Mars Attacks!

Mars Attacks!Tim Burton practically defines the word eccentric. His movies run the gamut from goofy (Ed Wood) to contemplative (Big Fish) to freaky (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) to downright odd and well-nigh unclassifiable (Edward Scissorhands). Mars Attacks falls more in the latter category, even though it is first and foremost a pretty spot-on good-old-fashioned parody. The subject of Burton’s lens in this film is 1950’s sci-fi, with its themes of paranoia, alien invasions, American superiority, and national wonder at what awaits us in the great unknown of outer space. Mars Attacks! begins with several vignettes introducing a wide swath of caricatures characters ranging from the President of the United States to a self-absorbed TV fashion reporter to a washed-up prizefighter waiting tables in Vegas. But before you can say “baby needs a new pair of space boots,” giant flying saucers from Mars have landed on the planet with aliens who have seemingly come in peace. As you might expect, though, things are not what they seem and pretty soon the aliens are blasting everyone in sight with their ray guns that turn people into red and green skeletons. No explanation is given, nor is one really needed, and for the next hour and a half it’s basically humans vs. aliens in an all-out global battle for survival.

Every character is an overwrought cartoon, which is part of the fun, and anyone who tries to take this movie seriously is missing the point.  The idea of a martian invasion is just a canvas for Burton to weave some seriously weird yet downright heartwarming tales of idealism, heroism, and big-headed aliens with ray guns that turn people into green skeletons.  Mars Attacks! has all the subtlety of a cinder block, and flaunts it proudly:  Martians land on earth in giant flying saucers and start shooting ray guns at everyone.  The military wants to nuke ’em.  The academic elite wants to study them. The hippies want to make peace with them. And the reporters want to interview them.  Characters are as dispensable as their accents, and the special effects would be laughably cheesy if that wasn’t how they were supposed to be.

Professor Donald Kessler

Pierce Brosnan playing (what else?) a brilliant British scientist.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that this movie was released in 1996, the same year as another alien invasion movie you might have heard of called Independence Day.  But where Emmerich’s bombastic blockbuster was about two sizes too big for its britches, and took itself a little too seriously, Mars Attacks! gets everything just about right. Even the aliens, with gigantic heads and a language that consists solely of barking out the words “Ack! Ack!” are a pitch-perfect sendup of the oh so realistic extra terrestrial creatures in Independence Day, Close Encounters, E.T., and so many other science fiction films.  Of course the best reason to see Mars Attacks! is Jack Nicholson as the President (as well as a seedy Las Vegas businessman) and easily one of the funniest roles of his career.  Hamming it up at every turn, chewing the scenery like it was freeze-dried ice cream, and flashing his signature condescending grin every chance he gets, it’s a role only he could have pulled off with such overwrought tongue-in-cheek delivery.  It’s a sight to behold.

Mars Attacks! is blisteringly funny and bitingly sarcastic, but it does have its share of flaws too.  The lack of any coherent storyline is a bit of a drag, and it is somewhat frustrating that we never really find out why the martians have attacked in the first place.  But any movie in which Sarah Jessica Parker’s head is glued to a chihuahua is OK by me.


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BatmanI was nine years old when Tim Burton rebooted the beloved Batman franchise, replacing the aging Adam West with a much younger (and, for many fans, much more controversial) Michael Keaton and giving audiences their first look at a Gotham City that was dripping with darkness.  Far from the bright palettes and cartoony enemies of the 1960’s TV show, this new Batman was grim, unflinching, and strikingly violent.  It also ushered in a new era for comic book movies and summer blockbusters, and reaping a pile of cash for Warner Brothers that continues to grow to this day.  But was the movie any good, or was it all spectacle and marketing?

The answer is a little of both.  There are few effects-heavy movies that stand the test of time; aside from the original Star Wars trilogy, Kubrik’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey, and classics like Jason and Argonauts, modern audiences have little patience for obvious blue-screen chroma key and once high tech effects like stop motion.  Unfortunately, Batman does not hold up quite so well, but this wouldn’t be a problem if the plot and acting were any good.  As it stands, Batman can be seen today as an average comic book film or a sub-par comic book film, but either way it’s not much use outside of a footnote in the annals of summer blockbuster history books.

I grew up on the cheesy but lovable Batman after-school reruns where Batman and Robin battled an endless array of implausible foes while spouting dialog so terrible it made George Lucas look like Shakespeare.  It was campy and fun, and you have to respect a guy like Adam West who acts so badly with such utter conviction.  Burton eschews much of this campiness, but his version of Batman is trapped in movie limbo:  despite the dark and serious tone of the film, we are nonetheless asked to accept wild and outlandish premises that only work when planted firmly in the roots of 1960’s cheese.  Street thugs, crime bosses, and city officials are depicted as two-dimensional caricatures, barking out lines of such obvious exposition that it’s like watching an eighth-grade school project.  Jack Napier, one of the higher-ups in the Gotham crime syndicate, falls into a giant vat of green toxic waste which transforms him into the venerable Joker.  And his plot to take down the city (because what else would a criminal mastermind do) involves contaminating all the city’s cosmetic products with poison that causes victims to die of laughter (no I am not making this up).

Kind of makes the idea of exploding sharks seem almost normal.

Batman: Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton is Batman...striking bewilderment into the hearts of Gotham City criminals.

As if to countermand the potential silliness of some of these plot devices, this Batman is surprisingly violent.  Almost too much for a PG-13 rating, and certainly more than what most parents would be comfortable having their kids watching.  Watching the Joker dance around the room as he gleefully pumps his victim full of lead is a far cry from the classic Wham-Bam-Pow fight scenes of yore.  It serves the character, one might argue, but to me it reeks of overcompensation.  But throughout the film Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker is extremely well acted and the character more or less holds his own when pitted against Heath Ledger’s masterful portrayal of the same character in 2008’s The Dark Knight.  Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the bland, charisma-draining performance of Michael Keaton.  Woefully miscast as Bruce Wayne and his crimefighting alter ego, Keaton somehow manages to pump out lines like “I am Batman” with a straight face, though probably because he does it while wearing a mask.  The romance between him and Vicky Vale (Kim Bassinger, trying her best to fend off her 40’s) is as shallow and unbelievable as we might expect from a 1989 comic book movie, and only serves to give Batman a reason to go after the Joker in the end.  After all, what better motivation could a superhero have for fighting the bad guy than to get back his kidnapped girlfriend?

I have a feeling that if Tim Burton were to be able to re-make his original film today it would be more in line with Christopher Nolan’s mature, dark, and introspective Batman Returns and The Dark Knight. But back in 1989 audiences were hardly accustomed to plausible superheroes with innter turmoil and realistic villains, and in that sense I can kind of understand the motivation for straddling the line between comic book absurdity and dark reflections of reality.  But ultimately Batman is a lot of spectacle without much substance to back it up.


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The Bucket List

I bet you’ve seen a Rob Reiner film, even if you don’t know it.  One of Hollywood’s seminal dramatic/comedic talents, he has been making movies for decades, and though his name doesn’t have the box-office draw of a Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, or Gary Marshall, he is like the tortoise to their hares.

Rob Reiner: Director, Producer, Actor

Rob Reiner: Director, Producer, Actor

Time after time he consistently puts out good, sometimes great, movies with well-rounded characters, moving storylines, and usually manages to pull top-notch actors into his projects too.  Consider the following résumé:

  • This is Spinal Tap
  • Stand By Me
  • The Princess Bride
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Misery
  • A Few Good Men
  • The American President
  • The Story of Us
  • Alex and Emma

This is just an excerpt mind you, and it doesn’t include Reiner’s extensive array of acting and producing roles either.  He certainly has a way of bringing stories to life and infusing his movies with charm, intelligence, razor-sharp wit, and endearing (if not always likable) characters.

The Bucket List, starring two longtime Hollywood heavyweights Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, is somewhat of a curiosity, especially given its pedigree.  The story is fine, the acting is good, the emotional heartstrings are well-plucked…but something is ultimately missing from this tale of two men making up for lost time.

Freeman plays Carter Chambers, a mechanic with the smarts of a Harvard graduate, who always let life get in the way of following his ambitions.  He has spent his years dutifully providing for his family while allowing his marriage to stagnate and children to grow up with a father (now a grandfather) who is merely existing, not truly living.  While in the hospital recovering from a recent cancer treatment he meets Edward Cole, a Richard Branson-esque billionaire hospital owner (oh, the irony!) who has spent his life in pursuit of fleeting pleasures and the almighty dollar, at the expense of a family or any real personal relationships.  Cole, wonderfully brought to life by Jack Nicholson who provides the right balance of dark humor and sarcasm, convinces Chambers to write down the things he has always wanted to do before he dies, and as soon as the two of them are well enough to leave the hospital, the take off for a jaunt around the world crossing items off their “bucket list.”

From then on the movie plays out like a road trip comedy, but without a destination there is simply an exploration of the two men and their growing friendship, renewed sense of vigor for life despite facing imminent mortality, and unwillingness to deal with shattered family relationships.  Freeman, channeling his Shawshank Redemption character Ellis Redding, is somewhat of a spiritual mentor-slash-guidance counselor for Cole, who (betcha didn’t see this coming…) can buy anything he wants but feels more alone and empty than ever.  As they crisscross the globe going on a safari, visiting the pyramids, and indulging in the finer things in life, I kept on wishing there was more of a connection between the characters.  The two grown men are brand new best friends who know virtually nothing about each other–kind of like a geriatric version of High School Musical, minus the singing and dancing.

Skydiving when youre 70?  Better late than never...

Skydiving when you're 70? Better late than never...

Without missing the forest for the trees, though, there is a lot to like about Reiner’s film.  While many Hollywood movies celebrate the fleeting glory of self-indulgence and living for the moment, consequences-be-darned, it’s refreshing to see a movie whose central characters look back on life and come to the conclusion that they would have been better off living for the good of others.  I also appreciate that a central part of Chambers’ life and family relationships is his faith in Jesus Christ, and he is even seen leading his family in a very sincere dinner prayer near the end of the movie.  And while I’m on somewhat of a high moral soapbox here, let me also praise Reiner for extolling the virtues of a monogamous marital relationship.  While Chambers and his wife do not have the perfect marriage, they are committed to each other and to their family, and Chambers even says that he has never been with another woman in his life (in many ways the opposite of Reiner’s earlier protagonist Harry Burns).

Aside from a few problems with the script, The Bucket List is an entertaining but often sad look at what it means to have a life well lived, and tugs at the very heartstrings so masterfully plucked by masters of the genre like Frank Capra.  In fact, I daresay that Capra himself would probably be proud of Reiner’s film.

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