Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
Monsters vs. Aliens is an excellent example of how technical achievements alone do not make a movie worth watching. A lot of time was clearly spent on visuals, so much so that they overshadow imagination and story. There are fleeting moments of wit, but they do not eclipse the movie’s overwhelming mediocrity. There are only passing references to vintage creature features, and the modern winking references are distracting. Even voice work from well-liked actors/comedians cannot save it.
Susan (Reese Witherspoon) is a pretty, nice woman who is about to marry a local weatherman. She is struck by a glowing meteor on her wedding day (I hate it when that happens). The meteor gives her gigantic size and enormous strength, so the military, led by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), whisk her off to Area 51. There Susan meets other monsters. They are your standard throwbacks to cheesy 50s science fiction. Of the monsters, I only like B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), an indestructible blob with memory issues, and Insectosaurus, a giant cuddly insect. General Monger tells Susan to think of Area 51 as a hotel she cannot leave. That soon changes – we learn that the meteor that struck Susan is made of the most powerful material in the universe, and that the alien Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) will destroy the planet to possess it. The President (Stephen Colbert(!)) decides that the monsters are Earth’s last hope. They fight, and destruction ensues.
Any story, depending on how it’s told, has the potential to entertain. Here the writers squander the promising premise. Consider the President’s first interaction with the aliens. Stephen Colbert is an excellent choice for the role, and I assumed that the he would imbue the dialog with the same wit that permeates his show. I was wrong. Instead of verbal communication, the President proceeds to play the theme from Beverly Hills Cop. Hilarious, right? The audience was silent. These kind of mis-steps happen over and over. Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) says, “Oh. Emm. Gee” in the midst of battle. Such ironic detachment from the material can be done well. In Monsters vs. Aliens these unfunny jokes distract from the story, and undermine the characters. The actors do the best with what they’re given, yet the dialog is so corny and underdeveloped that no one is given a chance to shine. Only Insectosaurus, who does not speak, illicits any chuckles. The visuals are cute if not particularly striking. And the 3D visuals are not necessary – I would have been similarly bored by only two dimensions.
I’m normally a stickler for movie theater etiquette. Those who know me understand that I’m not afraid to reprimand an distracting movie-goer. Chief among my list of annoying patrons are parents who bring their extremely young children. Since the target audience for Monsters vs. Aliens is primarily children, I ama little more forgiving this weekend. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, multiple children start crying. They’re bored. Normally I’d be frustrated with a such a development. Instead I was sympathetic. No one, even the very young, should be forced to sit through something so insipid and fogettable.
Here are better throwbacks to corny low-budget movies from the 40s and 50s:
Fido. Zombies are fundamentally uninteresting. They lurch, decay, and eat. I guess a cult following is the only way such creatures remain a part of popular culture. Though not completely successful, Fido at least makes an honest attempt at originality. It’s set in an alternate 1950s suburban universe – one in which zombies were once a threat, and now lead lives (un-lives?) of forced servitude. Everyone on the block has their own domesticated zombie except for the Robinsons, so Dad procures Fido (Billy Connolly), who becomes more than just a servant. Little Timmy becomes fast friends with his zombie, and soon Fido is playing catch and greedily consuming human flesh. There are more developments. Tim Blake Nelson plays a neighbor who sees his female zombie as a different kind of servant altogether. As with similarly high-concept movies, the earlier scenes that establish the alternate universe are the most compelling. Only when the movie struggles with its plot will you lose interest. Yet it’s amusing to see Connolly, a wonderful actor with a thick Scottish brogue, reduced to nothing but throaty grunts.
Ed Wood. A cursory glance at Tim Burton’s filmography shows that he’s no doubt influenced by classic creature features. So it makes sense that Burton direct this biopic of Hollywood’s legendary worst filmmaker. Johnny Depp stars as Wood, the cross-dressing, angora-loving director of cinematic dung such as Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. The movie follows Wood as he struggles to get his pictures made, and forges an unlikely friendship with Bela Legosi (Martin Landau), the former Dracula well past his prime. Landau won an Academy Award for his weirdly hilarious performance (I love it when he calls Boris Karloff a “limey cocksucker”). Burton regards his subjects with empathy – he sees Wood as a man in love with filmmaking so that he views every take, even disastrous ones, as cinematic gold. Wood is a loser to everyone but himself, which is why he attracts Hollywood’s most desperate souls, including Bill Murray as an aging queen. For my money, Ed Wood is Burton’s best. No scene falls flat, and the movie demonstrates a mastery of tone and evocation of the period. And the Vincent D’Onofrio cameo is as memorable as any scene in Burton’s considerable career.
Military Intelligence and You! From the makers of Syphyllis: The Enemy Below comes this spoof of 40s era army instructional videos. A distinctly American narrator tells us about the importance of intelligence (it allows the army to “distinguish between dangerous enemies and annoying foreigners”). The story concerns Major Nick Reed, a military intelligence analyst struggling to find the dreaded Ghost Squadron. Reed’s former love, Lieutenant Monica Tasty, complicates matters. Really though, the threadbare plot is an excuse for director Dale Kutzera to spoof 40s idealism and the Iraq War. Tongues are firmly in cheeks when characters patiently argue we can’t just go around sending troops into other countries based on mere suspicion. With the Bush administration becoming an increasingly distant memory, the relevance of such a satire wains. And like Fido, the movie loses steam in its final half-hour. Sure, the movie is merely a Troy McClure educational video taken to feature length, and suffers as such. Nonetheless, it has its share of belly laughs, and worth renting if you like you like your humor scathingly dry.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I try to illegally cross the border.