Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Weekly Wrap-up (8/28)

The Adjustment Bureau
The Adjustment Bureau is loosely based on the 1954 Philip K. Dick short story The Adjustment Team. While that story is not one of his better pieces of short fiction, it is an enjoyable read. The movie takes the story in a different direction but keeps key elements. For example, the two main characters in the film are a politician and a ballerina. In the short story the main characters are a married coupled and the husband works in an office. As an adaptation of Dick's story it is not very close (like most science fiction/fantasy short stories you would have to make it into a Twilight Zone/Outer Limits episode to truly adapt it) but as a stand alone film its good. I don't have a problem with Hollywood re-imaging Dick's work as was the case here, but other films got closer to his themes, some which aren't even based on PKD stories! For example, this movie felt like the little brother to Dark City (1998). Both movies share similar ideas like free will and "adjustments," but Dark City explores these philosophical questions deeper while The Adjustment Bureau focuses on the love story. That said, the love story is well done and I'm not knocking the movie for doing something different with the source material. When dealing with films based on books or any other sort of media I try to judge it as a film first and foremost and through my preconceptions out the window. Getting back to the love story, it doesn't feel forced as Emily Blunt and Matt Damon have good chemistry together. The relationship aspect wasn't tacked on to the plot like in other films (*cough* Thor *cough*) as their attraction and love for each other is the driving factor in the story.
The film's story is grounded in real world as every one from Jon Stewart to Jesse Jackson make cameos as themselves in the opening scene. When the sci-fi/fantasy part of plot comes in with the adjusters the movie is still always pretty grounded. For example, we don't have the talking dog from the short story (its not what it appears to be, but still much more fantastical than the tone they were going for here). The film is a "romantic thriller" (my apologies to James Nguyen, the director of the crapfest Birdemic who coined that term) with both paranoia and heart.
The outfits of the adjusters in the 50s/60s style with hats was certainly a throwback to Dick's stories and is something that hasn't really been used in the film adaptations of his works until this point. One problem about the adjusters is that for some unknown reason they don't like water and it apparently affects their powers. It seems that this was just thrown in there to give them a weakness and doesn't really make sense.
Besides Damon and Blunt, Terence Stamp, Michael Kelly, and Anthony Mackie put in solid supporting roles as no performance stood out as particularly great or poor. There were not a ton of special effects in this movie but I didn't notice any CGI, so if it was used it wasn't distracted which was nice for a change in modern films.
The Adjustment Bureau is director George Nolfi's first film, and it is certainly a good start. I am interested to see what he will do next.

I had seen part of Gremlins on TV a long time ago, but never actually got around to watching the whole thing until now. Gremlins is a type of movie we don't see a whole lot nowadays: an original story (not a remake, sequel or based on a book/comic) that also has great practical effects. This movie features tons of familiar actors so I won't even waste your time listing them all. More importantly, these actors do a great job of playing interesting characters that you care about such as the old Chinese man who sells Gizmo, the inventor/salesman Dad, the war veteran afraid of gremlins, etc. The directing by Joe Dante is good. I'm familiar with his TV work and Amazon Women on the Moon so I'll have to check out more of his stuff. The script was written by Chris Columbus who would go on to have a nice career (wrote Goonies, directed Home Alone and first two Harry Potter films). Gremlins inspired a slew knock-off movies from the mediocre (Critters) to just plain terrible (Hobgoblins). Like tons of other TV shows and movies such as Back to the Future, Gremlins was filmed on the Universal back lot.

Gremlins is a throwback to 1950s monster movie as the film features a short scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as a cameo from none other than Robby the Robot as himself! I was impressed with the attention to detail in this movie. Early on the lead actor's romantic interest says that she hates Christmas. I thought it was a bit odd but didn't think much about it until it was followed up on later. A more fun example is when Gizmo is in the backpack quietly humming "Hi Ho" while the other gremlins are watching Snow White in the theater!
Gremlins has a perfect tone for this type of horror comedy as it is funny but never silly and serious when it needs to be. The ending with Stripe dying is pretty creepy and would certainly scare younger children.
The movie is a lot of fun as we have gremlins singing Christmas carols, playing cards, and going to movies! The special effects are very well done and still hold up today. The mogwai and gremlins feel like real creatures and their personalities bounce off the screen.
While on could easily guess that this movie would have a happy ending, it also follows up on the beginning and is a perfect wrap-up. I felt bad that Billy couldn't keep Gizmo, but I'm glad this was in ending as it makes more sense and is as realistic as possible given the circumstances.

The plot of Cocoon is reminiscent of the original Twilight Zone episode "Kick the Can." However, I actually think this movie handled a similar premise even better. Cocoon is unusual for a Hollywood movie in that the leading actors are all old people. The three lead senior citizens are played by Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, and Don Ameche. A veteran actor since the 1930s, Ameche won his one and only an Oscar (Best Actor in a Supporting Role) for Cocoon, although it was essentially a lifetime achievement award. Steve Guttenberg is fun in a supporting role although nobody could have predicted that in 2011 the general public would be more familiar with Wilford Brimley than Guttenberg. Diabeetus! Speaking of Wilford Brimley, that man always looked old. I still can't believe that he was only 50 when this movie was made! Brimley looked old in The Thing (1982) and The Natural (1984) and surprisingly he turns just 77 this September!

Cocoon has nice score by James Horner, one of my favorite movie soundtrack composers. The opening soundtrack song is fantastic and used perfectly in the Super 8 trailer since most people (myself included) thought it was an original piece made for that movie!
The premise of older people feeling younger (but not looking younger) is quite good and also well executed. A friend of the group, Bernie, chooses not to swim in the "fountain of youth" pool because he says its  "reshuffling the deck" and like playing god. Cocoon is a film is about growing old that is not depressing, but a celebration of both life and death. Leaving earth is a metaphor for dying and going to another planet where they can't return from but will never die is like the afterlife. The pool is also an example of too much of a good thing as Joe obsesses over it to the extent that his wife (temporarily) leaves him.
Besides having a much older cast than most popular films, it is also interesting to note that Cocoon has no villains or bad guys. Instead we just have people trying to help each other despite obstacles. The old friends try to help each others health through the pool. The aliens try to rescue their friends who were left behind. Steve Guttenberg's character agrees to help the aliens in their quest. Even the Coast Guard is trying to at the end since they think the old people went senile on the boat and attempt to bring them back. The special effects still hold up pretty well, and they should since the film won an Oscar for best Visual Effects.

Cocoon was not as sentimental as I was expecting it would be. Instead it was realistic as possible when it came to the characters. There was also a great sense of wonder, which is has often been absent from more recent films. Like Gremlins, there is obviously going to be a happy ending, but its not sappy. There is a typical cheesy 80s montage about halfway through the film which feels out of place, although that is sort of the point. However, that was already cliche by this point and certainly could have been handled better. Something else I wonder is if the cast was too large. For example, Barret Oliver (Brimley's grandson), was an important character in the beginning then disappears for most of film. That said the acting was good all around and I think it not only handles the ensemble cast well but better than the second movie did.
I also gotta add that the picture quality of this film (and the sequel) is amazing in HD (free on demand thru comcast). Not a movie I would expect to look great but I gotta give credit for the pristine video and sound quality. When it comes it family films that don't play down (or up) to an audience that all ages can enjoy, you can't go wrong with Cocoon.
My favorite quote from the film: "It wouldn't be fun if we had permission" - Art Selwyn (Don Ameche)

: The Return (1988)
The lure of great HD picture quality was enough to get me to see the sequel. Another plus was the return of the entire ensemble cast. Even Brian Dennehy and the actress who played Rose return for cameos! This is rare for a sequel that isn't part of a franchise like Star Trek or X-Men. Besides all the returning actors we also have an early role for Courteney Cox. Ron Howard did not return to the directing chair and his presence is missed. It was interesting to see an older Barrett Oliver in one of his final film roles before he retired from acting. This sort of thing happens a lot to child stars, but he will always be remembered for his role as Bastian in The Neverending Story.
Although the sequel came out three years later, it picks up five years after the first film for some reason. While this sequel was certainly not necessary, it was not completely unnecessary either as there was a good reason for them to return to Earth that follows up on the last movie. It was also clever to bring back Bernie and follow-up on his character, who plays a larger role this time. Jessica Tandy is great as usual, and she gets more screen time in the sequel, along with the other wives of the main three old men.

It's nice to see these older actors having fun in these roles. Wilford Brimley and the guys play basketball against 20-somethings which was hilarious even though it didn't move the plot forward at all. The pregnancy (?!) sub-plot was just plain ridiculous. Also, the more screen time the alien Antareans have in the natural form, the sillier they look. Less is more in this case.
Obviously Cocoon: The Return is not as good as the original, but its not a bad sequel. If you liked the first movie I'd be surprised if you didn't like the second one at all. The follow-up is much more episodic than the original which told a more cohesive story. As a result the pacing drags at times and has bigger shifts in tone. Perhaps the movie could have been better if it was shorter (say closer to 90 minutes than two hours) and focused more on rescuing the cocooned Antareans, which is why they came back to Earth in the first place. The credits are played over scenes from both movies which is unusual but works in this case.

The best part about the sequel is that it ties up all the loose ends so that there can't be another one. And since all of the seniors except Brimley are now dead...
we don't have to worry about a Cocoon 3 unless Wilford Brimley REALLY wants to reprise his role! Although knowing Hollywood it wouldn't surprise me if they remade Cocoon with Shia LaBeouf as Steve Guttenberg's character or Gremlins with LaBeouf as Billy... now that I have given you nightmares, see you on Thursday!


  1. I haven't seen a single one of these films! Now I'm jealous!

  2. This is a rare occurrence! ;)
    I'm surprised you haven't seen Gremlins, although as I said in my post I hadn't seen the whole thing before either. I think you would like both it and Cocoon. As a fellow Philip K. Dick fan I'd be curious to what you think of Adjustment Bureau.