Monday, April 24, 2017

First Time Watches: February 2017

February is the shortest month of the year.  There are only 28 or 29 days, depending on which year is the leap year, and this year’s didn’t have that extra day.  That means there were only 28 days to get movies in.  Funnily enough, I managed to cram more first time watches into February than I have any month since I began writing these posts.  To be fair, many of them were animated shorts that we watched during animation class.  I still wrote about them.

There were 35 first time watches in February.  There will be many different movies and shorts to cover.  One of them involved modern day people going to the middle ages.  One of them involved a shark attack.  One of them involved space exploration, and another involved surviving an uprising.  There were animated shorts and there were cheap thrills.  It was a big month.  Let’s get to the movies before I waste any more of your time.

Michael Crichton is one of my favourite authors.  His way of presenting science fiction ideas with horrific events has fascinated me for years.  I read Timeline a couple of years ago and was very intrigued by the story.  I wondered if the movie was any good.  Well, the movie is not as good as the book.  It’s not that bad either.  It told the story in a strong enough way to keep it entertaining, yet it seemed to be lacking in the visuals of the past.  It felt dirty but not dirty enough.  It felt dangerous but not dangerous enough.  Basically, the filmmakers kept the action of the book and took out the horrific elements.  Timeline was a serviceable adaptation.  That’s all it was.

On the surface, this movie is about how out of control hazing can get in fraternities.  As the main character attempted to join his brother’s frat, he was subjected to increasingly more damaging initiation rituals.  The real emotional core of the story, however, was the character trying to overcome a traumatic experience where he had been beaten and robbed.  At the same time, his brother was realizing that fraternity life wasn’t as important as everyone made it out to be.  The places that it went were very dark and made for a disturbing watch.

Grand Hotel
Sometimes when I’m trying to pick a movie to watch, I pull out one of my many box sets and turn on the first movie I haven’t watched.  Grand Hotel was that for my Warner Brothers 100 year set.  It’s a great precursor to the movies of Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson.  The performances were solid as the characters’ lives intersected during their stays at the Grand Hotel in Berlin.  Everything led to a shocking climax that changed the lives of each character.  I may not have been entertained the whole way through, but I appreciate how this movie can be seen as the blueprint for movies like The Player and Magnolia.

The Mechanical Cow
This early animated short from Walt Disney showed the imagination that would turn him into one of the greatest entertainment personalities ever.  It was reminiscent of early Mickey Mouse cartoons, which makes sense since Mickey was Disney’s replacement when he could no longer use Oswald Rabbit.  What made it stand out among other shorts of the time was that the characters felt fully formed instead of vessels for jokes.  Where characters like Felix the Cat were popular, it was sometimes difficult to describe their personalities.  Oswald and the cow felt like actual characters.  They were more than simple laugh machines.

Alice’s Egg Plant
Okay, so this is a pretty great animated short.  There are two main reasons for it.  The style of animation was inventive for the time.  Many shorts involved putting animation over a live action setting.  The Alice cartoons did the opposite and put live action over animation.  It was unique and visually stunning.  The other reason is the story, which is as strong now as it was back when the short was made.  It was about chickens going on strike because they didn’t want to lay eggs anymore and what the farmer had to do to get the product.  It’s entertaining, funny, and meaningful, all wrapped in an inventive animation package.

Felix Saves the Day
The Felix that I’m used to seeing is the Felix of my 1990s childhood.  The classic Felix of the silent era was a different beast.  In Felix Saves the Day, he felt like a Charlie Chaplin style silent comedian.  There were some weird moments that left me wondering how anyone thought them up.  While Felix was trying to think of a way to break into a jail cell, question marks appeared above his head.  He climbed them to get into a window.  Stuff like that never ceases to surprise me.

Felix the Cat as Romeeow
The absurd visuals continued with this Felix cartoon that masterfully added sound.  It was about Felix wooing a woman with his musical talent.  The ways in which he performed the music were out there, including using his tail as a wire to connect to a gramophone.  His actions didn’t come without struggle though.  There was another suitor for the lady’s affection and some animals that got in the way of Felix’s attempts at love.  It all came together to make an entertaining five minutes or so of musical comedy.

Self-referential horror has its own little corner in the entertainment world.  Movies like Scream, The Final Girls, and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil have made light of the tropes that audiences have come to know.  Gorenos is another entry in this style.  It isn’t as successful, since it doesn’t lean as far into the tropes.  The movie wants to be like Scream, but tries to have its own story, which weakens the meta aspects.  There’s a lot of good in Gorenos, but it wanted to be two different things and that muddied the water.

Theodore Rex
There were a few big things in film during the early 1990s that the producers of Theodore Rex tried to capitalize on: dinosaurs, buddy cop movies, and Whoopi Goldberg.  This movie threw all three together in a very unsuccessful way.  It wasn’t because of these elements that the movie was bad.  It didn’t know what its audience was.  The detective story was made for adults with the murder and sexual references.  But there were fart jokes and children playing games littered throughout for younger viewers.  The movie wanted to be for everyone but ended up alienating them instead.

Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special
What is amazing about this special is that it was great even though the lead was weak.  Michael Bolton is not the best headliner.  The people that he surrounded himself with brought it up to greatness.  It was directed by Scott Aukerman of Comedy Bang Bang and Akiva Schaffer of The Lonely Island.  They brought many of their friends into the special including Sarah Silverman, Will Forte, Tim Robinson, Andy Samberg, Maya Rudolph, Randall Park, and Fred Armisen.  If you’re looking for a new, hilarious Valentine’s Day staple, look no further than this.

Plane Crazy
Back to animated shorts, this was the first Mickey Mouse short that we watched for cartoon history class.  It was filled with wacky airplane hijinks.  Basically, it’s just another adventure.  There’s nothing special about it.  Mickey flew a plane and took Minnie for a ride.  There were no innovative techniques or interesting visuals.  It felt like Mickey could have been replaced with any cartoon star.

Gallopin’ Gaucho
This one is a tad racist.  Those were the times.  Looking past the racism of the cartoon, there was some interesting stuff during a chase scene.  The comedy of the chase had strong visual gags that still hold up.  This could be a great cartoon if not for the Mexican racism.

Steamboat Willie
Sound was new to cinema and Walt Disney wanted to experiment with it.  Much of the animated short involved Mickey Mouse playing music by using the different items aboard a steamboat.  He used pots, pans, and animals to keep the tune going.  It’s experimental work like this that has made the Disney studio into the juggernaut that it has been for nearly a century.

The Klondike Kid
This was basically Gallopin’ Gaucho done again, in a different setting.  It wasn’t as racist, which is a plus, but there was one moment that struck everyone in the animation class like a hammer strikes nails.  When Mickey caught up to the cat who had kidnapped Minnie, he shouted something that sounded like “You cunt!”  Surely, that can’t be what he said.  It sounded like it though.  All in all, the short was fun for what it was, but nothing special.

Mickey’s Revue
More musical fun from the house of mouse.  Mickey was putting on a musical show.  Goofy was there to watch and laugh.  The best part, however, was the finale being interrupted by a whole lot of kittens that bounced into, out of, and all around the instruments.  Time and effort had to be put into making the hundreds of kittens. It paid off in the best visual feast in any of the Mickey Mouse cartoons we watched.  The kicker is that we weren’t even supposed to watch it.  Someone just wanted to see more Goofy.

Makin’ ‘Em Move
The real problem with this animated short from the Aesop’s Fables series was that the cartoon within the cartoon was more entertaining than the cartoon outside the cartoon.  The idea of the cartoon characters making a cartoon and presenting it was interesting, but the story of the cartoon they made was more fun than the story of them making it.  It’s hard to describe any of the characters.  The cartoon within the cartoon had easily defined characters with easily defined actions.  That was where the cartoon failed.  Time was spent to make the cartoon within the cartoon entertaining.  The framing cartoon, the one that people came to see, was weaker.

The Flying Mouse
The Silly Symphonies era of Disney is a very interesting era.  Each of the shorts pushed the boundaries of animation.  The Flying Mouse was an emotional story about a mouse wishing to be something he wasn’t and discovering that he was perfect as a mouse.  He wanted to grow wings and fly around like a bird.  When he was granted that wish, it caused the other animals to fear him or make fun of him.  Many elements of the short would come into play in later Disney feature films.  There was a fairy, which would be improved in later animation such as Pinocchio.  The flying of the mouse would become a crucial element for Dumbo.  The cartoon on its own was good, if not a little mean to the main character, but the work they would improve upon made it more important than just a good cartoon.

The Tortoise and the Hare
Somehow, I had never seen this before.  It’s the basic story of the tortoise racing the hare and the hare’s cockiness allowing the tortoise to win.  The innovation of this cartoon was the characterization of the two characters as well as the speed animation.  Cartoon characters didn’t tend to move as fast as the hare.  This was fifteen years before Road Runner.  The Tazmanian Devil wouldn’t be around for twenty years.  There were small moments of characters speeding by action in movies, but Disney was pushing the boundaries with this short by making the speed into an entire setpiece.  The hare played tennis by himself.  This was an innovative use of speed.  It was an influential cartoon.

The Old Mill
Through the early era of animation, up until the introduction of sound, the innovations primarily had to do with how to move characters, and how to get more creative and elaborate in movements.  With the invention of sound with film, animation began to experiment with what it could do in synching the two.  But that didn’t mean the visual side was ignored.  The Old Mill brought depth to the background of hand drawn animation.  As a storm ravaged through an old mill, animals tried to survive the night.  They hid in nooks and crannies, ran along cracking boards and beams, and just tried to avoid death.  There was masterful work to bring the foreground and background to life.  The depth added to the story, showcasing the space that was being destroyed.  It added a third dimension that allowed weather to come in and out of every part of the mill.  This was the best of the Silly Symphonies.

Flowers and Trees
To finish off that particular animation class, we watched one more Silly Symphonies short.  This one didn’t have the depth of The Old Mill or the characterization of The Tortoise and the Hare.  It was a simple exercise in bringing plants and fire to life.  The plants interacted and moved around.  The flames grew arms and legs to chase the plants.  It was a silly little cartoon that brought a burning forest to life.  Of course this was important to future Disney projects.  Fantasia has a brilliant Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene that takes a lot from this while having another ten years of animation experience.  Not the best of the Silly Symphonies, but still a fun one.

No Escape
This had been kicking around Netflix Canada for a while and I decided to finally give it a shot.  The main three cast members were strong.  Owen Wilson played a father protecting his family in a bad situation.  Lake Bell played his wife.  Pierce Brosnan was an acquaintance they made at the beginning.  No Escape was about the family of four (husband, wife, two kids) trying to survive a violent uprising in an Asian country.  The action and tension were well crafted, but the ending felt like it held back on how bad the situation should have gotten.  It was a good movie that had an underwhelming conclusion.

Cheap Thrills
One of my favourite horror movies of this decade is The Innkeepers.  The two leads from that film, Pat Healy and Sara Paxton, teamed up again for this thrill ride of escalating challenges.  A man and woman out celebrating the woman’s birthday hired two men to compete in tasks to earn money.  Things started off low key and built up to many points of no return.  It was fascinating, disturbing, and had Ethan Embry doing his thing.  That is, being a great character actor.  The movie isn’t for everyone, but it sure as hell entertained me.

Is My Palm Read
Back to my animation class, we watched some of the old Fleischer Brothers animated shorts.  They made me realize that I do not like Betty Boop.  The cartoons themselves could be perfectly fine, such as a couple that will come up later.  It’s the character that I dislike.  I find her annoying.  Her voice ruins my enjoyment of the cartoons.  Is My Palm Read was the worst of the four Betty Boop shorts that we watched.  She went to a fortune teller who was a dog.  The fortune teller told a story of her being chased by ghosts and being saved.  It was pretty boring, really.

No! No! A Thousand Times No!
Betty Boop was the only thing I didn’t like in this short.  The visuals were interesting with the vaudeville theme and the physics defying action as the heroic man fought the bad guy.  The hero used the gravitational pull of a hot air balloon to attack the bad guy who had kidnapped Betty Boop.  The only thing that kept me from liking the short was the song that Betty Boop sang.  By the point that the song ended and the rest of the short began (which broke the fourth wall by showing that the characters were actors on stage), there wasn’t enough time left to get me on board.  It was an interesting idea hurt by a main character that I don’t like.

Be Human
There was a great message against animal cruelty that I appreciated.  There was still a Betty Boop song that annoyed me, but this was an improvement over the others.  The song played right into the message of the short.  A newer character named Gramps appeared, and he was the best thing to happen to Betty Boop cartoons.  He created elaborate mechanisms to do work for him.  In the case of this short, he created a device to punish a man who was being cruel to animals.  Speaking of which, the depiction of animal cruelty was over-the-top but effective.  As a viewer, you wanted the guy to be punished because of just how badly he harmed animals.  Gramps’s punishment felt sweeter because of it, and the short really got the message across.  This was the best of the Betty Boop shorts.

House Cleaning Blues
This felt more like a Gramps short with Betty Boop in it than a Betty Boop short featuring Gramps.  Betty was in the first little bit trying to clean the house and singing about it.  But the short was about Gramps showing up and cleaning the entire house with his contraptions.  He was McGuyver before McGuyver was a thing.  Betty Boop wasn’t even there for that portion of the short.  She was in the other room, getting changed offscreen.  It was Gramps doing the cleaning and the entertainment came from it.  This wasn’t the best of the Betty Boop shorts.  It was one of the more entertaining ones, though.

Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves
I’ve always enjoyed Popeye for some strange reason.  I don’t know what it is, but I’m entertained whenever I see Popeye cartoons.  I had never seen this one, and was pleasantly entertained by it.  It was a retelling of the Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves story that I only know because of an episode of Wishbone.  What stood out was the use of 3-D modeling that the Fleischer Brothers included.  Laying the animation over 3-D models gave the short a unique look.  Thanks to that, the Popeye short stood out.  The jokes were decent.  It was the look that made it special.

The Magnetic Telescope
Superman went up against Lex Luthor in this Fleischer Brothers short.  There’s not much to say about it.  Out of the two Superman animated shorts that we watched for animation class, this was the one that wasn’t memorable.  It worked in a Saturday morning cartoon sort of way.  The animation was good.  But it just didn’t have that memorable hook.

The Mechanical Monsters
This was a better Superman short.  It had robots robbing places and Superman going up against their maker.  It was memorable, it tried something more than Lex Luthor, and it was entertaining.  Again, there was good animation.  The Superman shorts didn’t try to be innovative.  They were just there.  That’s not a problem as long as they’re entertaining.  Entertainment is all that matters.

The Three Musketeers
Many different versions of the Alexandre Dumas story have been made on the big screen.  There was the one in the 1990s with Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen.  There was the one from a few years ago with Logan Lerman and Orlando Bloom.  There was even an Asylum knockoff.  This version from the 1970s was a classical take on the material.  It was played sincere, and that’s what made it as strong as it was.  There was no need to make the sword fighting look cool.  The skill of knowing how to use them is cool in itself.  If you want to see a version with real sword fighting, and a version that didn’t need to be updated, this is the iteration for you.

The Shallows
Good shark movies come few and far between.  There are only two ways to do them.  One way is to show so many sharks that the amount seems overwhelming.  The other way is the barely show any shark and make it into an unseen predator that can jump out and show its monstrous face at any moment.  You pretty much have to make them like Alien or Aliens, but with sharks.  The Shallows took the less is more approach.  The shark was always there, but it wasn’t always in the viewer’s face.  It would come out of nowhere to threaten the main character.  It wasn’t about seeing the shark so much as knowing it was there.  That was how the tension was built, and that it why the movie was effective.  The only problem was a jellyfish scene that came out of nowhere.  The rest was great.

Amityville Death House
A group of friends went to stay at one of their aunt’s houses in Amityville.  While there, everyone began experiencing strange phenomena and possession.  This was one of the many cheap, low budget Amityville movies to come out in the past two years, and one of the two Mark Polonia directed Amityville movies from that timespan.  It isn’t great, but it is watchable.  There were some good moments, and it wasn’t afraid to go to loonyville.  A woman grew spider legs.  What?  That happened.

Amityville Exorcism
This is the other Amityville movie from Mark Polonia.  It had no connection with Amityville Death House.  None of the characters returned.  The story didn’t continue.  Strangely, it shared some actors in new roles.  It was about a woman becoming possessed after touching some evil wood.  A priest went to her house to rid her of the evil.  He also wanted to exorcise the evil wood.  It was worse than the other Amityville movie.  The acting was worse.  The story was worse.  It didn’t go as crazy when it would have been more fun to do so.  All in all, one of the worst of the month.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The Star Trek that I’m used to is the modern franchise that took its action from Star Wars.  Watching the original movie follow-up to the series gave me an appreciation for older Star Trek.  It put more investment into the thinking side of science fiction.  This was a character piece.  There were a few problems with it, though.  Too much time was spent showing exteriors of the Enterprise.  The movie felt like 50% miniatures with a space background and 50% actual story.  It’s a good interesting movie, just a little too focused on “look at our space visuals.”

Get Out
There is no experience like watching a horror movie in a theater.  The audience for horror movies always seems more reactive to what happens.  They aren’t jerks (you know the jerks, those teenage kids at comedies like Popstar).  They’re at the movie to have a good time.  They want to be scared.  They want to laugh at the dark humour.  That’s what happened at my screening of Get Out.  The audience was there to enjoy a new horror movie.  As for the movie itself, it’s pretty damn great.  There are legitimate scares and good comedy within a tense story.  It called back to horror movies of the past without directly referencing them.  Basically, it made itself unique while being familiar.  The racial themes worked too.  I had a great time watching it and would gladly see it again.

That wraps up 28 days of watching movies.  There were many that I enjoyed and a few that I didn’t.  There were some that I will throw into my rotation, and there are others that I wish I could put out of my mind forever.  That’s near how every month goes for movie watching.  It’s always a gamble going.  You never know what you’re going to get.

March is lining up to be more of the same, which is a good thing.  There will be some good and some bad, like always.  I can say right now that I saw the Eagles of Death Metal documentary, and I’ve seen The Nice Guys.  If you want to know more, you’ll have to come back next month for the next post.  See you guys then. 

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