Movie Reviews: Forbidden Planet; Dogma; The Cruise; Iron Giant; Madre Muerta

Movie Review: Forbidden Planet

The space pulp/monster movie genre really came to a head in the 1950s. With the A-Bomb and the Reds a new and very real threat to post-WWII America, the sci-fi movies of the time had a tendency to exploit the fears of the public. The best of these films served as cautionary tales. A great many of them (Angry Red Planet, and Rocketship X-M for example) were little more than xenophobic jaunts of drive-in escapism suitable for MST3K-ing. With all their dated, stereotypical camp – bug-eyed monsters, posturing military men with atomic ray guns, fainting heroines and alcoholic cooks – poking fun at the genre is duck soup.

Despite all of their idiosyncrasies, a few of these sci-fi flicks still stand up 50 years later. The Day the Earth Stood Still and War of the Worlds spring to mind, as does Forbidden Planet. In MGM’s first real stab at the genre, Commander J. J. Adams (Leslie Nielson) commands the crew of the United Planets Cruiser C57D on their mission to investigate the mysterious loss of contact with a colony of scientists on the planet Altair. Once they approach the planet they receive a transmission from the last surviving scientist, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who warns Adams “if you set down on this planet I cannot be held accountable for the safety of your ship or your crew.” Naturally, the Commander ignores the warning and lands to further survey the situation. Dr Morbius, less sinister than his name seems to imply, reluctantly welcomes the crew and introduces them to the now familiar Robot (who was known as “Robbie the Robot” only outside of the film), his lovely daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), and an ancient underground world created by the long-extinct inhabitants of the planet, the Krell.

The various science-fiction elements in Forbidden Planet are stylistically fascinating, powerful and memorable, and perfectly executed for the time. Though dated by today’s standards, the special effects were very sophisticated at the time and are still a joy to behold.

The characters, though somewhat stereotypical, are pretty solid, and with talent like Nielson, Pidgeon and Francis the acting is nothing to sneeze at. Tensions between Adams and Morbius, the interplay between the crew and the free-spirited Altaira, and the subtle camaraderie between the commander and his doctor (Warren Stevens) are well-played.

The theremin soundtrack is something else – you have to hear it to believe it – and it really gives the film an otherworldly quality and very much adds to the suspense of the story. Oddly enough, the score for the film wasn’t what the studio had planned – due to the Hollywood Musician’s Union strike a husband & wife team was hired for the task.

Texturally, the whole story works on several different levels. There are Shakespearean (the film is based on The Tempest) and Freudian aspects mixed in with the comic relief of Robot and ‘Cookie’, the ship’s cook. If you’ve not seen Forbidden Planet for a decade or two, I strongly suggest refamiliarizing yourself with this entertaining sci-fi classic, the rich antecedent to a diluted Star Trek franchise. If you have never seen Forbidden Planet – well you’re in for a memorable voyage of discovery.

Movie Review: Dogma
(or Jay & Silent Bob’s Excrement Adventure)

I’m not going to say that Kevin Smith doesn’t have talent. I’m sure he’s a very good dancer.

I liked Clerks and Mall Rats, but I think Smith got a bit out of his element with Chasing Amy, and is even more so with Dogma. The mix of incessant one-liners and socio-religious criticism is an experiment that does not succeed. I admit I am not up on my Catholic dogma, but I do know that constant elbowing at a belief system does not a good movie make. Plot and acting should also be present if possible. The dialogue in this movie feels like it’s been written on–and read off–recipe cards, more so due to Chris Rock’s and Salma Hayek’s irredeemable delivery. But give them a break, even all of Jason Lee’s charisma couldn’t make these lines wash. The story can’t get a word in edgewise with all the sassy religious icons constant yammering. I felt like I had just opened my door to a bunch of bible thumpers who wouldn’t let me politely excuse myself, except these bible thumpers are perpetually pissed-off miscreants and they don’t offer any free reading material, let alone theological insight that isn’t half-baked. Alannis Morrisette as God? Sure…why not? It’s so crazy it just might work!

The movie ends, as is expected, in a violent bloodbath borne of Hollywood’s safest formula, wherein the heroine is killed for no good reason, then brought back to life for no good reason, then cured via divine intervention of her infertility problem. Yup, everything wraps up in a nice little package, and despite the hoity-toity pretentious pokes at organized religion, Dogma still manages to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

You know you’re in a lot of trouble when the best part of the movie you’re seeing is Ben Affleck’s acting! If you like Adam Sandler but have a college degree, you may like Dogma.

WARNING: There may be some inoffensive language between f-words.

Movie Review: The Cruise
1998, dir: Bennett Miller

Timothy “Speed” Levitch is an interesting person in an interesting town. We follow this eloquent, thoughtful, and passionate guide for Gray Line tours in New York, catching him at his best and worst moments. This is the kind of movie you can sit down and lose yourself in, despite any conventional elements of plot, action or romance. The plot is Levitch’s meanderings through the city. The action is his refusal to wear Gray Line’s red blazers and his struggle with an alarmed emergency exit. The romance is his love of NY, exhibitionism with tourists, and eroticism he finds in terra cotta building facades.

The Cruise is a glimpse into the life and mind of a rather extraordinary citizen of the times, as he fights what he calls “anti-cruise”. Anti-cruise can be described, in a very limited sense, as convention, conformity, and oppression of different levels, and Levitch’s fight is at once provocative, amusing, and always insightful. His fight is neither rancorous nor glorious–it is not the Braveheart fight-to-the-death crusade, but rather it is the day-to-day struggle against his career, aspirations and memories, and this makes it all the more identifiable and inspiring. Levitch has the uncanny ability to crystallize ideas which remain unspoken or indeed semi-formed in the conscience-at-large, and furthermore to plant the seeds of still greater ideas.

This movie may not be at the top of your “to see” list, but it should be.

Movie Review: The Iron Giant

Set in a small town in Maine during the height of the cold war, this film is based on Ted Hughes’ children’s book “The Iron Man” and brought to you by The Simpsons’ Brad Bird. It tells the story of a giant, amnesiac robot who falls to Earth, and is eventually befriended by a local boy, Hogarth Hughes. Hogarth must hide the robot from a paranoid government agent who suspects it a Soviet weapon of war. The truth is that the robot is indeed essentially a giant gun, but hails from a distant planet and bears unbelievable firepower! Ultimately, it is the friendship with the boy that brings out the robot’s compassion and humanity, and saves the town from annihilation.

I liked this film so much that after I saw it, I emailed everyone on my many contact lists and practically begged them to put on their shoes and hit the theatre to support this amazing film. Why should I care? Because I am an ardent believer in supporting cinematic–or any other–efforts that one feels strongly about. And I do feel strongly about this film. The Iron Giant is one of the finest, well-written, non-formulaic, intelligent pieces of animated film I have seen in a long long time, and I watch a lot of cartoons. At the time, just a few weeks after the film opened, it came to my attention that it was not doing so well at the box office. My bulk email was a modest campaign to boost awareness of the film, because in Hollywood there is just one truth: the success of a movie is based on its gross. If a piece of s**t movie does well, more piece of s**t movies like it will get made. Conversely, if an intelligent, well-written movie does not make its financial mark, that kind of movie will fall out of favour with the fatcats who make the decisions back at the studio. I personally would hate to see the entire genre suffer because The Iron Giant is recognized by a wanting dollar return and lack of ubiquitous Happy Meal tie-in claptrap. The Iron Giant is an inspiring movie that can be appreciated by adults for its genuine characters and solid story (not to mention its welcome lack of ill-placed Disneyesque singalongs) and by children for its well-executed animation and springboard for the imagination. If you can still find The Iron Giant in theatres, go see it (again). If not, it’s coming out on video shortly.

And if you don’t want to take my word for it, I can send you the barrage of reply emails I received, with subject lines like “Thanks for the great recommendation…I loved Iron Giant.”

Movie Review: Madre Muerta
aka The Dead Mother. 1993, dir: Juanma Bajo Ulloa

I don’t use the words “brilliant” and “captivating” very often, in fact, this may be the first time they’ve both appeared in the same sentence, or indeed thought, that I have produced. I have no reservation about attributing both of these adjectives to La Madre Muerta, however.

Juanma and Eduardo Bajo Ulloa’s story begins with an amazing bang that holds you fast to your chair for the ensuing 103 minutes. The protagonist, Ismael, is a a psychotic, petty thug whose love for chocolate is stronger than that for his devoted lover, Maite, whose attention he repays with threats and abuse. On one of Ismael’s jobs burgling a house, he is surprised by the owner, the “Dead Mother” in question. Her statement “there is no money” is answered with a fatal shotgun blast that leaves her young daughter, who Ismael meets on the way out, orphaned.

Years later Ismael sees her on the street, now an enchantingly beautiful, but mute and seemingly autistic young woman in the care of a local sanitarium. Ismael, frightened that she has recognized him, kidnaps her and brings her back to Maite at their the house. Ismael wants to throw her in front of a train, but Maite insists a ransom, since they are currently squatting. In the meantime, little Leire grows on both of the criminals, albeit in different ways. This leads to an engaging storyline of conflict, beauty, and twisted redemption. Despite the detestable actions of the lead characters, it is impossible not to care for them. Apart from the fact that the subtitles are a bit hard to read at times, this movie is infallible, and must be watched immediately at all costs!