CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: August, 2012

“Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God…Be Back by Five” (1998)

 

Growing up in the ’90s, you couldn’t find a theater that wasn’t showing some movie that rambled on about the good ol’ days. Boys had The Sandlot, girls had My Girl, and baby boomers had all those godforsaken adaptations of TV shows from their youth. Outside of the horror genre, the easiest way for a filmmaker to break into the business is with a story that waxes nostalgic about…well, waxing nostalgic. To its credit, Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God…Be Back by Five (*takes breath*) is more dramatically-inclined, not as rose-tinted in its gaze upon bygone times as a lot of its contemporaries. But in getting to where it wants to end up, the film proves to be unfocused and annoyingly repetitive, thanks in part to the gratuitously quirky dialogue that was required in the post-Clerks era of independent American cinema.

Before “Two and a Half Men” but well after leaving Lenny Luthor behind him, Jon Cryer starred in and co-wrote this dramedy about two guys on a hunt for the pal they forgot existed. Daniel (Cryer) and Stan (Rick Stear) became fast friends as kids, what with the former being an atypical geek and the latter mildly disabled. The glue that held them together was Richie (Rafael Baez), who educated them in wooing women and how to weasel out of being caught shoplifting. But Richie vanished when high school ended, and well into their adult years, Daniel and Stan finally hear word on his whereabouts. Rumored to be homeless and living in Coney Island, Richie’s emergence prompts his comrades to search not only the boardwalk but also their lives, for a sense of meaning that’s eluded them ever since the trio disbanded.

Went to Coney Island… aims to raise some delicate issues (mental illness, addiction, sexuality) with a somewhat hopeful disposition, and I applaud the effort. As hung up as the film becomes on substituting random dramatic developments for putting together a sound story, I dug that it began as an amusingly offbeat buddy farce before taking a turn for the deep. The trouble is that Went to Coney Island… seldom feels like a singular journey, instead playing out like a series of skits in which the protagonists don’t get anything accomplished. Daniel and Stan sure express concern for their missing pal, but in lieu of looking for him, they prefer to have chats with colorful side characters that tell us nothing except, yeah, the writers saw Pulp Fiction, too.

These exchanges (which include Frank Whaley’s cameo as a tightwad skee-ball merchant) might’ve been useful as profound pit stops on the road to Richie. But with such scenes varying in tone sandwiched so closely together (while our heroes postpone their quest to have a hot dog), the opportunity to jump in and care about it all never arises. In a word, Went to Coney Island… is sloppy, as clueless about how to progress to the next scene as its characters are about moving on with their lives. It lacks flow, completely disposing of those transformative moments that make its leads more than directionless bellyachers. This wants the privilege of exploring darker thematic territory without putting in the work, awarding one obnoxious, lying drunk of a character a happiest of endings that feels totally undeserved.

Went to Coney Island… is the worst kind of drama, one that piles on the sadness without any clear objective in mind. I’d say there’s some message here about rolling with the punches life deals you, but I couldn’t say which (if any) of the flick’s many aimless conversations even hints at an ultimate moral. All I know for sure after watching this is that Coney Island is a sad place come wintertime, the sideshow is a rip off, and carnies are really, really protective.

“The Man Who Could Cheat Death” (1959)

 

Living forever has its perks. You can experience the world at your leisure, avoid disease, and have Queen write songs about you. But when immortality depends upon a steaming glass of Ecto Cooler, one missed swig is all it takes to leave you looking like the sloth victim from Seven. This is the malady that’s befallen The Man Who Could Cheat Death, who just had to dick around in the Almighty’s domain and paid the price for it. It’s the perfect premise for the horror-hungry lot at Hammer, and while it’s not as viable as their franchise about a certain famous mad scientist, the final film is distinctively eerie all the same.

Being a sculptor on the side, Dr. Georges Bonner (Anton Diffring) knows all about the fine art of preservation. But his pals and colleagues in 1890 Paris are unaware of how true that is — for the youthful-looking Bonner is actually 104 years old. As a medical student eager to crack the secret of perpetual life, he did just that, enabling himself to ward off age and sickness for good. But every ten years or so, Bonner requires a special operation, lest he come apart at the seams and have all those years crash down on him at once. This year, however, his accomplice (Arnold Marle) isn’t so willing to prolong Bonner’s existence, sending him off the deep end and forcing him to take deadly measures to stave off the ultimate case of rigor mortis.

I have a soft spot for Hammer’s one-shot genre titles, be they as simple as The Abominable Snowman or deliriously nuts as Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. They weren’t as tethered to tradition as those films committed to a series, which often made for most interesting stories. The Man Who Could Cheat Death can feel a little stiff around the edges, coming off with a staginess that’s no shocker given its roots as a play. But the ideas it has are presented in such a way that your interest is held even during the slower patches. Our story plays like Dorian Gray in medias res; Bonner has been kicking around for a long time when we’re introduced to him, and we come to see how a century-plus has both warped and enriched his mind. He won’t hesitate to kill in order to keep breathing, but he knows that sharing his secret with the world would cause nothing but catastrophe.

Bonner is a desperate dude who knows exactly what he’s doing, which gives The Man Who Could Cheat Death an added layer of menace. You’re in the position of feeling for this poor guy whose soul is being eaten away by his own scientific meddling, but you’re appropriately rattled at the murderous extremes to which he descends in the name of finding a cure. The script could’ve delved deeper into this conflict, considering how good Bonner’s conversations with his partner in crime are, though it gets the job done when all’s said and done. The rest of the plot is pretty self-explanatory, from Bonner’s doomed romance with a lovely model (Hazel Court) to an inspector (Francis De Wolff) who smells something fishy. You know where everyone will be at the end, but the pacing and performances are plenty sound, so as not to make you mind so much.

The Man Who Could Cheat Death never wants for spookiness or any out-there elements to perk up the place. It strikes an engaging balance between the formal and the bizarre, with a pinch of silly, Jekyll & Hyde-style theatrics for good measure. The flick is well worth a shot for vintage horror buffs or anyone who prefers a fog-drenched cobblestone alley to a roaring chainsaw.

“Great Guns” (1941)

 

Laurel and Hardy seemed to ease from silent-era comedy into the sound age with relative success. They certainly had better luck than poor Buster Keaton, extending their box office shelf life by adapting their act to fit the studio mandate. But some say that when the 1940s came about, Hollywood had no clue what to do with the pair, which, not having seen a lot of their early shorts and features, I can neither confirm nor deny. However, I can say that the 1941 farce Great Guns sure feels less like a film made to benefit the talent that made its stars comic icons than a cash-in on a then-current genre trend.

In an essential reworking of Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates, Stan and Oliver play bumbling valets to sheltered rich kid Dan Forrester (Dick Nelson). Dan’s number has come up at the draft board, and he’s ready and willing to go fight on Uncle Sam’s behalf. But seeing their employer as a sickly young thing, Stan and Ollie sign up as well, with the intention of keeping Dan safe and sound. Of course, ensuing are the requisite hijinks, the guys’ efforts to adjust to life in basic training going over with typically wacky results. But when a drill sergeant (Edmund MacDonald) doesn’t cotton to Dan cozying up to the same photo shop gal (Sheila Ryan) he has his eyes on, a little well-meaning interference from Laurel and Hardy may be what it takes to steer their boss towards a happy ending.

As with Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy always played some form of themselves throughout their career, so it’s not like Great Guns has no personal edge to speak of. The team’s roles are firmly in place: Oliver is the self-important blunderer constantly leading impressionable Stan into trouble, each one the other’s straight man and comic foil. If there’s any mischief, it’s always delivered with the best of intentions, which can make how dense the duo often is feel a little forced sometimes. Still, the mood is good-natured and cheery, and what monotony does emerge is usually broken up by a great, reality-bending gag (watch for the bridge-building scene towards the end).

But as was the case with a number of Abbott and Costello pictures, Great Guns tends to treat Laurel and Hardy as supporting players in their own vehicle. Much attention is given to the romantic subplots, which is sweet and everything, but when we do cut back to the guys, it’s usually for another goofy misunderstanding or dig at Ollie’s gut. Not that none of it is funny, but it all becomes so vanilla after a while; Laurel and Hardy newcomers barely get an idea of what their character types are all about, other than that they’re both kinda dopey. Even the little plot there is (which does crib an awful lot from Buck Privates, right down to the wargames finale) basically throws up its hands and abandons all closure whatsoever once the joke well runs dry.

Great Guns is pretty short, pretty modest, and pretty forgettable. There are some good laughs, no doubt, but lest you be a Laurel and Hardy completist or just a fan of wartime comedies, they’re not worth seeking out. No diamond in the comedic rough here, folks — Great Guns goes out with neither a bang nor a whimper.

“Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer” (1985)

What’s the deal with My Little Pony? Is obsessing over fashion the only Bratz personality trait? What the hell is a Strawberry Shortcake anyway? Not that boy-centric entertainment (or childrens’ media altogether) was never frivolous, but I’ve noticed that it’s hard to define what characters in movies, cartoons, and books ostensibly aimed at young girls actually do. It’s as true now as it was in the 1980s, when Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer arrived to a reception more ambivalent than hostile. It’s harmless enough, but it’s about as empty as a flick based off a flash-in-the-pan fad property can get, even worse off now because the ’80s have passed on and rendered it a commercial with nothing to sell.

You know all that stuff about Earth’s rotation around the sun causing the seasons to change and all? Yeah, that’s horseshit. It’s really the work of kids in Katy Perry outfits toiling in a parallel dimension. Our heroine, Rainbow Brite (voice of Bettina Bush), is given the task of ushering in spring, although she’s run into a mighty big hitch this year. A spoiled-rotten princess (voice of Rhonda Aldrich) wants to swipe the diamond-coated planet of Spectra and keep it for herself. The trouble is that all the light in the universe must pass through Spectra first, and moving it would mean plunging the cosmos into eternal darkness (or just a really, really long winter). With no time to waste, Rainbow Brite and her amazing technicolor horse Starlite (voice of Andre Stojka) ride off into the galaxy on a quest to save the planet from looking like Wisconsin in December forever.

I really don’t know where to begin here. Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer is the most confused I’ve been with an animated feature since the Yu-Gi-Oh movie. It’s such a product of its time and reflection of the circumstances under which it was made (in a hasty three months). Be you a Transformer or a Pound Puppy, if you were a toy or greeting card that had a modicum of popularity with kids, then dammit, you got a paper-thin movie of your own to help shift merchandise. It’s a wonder animation made it out of the ’80s alive with stuff like Rainbow Brite, which hammers stock lessons about togetherness and working with each other into our skulls when it’s not pulling characters, special powers, and entire worlds out of its aft end.

The only thing I can tell you about Rainbow Brite’s schtick is that her belt has what I assume to be every deus ex machina known to man tucked away inside. But aside from bickering over gender superiority with her token male counterpart, Rainbow Brite is actually proactive here, jumping at the first sign of trouble to go save her friends and spring as we know it. It’s more than can be said for the astonishingly flimsy antagonist, a princess of…something…whose sole motivation is that she’s spoiled and just wants something huge and shiny. That’s right, our villain is on the same level as those brats on “My Super Sweet 16,” only with a less cartoony temperament. Oh, and before you start on your retorts about Rainbow Brite is a kids movie and not meant to be read into, tell me exactly what age bracket it was meant for. It’s obviously way too kiddiefied for anyone in the double-digit range, but with its apocalyptic themes and abundance of evil robots/lizard people/sea monsters, the kindergarten set might seek out something less depressing, like Watership Down.

Just as GoBots fan groups thrive on Facebook, I’m sure that Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer has its share of defenders showing it to their own, presumably perplexed youngsters. I’d like to know how great of a part nostalgia blinders have played in this love, but I’ll admit that it’s certainly colorful and, half-assed as the plotting gets, never insults your intelligence. But the first wiseacre who tells me to review “Jem” next gets a knuckle sandwich.

“Comic-Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope” (2011)

I think I’ve kept my geekiness fairly contained. Save for indulging in my love for all things film on the occasional podcast or right here, it’s pretty much just me in a room full of more copies of Dracula than I ever anticipated collecting. The only convention I ever attended was spent costumeless and watching obscure flicks, and it wasn’t as nearly as huge of a venue as San Diego’s legendary Comic-Con. But there are countless others out there for whom this event is the culmination of why they love what they love, and more power to them. There’s certainly room for debate about Comic-Con’s “purity,” but Morgan Spurlock’s new documentary about the whole schmear gives a human dimension to what may look on the outside to be an enormous, memorabilia-snatching mass.

Comic-Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope (can’t wait for the prequel trilogy) takes place during the 2010 festivities. What grew from a small gathering that was lucky to reach over 100 attendees into Hollywood’s genre showroom is the place to be for a handful of individuals with their own objectives to fulfill. Some are cosplay enthusiasts who want to show off their craft, some are artists pulling for their big break into the business, and some are in it for the toys. One nervous young fellow plans on proposing to his girlfriend during the Kevin Smith panel but can’t find the time to break away and pick up his custom engagement ring. Interspersed throughout are interviews with the likes of Joss Whedon, Seth Green, Eli Roth, and many more, all of whom can’t say enough good things about the Comic-Con community and how being encouraged to nerd out made them the successes they are now.

If it weren’t obvious already, A Fan’s Hope doesn’t give you the hard-hitting expose on Comic-Con and geek culture that you’ve been dying to watch. There isn’t much gone over in the way of the event’s history, nor is there much light shed on its commercialization over the years. Spurlock feels skittish when it comes to bringing up any negative topics, like the ridiculously skewed ratio of dedicated artists, personable vendors, and like-minded folks having a chat to movie/video game studios taking over the joint just to shill their latest products. One of the film’s most interesting aspects — that of the diminishing comic book aspect of Comic-Con — is relegated to a side story that even Spurlock loses track of amidst the fray.

But all that said, A Fan’s Hope has heart, and when it’s on, it’s on. As much of a fluff piece as the thing is, it feels genuine, and when there’s drama, you’re right there rooting for everything to turn out alright. You’re sweating bullets when the cosplayers experience a faulty alien head, while a dude races to get a prized Galactus figure, and as the Smith panel looms for our happy couple. Spurlock never looks down on his subjects and allows them all to have their say, creating an affectionate climate that makes the doco become that more engaging. Sure, Comic-Con attracts its share of posers and people less concerned with Green Lantern lore than with seeing Will Ferrell goof around, but Spurlock does an entertaining job of emphasizing how important the event is to some and what keeps them coming back for more.

Comic-Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope may feature Spurlock working with kid gloves, but it’s no less worth a watch than his other stuff. It’s an easygoing glimpse into the weird world of nerd life for some and an affirmation for those dreaming of using their devotion to their respective interests to inspire others. Spurlock makes you feel like being a geek ain’t so bad after all, whether you own every She-Hulk toy known to man or not.

“I Was Born, But…” (1932)

 

We never really grow up, do we? I don’t mean that in the sense that we’re forever slaves to childish behavior and infantile impulses (though some are, and often on Fox News). It’s just that as adults, we deal with different forms of the same stuff that we do as kids: submitting to authority figures, tangling with bullies, and showing off our cool new toys. Each generation has something to teach the other, as Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… demonstrates with a wise and humorous touch. It deals with life’s assorted hiccups with charm and affection, not to mention showing that the ideal standard of living in 1930s Japan wasn’t too far off from what it still is in America today.

The next chapter has begun in the lives of young brothers Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and Keiji (Tomio Aoki). With their dad (Tatsuo Saito) getting a new office job comes a nice little home in the suburbs too, a climate to which the boys experience some trouble adjusting. They fast become targets of rowdy neighborhood kids, whose roughhousing is enough to get the siblings to avoid school like the plague. But this is nothing compared to the pain of seeing their father kowtowing before his boss, realizing for the first time that their pop isn’t the center of the world after all.

Until now, all the Ozu films I’ve seen have focused on a certain phase of life during its twilight (i.e. the death of loved ones in Tokyo Story or children leaving the nest in An Autumn Afternoon). While I Was Born, But… is about a new beginning, you could argue that, from the perspective of Ryoichi and Keiji, it’s also the end of the world as they know it. Who hasn’t experienced that moment where, after years of looking upon your parents as life, the universe, and everything, you learn that even they have to answer to someone? As lightly comical as their plight is depicted, Ryoichi and Keiji are crushed at going through a whole film’s worth of teasing by classmates, only to turn around and see their dad have to kiss up to someone bigger than him.

But owing to Ozu’s hands-off storytelling, I Was Born, But… skews on the tender side of melodramatic, with hardly a forced frame in sight. The boys are allowed to be boys who’d rather wander around town than risk life and limb on the playground, just as their father is none too happy with sucking up to his superiors but does so to provide for his family. Ozu displays a great understanding of each realm and often parallels the two; as Ryoichi and Keiji come to stand up to their bullies, we see dear old dad all too aware that playing the game is a part of getting anywhere in life. But this is also a very funny film that doesn’t have to announce it, dealing in wryly subtle observations before it ends on a real corker that brings everything the brothers have learned full circle.

Some say that I Was Born, But… was just the first in a multitude of masterpieces for Ozu. It’s not a perfect flick (the second act’s ambling, “Little Rascals”-style shenanigans drag it down a bit), but I’m inclined to agree that for the director, it was the start of something big. Ozu’s hands gently composed nearly everything they touched, and the heartfelt feeling I Was Born, But… gives off is all the evidence necessary.

“Bernie” (2011)

 

The words “based on a true story” are like white noise to me. I see them on a poster or DVD cover and automatically tune out, assured that those actual events have had the hell dramatized out of them. Richard Linklater’s Bernie alters some details of the original incident from which it draws inspiration, but a little research shows that the real thing actually was as crazy as what ended up on film. It’s a situation that begs for the big screen treatment, and under Linklater’s direction, Bernie sidesteps all temptations to condescend and brings one tragically amusing story to life.

Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is the type of guy who could get Ann Coulter to vote Obama. He’s an unbelievably nice guy, an assistant funeral director who volunteers at church, is very generous with his money, and treats everyone he meets with the utmost respect. This particularly extends to the little old ladies in his small Texas town, whom Bernie is happy to console when their loved ones pass. It’s also how he first met Margy Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a crone among crones with whom Bernie strikes up an unusual kinship. But as Margy grows more demanding and possessive of Bernie over the years, the more he tires of living under her thumb, to the point that the townspeople are less shocked that he eventually shoots her and stuffs her in a freezer than they are that he didn’t do it sooner.

I’m kind of amazed that Bernie didn’t end up a bigger circus than it could’ve been. With the believe-it-or-not hook in place, I can imagine a lesser director having a field day, playing Bernie, Margy, and the gossiping townsfolk for stereotype-driven laughs. But Linklater’s career has been dedicated to rubbing shoulders with those who lurk off the beaten path, and Bernie shows it; I didn’t care much for his collage of philosophical burnouts Slacker, but at least he was interested in what they had to say. Bernie‘s strength comes from its understanding, from how you see not just where Bernie comes from (showing that even the most enormously good-hearted have their limits) but the “villain” as well. Matthew McConaughey plays a showboating district attorney, and you even get his frustration at seeing so much emotional support for a confessed killer.

Bernie isn’t a comedy in the sense that it’s packed with one-liners and gags aplenty. Its humor comes from all the characters trying to wrap their heads around the fact that the nicest guy any of them have ever known shot the town bitch in the back. Even Bernie is surprised at his act and presses on with his social engagements undeterred, going directly from the crime scene to rehearsing for “The Music Man.” It’s an odd tone that the actors nail, although not without a few niggling imperfections. Black captures Bernie’s sweetness and nicely performs the sort of role you’re definitely not used to seeing him in, but his “acting” often sticks out and doesn’t come across all that naturally at times. MacLaine is all piss and vinegar as Margy, though the script misses an opportunity to give the character dimension and her demise a more profound edge by showing more of her warming up to Bernie. On the other hand, McConaughey is having a complete blast, doing great work as a smooth-talking, grandstanding attorney whose love for the spotlight kicks into overdrive when he hears of the Bernie affair.

Despite Bernie altering and straight-up leaving out certain details of the actual case, you get a good idea of how wild the whole thing was for real. Woven throughout the film are interviews with those who knew Bernie, and you can tell the guy is as fresh and divisive a topic now as when he shot Margy down in the ’90s. But just as Bernie the man was a source of unexpected kindness and generosity, Bernie the flick is a wellspring of weirdness that touches you in ways you might not anticipate.

“Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies” (2012)

 

Sorry, but I’ve never felt compelled to jump on the Asylum bandwagon. I know the audience for this studio and its legion of sound-alike cash-ins on Hollywood blockbusters is driven mainly by irony, and the movies themselves know full well how crummy they are. But so what? A horribly-made film is still a horribly-made film, no matter how loudly it gloats about how shitty it is. Yet, with great hesitance, I popped in Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, based solely on the surprisingly positive buzz heard from my trusty circle of cinefriends. Well, it certainly isn’t the most inept thing the Asylum ever made, but it’s a rotten flick regardless, a mundane production that, much like the one it’s riffing on, doesn’t know what a good premise it has going for it.

Abraham Lincoln (Bill Oberst Jr.) accomplished a great many deeds during his presidency. He emancipated the slaves, led our country through the Civil War’s darkest days, and — in one of his less-chronicled exploits — sliced up the living dead. Having first encountered zombies firsthand as a child, Abe must confront this evil force once more on the eve of his famous Gettysburg Address. When a mission gone wrong has the stench of the undead hanging over it, Lincoln himself leads a small band of men to get to the bottom of things. Their destination is a fort found to be teeming with flesh-eating ghouls, and if he hopes to contain this threat, Honest Abe must get Union and Confederate soldiers alike to team up and mutilate some corpses in the name of peace.

The Asylum’s apathy pisses me off more than it should. They’re smart enough to come up with one attention-grabbing title after another (Titanic II, anyone?), but the fact that not only are the movies themselves crap but that they visibly don’t care that they suck will be forever stuck in my cinematic craw. There’s potential for legit fun to be had with Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, as was there in this past summer’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Neither picture is any less ludicrous than the other, with only budget and filmmaking talent separating the two. Vampire Hunter got a little too straight-faced for my taste, but where it at least attempted establishing a story and character arcs, Zombies doesn’t even mine its title for any decent gags. It’s a utility-grade undead siege flick that just happens to have Lincoln as the hero, in an effort to appear goofy and self-aware without actually being so.

In its defense, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies isn’t a hack job from beginning to end. Being set in one locale most of the time, there are actually few opprtunities for the Asylum’s shoddy green screen work to interrupt the show. The actors all sound like low-rent Ken Burns voiceover artists, and you can tell most of the film’s money went to supplying them with bogus beards, but you sort of get used to it after a while. Hell, even Oberst makes for a pretty good Abe, doing what had to be a Herculean job of staying in character and never winking at the camera. But stripped of its CG bloodshed and digitized dismemberment, Zombies offers next to nothing of value. All we get are a lot of forced one-liners, unfunny cameos from historical figures, and plot holes too gaping to be excused away by, “It’s only a B-movie.”

Like I said, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies has something of a reputation as one of the more tolerable Asylum features, which doesn’t quite bode well for the remainder of its catalogue. Cheesy fun gets it by on a few occasions, but with a name like the one it has, there’s no excuse for it to be as lacking in humor and spark as it is. The film may sound too irresistibly dumb to pass up, but you’re best left freeing your brain cells from the tyranny of boredom that this disappointing ditty has in store.

“Innerspace” (1987)

 

Innerspace goes to show you just how far the humble B-movie has come. Although director Joe Dante’s 1987 adventure took its cues from the well-regarded Fantastic Voyage, I doubt it would’ve received the financial assistance and quality writing it was afforded, had it come out a couple decades earlier. Films of its ilk were meant to fill seats as glorified light shows back in the day, so we’re fortunate to have had a good run of hits since then that proved science fiction could combine pure spectacle with out-there storylines and still be really damn fun. Innerspace is one of these titles, a well-rounded and very entertaining experience that, like Dante’s own Gremlins, knows when to be light, knows when to be dark, and knows when to be batshit insane.

While his drunken antics may indicate otherwise, test pilot Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) is just the man needed to take part in science’s next great advance. A government lab has cracked the secret of miniaturization, and ol’ Tuck gets to play guinea pig, assigned to explore a rabbit from the inside via a submersible pod. But the experiment is barely underway before baddies raid the lab, forcing a scientist to take drastic measures and inject Tuck into twitchy Safeway clerk Jack Putter (Martin Short) for his own safety. With evil flunkies in hot pursuit and his oxygen supplies depleting, Tuck will have to work with Jack from within his own body, fighting time and the occasional spazz-out to get him back to his normal size.

A few weeks ago, The Watch debuted in theaters as a sterling example of how not to make a sci-fi comedy. It might as well have not even had aliens to begin with; the actors were set on their usual schtick, and any little green men were present solely for Vince Vaughn to hump. In movies like this, the humor works best when the characters respond in tandem with the weird situations they’re facing, which is where Innerspace gains the upper hand. When Martin Short plays Sir Mugs-a-Lot, it’s not just because he’s Martin Short, and that’s what he does; it’s because he’s a nervous dude coming to terms with the fact that the Enemy Mine guy is tooling around his thorax. Both Jack and Tuck are in spots they didn’t expect to be in, so as they press the plot onward in search of the MacGuffin du jour, all their amusing missteps feel natural and not just like the movie’s aimlessly fishing for yuks.

But laughs are just one aspect of Innerspace‘s plate, which Dante manages to keep full but surprisingly balanced. It’s funny to see Short spaz out, but those scenes in which Quaid’s character cruises around his body still inspire a smidge of wonder amidst the comedic chaos (a testament to how spot-on the visual effects are, too). Innerspace also comes equipped with Dante’s patented cinematic lunacy, dealt out here in easy-to-swallow doses that grow more and more loony as the film progresses. Once we’ve accepted the initial premise, that’s when Dante starts to pull back the curtain on half-naked cowboys, three-foot villains, and a final battle in which stomach acid is used to deal a decisive blow. Innerspace reaches some offbeat heights, but it earns the right to go there, thanks to how much it respects its characters, how it has fun with them but treats them as more than props in some goofball story.

When it’s focused on getting Short to be less of a nerd and reuniting Quaid with reporter girlfriend Meg Ryan, Innerspace can admittedly feel a little flat and predictable. But corny as these subplots are, they go a long way in helping balance out the zaniness and blessing the high-concept plot with a touch of weight. Innerspace may not share the same cult love as some of Joe Dante’s other pictures, but it’s still a loopy treat from a director who never made a common blockbuster in his life.

“Animal Kingdom” (2010)

 

I’ll often see crime dramas forget that just because they spend a lot of time with unsavory characters, that doesn’t mean they’re obligated to be the “heroes.” As good as Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty was, it still tried making mafia thugs out as the good guys on the grounds of Vin Diesel being wacky and the prosecutor being a Walter Peck-level dick. Animal Kingdom goes a step further by having its criminal element be an actual family, but it makes no efforts to humanize their heinous activity. This Australian import lays out quite clearly the harsh reality of the lifestyle it depicts, a dog-eat-dog world in which the effective scripting and powerful ensemble cast make sure every bite is felt.

17-year-old Josh Cody (James Frecheville) has just lost his mother to a drug overdose. With no one else around to look after him, Josh has no choice but to turn to the extended family he’s been deliberately shielded from for years. Although his grandma Janine (Jacki Weaver) welcomes him with open arms, it doesn’t mask the fact that she and her three sons are heavily involved in some illegal dealings that have them presently laying low. But the cops are getting anxious themselves, until a violent incident one day kicks off the beginning of the end. As the Codys wage war with the law, Josh is shaken out of his complacency, confronted with the choice of either staying with the closest thing he has to a family or helping bring them to justice.

Animal Kingdom‘s advertising has touted it as an Aussie Goodfellas, which isn’t altogether false. In the sense that it’s about a man whose loyalty to a close-knit family unit with ties to crime, then yeah, there’s a connection. But a big difference is that Animal Kingdom never actually shows what it is that has the Codys so wanted by the fuzz. Like Josh, we’re drop-kicked in the middle of their goings-on and kept mainly in the dark; all we know is that their world is starting to crash around them, and they’ve been in it too long to go down without a fight. As the title suggests, all notions of family are abandoned when everyone starts fighting for survival, with the audience left wondering where the hell Josh is going to end up when the smoke clears.

But if Animal Kingdom missteps, it’s in making its protagonist too much of a blank slate for viewers to project themselves onto. Josh is introduced to us nonchalantly watching TV while paramedics attend to his mom’s corpse, and he carries on with that detachment for the remainder of the film. But we’re never even given a hint at what made him so inactive to begin with, which makes getting behind his moral quandry difficult when he brushes off his uncles blowing away innocent cops with zero compassion. Also left unexplored is how ruthless the police are at wanting to nail the Codys, a potential gray area gone white the minute Guy Pearce’s near-saintly lawman arrives to help lead Josh down the straight and narrow. But despite these storytelling bumps, the film always has a great stable of performers working in its favor, the best turns being delivered by Pearce, Warrior‘s Joel Edgerton, and Weaver, who deservedly earned Oscar attention for her work as a granny whose affection hides a very sinister soul.

In the past, I’d had a bad run of overly-quirky and loud Australian cinema that put me off its product for a long time. But Animal Kingdom bucks all such preconceptions to show us the effects of desperation on a criminal mind with grit and suspense. It’s not Goodfellas good, but it has punch and, most importantly, tells a familiar story in its own absorbing way.