. The movie was frightening, puzzling and intense. Twelve strangers all find themselves trapped at a run-down motel and must race to discover what connects them before their time runs up. As the body count rises, a psychiatrist nowhere near the site fights to have a mental patient freed of murder charges based on his insanity. Who are these 12? Why are they relevant to a psycho who isn't even near this Bates-esque Motel? Why am I so scared that I can no longer control my bladder?
There are plenty of questions asked throughout the film but only one afterwards: why didn't I see this movie sooner? Probably because nothing Hollywood has offered us with regards to horror has actually been frightening. Faith was lost. If you looking for it to be restored, at least when it comes to scary movies, I offer you Identity. It may also restore your faith in John Cusack. Because of Identity I decided to give Cusack's 1408 (based on Stephen King's story) a shot and was also more than pleased, but Identity was the real surprise and deserves this spot on the short list of shockers.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
I hadn't seen Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket or Rushmore by 2001, when his third film was released. I was also 16 and didn't have much interest in the unknown indie films that often made their way to Academy Award recognition, expect for those nominated for Best Special Effects. Going to the movies is expensive when you're part of a family of six so our choices were often limited to Disney releases and seasonal blockbusters. However, on a fateful trip down South to see family over Christmas break in 2001, my one cousin that is as in love with movies as I am decided to take me to see The Royal Tenenbaums. I don't know why I listened, maybe because of the childish assumption that Owen Wilson would have me laughing fountain soda out of my nose. That didn't happen. Instead I had been hand walked into the indie-elite by my cousin (also named George) and finally started to appreciate the true meaning of humor and all the potential this new meaning had.
Fart jokes start to wear off by the time you're 16. What replaced it (or at least replaced it for me) is irony, wit and even drama. Problems can be funny if you view them as circumstantial and not detrimental to your ability to get into some Heaven or Hell. Family drama is funny! Sarcastic people that don't dress up and dance in fat suits are funny! The family is surrounded in actual drama that is heartfelt and touching, but between every tear there is a tennis-racket being thrown (fans will understand) that will have you laughing harder than any Austin Powers movie.
To be less vague, the film is about a family of child geniuses (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow) who reunite after their estranged biological father (Gene Hackman) returns to make amends for his past as he heads towards death. The cast also includes Bill Murray, Anjelica Houston, Danny Glover and Alec Baldwin as the narrator. Now that I'm older, those names alone are enough to entice me but I still thank George to this day for introducing me to a higher quality kind of comedy. Hopefully in a few years you will be thanking me too.
Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
I don't always get to pick the movies I see. Sometimes it's a cousin taking me on a surprise excursion while other times I must concede to the wishes of a group of people. In this case, I had been grounded for the weekend (when I was young enough to still get punished) and was stuck with my parents, who I naturally was not happy with at the time. To calm my uncontrollable anger, my father would sometimes break the punishment and allow me to see a movie. I couldn't go with friends but if I wanted to get out of my bedroom during my weekend sentence, I could only do so if I was accompanying my parents to a film of their choosing.
Luckily they chose Count of Monte Cristo. January is typically a dumping ground for films since the holiday season's more promising titles are still cleaning house but as we all know there can be exceptions to the rule. The only star in the film I had heard of was Guy Pearce and I was not really a fan. Add that to watching it with my security guard parents and Monte Cristo was doomed to be a two hour nap. Instead I met with Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dantes, who is wrongly imprisoned for over a decade and must escape to exact his revenge. Considering I was being held captive by my parents, the plot immediately drew me in.
Based on a book of the same name, the story continues with Edmond escaping his prison, treasure hunting and plotting vengeance on the ones that took his life and wife. Caviezel is more than convincing as a man who has lost everything with blood in his eyes and helps pack the movie full of sword fights and deception. He would later be cast as the much more forgiving Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ but he will forever be remembered as Edmond Dantes. Needless to say I was still upset that I was grounded but some faith had been restored in the otherwise lackluster January.
This is generally regarded as one of the few films everyone is aware of and an all-time Hollywood classic. However, it is over 65 years old and may not have been seen by the more recent generations of film followers, who I must immediately convert. Despite my love for movies, I didn't see Casablanca until I was 23 years old, about three months ago. Why? Because I didn't grow up liking black and white movies. I appreciated them and their historical value, but growing up I preferred explosions, scantily clad stars and special effects (I am, after all, part of the technological generation) over the endless list of "classics" my parents, aunts and uncles would recommend. Don't get me wrong, I have seen black and white movies and enjoyed them thoroughly (Rebel Without a Cause, Twelve Angry Men, the list goes on) but for some reason Casablanca was never forced upon me.
After yet another failed attempt at romance and another empty bottle of gin, my friend Josh (who has two Humphrey Bogart posters on his dorm room wall) told me to get over myself and my sorrows and watch Casablanca. There was nothing he could say to put things into perspective but knew Bogart could. Bogart's Rick Blaine was in love once but now owns Rick's Café, the hottest spot in World War II set Casablanca. Those attempting to escape this war must go through this city to get to America and often swing by Rick's place in the process. Just when the brooding bar owner thinks he's safe, his past flame (who left him without warning) arrives. Of course she is with another man and asks her old love to help them travel safely to the states.
And to think I had it bad! This man is broken hearted but clearly still in love with Ingrid Berman's Ilsa Lund, yet must choose between his own happily ever after or the path he knows is right. I still prefer special effects over black and white, but Casablanca reminded me why Hollywood's more recent digital age isn't considered as critically acclaimed as its long lost Golden Age. There couldn't have been more than a handful of set locations or actors in Casablanca but it kept me more captivated than most globe-trotting summer blockbusters. Sometimes simplicity is the answer to entertainment, not just a big budget. For every $10 million special effect in this summers' crop of releases there is a one-liner in Casablanca that will have you quoting Rick for weeks to come. If nothing else, it might help you realize that your own "broken heart" is really just diminished infatuation. You don't really know love until you know pain, and Rick brings the pain. Here's looking at you, Bogart.
Transformers: The Movie (1986)
There are many reasons I dislike Michael Bay but directing the live action Transformers isn't one of them. I probably have Stephen Spielberg to thank for producing but Bay's name didn't hurt the movie as much as I expected. It was a thrill ride of a summer blockbuster back in 2007 and the Revenge of the Fallen sequel promises to be an even bigger spectacle. The films were based off of the Hasboro toy line and cartoons, which I remember vaguely. I had the toys but the shows elude me. That might be why I enjoyed the live-action movie so much, because it was like getting to play with the toys as a much bigger boy while not entirely holding onto the mythology.
My friend Josh, who has a knack for making me watch movies of his choosing, said that I probably wouldn't have like Bay's version as much if I remembered the cartoon and knew "what could have been", much like how knowing Wolverine's true origins made his X-Men Origins movie a giant joke. After watching the cartoon Transformers movie again (I haven't seen it in over a decade) I stand by my decisions: Wolverine was a failure and Transformers was entertaining. Why? Because movies are meant to go deeper than just matching the mythology.
True, I shouldn't judge Wolverine for being a disappointment because it wasn't faithful to the character. Different incarnations of characters, especially with different production teams behind them, can't be clones of one another. Was The Dark Knight a clone of a previous Batman comic? No, it was an original story with a known character. What made Wolverine bad was that it was more a video game than a movie. The movie was a sequence of fight scenes with a variety of irrelevant characters, its biggest flaw and the reason the movie won't break $200 million at the domestic box office. However, Transformers didn't turn a beloved cartoon into a video-game-movie. It made it into an epic, two-and-a-half hour drama that made the action the cherry, not the cake on which it stands. Wolverine depended on the action instead of plot. Transformers isn't a revelation or the greatest action movie, or even close, but it was still a fun movie to watch, despite its differences from the source material.
That source material is Transformers: The Movie. What separates it from the live-action version is its direction. Instead of focusing on Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, and how the Transformers affects their lives and all the others on Earth, the cartoon movie focuses on the robots. The drama they go through in the cartoon is barely touched upon in Bay's version. I had completely forgotten that there was a female Autobot in the cartoon! These robots mingle, hang out, banter back and forth, have conflict within their own sides of "good" and "evil", and rarely mention Earth. Bay's version is an entertaining tale of a human world invaded by robots. The '80s cartoon classic is about robots that happen to have two humans around for the party. Both focus on more relevant issues than just video-game style fight sequences but they are hardly similar.
The cast (including Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack and Orson Welles!!!) and soundtrack (including '80s hits "The Touch" by Stan Bush and "Dare to be Stupid" by Weird Al Yankovic, among others) are wonderfully ridiculous. The movie is an in-your-face '80s throwback and never lets you forget it. There was no way Bay was going to make a movie that was entirely accurate to the cartoon, since the robots themselves look like transforming toys in the series. In reality, any robot that travels through space to destroy or save a world is going to be made up of more than five bendable parts. There are complaints that can be made, but you'll think the live-action Transformers is Casablanca-quality after seeing Wolverine. If nothing else, it will bring you back to the insanity that was the '80s. Let's keep our fingers crossed that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is at least as good as the first. It would be a miracle if it were as good as Star Trek but I've been known to be shocked and surprised before. Those surprises are what is required to restore some of the faith lost since our beloved Golden Age.