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Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)


History is about to be rewritten by two guys who can’t spell.

Welcome to the 80’s, where fashions are loud and the teenagers are incomprehensible. Welcome to California, where everyone, like, totally talks like a surfer. Meet Bill and Ted, two average high school students righteous dudes who are about to embark on an excellent adventure in order to pass history class.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a sci fi comedy film directed by Stephen Herek, based on characters created by writers Ed Solomon and Chris Mathesen for improvisational theater. It stars Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves, George Carlin, and a motley handful of historical figures.

In the year 2688, San Dimas is a peaceful utopia, inspired by the music of the historical band known as the Wyld Stallyns. However, this future is in danger, because in 1989 the founding members, one Bill S. Preston, Esq., and one Ted “Theodore” Logan, are just a couple of metalhead slackers who are in danger of failing history class. If that happens, Ted’s father, the Chief of Police of San Dimas, will send Ted off to a military school in Alaska, forcing the band to break up. And that would be bogus. An agent named Rufus is sent back in time to offer aid in the form of a time-travelling phone booth, while the Stallyns try to hammer out a report on how various historical figures would react if presented with the modern day, without much success. After a bit of convincing from themselves from 24 hours in the future, the lads decide to give it a shot. When they accidentally bring back Napoleon from a foray to Austria in 1805, they are struck with the idea of actually bringing historical figures to the San Dimas of 1989 and setting them loose to see what they think. Naturally, a lot of hilarity ensues.

This is one of the classic comedies of the late 80s, and the movie that introduced the world to Keanu Reeves. It’s goofy and fun and plays merry hell with both time travel and history, just because it can. The two leads are unabashed slackers who start out thinking that Joan of Arc is Noah’s wife and don’t understand the historical significance of many key figures beyond their being a bunch of “old, dead dudes”. However, despite their baseline boneheadedness, the Wyld Stallyns are genuinely good-hearted people and care about each other in a hetero life partner sort of way, and the idea of being separated potentially forever clearly distresses them for reasons other than the breakup of their band. George Carlin’s portrayal of Rufus is somewhat nearer the “Mr. Conductor” end of his acting spectrum than the “Foulmouthed Cynic” end, and while his mentorship only lasts as long as pointing the Stallyns in the right direction for success, his handful of scenes are memorable as he acts as a Intertemporal Yoda.

Now, while at first blush this might appear to be just another stoner comedy (even though the boys don’t appear to be stoners so much as ditzy Californians), if you pay attention you will notice some very clever points scattered throughout the pure comedy. For example: Rufus never tells the Stallyns his name – they learn that bit of info from their future selves. In fact, they learn a lot about time travel from their future selves – and they seem to grasp it fairly readily once proof is offered (indicating they may be smarter than they appear). All the jokes involving Sigmund Freud (him getting attacked by the drape attachment on a vacuum cleaner, his corn dog drooping after he gets shut down by some girls in the mall), Genghis Khan in the sporting goods store (he actually assesses an aluminum baseball bat as a potential weapon, testing its strength and balance before going on a merry rampage), Beethoven tearing it up on electronic keyboards in a music store (even though he is close to deaf at the time they nab him, the speakers could easily be cranked up loud enough that even he could hear it), Napoleon’s exploration of San Dimas (he gets recaptured at a park named Waterloo, which is incidentally the name of the city where he was captured in real life) and the multiple temporal gambits the lads set up at the end to make sure they get their historical figures set up in the auditorium in time (which would require a hell of a lot of linear thinking on their behalf) combine to make you think while you’re laughing your ass off, and with a bit of afterthought you realize that all the potential paradoxes have been tidily ironed out (though this doesn’t seem quite so funny when you realize that all the historical figures most likely died shortly after being sent back).

If you’re looking for a multilayered time-traveling comedy that takes standard history and runs off giggling with it, I highly recommend Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. You will be laughing your ass off at the stoner moments and the “aha!” moments alike, and the time travel, while mainly a vehicle for comedy, is very well done. Get this one for your collection.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)


In any dating situation, one can expect both sides to enter the relationship with a bit of baggage – it’s part of having a past. Sometimes this baggage affects the impending relationship, sometimes not so much. Scott Pilgrim has just met the girl of his dreams. Naturally, she has baggage. Too bad all her baggage has superpowers. That’s okay, though. Scott Pilgrim knows kung fu.

Or something.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a comedy film directed by Edgar Wright, based on the independent graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley. It stars Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jason Schwartzman, Kieran Culkin, and Ellen Wong.

Scott Pilgrim (age 22) lives in Toronto. He is the bassist for the band Sex Bob-Omb, and has just begun dating a high school girl named Knives Chau (over the protests of all his friends), who shares his love of video games and really digs his music. Then he meets Ramona Flowers, an American girl with technicolor hair who has been appearing in her dreams. Suddenly his entire world revolves around wooing Ramona, leaving Knives in the dust – and then he learns about Ramona’s little baggage issue – seven evil exes whom he must defeat in order to gain the right to date Ramona. They’re, like, a League of Evil. And they all want to annihilate Scott. In the meantime, Sex Bob-Omb hopes to sign a record deal with a major producer, and Scott has to cope with issues surrounding his gay roommate Wallace. And… a really weird movie ensues.

I’ve never read Scott Pilgrim, so this movie was essentially my first taste of this world, and the presentation left me pretty confused. On the one hand, Pilgrim himself seems like an average guy with very few social skills, a garage band, and a slightly complicated love life. That plot alone, would make a decent slice-of-life drama. And then there’s the video-game stuff that ensues surrounding the Seven Evil Exes, with sequences that come out of nowhere like the final boss rush of a beat-em-up game and don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the movie. The battles with the Evil Exes are highly stylized, more so even than the rest of the movie, suggesting that they take place in a Calvin and Hobbes-esque view of reality rather than in what we would call reality. The only characters that manage to ascend beyond the rank of one-dimensional cardboad cutout are Scott himself, whose character development is portrayed in the context to racking up points and coins with the defeat of each ex, and Ramona herself, who remains mysterious even as we learn more about her and her checkered past.

The presentation of Scott Pilgrim’s world was often distracting, with certain sound effects manifesting visibly, comic-book style, and a minor running gag wherein a foulmouthed character’s salty language is obscured by a black censor bar over her mouth and a sound effect obscuring the words themselves. These effects, coupled with the fantasy-laced fight scenes that come out of nowhere like random encounters in an RPG and thereafter play out like battle in Mortal Kombat, culminating in an explosion of coins (seriously – where the hell do the coins come from?) and the occasional powerup (one of which becomes crucial to Scott’s ultimate victory) from each defeated foe, made this movie seem like the independent comics equivalent of Ang Lee’s Hulk, laced liberally with comic book tropes for good measure. The main plotline was decently interesting, with Scott fighting Ramona’s past in order to be part of her future, but it often drowned in the gallons of special effects surrounding it.

I tried very hard to enjoy this movie. Unfortunately, what could have been a good story was ultimately lost in the ludicrous amount of shiny used to present it. Fans of Scott Pilgrim might enjoy it, but I found it to be schizophrenic and spectacular, without a strong enough storyline to back it up.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

05/16/2011 1 comment

I’ve noticed an interesting rule of low-budget sci fi franchises set in the future: When time travel to a recognizeable period is involved, the most common temporal setting is modern times. It makes sense from a budgetary point of view: recreating a certain historical period can be expensive, and it’s hard to get all the details exactly right. Naturally, it will transpire that the modern day has the thing or resource needed by our visitors from the future, with no easy way to communicate what it is or why they need it. Here we have this basic plot, only with a Hollywood budget. How well did it do? Let’s find out.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a sci fi film set in the Star Trek film franchise, the fourth film in the series, a direct sequel to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and the third movie in the story arc known to fans as the Star Trek trilogy, finishing the storyline started in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It was directed by Leonard Nimoy, and stars Nimoy, William Shatner, Catherine Hicks, Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelly, Walter Koenig, and a couple of humpback whales.

It is the year 2286. The crew of the starship Enterprise (destroyed during the events of The Search for Spock), are living in exile on the planet Vulcan while their recently resurrected crewmate Spock is still recovering from his resurrection and having his katra re-integrated. So far, his Vulcan components are repaired and functioning just fine, but he is still having trouble coming to terms with his human half. As they are headed back to planet Earth in their stolen strategically re-purposed Klingon Bird of Prey to face trial for Kirk being a heroic badass and saving the day disobeying orders and stealing the Enterprise, they receive a distress call from Starfleet, telling them of a cylindrical probe approaching Earth (because Earth is the center of the universe), sending out a signal that has toasted the electronics of many crucial systems and has the potential to destroy the planet. One odd detail: the probe is being aimed at the ocean, not at any of the land-based civilizations. Spock determines that the signal is actually the song of humpback whales, a species rendered extinct on Earth 300 years ago. Well, arse. Since there are no whales, there can be no response, means that Earth is screwed – unless Kirk & Co. travel back in time to pick up a whale to talk to the darn thing. They slingshot around the sun to get the speed necessary to travel back in time, and arrive in San Francisco in 1986. Once there they find they’re in luck – two humpback whales are in captivity nearby – but at the same time they have a few more problems to solve before they can bring their aquatic diplomats back to chat with the probe, and of course, hilarity ensues.

This was a fun little movie. While it doesn’t have the intense drama of Khan or the cultural development of Spock, it does have a simple plot made believeably complex by the expected problems of being from 300 years in the future, trying to get what you need to save Earth in your home time, without beating the viewer over the head with the Save the Whales message. Spock’s continued post-resurrection disorientation provides some of the funniest moments int he film, and watching the Enterprise crew running around San Francisco, year 1986, was a riot, even during perilous situations that could have completely jeopardized their mission. Interesting bit of trivia: during pre-production the filmmakers were concerned about filming in San Francisco, thinking the locals would see the actors running around and interfere with filming. As an experiment, they sent some extras touring the city in Starfleet uniforms. Nobody noticed. This is reflected in the film itself when people dismiss Spock as a recovering hippie, and Chekhov and Uhura are largely ignored while trying to get directions to the Alameda Naval Base so they can recharge the Bird of Prey’s dilithium crystals (almost completely out of juice after travelling back 300 years). Incidentally, the woman who ultimately stopped to help was not an extra, and they had to chase her down and have her sign a release so they could use the footage.

It seemed that most of the cast acknowledged the comedic potential in the plot, and they were bang-on in delivering it, staying straight-faced trying to solve their problem while the audience was rolling on the floor laughing. I especially offer mad props to Nimoy, who had to stay absolutely deadpan during some of the funniest scenes in the movie. Scotty’s encounter with a PC that lacked voice recognition capabilities, Kirk and Spock’s encounter with a jackass on the bus with a loud boom-box, and Chekhov’s encounter with Red Scare-era naval officers were just a handful of great scenes sprinkled liberally throughout this movie (though given the political climate I’m left to wonder how much trouble the Russian-born Chekhov could have potentially been in, given that he was caught in the bowels of a nuclear sub). ILM’s animatronic whales were impressive, too – so impressive that the crew got bitched out by conservation and animal rights groups who thought they’d filmed the scenes with real humpback whales. This is why ILM is a god.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home brings a satisfying conclusion to the story arc started in Khan, offering thrills and laughs in equal measures against a backdrop of yet another potential apocalypse. I highly recommend watching this one, but for best results you should only do so after you’ve seen the previous two.

Miss Congeniality (2000)


There are times when an undercover operation requires only the best individual for the role – someone with the training and expertise to not only solve the case but also successfully masquerade as a given role, leaving no hint in the minds of others that they are the real deal. Occasionally this work is glamorous. Frequently it’s not. And sometimes you just have to go with whatever you have at hand. Meet Gracie Hart. She’s so going to kick your ass when she’s done being a beauty queen.

Miss Congeniality is a police comedy film directed by Donald Petrie and starring Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Caine, Candance Bergen, and William Shatner.

Gracie Hart is a rough and tumble tomboy who grew up depending on her fists rather than her looks and charm to negotiate diplomatic situations. Currently, she is the FBI’s leading undercover agent, though most of her roles tend towards being that random woman in the corner that nobody pays attention to. However, when a terroriss known only as the Citizen threatens the 75th annual Miss United States Pageant, the FBI needs to send somebody undercover as one of the pageant contestants – and to everyone’s surprise, Gracie appears to be the perfect candidate… except for the minor problems of her being about as feminine as Dolph Lundgren. The task of girlifying her falls to the long-suffering coach Victor Melling, who has to teach her how to look, walk, dress, and act like a beauty contestant in an insanely short period of time, while Gracie is tasked with making friends amongst her fellow contestants and figuring out who might want to blow up a beauty pageant and why. Naturally, hilarity ensues on all sides.

On the surface, this movie is a fun little action comedy starring Sandra Bullock as a frazzled brunette, Benjamin “Law and Order” Bratt as her love interest, Candace Bergen as an arrogant bitch pageant coordinator, and Michael Caine as an ambiguously gay beauty pageant coach. This is the closest thing to a chick flick I own, and the makeover story is a hilarious comedy of errors as Gracie tries like hell to “get it”. (Incidentally, I can relate – that shit is complicated) Then I did some digging and found that the movie actually works on two levels. The title is a snarky commentary on the tomboyish, argumentative, rough-and-tumble protagonist, which most people probably get right away. However, I looked into what the Miss Congeniality award actually meant, and discovered something kind of interesting. Gracie Hart hits every single point during the movie. Miss Congeniality is not expected to be a strong contestant, he is expected to make friends and help out her fellow contestants, paying more attention to others than to herself, and to help other contestants avoid disaster. Nice genius bonus, movie.

Miss Congenality‘s cast works well together, their respective personalities bounding off each other in natural and hilarious ways, mainly in the scenes with Gracie socializing with her fellow contestants and trying to overcome her natural FBI instincts and learn what the hell being a girl is all about. The romantic sideplot with Eric is understated and probably mainly due to Bullock and Bratt dating at the time (IIRC), but her rebelling against Victor’s lessons ultimately allows her to adopt her own take on beauty queen-ness without sacrificing her personality and becoming a Barbie Doll. In all, funny moments interspersed with the terrorist subplot made this an effective action-comedy without sacrificing either the action or the comedy.

If you like tight action-comedies built around personality clashes and potential disasters (both of the blowing up kind and the wardrobe malfunction kind), check out Miss Congeniality. It’s a surprisingly clever little comedy about finding a balance between who you are and who you need to be.

The Mask (1994)

04/16/2011 1 comment

Jim Carrey has always been a spaz. From his frenetic stand-up comedy routines to his chaotic stint as a member of the In Living Color troupe, he had already been labelled a human cartoon. Then in 1996, he starred in a movie that showed people how big a spaz he could be by turning him into an actual human cartoon.

The Mask is a superhero fantasy comedy film directed by Chuck Russell, based (generally) on the comic book miniseries of the same title by Dark Horse Comics. It stars Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Greene, Amy Yasbeck, and Richard Jeni.

Stanley Ipkiss is a loser. He gets no respect at work, he is a shy closet romantic, and he is regularly bullied by everyone around him. His only friends are his Jack Russell Terrier, Milo, and his co-worker Charlie. One night after being denied entry to the elite Coco Bongo Club and getting stranded in a broken-down rental car by the harbor, Stanley finds a wooden mask floating in the water. On a whim, he takes the mask home, and puts it on as a joke – and the mask tranforms him into a wild, chaotic trickster with reality-bending powers, manifesting as a live-action version of a Tex Avery cartoon character. While his life seems to be turning around now that the Mask has been unleashed, it is also going to get him in trouble with two groups: The police, who are investigating the Mask’s robbery of the bank Stanley works at, and gangster Dorian Tyrell, who had been planning to rob that same bank just before the Mask hit it, and who owns the Coco Bongo Club. Now Stanley finds himself trying to keep a very odd secret from those who would use the Mask for evil, while keeping his natural Jim Carrey-ness on a leash.

I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. The fact that Carrey’s portrayal of a human cartoon needed only minor CGI enhancement makes the movie that much funnier, but at the same time it offered a glimpse of his ability to play more subdued roles (well, relatively subdued). While Carrey as Stanley was more or less Just a Normal Guy, there were hints and twitches of Not Normal here and there, which only served as foreshadowing of what the Mask would be like, which was, personality-wise, Jim Carrey as a reality warper. Cameron Diaz also fared well in her first movie role as The Hot Chick, starting out as a love-interest/plot device before developing into a genuine character who actually serves a role in the climax beyond the Damsel in Distress. The other characters are borderline caricatures, from the annoying landlady to the bullying boss to the jerkass mechanics, but it works here, since they have to keep up with Jim Carrey in a comic book universe.

Once I heard that the movie had been adapted from a comic book series, I did pick up a couple issues of The Mask to compare. The comics (being from Dark Horse) are a lot darker, and the Mask is more dangerous and sociopathic than just a fun-loving trickster. Here, though, he’s a bit more audience friendly, making the Mask only as dangerous as its wearer, even as it unleashes new heights of hyperactivity that Carrey had previously only dreamed of. The Mask effects were excellent, earning the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects (it lost to Forrest Gump) and perfectly translating cartoonish superpowers to a live-action medium. Honestly, I think only Carrey would have had the energy to play a character like this.

In the end, The Mask is a fun homage to Tex Avery cartoons and an exploration to the limits of Jim Carrey’s sheer hyperactivity. It really doesn’t pretend to be much more than that, and it doesn’t need to be. I highly recommend it next time you’re looking for a good comedy – just sit back and watch the chaos unfold.

Jumanji (1995)


In this modern world of realistic video games and interactive everything, wouldn’t it be great to have a board game that plays you back?

No. No it wouldn’t. And here’s why.

Jumanji is a fantasy-comedy film directed by Joe Johnston, adapted from the picture book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. It stars Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst, David Alan Grier, Bonnie Hunt, and Jonathan Hyde, with jungle hazards provided by Industrial Light and Magic.

It is the year 1969. Twelve-year-old Alan Parrish is having a bad day. His father barely acknowledges him except to chastise him for what he’s doing wrong, and plans to send him to boarding school. His friend Carl Bentley just accepted the blame for Alan damaging a machine at his father’s shoe factory and lost his job. He just got his butt kicked by a group of bullies. Fortunately, he just found this neat board game called Jumanji, and decides to spend an evening at home playing it with another friend, Sarah, little suspecting that his bad day is about to last 26 years. Fast forward to 1995. Judy and Peter Shepherd move into the Parrishes’ old house and find the game, still in progress. With nothing better to do, they also begin playing, never suspecting that this supernatural game is going to turn their lives upside down, summoning things like lions, man-eating plants, giant mosquitoes, and a stampede into their small town. Now they must fight to survive and finish the game, hoping that when it is done everything will be back to normal…

Jumanji was an enjoyable fantasy romp, with a solid concept (vaguely malevolent magic board game) and a likeable cast of characters led by Robin Williams, here effectively straddling the line between comedy and drama as he deals with the dangers summoned up by the board game. The dual casting of Jonathan Hyde as both Sam Parrish and the murderous hunter Van Pelt conjures up a Peter Pan-like vibe, as many theatrical adaptations of that story cast the same actor as both John Darling and Captain Hook. Here, Van Pelt respresents Alan Parrish’s fears of facing his father (both in real life and in facing how he has internalized many of his father’s harsh mannerisms), and only in facing Van Pelt can the door be opened for Alan to face his childhood fears. The book, of course, is quite different from the movie – and only 26 pages long – but it has been well-adapted to feature-length here, keeping you on the edge of your seat as you wait to see what new danger could come out of this innocent-looking game.

An occasional complaint I’ve heard is that the animals and such the games summons up are obvious CGI and look “fake”. To this I reply, well, of course they don’t look “real”. They’re not “real”. If anything, they’re summoned from a pocket dimension where lions and elephants (and pelicans!) cavort freely in the jungle alongside mosquitoes the size of hawks, spiders the size of dogs, and giant man-eating plants that will also snack on a car if it’s handy. The critters look like they “should look” through the eyes of a child more than how they actually look through the eyes of a biologist. It’s a movie about a magic board game – this is no time to be griping about realism in animals and plants summoned by fell magic. Just sit back and relax.

While some parts might be frightening to younger children, I would recommend this for family viewing. The story is engaging, the cast is solid, and the antics caused by elements of a fantasy jungle being unleashed on a small town are thrilling and entertaining. A must-see.

Man of La Mancha (1972)


To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To be with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love, pure and chaste, from afar
To try, when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star!

Man of La Mancha is a film adaptation of Daniel Wasserman’s Broadway musical of the same name, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. It was inspired by Wasserman’s non-musical teleplay I, Don Quixote, which in turn was inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote de la Mancha. Directed by Arthur Hiller, this movie stars Peter O’Toole, Sophia Loren, and James Coco.

It is the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant are imprisoned after putting on a play making fun of said inquisition. Their fellow prisoners rifle through the trunk containing Cervantes belongings, which include stage props, costumes, and a manuscript of which Cervantes is very protective, as it represents his life’s work. The prisoners seize the manuscript and hold a mock trial to see whether Cervantes should get the manuscript back, and the playwright presents an impromptu play as his defense, telling the story of Alonso Quijana, a daft old man who has decided to live out his days as a knight-errant named Don Quixote de la Mancha, seeking out advantures with his “squire”, Sancho Panza, who privately agrees that Quijana is crazy but sticks around because it’s a likeable sort of crazy. And, either despite or because he is out of his gourd, Quijana/Quixote leaves a lasting impression on a number of people in the small town that hosts him, particularly a jaded whore named Aldonza whom he takes for the fair maiden Dulcinea, treating her like a queen when everyone else treats her like trash.

I don’t watch many musicals. I don’t know why. However, I enjoyed the hell out of Man of La Mancha. It was made during a time when Hollywood actors first had to claw their way up from the stage, and thus many of them were expected to sing and dance as well as act. Peter O’Toole is an obvious alumnus of this school of acting, but surprisingly so is the beautiful Sophia Loren (whose looks still hold up twenty-mumble years later). O’Toole is charming as both Cervantes and his creation Don Quixote, with both preferring to see the world as it should be rather than as it is. Loren’s portrayal as Aldonza initially rails against Quixote’s sweet romanticisms, having lived her adult life as a plaything for travelers, but even he brings her hope in the end, a spark of promise that perhaps she can be more than the lowly Aldonza, that perhaps Dulcinea lives within her after all. Running interference between madness and sanity is Sancho, who doesn’t believe in his master’s delusions but does consider him a loyal friend and is willing to defend him if need be (though he is not stupid – he hangs back and watches Quixote’s disastrous and iconic charge against the four-armed giants unsuspecting windmills).

While the source novel was intended as a satire of chivalrous fiction popular in the day, here Quixote’s madness is an allegory for idealism, for following your dreams, and for reaching for the stars even as life pushes you down into the mud. The fact that this clearly delusional knight is able to affect the “sane” people around him to the point that he does demonstrates the need for dreams, and it is heartbreaking to watch Quijana’s well-meaning family turn his own delusions against him, confronting him with a shattering dose of reality that nearly breaks his spirit entirely.

If you’ve ever wondered how important dreams and fantasies were an age of cold facts and harsh reality, watch Man of La Mancha. It’s an older classic that still holds up well today, and the tale of Don Quixote’s quest for humble greatness (if only in his own mind) is likely to inspire even modern audiences to reach for the stars.