Sunday, May 3, 2015

55 and 678 Inch Screenings (or Size Matters)

Having returned to my pattern of following one movie with an older one which the first brought to mind, I’ve observed the following movies flicker on large and small screens in the past month. Tangentially, I’m curious to see how the different business strategies work out for the two movie theaters which, being the closest to my house, I most commonly frequent, including for two of the films below. Bow Tie Cinema in Succasunna offers low prices (by today’s standards) and standard seating, while AMC in Morristown offers spacious leather recliner seats but higher prices. The two theaters don’t always show the same films (only AMC offered Ex Machina), but when they do I personally pick price over seats. Not everyone does the same though.

The Age of Adaline (2015)
Agelessness is a fantasy as old as the first mirror. In this movie it is also a hook for hokey romance and sentiment – yet Adaline gets away with being hokey. I’ve mentioned before that modern cynicism doesn’t jibe very well with romance in the movies. Nowadays we prefer to take romance out of everyday life before we’re willing to credit it. Christopher Orr in an Atlantic article said much the same thing: “The premises grow more and more esoteric: She’s a hooker. He’s a stalker. She’s in a coma. He’s telepathic. She’s a mermaid. He’s a zombie. She’s pregnant. He’s the president.” In the case of Silver Linings Playbook, they’re crazy; this allows us to say, “Ah, that explains it.” Setting a movie far enough in the past works too, apparently on the assumption that people looked at things differently then. Effectively that is what The Age of Adaline does. Adaline retains 1930s/40s sensibilities even though much of the film is set in the present day.

Adaline has a freak accident in 1937 at the age of 29. As time goes by she eventually realizes she isn’t aging. Her permanent youth comes at a cost. Whenever her appearance mismatches her official age too obviously, she has to change her ID and start over, leaving friends and family behind. They, of course, age and die while she doesn’t. There are good performances by Blake Lively and Harrison Ford. The sentimentality works fairly well despite (or because of) the contrivance. Thumbs Up.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
There is no shortage of films about extended youth: In Time, Peter Pan, Tuck Everlasting, and for that matter almost every vampire movie.  I opted for the most obvious. This stylish adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel contains enough of the author’s verbiage and wit to be entertaining, and we get to see a young Angela Lansbury as Sybil Vane. In late Victorian London, Dorian (Hurd Hatfield) is a handsome – “pretty” might be a better word – young man who is corrupted by the clever immoralist philosophy of Lord Henry. But whereas Lord Henry is an intellectual armchair immoralist, Dorian chooses to act on his impulses. The wages of sin do not show on Dorian’s own face, but on his portrait; the portrait ages while he does not. Today, a similar film likely would display graphically the lead character’s depraved acts. Here we merely get obscure hints as to the bulk of them, though we do see mistreatment of Sybil and a murder. Although the 1945 critic for The New York Times chuckled at the “mawkish pomposity of the film,” modern critics generally have been kinder. I rather like it, though be aware that it paces more leisurely than most contemporary flicks. Thumbs Up.

**** **** **** ****

Ex Machina (2015)
Nathan, an eccentric tech genius, invites Caleb, an employee, to visit him at his isolated home/research facility. Caleb learns he is there to run a Turing test on an AI robot named Ava. Nathan wants to know if Ava (Alicia Vikander) is conscious or if she only simulates consciousness. We soon suspect Ava of running a test of her own on Caleb. She wants out of the facility – not least because Nathan might deactivate her – and Caleb might be open to manipulation.

Ex Machina has a well written script that questions the nature of consciousness and ethics. Is the fact that Ava is manipulating Caleb for her own ends proof of consciousness? What are Nathan’s obligations to Ava, if any, if she is conscious, and what are hers to him and to Caleb, if any? The performances are good, with Oscar Isaac doing an exceptional job as Nathan. Anyone who ever has met an eccentric genius will recognize Nathan. The fx are good without overwhelming the script. Thumbs Up.

Bicentennial Man (1999)
Based on the novel The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, Bicentennial Man is another instance of swathing sentiment in the esoteric in order to make it acceptable, this time in circuitry.

Andrew (Robin Williams) is a household robot for the Martin family. Through some glitch, Andrew shows evidence of conscious behavior. Before long his consciousness is indisputable, and eventually he asks for his freedom. Over decades his upgrades, many of them of his own design, bridge the gap between the biological and mechanical – his artificial organs will work as replacement parts in humans, which blurs the distinction between humans and robots. The generations of Martins age and die, but Andrew loves and begins to romance one young Martin woman. (Tangential note: Apparently in anticipation of such a real eventuality, Calvin Klein has trademarked “Technosexual.”) Andrew’s final upgrade makes him mortal, which doesn’t seem like a good bargain to me, but he is cool with it. The film is family friendly with all the good and ill that entails. Thumbs Up, but only slightly.

**** **** **** ****

April Fools Day (1986)
You know the drill. Eight college friends spend spring break in an isolated island mansion. Of course they can’t get off the island during their stay. Pranks are expected on April Fools Day, but one by one the students meet with foul play. I don’t really need to explain further. The movie repeats all the clichés without irony. The ending, however, does succeed at being just a little different than the usual. If you like this genre, there is no reason not to like this; if you don’t, this film won’t change your mind. Thumbs Sideways.

Teenage Zombies (1960)
The isolated-teens-in-trouble plot has a long pedigree. In this one, the water skiing vacation of teens Reg, Julie, Skip, and Pam turns bad when they come ashore on an island where diabolical scientist Dr. Myra (Katherine Victor) has a research facility. She wants to be able to turn people into zombies because…well, it would just be cool, that’s all. Especially if you’re power-mad. She captures the teens for her experiments. Oh yes, she has a gorilla, and why wouldn’t she? The sheriff is on the case of the missing kids but he is corrupt. This movie is so incredibly awful that it is enormous fun for those of us with a taste for campy bad movies. For the general viewing public though, I can’t in conscience give it anything but a Thumbs Down.

**** **** **** ****

Into the Woods (2014)
Into the Woods intertwines the Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tales into a musical with star performances by the likes of Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. Lapine's and Sondheim’s Into the Woods was a long-running hit on Broadway. To my mind, musicals work better on stage as live performances than on screen, and this one is no exception. Nonetheless, the Disney production is about as good as one reasonably might hope. The movie takes an odd turn in the third act that might take viewers unfamiliar with the play by surprise. The characters have to face loss, betrayal, second thoughts, and their own moral ambiguity. Jack, for example, is not really such a hero; he is a thief who killed the husband of the giantess who has come to earth seeking revenge. Be aware that this is a musical with some dark elements, not primarily kids’ fare, but Thumbs Up.

The Glass Slipper (1955)
This musical adaptation of Cinderella is the best of the bunch to date in my book. Leslie Caron gives an atypical but utterly appealing interpretation of the role. While her stepmother and stepsisters are evil enough, Ella (taunted with the name Cinderella) herself is a flawed character. She is feisty, suspicious, and hot-tempered. The Prince disguises his identity on their first accidental meeting during which she gets angry and pushes him into a pond. He later invites her to the Ball, but Ella believes he is the son of the palace cook. Ella’s benefactor Mrs. Toquet apparently does have unusual abilities, but she doesn’t display them openly. The movie requires a little patience from the viewer during the extended voice-over set-up at the beginning, but all-in-all it’s a charming film. Thumbs Up.

**** **** **** ****

The Voices (2014)
Ryan Reynolds is Jerry. Jerry by state-mandate must visit his psychiatrist weekly. She insists that he stay on his meds, but he is much happier when he is off them. Without them, the world is bright and colorful. When he is on them, depressive realism sets in: he sees the world as it grimly is. Unsurprisingly, he throws away the medications. Also, when he is med-free his animals talk to him; the cat urges him to indulge his vices and the dog urges him to be good. Jerry’s life seems OK, but then he accidentally kills his date. Fearing his mental status and personal history will cause people to conclude the worst, he dismembers the body in order to hide it, and he puts the head in the fridge. The head talks to him too. The second killing is half-way accidental – she hits her head when she falls during a struggle – but after that only the cat is on his side. Kidnapping the psychiatrist doesn’t help. I enjoyed this dark comedy but a sizeable proportion of viewers surely won’t. Thumbs slightly up.

Dementia 13 (1963)
Even in this very early low-budget film, Francis Ford Coppola is in good directorial form. The Halorans have money, secrets, an unexplained death, a contestable will, motives for murder, and a killer with an axe. Finding/figuring out who did what to whom is much of the fun in this twisted tale, so I’ll leave it at that. Thumbs Up.

Even on the small screen we prefer to delegate romantic sentiments to otherworldly creatures. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Spike the vampire, spurned by his toothy inamorata, discourses on love in a way uncommon in human characters during the last two decades.


  1. I want to see Ex Machina, but will probably just wait for it to appear on disc thru NF. Though the concept seems to be a little more than an Outer Limits episode, critics have given it good reviews however. Speaking of The Outer Limits, I wish someone would rebroadcast the newer Outer Limit episodes that showed in the 90's. I missed a bunch of them, and would like to see them again, but they're unavailable other than shoddy dubbed copies on YT. That's something you'd think the SyFy channel would show, other than wrestling or Sharknado.

    I saw a play of Into the Woods here, and although it was put on locally, it was done pretty well with an orchestra, and the singer were really good. I was impressed with the production, but couldn't follow the storyline very well. I assume the movie adaptation flows better, that said though, I'm not in a hurry to rent it.

    I wondered how The Voices would have been without the black comedy aspects, done in a old school slasher type way. Sort of like the old movie Maniac. Dementia usually rolls around here showing up on Halloween and if I'm not busy generally will watch it. It's pretty good for a shoestring budget.

    I remember Bicentennial Man being watchable, though it seemed many critics panned it. I'm with you, why go mortal? If you become human enough, but are basically immortal, why go that extra step? He should just invent a prozac chip for things that bother him that way. :)

    Dorian Gray is a little slow, but it's good if you're in the mood for it. Some of the others I haven't seen or will have to wait to see them later.

    1. Usually when a marketable property isn't marketed, there is some unresolved royalty, residual, or copyright issue. I don't know if that is the case here, but I agree The Outer Limits -- original or 90s -- would beat much of Syfy fare. Some series, while available, also seem underutilized, such as Ray Bradbury Theater.

    2. I believe that both versions of the Outer Limits are available on Hulu. I've been watching the older series for the first time (and really enjoying it). But I swear I've seen the other one go by in the "you might like" section. I believe MGM owns the rights to both shows, which may be the issue. They seem to be picky with what they put out digitally.

    3. The original Outer Limits is a great show. The budgets and fx are laughably cheap, even by the standards of the day, but with few exceptions the scripts are well-written.

  2. I keep hearing really good things about "Ex Machina" and with Oscar Isaac in particular. Sounds like one I should seek out.

    My parents saw "into the Woods" in the theater, and didn't know a thing about it. They found it to be a bit too strange for them. My dad isn't a big musical fan anyway, so it wouldn't be his cup of tea. My wife used to sing in high school, so she is very familiar with the play. It is one of her favorites. I even watched the filmed stage version of it. Not exactly my cup of tea either, but I appreciated it more than liked it.

    "The Voices" sounds deliciously demented. I might need to check that one out. But "teenage Zombies" really sounds great. MST3K fodder for sure. :)

    1. I think a lot of people who were unfamiliar with the play found "Into the Woods" to be completely different from what they were expecting -- especially given recent fairy tale treatments including Disney's own "Maleficent." It wasn't a welcome difference. I'm not keen on movie adaptations of stage musicals either, though I appreciate some of them on live stage. Strangely, stage is less realistic than film -- you don't get lost in it in quite the same way -- so not all of the conventions transfer to film well. Still, some including this one, are done as well as can be expected.

      By all means check out "Teenage Zombies." Like me, you're part of the right audience for it.