Saturday, August 26, 2006

Your basic video game movie rant

It's kind of ironic that the same week The Wizard finally finds its way onto DVD, is the same week I happened to see Doom. The irony lies in the fact that 'The Wizard' was the first movie genuinely based on a video game (this excludes such titles as The Last Starfighter or War Games, which were about fictional video games), while 'Doom' represents the worst possible nose dive of potential that video games hold for movie adaptations.

Before I get to the shit that is 'Doom,' first let me look back at 'The Wizard.' Not only was it the perfect movie for kids of the Nintendo generation who were repeatedly told it would rot our brains (or even worse, that we would misinterpret the ethics of vitality contained in Mario Bros. and actually believed we had three 'lives') and rob our youth of any physical interaction -- but I believe that its first-run showing contained the first trailer for another epic movie for said generation:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 'The Wizard' is a cut-and-paste youth road quest story, with two interesting plot points: their destination was 'Video Game Armageddon' and the movie gave the masses its first taste of the ultra-hyped (and deservedly so) Super Mario Bros. 3 ('Nobody said anything about a new game!').

So as 'The Wizard' is the alpha, 'Doom' may as well be the omega of video game movies. You may recall that well before even seeing 'Doom,' I wrote about how I
would have done the movie, and how do those thoughts stand after seeing it? Exactly the same, 'Doom' completely missed the boat on the few elements of the Doom game that would have translated to a successful movie. The idea of fighting an army of monsters from Hell? Nope, we get one (1) human/alien species and your usual scientists-turned-zombies as the enemies. One solitary soldier mowing down said baddies? Sorry, for all but the last 10 minutes, our 'heroes' are just that -- a team of marines, leading to sequences sometimes lifted directly from 'Aliens.' And the ending -- THE ending which in my version would make the whole movie? Not even close, when we get to what passes as an exciting climax, there is no reason to care any more.

The most frustrating part of 'Doom' for a once-gamer like myself (the demise of my button-mashing persona is detailed
here) is that it is devoid of any creativity or apparent effort. It could have easily been titled 'Quake' or 'Half-Life' and no one would have really noticed. The only aspect directly linking the movie to the game (besides the semi-amusing BFG 9000 scene) is an extended sequence shot in first-person, as if it's the game come to life -- or something. It held my interest initially but was way too long and came off as a desperate ploy to please the unlucky souls who paid to see the movie expecting it to actually be based on the game.

So is it possible to still make a successful video game movie? To answer this, let me steer you toward my pick as the best game movie:
Mortal Kombat. Yes, 'Mortal Kombat,' the Paul W.S. Anderson-directed adaptation which amazingly was No. 1 at the box office for four weeks in 1995. What did 'Mortal Kombat' do it? Well for one, it came out at exactly the right time -- when the game was still popular (MK3 had just hit arcades and a few other incarnations were on the way), in the case of 'Doom,' interest in the game probably peaked shortly after a minimally-improved Doom II was released in 1994. 'Mortal Kombat' was also willing to have its tongue slightly in cheek (much like the game it adapted) -- a good example of this is the choice to cast Christopher Lambert as the informative demi-god Rayden (!). The budget was of course modest, but the effects were perfect, giving the movie the look of a video game. While it was no masterpiece, you could say that 'Mortal Kombat' was as good as it could have possibly been, and probably shattered any expectations fans of the game had.

My fear is that the complete failure of 'Doom,' will dampen any future excitement for movies of this genre, which won't be a tragedy by any means, but it will deal a defeat to persons like myself who hold out hope that video game films low on budget but high on creativity can be a pleasant affair. The upcoming Halo project could renew my optimism, since it fits into the 'Mortal Kombat' model, but it will take more than another 'Aliens' remake.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

George Lucas' Office Space

Much more than a low-budget science fiction movie, George Lucas' 1971 film THX 1138 is an early indictment of the corporate world that is perhaps more accessible in today's Dilbert culture than it was upon its release. I had always been intrigued by this movie, and finally got to see it thanks to Turner Classic Movies, which showed its theatrical cut (a director's cut, complete with the typical Lucas CGI upgrades is the only version on DVD). It's a shame that the new version is what most people will be exposed to now, because the special effects in the original cut are spectacular in their own right and sometimes breathtaking.

Set apparently very far in the future
, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) lives in a subeterranean world where the masses are given a steady dose of numbing drugs by some kind of governing body, so to keep them docile and more efficient. THX works in an extremely dangerous assembly line job, apparently creating the happy chrome-faced robots which keep the peace. But his day-to-day routine starts to change when he and his female roommate LUH 3417 stop taking their drugs and slowly start to feel emotions such as love and yearn for an escape of some kind. Love, sex and even friends are outlawed in the quest for maximum efficiency, but as THX persists in his escape attempts, he finds that the laws put in place to govern the masses cannot handle a single rogue.

Very little is explained about the world THX inhabits, but we get smart little bits of exposition here and there: after leaving work, THX buys a strange toy, which he summarily throws away after returning home; the state-run entertainment offers three channels: sex (a naked woman dancing), comedy (a man being beaten by police) and information (apparently smart, but empty conversation); THX and others find answers to their problems by entering a confessional and listening to pre-recorded bits of wisdom from the state-designed God.

The boldest decision Lucas made with this film was choosing not to show whatever person or thing controls this society. It would have been easy to create an Emperor Palpatine character, issuing commands as THX escapes, but the atmosphere is made more frightening since we are only shown the lower levels of 'management' and there is no mention of the highest branch -- if such a level even exists.

What we are shown is a sprawling underground world devoid of beauty or anything of interest. In a way it is a utopian culture with little chance for crime or upheaval, but on the other hand its complex beaurocracy system is deeply flawed. To punish THX for his sexual crimes, his mind is 'numbed' at his job, but this nearly causes a huge industrial disaster because it takes so long to get the clearance just to turn the punishment off.

Though it takes some effort to stay with the first act, 'THX 1138' really starts to fly in the final 20 minutes, as THX finds that corporate loopholes will greatly aid his escape -- even though he has no idea what is outside the walls. The final chase finds THX in a future supercar flying down the massive infrastructure, weaving through traffic and away from his captors. The sequence is amazing for its time, especially considering Lucas' modest budget, and foreshadows his more spectacular scenes in 'Star Wars.'

'THX 1138' was no doubt inspired by the ideas of rebellion of that era, showing that a system designed to control large masses can be bested by an individual, but it today it resonates with the issues of government surveillance, and offers an effective skewer of the corporate world. I haven't seen the director's cut yet, but I'm sure it's just as entertaining. Anyone looking to see a different side of Lucas, and a ground-breaking take on the future, should check out 'THX 1138.'

Friday, August 11, 2006

New arrivals at the DVD Panache Library

Think it's about time I sorted through a few of the noteworthy additions to the DVD Panache Library:

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection

Though I am guilty of once trashing this set, I couldn't be more happy with it after picking it up at the low low price of $70 from DeepDiscountDVD's annual take-an-extra-20%-off sale. With 14 mostly-excellent movies, all remastered special editions, contained in the most handsome box set packaging (other views here and here) you've ever seen, $5-per-movie is a price that can't be resisted.While there certainly are some films in here that should never be listed under 'masterpiece' (**cough**Topaz, Torn Curtain, Family Plot**cough**), I can't really get mad, since Universal obviously does not have the rights to some of his other 'true' masterpieces, which were largely included in Warner's Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection.A lot of the movies included I have not seen yet, I'm particularly looking forward to finally seeing 'The Trouble With Harry' and 'Marnie.'

The John Wayne-John Ford Film Collection

Yes, I've certainly gushed about this set before, and it has lived up to my lofty expectations. Most of my post-purchase glee is centered on the Ultimate Collector's Edition of The Searchers. Not only do you get a 1950s Searchers comic book, tons of press clippings and set photos and can even send away for a free 27x40 poster (three weeks and counting on that one), the extras are great, helped in large part by another fantastic Peter Bogdanovich commentary. For those who enjoyed Peter's commentary on the Citizen Kane disc, it's the same idea here, he knew and respected John Ford but can still cast an objective eye on his best work. The movie also gets an eye-popping new transfer which makes it even more enjoyable. I hadn't seen this for quite some time and was surprised by how short it seemed, I had a memory of it being nearly 3 hours long, but it checks in at just over 2. I may have to devote a post in the future to 'The Searchers,' I've watched it twice since getting the set and a third is on the way when I convince my wife to watch it with me.

Mr. Show: The Complete Series

I've stumbled on to a few great DVD deals over my life, but this was one that just blew me away. You still have to pony up $30 for any one of the three Mr. Show volumes, then earlier this year, the Complete Series came out at around $90, offering the consumer a savings of zero dollars (Amazon currently lists it at $72). So you could imagine my surprise when BestBuy had it on sale for $40! It's a great deal for a wildly entertaining and underseen show, which is now getting play late night on TBS of all places. If you're burned out from SNL now, try Mr. Show, as they make a point to stay away from parodies of current events and TV shows/movies, instead just using fantastic writing to create riotous sketches. If there's one gripe, this is probably the most cumbersomely-packaged box set I've ever seen, removing the sleeves is a delicate process and getting them back in is even harder. To make matters worse, there's no 'play all' feature.

Dazed and Confused: The Criterion Collection

I thought I could resist this one, since I already owned the decent 'Flashback Edition' that came out last year, but the more I read about it, the more I knew it would soon be resting on my shelf. In addition to the wildly creative packaging (a fantastic amalgam of a high school yearbook and the cover of Led Zeppelin III), the picture is greatly cleaned up, Richard Linklater finally lends a very informative commentary track and you also get a host of typical Criterion goodies (insert with a variety of essays, original poster). If you're a fan of the movie you have to pick this up, especially now that Amazon is selling it for only $23.

Recent gem:

Sometimes you read praise about a movie that makes it impossible for you not to see it within a week. When Jim Emerson recently said, 'there was no better film in the 1980s than
Cutter's Way,' I immediately moved the intoxicating movie to the top of my Blockbuster queue. Best of the 80s? You don't throw praise around like that on any movie, and although the 80s was nowhere near the 70s in terms of pantheon films, there's still plenty of competition.

Though I'm not ready to annoint 'Cutter's Way' like Emerson did, I can certainly see why he would. Released in 1981, Emerson makes the great point that it feels like it belongs in the 70s, but it makes a statement that must have reverberated through the generation of the 60s as they were entering a new decade. And unlike the overrated The Big Chill, whose once-powerful message has faded away, 'Cutter's Way' still packs a punch. What earned the film a spot in Emerson's blog was its unforgettable opening shot, which brings us into the middle of a Spanish Days parade in Santa Barbara, eventually introducing us to Jeff Bridge's playboy/scoundrel Richard Bone, who will soon witness the disposal of a brutally murdered cheerleader. He never really sees who was in the Cadillac on that rainy night and neither does the viewer, but during the parade the next day he recognizes the driver as prominent businessman J.J. Cord, who pretty much runs the show in town.

Enter Alex Cutter, Bone's crippled veteran friend, who makes incriminating Cord his duty, whether he did it or not. Cord becomes the face of corporate mistrust and the political crimes committed against Bone and Cutter's generation, and Bone realizes this is his last chance to find justice for his wounds. But this is just one plot point amongst several complex character relationships that smolder throughout the film. Bone is convinced -- just as Cutter is about the murder -- that he is in love with Cutter's wife, who seems to be slipping further and further out of touch with reality. Then there is the victim's sister, Valerie, who finds more fulfillment in getting attention (in any form) from her amateur detective counterparts Cutter and Bone.

All of this takes place in the dream-like mist of Santa Barbara and has a score as enchanting as the story. Bridges is wonderful, playing a character similar to Humphrey Bogart's in 'Casablanca' or 'To Have and Have Not,' he doesn't necessarily agree with Bone's scheme, but he goes along with it anyway as a duty to his friend. As Cutter, John Heard buries himself in the role so much that he was unrecognizable to me until I looked at his IMDB page and saw that he was the father in 'Home Alone.'