1000 Movies to See Before You Die Vol. 37
1000 Movies to See Before You Die vol. 37
reviews by compilation by
Roger Ebert Cory Christensen
Table of Contents The Shawshank Redemption............................................................................1 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind........................................................3 Panâ€™s Labyrinth....................................................................................................5 Exit Through the Gift Shop..............................................................................7 Spirited Away......................................................................................................9 Good Will Hunting...............................................................................................11 Jurassic Park...................................................................................................13 Back to the Future...........................................................................................15 The Iron Giant....................................................................................................17 Looper..................................................................................................................19
The Shawshank Redemption The Shawshank Redemption is a movie about time, patience and loyalty — not sexy qualities, perhaps, but they grow on you during the subterranean progress of this story, which is about how two men serving life sentences in prison become friends and find a way to fight off despair. The story is narrated by “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), who has been inside the walls of Shawshank Prison for a very long time and is its leading entrepreneur. He can get you whatever you need: cigarettes, candy, even a little rock pick like an amateur geologist might use. One day he and his fellow inmates watch the latest busload of prisoners unload, and they make bets on who will cry during their first night in prison, and who will not. Red bets on a tall, lanky guy named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who looks like a babe in the woods. But Andy does not cry, and Red loses the cigarettes he wagered. Andy turns out to be a surprise to everyone in Shawshank, because within him is such a powerful reservoir of
determination and strength that nothing seems to break him. Andy was a banker on the outside, and he’s in for murder. He’s apparently innocent, and there are all sorts of details involving his case, but after a while they take on a kind of unreality; all that counts inside prison is its own society — who is strong, who is not — and the measured passage of time. Red is also a lifer. From time to time, measuring the decades, he goes up in front of the parole board, and they measure the length of his term (20 years, 30 years) and ask him if he thinks he has been rehabilitated. Oh, most surely, yes, he replies; but the fire goes out of his assurances as the years march past, and there is the sense that he has been institutionalized — that, like another old lifer who kills himself after being paroled, he can no longer really envision life on the outside. Red’s narration of the story allows him to speak for all of the prisoners, who sense a fortitude and integrity in Andy that survives the years. Andy will not kiss butt. He will not back down. But he is not violent, just
formidably sure of himself. For the warden (Bob Gunton), he is both a challenge and a resource; Andy knows all about bookkeeping and tax preparation, and before long he’s been moved out of his prison job in the library and assigned to the warden’s office, where he sits behind an adding machine and keeps tabs on the warden’s ill-gotten gains. His fame spreads, and eventually he’s doing the taxes and pension plans for most of the officials of the local prison system. There are key moments in the film, as when Andy uses his clout to get some cold beers for his friends who are working on a roofing job. Or when he befriends the old prison librarian (James Whitmore). Or when he oversteps his boundaries and is thrown into solitary confinement. What quietly amazes everyone in the prison — and us, too — is the way he accepts the good and the bad as all part of some larger pattern than only he can fully see. The partnership between the characters played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman is crucial to the way the story unfolds. This is not a “prison drama” in any conventional sense of the word. It is not about violence, riots or melodrama. The word “redemption” is in the title for a reason. The movie is based on a story, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King, which is quite unlike most of King’s work. The horror here is not of the supernatural kind, but of the sort that flows from the realization than 10, 20, 30 years of a man’s life have unreeled in the same unchanging daily prison routine. The director, Frank Darabont, paints the prison in drab grays and shadows, so that when key events do occur,
they seem to have a life of their own. Andy, as played by Robbins, keeps his thoughts to himself. Red, as Freeman plays him, is therefore a crucial element in the story: His close observation of this man, down through the years, provides the way we monitor changes and track the measure of his influence on those around him. And all the time there is something else happening, hidden and secret, which is revealed only at the end. “The Shawshank Redemption” is not a depressing story, although I may have made it sound that way. There is a lot of life and humor in it, and warmth in the friendship that builds up between Andy and Red. There is even excitement and suspense, although not when we expect it. But mostly the film is an allegory about holding onto a sense of personal worth, despite everything. If the film is perhaps a little slow in its middle passages, maybe that is part of the idea, too, to give us a sense of the leaden passage of time, before the glory of the final redemption.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!The world forgetting, by the world forgot.Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. — Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard” It’s one thing to wash that man right outta your hair, and another to erase him from your mind. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” imagines a scientific procedure that can obliterate whole fields of memory — so that, for example, Clementine can forget that she ever met Joel, let alone fell in love with him. “Is there any danger of brain damage?” the inventor of the process is asked. “Well,” he allows, in his most kindly voice, “technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage.”
The movie is a labyrinth created by the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” were neorealism compared to this. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play Joel and Clementine, in a movie that sometimes feels like an endless
series of aborted Meet Cutes. That they lose their minds while all about them are keeping theirs is a tribute to their skill; they center their characters so that we can actually care about them even when they’re constantly losing track of their own lives. (“My journal,” Joel observes oddly, “is ... just blank.”) The movie is a radical example of Maze Cinema, that style in which the story coils back upon itself, redefining everything and then throwing it up in the air and redefining it again. To reconstruct it in chronological order would be cheating, but I will cheat: At some point before the technical beginning of the movie, Joel and Clementine were in love, and their affair ended badly, and Clementine went to Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) at Lacuna Inc., to have Joel erased from her mind. Discovering this, Joel in revenge applies to have his memories of her erased. But the funny thing about love is, it can survive the circumstances of its ending; we remember good times better than bad ones, and Joel decides in mid-process that maybe he would like to remember Clementine after all. He tries to squirrel away some of his memories in hidden corners of his mind, but the process is implacable. If you think this makes the movie sound penetrable, you have no idea. As the mov-
ie opens, Joel is seized with an inexplicable compulsion to ditch work and take the train to Montauk, and on the train he meets Clementine. For all they know they have never seen each other before, but somehow there’s a connection, a distant shadow of deja vu. During the course of the film, which moves freely, dizzyingly, forward and backward in time, they will each experience fragmentary versions of relationships they had, might have had, or might be having. Meanwhile, back at the Lacuna head office, there are more complications. Lacuna seems to be a prosperous and growing firm (it advertises a Valentine’s Day Special), but in reality, it consists only of the avuncular Dr. Mierzwiak and his team of assistants: Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Mary (Kirsten Dunst). There are innumerable complications involving them, which I will not describe because it would not only be unfair to reveal the plot but probably impossible. “Eternal Sunshine” has been directed by Michel Gondry, a music video veteran whose first feature, “Human Nature” (2002), also written by Kaufman, had a lunacy that approached genius and then veered away. In that film, Tim Robbins starred as an overtrained child who devotes his adult life to teaching table manners to white mice. The scene where the male mouse politely pulls out the chair for the female to sit down is without doubt in a category of its own. Despite jumping through the deliberately disorienting hoops of its story, “Eternal Sunshine” has an emotional center, and that’s what makes it work. Although Joel and Clementine ping-pong through various stages of romance and reality, what remains constant is the human need for love and companionship, and the human compulsion to keep seeking it, despite all odds. It may also be true that Joel and Clementine, who seem to be such oppo-
sites (he is shy and compulsive, she is extroverted and even wild), might be a good match for each other, and so if they keep on meeting they will keep on falling in love, and Lacuna Inc. may have to be replaced with the Witness Protection Program.
For Jim Carrey, this is another successful attempt, like “The Truman Show” and the underrated “The Majestic,” to extend himself beyond screwball comedy. He has an everyman appeal, and here he dials down his natural energy to give us a man who is so lonely and needy that a fragment of memory is better than none at all. Kate Winslet is the right foil for him, exasperated by Joel’s peculiarities while paradoxically fond of them. The shenanigans back at Lacuna belong on a different level of reality, but even there, secrets are revealed that are oddly touching. Kaufman’s mission seems to be the penetration of the human mind. His characters journeyed into the skull of John Malkovich, and there is a good possibility that two of them were inhabiting the same body in “Adaptation.” But both of those movies were about characters trying to achieve something outside themselves. The insight of Eternal Sunshine is that, at the end of the day, our memories are all we really have, and when they’re gone, we’re gone.
Pan’s Labyrinth Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the cinema’s great fantasies, rich with darkness and wonder. It’s a fairy tale of such potency and awesome beauty that it reconnects the adult imagination to the primal thrill and horror of the stories that held us spellbound as children. If you recall the chills that ran down your spine and the surreal humor that tickled your brain in the presence of Alice in Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood or The Wizard of Oz when you were a child (or, later, in the nightmarish dreamfilms of Luis Bunuel, Jean Cocteau, F.W. Murnau or David Cronenberg), you’ll discover those sensations once again, buried deep in the heart of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” As gruesome and brutal as it is enchanting and spellbinding, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a movie intended for adults, not children, as its “R” rating indicates. Some kids under 17 will find it fascinating (especially if they know Spanish or don’t mind reading subtitles), but it’s a harsh and uncompromising film—although less gory and violent than many video games. Pan’s Labyrinth is itself a narrative maze, with multiple stories that branch and eddy, flowing apart and back together again like the a stream tumbling down a rocky hillside or, more aptly, blood spilling over a craggy boulder. Opening titles set the story in Spain, 1944, as resistance fighters lurking in the
mountains continue to fight Franco’s fascist regime. And then, immediately, before we can grasp any visual bearings in that world, the subterranean voice of Pan (a faun, whose name “only the wind and the trees can pronounce”) whisks us into a fable about a dead princess whose kingly father waits for his daughter’s soul to return in another form, and to reclaim her place at his side. In the first vertigo-inducing minute or so of the film we’re plunged into the turbulent imagination of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a bookish 11-year-old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to an old mill in the forest, where Ofelia’s evilstepfather-to-be, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez), commands a fascist outpost. Next door is an ancient stone labyrinth, a place that’s easy to get lost in.
The night of their arrival, Ofelia clings to her mother in bed as the creaky old house moans and Ofelia’s unborn brother restlessly kicks. Carmen asks her daughter to tell the baby a story, to calm his nerves (as well as Ofelia’s). The girl rests her head on her mother’s belly and the camera, positioned at the foot of the bed, descends into Carmen’s womb, where we see the fetus suspended in warmly glowing amniotic fluid. Ofelia tells of a rare and beautiful night-blooming blue rose that once grew on a mountaintop (a reference not only to the lore of the blue Meconopsis poppy, but perhaps to David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” mythology), surrounded by poisonous thorns that made its mysterious beauty—and properties of immortality—inaccessible. The camera moves to the right and there’s the rose and the mountain. Then it descends into the prickly brambles where a mantislike insect (previously encountered by Ofelia in the woods) alights in the foreground. The bug takes wing and the camera soars to keep up with it, past the moon and onto the stone sill of the room where Ofelia and her mother lie in bed. This astounding and fluid composite shot serves as a microcosm of the whole movie: a graceful, complex but seamless, seemingly inexorable movement that weaves in and out of fantasy and reality so that each
becomes an extension of the other. Whole worlds open before our eyes and then fold back upon themselves; dimensions of time and space are creased into shape as if the movie was an elaborate origami creation. Meanwhile, bugs and monsters (lethal and benign) buzz, squirm and shuffle through the forest of Ofelia’s imagination. Pan, a creature with the head of a goat and the body of a contorted mammalian tree trunk, believes that Ofelia herself is (surprise!) the reincarnation of the dead princess, and gives her a series of tasks to prove she is indeed the lost royal. Ofelia’s challenges do not arise like arbitrary plot obstacles; they are organic to her (and the movie’s) development. The girl learns not only to follow instructions, and that there are heavy prices to pay for failing to abide by them, but also to trust her own instincts about right and wrong. In order to find her true self, she must also find the strength to break the rules imposed by authority. An individual conscience: What could be a more powerful anti-fascist weapon than that?
Exit Through the Gift Shop The widespread speculation that Exit Through the Gift Shop is a hoax only adds to its fascination. An anonymous London graffiti artist named Banksy arrives to paint walls in Los Angeles. He encounters an obscure Frenchman named Thierry Guetta, who has
dedicated his life to videotaping graffiti artists. The Frenchman’s hundreds of tapes have been dumped unorganized into boxes. Banksy thinks they might make a film. Guetta makes a very bad one. Banksy takes over the film and advises Guetta to create some art himself. Guetta does, names himself Mr. Brainwash, and organizes an exhibition of his work through which he makes a fortune in sales.
Surely Guetta cannot be real? With his dashing mustache and Inspector Clouseau accent, his long-suffering wife and his zealous risk-taking to film illegal artists by stealth? Surely he didn’t rent a former CBS television studio and transform it into an exhibition space? Surely people didn’t line up at dawn to get in—and pay tens of thousands of dollars for the works of an artist who had never held a show, sold a work or received a review? Surely not if his work looked like art school ripoffs of the familiar styles of famous artists? Even while I sat spellbound during this film, that’s what I was asking myself. But Thierry Guetta surely did. His art exhibition was written up in a cover story in L.A. Weekly on June 12, 2008. It mentions this film, which Banksy was “threatening to do.” Common sense dictates that no one would rent a CBS studio and fill it with hundreds of art works in order to produce a hoax indie documentary. Nor would they cast Guetta, indubitably a real person, as himself. Right? Right? The film depends entirely on Guetta, a combination TV pitchman, a cartoon Frenchman and a chatty con man. Its footage really has been edited from a decade of tapes made
clandestinely while L.A. graffiti artists risked arrest and death to create their paintings in spectacular places. Guetta fearlessly followed them right out into ledges and helped them carry supplies to places a human fly might balk at. All the time he’s talking, talking, telling his life story and of his hero worship for these artists. There are all kinds of graffiti. Much of it is ugly defacement, the kind of territorial marking a dog does so much more elegantly. That’s why Mayor Daley’s Graffiti Busters have my support and admiration. Some graffiti, however, is certainly art, as Norman Mailer was one of the first to argue in his book The Faith of Graffiti (1974). Banksy and others at his level, such as Guetta’s hero, Shepard Fairey, find ways to visually reinvent public spaces and make striking artistic statements. But what does Guetta do? One of his artworks, inspired by Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can, shows a can of tomato spray paint. OK, that’s witty enough for a nice editorial cartoon. How many thousands would you spend to have it in your house? Or a morph of Joan Crawford and Andy’s Marilyn? Then again, at the time people said Andy Warhol wasn’t creating art, either. Surely Warhol’s message was that Thierry Guetta has an absolute right to call his work art, and sell it for as much as he can. There are currently more than 3,600 comments on my recent blog post headlined “Video Games Can Never Be Art.” At least 95 percent of them inform me I am a fool, and that “art is in the eye of the beholder.” I believe
video games are not an art form, for reasons I am certainly not going to bring up again. I am
quite willing to agree that graffiti is Art, but I don’t believe the act of painting them is an art form, if you see what I mean. Or maybe you don’t. You may be too old to understand my argument. Anyway, comment No. 3,307 on my blog was from Kristian, and it said, “The wafting smell of dried mung beans pervades my nostrils.” That’s kind of ... poetic, don’t you think? But I stray from my thoughts, which are (1) “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is an admirable and entertaining documentary; (2) I believe it is not a hoax; (3) I would not much want a Thierry Guetta original; (4) I like Thierry Guetta, and (5) Banksy, the creator of this film, is a gifted filmmaker whose thoughts, as he regards Guetta, must resemble those of Victor Frankenstein when he regarded his monster: It works, but is it Art?
Miyazaki’s Spirited Away has been compared to “Alice in Wonderland,” and indeed it tells of a 10-year-old girl who wanders into a world of strange creatures and illogical rules. But it’s enchanting and delightful in its own way, and has a good heart. It is the best animated film of recent years, the latest work by Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master who is a god to the Disney animators. Because many adults have an irrational reluctance to see an animated film from Japan (or anywhere else), I begin with reassurances: It has been flawlessly dubbed into English by John Lasseter (“Toy Story”), it was co-winner of this year’s Berlin Film Festival against “regular” movies, it passed “Titanic” to become
the top-grossing film in Japanese history, and it is the first film ever to make more than $200 million before opening in America. I feel like I’m giving a pitch on an infomercial, but I make these points because I come bearing news: This is a wonderful film. Don’t avoid it because of what you think you know about animation from Japan. And if you only go to Disney animation—well, this is being released by Disney. Miyazaki’s works (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke” have a depth and complexity often missing in American animation. Not fond of computers, he draws thousand of frames himself, and there is a painterly richness in his work. He’s famous for throwaway details at the edges of the screen (animation is so painstaking that few animators draw more than is necessary). And he permits himself silences and contemplation, providing punctuation for the exuberant action and the lovable or sometimes grotesque characters. Spirited Away is told through the eyes of Chihiro (voice by Daveigh Chase), a 10-yearold girl, and is more personal, less epic, than “Princess Mononoke.” As the story opens, she’s on a trip with her parents, and her father unwisely takes the family to explore a myste-
rious tunnel in the woods. On the other side is what he speculates is an old theme park; but the food stalls still seem to be functioning, and as Chihiro’s parents settle down for a free meal, she wanders away and comes upon the film’s version of wonderland, which is a towering bathhouse. A boy named Haku appears as her guide, and warns her that the sorceress who runs the bathhouse, named Yubaba, will try to steal her name and thus her identity. Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) is an old crone with a huge face; she looks a little like a Toby mug, and dotes on a grotesquely huge baby named Boh. Ominously, she renames Chihiro, who wanders through the structure, which is populated, like “Totoro,” with little balls of dust that scurry and scamper underfoot. In the innards of the structure, Chihiro comes upon the boiler room, operated by a man named Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers), who is dressed in a formal coat and has eight limbs, which he employs in a bewildering variety of ways. At first he seems as fearsome as the world he occupies, but he has a good side, is no friend of Yubaba, and perceives Chihiro’s goodness. If Yubaba is the scariest of the characters and Kamaji the most intriguing, Okutaresama is the one with the most urgent message. He is the spirit of the river, and his body has absorbed the junk, waste and sludge that has been thrown into it over the years. At one point, he actually yields up a discarded bicycle. I was reminded of a throwaway detail in My Neighbor Totoro, where a child looks into a bubbling brook, and there is a discarded bottle at the bottom. No point is made; none needs to be made.
Japanese myths often use shape-shifting, in which bodies reveal themselves as facades concealing a deeper reality. It’s as if animation was invented for shape-shifting, and Miyazaki does wondrous things with the characters here. Most alarming for Chihiro, she finds that her parents have turned into pigs after gobbling up the free lunch. Okutaresama reveals its true nature after being freed of decades of sludge and discarded household items. Haku is much more than he seems. Indeed the entire bathhouse seems to be under spells affected the appearance and nature of its inhabitants. Miyazaki’s drawing style, which descends from the classical Japanese graphic artists, is a pleasure to regard, with its subtle use of colors, clear lines, rich detail and its realistic depiction of fantastical elements. He suggests not just the appearances of his characters, but their natures. Apart from the stories and dialogue, Spirited Away is a pleasure to regard just for itself. This is one of the year’s best films.
Good Will Hunting It must be heartbreaking to be able to appreciate true genius and yet fall just short of it yourself. A man can spend his entire life studying to be a mathematician—and yet watch helplessly while a high school dropout, a janitor, scribbles down the answers to questions the professor is baffled by. It’s also heartbreaking when genius won’t recognize itself, and that’s the most baffling problem of all in Good Will Hunting, the smart, involving story of a working-class kid from Boston. The film stars Matt Damon as a janitor at MIT who likes to party and hang around the old neighborhood and whose reading consists of downloading the contents of whole libraries into his photographic memory. Stellan Skarsgard (the husband in Breaking the Waves) plays Lambeau, the professor, who offers a prize to any student who can solve a difficult problem. The next morning, the answer is written on a blackboard standing in the hall. Who claims credit? None of the students does. A few days later, Lambeau catches Will Hunting (Damon) at
the board and realizes he’s the author—a natural mathematical genius who can intuitively see through the thorniest problems. Lambeau wants to help Will, to get him into school, maybe, or collaborate with him. But before that can take place, Will and some buddies are cruising the old neighborhood and beat up a guy. Will also hammers on the cops a little and is jailed. He’s a tough nut. He sees nothing wrong with spending his whole life hanging out with his friends, quaffing a few beers, holding down a blue-collar job. He sees romance in being an honest bricklayer, but none in being a professor of mathematics—maybe because bricklaying is work, and, for him, math isn’t. Good Will Hunting is the story of how this kid’s life edges toward self-destruction and how four people try to haul him back. One is Lambeau, who gets probation for Will with a promise that he’ll find him help and counseling. One is Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), Lambeau’s college roommate, now a community college professor who has messed up his own life, but is a gifted counselor. One is Skylar (Minnie Driver),
a British student at Harvard, who falls in love with Will and tries to help him. And one is Chuckie (Ben Affleck), Will’s friend since childhood, who tells him: “You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket. It would be an insult to us if you’re still around here in 20 years.’’ True, but Will doesn’t see it that way. His reluctance to embrace the opportunity at MIT is based partly on class pride (it would be betraying his buddies and the old neighborhood) and partly on old psychic wounds. And it is only through breaking through to those scars and sharing some of his own that McGuire, the counselor, is able to help him. Robin Williams gives one of his best performances as McGuire, especially in a scene where he finally gets the kid to repeat, “It’s not my fault.’’ Good Will Hunting’ perhaps found some of its inspiration in the lives of its makers. The movie was co-written by Damon and Affleck, who grew up in Boston, who are childhood friends, and who both took youthful natural talents and used them to find success as actors. It’s tempting to find parallels between their lives and the characters—and tempting, too, to watch the scenes between Damon and Driver with the knowledge that they fell in love while making the movie. The Will Hunting character is so much in the foreground that it’s easy to miss a parallel relationship: Lambeau and McGuire also are old friends who have fought because of old angers and insecurities. In a sense, by bringing the troubled counselor and the troublesome janitor together, the professor helps to heal both of them. The film has a good ear for the way these characters might really talk. It was directed by Gus Van Sant (“Drugstore Cowboy,’’ “To Die For’’), who sometimes seems to have perfect pitch when it comes to dialogue; look at the scene where Matt and
Skylar break up and say hurtful things, and see how clear he makes it that Matt is pushing her away because he doesn’t think he deserves her. The outcome of the movie is fairly predictable; so is the whole story, really. It’s the individual moments, not the payoff, that make it so effective. Good Will Hunting has been rather inexplicably compared to Rainman, although Rainman was about an autistic character who cannot and does not change, and Good Will Hunting is about a genius who can change, and grow, if he chooses to. True, they can both do quick math in their heads. But Will Hunting is not an idiot savant or some kind of lovable curiosity; he’s a smart man who knows he’s smart but pulls back from challenges because he was beaten down once too often as a child. Here is a character who has four friends who love and want to help him, and he’s threatened by their help because it means abandoning all of his old, sick, dysfunctional defense mechanisms. As Louis Armstrong once said, “There’s some folks, that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ‘em.’’ This movie is about whether Will is one of those folks.
Jurassic Park When young Steven Spielberg was first offered the screenplay for Jaws, he said he would direct the movie on one condition: That he didn’t have to show the shark for the first hour. By slowly building the audience’s apprehension, he felt, the shark would be much more impressive when it finally arrived. He was right. I wish he had remembered that lesson when he was preparing Jurassic Park, his new thriller set in a remote island theme park where real dinosaurs have been grown from long-dormant DNA molecules. The movie delivers all too well on its promise to show us dinosaurs. We see them early and often, and they are indeed a triumph of special effects artistry, but the movie is lacking other qualities that it needs even more, such as a sense of awe and wonderment, and strong human story values. It’s clear, seeing this long-awaited project, that Spielberg devoted most of his effort to creating the dinosaurs. The human characters are a ragtag bunch of half-realized, sketched-in personalities, who exist primarily
to scream, utter dire warnings, and outwit the monsters. Richard Attenborough, as the millionaire who builds the park, is given a few small dimensions - he loves his grandchildren, he’s basically a good soul, he realizes the error of tampering with nature. But there was an opportunity here to make his character grand and original, colorful and oversize, and instead he comes across as unfocused and benign. As the film opens, two dinosaur experts (Sam Neill and Laura Dern) arrive at the park, along with a mathematician played by Jeff Goldblum whose function in the story is to lounge about uttering vague philosophical imprecations. Also along are Attenborough’s grandchildren, and a lawyer, who is the first to be eaten by a dinosaur. Attenborough wants the visitors to have a preview of his new park, where actual living prehistoric animals live in enclosures behind tall steel fences, helpfully labeled “10,000 volts.” The visitors set off on a tour in remote-controlled utility vehicles, which stall when an unscrupulous employee (Wayne
Knight) shuts down the park’s computer program so he can smuggle out some dinosaur embryos. Meanwhile, a tropical storm hits the island, the beasts knock over the fences, and Neill is left to shepherd the kids back to safety while they’re hunted by towering meat-eaters. The plot to steal the embryos is handled on the level of a TV sitcom. The Knight character, an overwritten and overplayed blubbering fool, drives his Jeep madly through the storm and thrashes about in the forest. If this subplot had been handled cleverly - with skill and subtlety, as in a caper movie - it might have added to the film’s effect. Instead, it’s as if one of the Three Stooges wandered into the story. The subsequent events - after the creatures get loose - follow an absolutely standard outline, similar in bits and pieces to all the earlier films in this genre, from The Lost World and King Kong right up to the upcoming Carnosaur. True, because the director is Spielberg, there is a high technical level to the execution of the cliches. Two set-pieces are especially effective: A scene where a beast mauls a car with screaming kids inside, and another where the kids play hide and seek with two creatures in the park’s kitchen. But consider what could have been. There is a scene very early in the film where Neill and Dern, who have studied dinosaurs all of their lives, see living ones for the first time. The creatures they see are tall, majestic leaf-eaters, grazing placidly in the treetops. There is a sense of grandeur to them. And that is the sense lacking in the rest of the film, which quickly turns into a standard monster movie, with screaming
victims fleeing from roaring dinosaurs. Think back to another ambitious special effects picture from Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). That was a movie about the “idea” of visitors from outer space. It inspired us to think what an awesome thing it would be, if earth were visited by living alien beings. You left that movie shaken and a little transformed. It was a movie that had faith in the intelligence and curiosity of its audience. In the 16 years since it was made, however, big-budget Hollywood seems to have lost its confidence that audiences can share big dreams. “Jurassic Park” throws a lot of dinosaurs at us, and because they look terrific (and indeed they do), we’re supposed to be grateful. I have the uneasy feeling that if Spielberg had made “Close Encounters” today, we would have seen the aliens in the first 10 minutes, and by the halfway mark they’d be attacking Manhattan with death rays. Because the movie delivers on the bottom line, I’m giving it three stars. You want great dinosaurs, you got great dinosaurs. Spielberg enlivens the action with lots of nice little touches; I especially liked a sequence where a smaller creature leaps suicidally on a larger one, and they battle to the death. On the monster movie level, the movie works and is entertaining. But with its profligate resources, it could have been so much more.
Back to the Future One of the things all teenagers believe is that their parents were never teenagers. Their parents were, perhaps, children once. They are undeniably adults now. but how could they have ever been teenagers, and yet not understand their own children? But Back to the Future is even more hopeful: It argues that you can travel back in time to the years when your parents were teenagers, and straighten them out right at the moment when they needed
help the most. The movie begins in the present, with a teenager named Marty (Michael J. Fox, from TV’s “Family Ties’’). His parents (let’s face it) are hopeless nerds. Dad tells corny jokes and Mom guzzles vodka in the kitchen and the evening meal is like feeding time at the fun house. All that keeps Marty sane is his friendship with the nutty Dr. Brown (Christopher Lloyd), an inventor with glowing eyes
and hair like a fright wig. Brown believes he has discovered the secret of time travel, and one night in the deserted parking lot of the local shopping mall, he demonstrates his invention. In the long history of time travel movies, there has never been a time machine quite like Brown’s, which resembles nothing so much as a customized De Lorean. The gadget works, and then, after a series of surprises, Marty finds himself transported back 30 years in time, to the days when the shopping mall was a farmer’s field (there’s a nice gag when the farmer thinks the De Lorean, with its gull-wing doors, is a flying saucer). Marty wanders into town, still wearing his 1985 clothing, and the townsfolk look at his goose down jacket and ask him why he’s wearing a life preserver. One of the running gags in Back to the Future is the way the town has changed in 30 years (for example, the porno house of 1985 was playing a Ronald Reagan movie in 1955). But a lot of the differences run more deeply than that, as Marty discovers when he sits down at a lunch counter next to his Dad who is, of course, a teenager himself. Because the movie has so much fun with the paradoxes and predicaments of a kid meeting his own parents, I won’t discuss the plot in any detail. I won’t even get into the horrifying moment when Marty discovers his mother ``has the hots’’ for him. The movie’s surprises are one of its great pleasures.
Back to the Future was directed by Robert (Romancing the Stone) Zemeckis, who shows not only a fine comic touch but also some of the lighthearted humanism of a Frank Capra. The movie, in fact, resembles Capra’s ``It’s a Wonderful Life’’ more than other, conventional time-travel movies. It’s about a character who begins with one view of his life and reality, and is allowed, through magical intervention, to discover another. Steven Spielberg was the executive producer, and this is the second of the summer’s three Spielberg productions (it follows Goonies’ and precedes Explorers), and maybe it’s time to wonder if Spielberg is emulating the great studio chiefs of the past, who specialized in matching the right director with the right project. This time, the match works with charm, brains and a lot of laughter.
The Iron Giant Imagine “E.T.” as a towering metal man, and you have some of the appeal of The Iron Giant, an enchanting animated feature about a boy who makes friends with a robot from outer space. The giant crash-lands on a 1957 night when America is peering up at the speck of Sputnik in the sky, and munches his way through a Maine village, eating TV antennas and cars, until he finds a power plant. That’s where young Hogarth Hughes finds him. Hogarth is a 9-year-old who lives with his single mom (Jennifer Aniston) and dreams of having a pet. She says they make too much of a mess around the house, little dreaming what a 100-foot robot can get up to. One night Hogarth discovers their TV antenna is missing and follows the Iron Giant’s trail to the power plant, where he saves the robot from electrocution after it chomps on some live wires.
That makes the giant his friend forever, and now all Hogarth has to do is keep the robot a secret from his mom and the federal government. The Iron Giant is still another example of the freedom that filmmakers find in animation: This would have been a $100 million live-action special-effects movie, but it was made for a fraction of that cost because the metal man is drawn, not constructed. And here is a family movie with a message: a Cold War parable in which the Iron Giant learns from a little boy that he is not doomed to be a weapon because “you are what you choose
to be.” The movie is set in the 1950s because that’s the decade when science fiction seemed most preoccupied with nuclear holocaust and invaders from outer space. It includes a hilarious cartoon version of the alarming “Duck and Cover” educational film, in which kids were advised to seek shelter from H-bombs by hiding under their desks. And the villain is a Cold Warrior named Kent Mansley (voice by Christopher McDonald), a G-man who of course sees the Iron Giant as a subversive plot and wants to blast it to pieces. That political parable is buried beneath a lot of surface charm; the film’s appeal comes from its “E.T.”-type story about a boy trying to hide an alien from his mom. The Iron Giant is understandably too big to conceal in the closet, but there’s a funny sequence where Hogarth brings the creature’s hand into the house, and it scampers around like a disobedient dog. Like the new Japanese animated films, The Iron Giant is happy to be a “real movie” in everything but live action. There are no cute little animals and not a single musical number: It’s a story, plain and simple. The director, Brad Bird, is a “Simpsons” veteran whose visual look here, much more complex than “The Simpsons,” resembles the “clear line” technique of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbor Totoro”). It works as a lot of animation does, to make you forget from time to time that these are moving drawings, because the story and characters are so compelling. As for the Iron Giant himself, he’s surpris-
ingly likable. He can’t speak English at first, but is a quick study, and like E.T. combines great knowledge with the naivete of a stranger in a puzzling land. His voice is by Vin Diesel and sounds like it has been electronically lowered. He looks unsophisticated—something like a big Erector Set construction with a steam-shovel mouth—but as we get to know him he turns into a personality before our very eyes—a big lunk we feel kind of sorry for. By the big climax (which, also like “E.T.,” involves a threat from bureaucrats and technocrats), we’re hoping Hogarth can help save his friend once again. It must be tough to get a movie like this made. Disney has the traditional animation market locked up, but other studios seem willing to throw money at Disney musical look-alikes (like “The King and I”) even though they might have a better chance moving in the opposite direction—toward real stories told straight. The Iron Giant, based on a book by the recently deceased British poet laureate Ted Hughes, is not just a cute romp but an involving story that has something to say.
Looper Rian Johnson’s Looper, a smart and tricky sci-fi story, sidesteps the paradoxes of time travel by embracing them. Most time travel movies run into trouble in the final scenes, when impossibilities pile up one upon another. This film leads to a startling conclusion that wipes out the story’s paradoxes so neatly it’s as if it never happened. You have to grin at the ingenuity of Johnson’s screenplay. The movie takes place in 2044 and 2074, both of which look like plausible variations of the American present, and then there are a few scenes set in a futuristic Shanghai. We learn that although time travel is declared illegal once it has been discovered, a crime
syndicate cheats and uses it as a method for disposing of its enemies. Imagine this. A man with shotgun stands by himself in a field. A second man materializes out of thin air. The first man blasts a hole in him. The thin-air guy, who was bound and hooded, is a man from the future who has been sent back in time to be assassinated. The shotgun guy is known as a “Looper.” He has been sent back into time to be the trigger man. Eventually, when he grows old enough, he will be sent back in time to be killed by his own younger self. This is known as “closing the loop.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, the triggerman in 2044. Bruce Willis plays Old Joe, sent back from the future. The loop is not closed, however, because Old Joe arrives without a hood, and Young Joe hesitates when he realizes his latest target is … himself. He knew that would happen eventually (it’s part of the
deal), but a hood would have prevented him from knowing which victim was himself. This leads to the kind of weird scene that only time travel makes possible. The two Joes go to a nearby diner, grab a booth, and have a conversation. Imagine that you’re sitting across from yourself with a three-decade age difference. This is an opening for an endless conversation about the emotional and metaphysical implications of the meeting, but Johnson perhaps wisely makes their conversation more pragmatic. Perhaps professional hit men aren’t inclined toward philosophy. The story gains depth with the introduction of romance. In most thrillers, female characters tend toward eye candy and are extraneous to the plot. Not here. Young Joe meets Sara (Emily Blunt), a fiercely independent woman who lives on a Kansas farm with her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Although Young Joe has literally come from nowhere, they slowly grow close. In the future, we learn, Old Joe was married, and his wife (Summer Qing) was murdered by a figure known as The Rainmaker. It’s not revealing too much to tell that Old Joe has reason to believe that young Cid may grow up to become The Rainmaker, and so Old and Young Joe are trapped in a situation with no pleasant prospects. The film is further enriched by the performances of Jeff Daniels
as Abe, the future boss of the crime syndicate, and by Paul Dano as Seth, a friend of Old Joe who fears the loop is about to be closed on him. Think this through. If the loop is closed on you, did you never exist? Or did you live your younger life up until the point you kill your older self? Looper, to its credit, doesn’t avoid this question. It’s up to you to decide if it answers it. Time travel may be logically impossible, but once we allow a film to use it, we have to be grateful if it makes sense according to its own rules. Rian Johnson’s first feature was the well received, low-budget indie titled Brick (2005), which told a high-school story in a film noir style, narrated by Gordon-Levitt. The second was the con-man puzzlement “The Brothers Bloom” (2009). Now time travel. In all three, he begins with generic expectations and then confounds them. The key is in his writing. Looper weaves between past and present in a way that gives Johnson and his actors opportunities to create a surprisingly involving narrative.