Thursday, October 22, 2015

Project 365: Movies 217 - 222

217 / 365: The Dark Crystal (1982)
© Universal Pictures

This Jim Henson, puppetry classic is so good and so dumb in so many wonderful ways. The high fantasy infused into this unique world is brought to life through the incredible creatures created by its visionary director—with the help of like-minded actor and filmmaker, Frank Oz. The Dark Crystal represents the childhood of so many people raised in the eighties, and it's the nostalgia it elicits that gives the movie such staying power.

Another World, Another Time... On a distant planet torn apart by an ancient feud caused by a fracture in the mysterious Dark Crystal a thousand years before, a young orphan Gelfling named Jen is the last of his kind. Raised in isolation by a peaceful, ethereal race called the Mystics, Jen is sent on a quest to find the broken piece of the Dark Crystal, which grants power to the ruling race of Skeksis, ghoulish and cruel lizardlike creatures who will stop at nothing to maintain control of their world. As Jen follows the clues provided by the Mystics, he meets Kira (Kathryn Mullen), the only other Gelfling to survive their race's extinction, and the only one who can help him navigate the dangers that lie ahead.

The issues the movie has are ones that any child would overlook. But as an adult, it's hard not to notice that most of the characters are gratingly obnoxious. Repetitive sound effects come out of these puppets like Turrets ticks—appropriately funny and endearing at first, but after an hour, no one is chuckling lovingly anymore. A script as convoluted as this means little things get lost, while others are brow-beaten into us so that when it all comes together at the end, we're not in the least bit surprised, yet somehow, left wondering what we just saw. Regardless of the flaws, it's the tangible puppetry work that makes this movie memorable and timeless. How can you critique something as weirdly one-of-a-kind as this?

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: Yes

218 / 365: The Rescuers (1977)
© Disney Studios

One of a handful of films released during Disney Animation Studios' "quiet years" (that's the nice way of putting it), The Rescuers falls into the category of cartoon family classics about fluffy talking animals to appeal to the kids... that pack an emotional punch for adults. That's kind of the definition of all Disney movies, though, isn't it? But there's something dark and troubling about this one that is impossible to shake. The opening credits set up the film through a series of rough and dark paintings, leading to the introduction of our heroes.

The United Mouse Nation—or the Rescue Aid Society, as the mice call is—convenes in the bowels of the U.N. building, where Bernard (Bob Newhart) is a dutiful janitor and Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) is the impassioned Hungarian delegate. The Society has discovered a call for help, a message in a bottle from a young orphan named Penny (Michelle Stacy), who says she's in trouble. Bianca volunteers for the mission, and requests that Bernard accompany her. As they begin their search, a mystery about her whereabouts begins to unfold, surrounding a malicious pawn shop owner named Medusa (Geraldine Page), who is in search of the world's largest diamond.

While this is considered one of the lesser... I don't want to say "known," because that's untrue, but I do believe it's lesser viewed... Disney films, the story of The Rescuers has far more similarities to today's Pixar movies than the traditional and classic Disney model. No princesses, no sweeping musical numbers, but plenty of very mature themes—and of course, anthropomorphized animals. Creative features like a leaf boat with a dragonfly for a motor, all of it just screams Pixar with slightly less puns. It even has moments of Toy Story 2-level tear-jerking as Penny dreams of getting adopted while snuggling her beloved Teddy Bear.

The last third of the movie devolves into a bit of a circus, with more than enough ridiculous sound effects that serve to make this overly serious and troubling story of kidnapping and child abuse easier to swallow. It's that latter part that comes off as cruel and difficult to handle. The story is unapologetic in its overtly adult subject matter, which in turn gives it an emotional power that audiences aren't inclined to sit through, at least repeatedly.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: Yes

219 / 365: The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
© Disney Studios

So many troubling kidnappings! It's been... a number of years since brave little mice Bernard (Bob Newhart) and Bianca (Eva Gabor) saved orphan Penny from diamond hunter Medusa in The Rescuers. This time around, they're traveling to the Australian Outback to rescue a little boy named Cody who is kidnapped by McLeach (George C. Scott), a poacher searching for a rare Golden Eagle that only Cody knows where to find. With the help of a handful of Outback critters, including Jake (Tristan Rogers), a suave kangaroo mouse, Bernard and Bianca set off to find Cody before McLeach loses any reason to keep him around.

This sequel is a glossier, grander version of its predecessor that has benefited from the computer age. The landscapes are as carefully constructed and full of life, as much as the characters themselves. The colors are vibrant, and the only thing dark about this film is the subject matter—a stark visual difference from its predecessor.

Joanna the Goanna is a wonderful character, despite the fact that she's one of two animals that don't actually talk in this film (the giant gold eagle being the second). She's funny, entertaining, and full of personality, and her squeaky lizard voice is provided brilliantly by veteran voice actor, Frank Welker. Even John Candy's turn as clumsy albatross, Wilbur, perks up your ears, giving a necessary dose of humor (and terror) at just the right moments. In true Disney fashion, the voice talents never fail to impress, and this cast might be one of the company's best.

It became clear very quickly that the original Rescuers was a movie I'd seen only a time or two. But not Rescuers Down Under. This one I've seen more times than I can count, and watching them side by side, it's obvious why that is. Modern updates aside, it is above all else, a more beautiful film. It is touching without going to a repulsive place, and as a villain, McLeach is both despicable and intriguing—exactly how a good villain should be. I love this movie, and it's just as good now as it was when I was six years old.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: Yes

220 / 365: Grandma (2015)
© Sony Pictures Classics

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

221 / 365: It Happened One Night (1934)
© Columbia Pictures

This movie was the #46 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: VUDU
Seen Before: Yes

222 / 365: Mission: Impossible (1996)
© Paramount Pictures

This film by Brian De Palma took the original concept of the 1960's television show and modernized it the way that X-Men (2000) modernized the Marvel comic series. Mission: Impossible established itself—and the sequels to follow—early on as exceedingly memorable in their creative action sequences and heists. That is something that the James Bond series never seemed to accomplish for me. Even if the plot of this convoluted first film leaves you scratching your head a bit, there are too many moments and sequences you'll never forget. Iconic to the point of cliche, Tom Cruise dangling from wires in a stark white room is undoubtedly up there with the most famous shots in movie history.

A group of CIA agents led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) travel to Prague to intercept the theft of a file with classified information. After the plan goes unexpectedly awry, it becomes clear that the team was betrayed when spy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is the only member left alive—making him the primary suspect. The only way he can prove him innocence is by going against CIA orders, assembling a rogue team, and following the trail of the classified file before he is caught. But not everything is as it seems (I think that's the unofficial Mission: Impossible motto.)

The only movie of the series where Ethan Hunt is not the man in charge. It's special looking back and seeing him as a member of the team instead of the leader, because from the start, he's at a disadvantage. He doesn't have the reputation or the resources to get out of a jam this big, which is why it's exciting to watch him try. The problem this movie has is that it doesn't get out of its own way. What that means is the plot is over-complicated, beyond what it needs to be to create tension and mystery. It's the reason no one remembers the plot of this movie, and it also loses out on having a charismatic villain from the get-go. Out of five movies so far, this one grabs the bronze medal.

But no one watches this now classic for its plot or predictable twists. Watch for "red light, green light." Watch for sweat dripping off of eyeglass lenses. And watch for Tom Cruise reminding everyone why he's a goddamn movie star.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: Yes

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