Cult Classic: The Rocketeer

Summary: A good, classy adventure with an excellent cast and loads of heart, but with a deficiency of nail-biting suspense, hard-hitting action, and unique spectacle.

Review: If there’s any proof that I’m a full-blooded American fellow, it’s my love of two-fisted tales and cinematic adventures owing to the cliffhanger serials of yore.  They tend to show great heart and idealism, allowing a greater capacity for laughter, tears, and screams than run-of-the-mill action pictures.  Most folks know ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Zorro’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, but there have been many efforts to bring their more obscure relatives to the screen.  Most of these films, I’m sorry to say, were overlooked, only to be rediscovered and appreciated by cinephiles with the advent of home video.  ‘The Rocketeer’, adapted from Dave Stevens’ comic book, was Disney’s 1991 attempt to create a cash cow franchise comparable to Paramount’s ‘Indiana Jones’.  It failed, possibly due to mismarketing, but the film has gained a well-deserved cult following.

To be sure, ‘The Rocketeer’ is not a spectacular film.  It lacks exactly that: Really great spectacle.  That’s the sort of thing that its successful brethren have in spades.  But what ‘The Rocketeer’ has is the most important thing — an adventurous spirit that provokes wide-eyed wonder and that infection that makes you want to jump into the screen and join in, despite the danger.  This aspect of the screenplay, coupled with perfect casting and very good character direction, makes the film worth watching.

Then-unknown Billy Campbell plays the lead, Cliff Secord, and he is perfect.  He has tangible chemistry with the leading lady, a very young and extraordinarily gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, and stands in stark contrast to the typically brilliant Timothy Dalton, his adversary.  The story takes a lot of time to stack the deck against Cliff, and his tenacity makes us want him to win.  That tenacious nobility, balanced with crucial character flaws, is the soul of the two-fisted tale.  We see it in Indy when he climbs onto the submarine in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, in Luke when he lets himself fall out of the Cloud City in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, in Will when he breaks Jack out of prison in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’, and in Cliff when he chooses to strap on the mysterious jetpack for the first time.  It’s a simple equation, yet one that’s easily ignored — the hero must get his/her ass kicked before she/he can kick ass.  The more devastating an emotional and physical beatdown the hero receives, the more devastating their vengeance.

The effects by ILM are as good as they had circa 1991, and that’s certainly not the reason that it fails in terms of spectacle.  The rocket effects and the flying sequences have charm, style, and a certain boyish glory.  The movie makes flight in general extremely appealing.  Parts of the ending fight on top of a zeppelin over Hollywood are adventurous gold, mostly due to the setting and Cliff’s simple but ingenious solution.  What undoes it is the lack of impact.  The action is competently directed, but for helmsman Joe Johnston this was only his second feature, and he had not yet evolved proper action chops.  The gunfights are pedestrian, there are no great fisticuffs, and there’s not enough suspense to drive us to the edge of our seats.  For a film based on cliffhanger serials, there’s not a lot of cliffhanging.  It’s not for a lack of running time.  It’s a short movie, clocking in at just about 100 minutes plus credits.  It needs at least a singular, iconic set piece that rivets audiences and demands repeat viewings.

Taken as a sum, ‘The Rocketeer’ works.  The story brings a smile to my face.  The characters are magnetic and make me wish for further adventures.  What this film needs is guts.  I speak of it in the present tense because I believe that the right creative team can improve on this film with an affectionate remake.  ‘The Rocketeer’ deserves to be a classic, but until it can be retold with as much visceral impact as it has heart, it’s stuck as an object of cultish affection.  If you enjoy these sorts of films, however, I’d urge you to see this film and love it for what it is, and what it can be.

MMM: Desert Chase, E.T., The Dark Knight

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Three rousing pieces today as a counterpoint to last week’s subdued direction.

‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is one of my favorite films of all time.  John Williams, the modern-day maestro, composed a landmark score for this beauty.  This piece, which follows Indiana Jones through the Egyptian desert as he fights Nazis to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant from a truck, hits every visual beat perfectly, and I can envision almost every moment of the iconic scene in my head as it plays.  Check out that climatic brass explosion!

Yes, even more John Williams, from ‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial’, which I have yet to review.  This end credits piece is, well, rousing.  And tear-jerking.  Pretty much perfect.

Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard may not have the iconic, classy reputation of John Williams, but their score for ‘The Dark Knight’ has some great moments.  In particular this track, accompanying Batman’s willful, messianic transformation from hero to scapegoat.  A beautiful, cathartic piece filled with energy, angst, and hope.

Classic Review: Poltergeist

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A distinctly Spielbergian piece of childlike terror and awe.

Review:  I’ve always been a paranormal enthusiast.  My instincts tell me that the world around us, especially popular media’s edited view of the world, is not all there is.  There are still unfathomable mysteries.  Not everything’s explained by bouncing particles together and making educated guesses.  It proves my geekhood, but when I consider how I approach the world, I immediately think of the Vulcans from ‘Star Trek’ and their philosophy IDIC, that is, Infinite Diversity (in) Infinite Combinations.  There are too many possible answers for every question.

Which brings me to a recent cinematic experience I had, Steven Spielberg’s story ‘Poltergeist’, a movie that’s equal parts wonder and horror.  The filmmakers wisely spent most of their time showing the unfolding supernatural events from a child’s point-of-view.  Children, of course, believe in IDIC.  They’re natural poets.  A rainstorm is more than part of a cycle, unfolding since the Earth’s beginning; it’s a harbinger of doom.  A tree isn’t a passive factory of useful materials; it’s a pensive, devious, patient monster.  A clown doll sitting at the foot of the bed isn’t a fun toy; at night, it transforms into a demon, waiting for you to fall asleep.  It’s the imagination’s dark side in full force.

What ‘Poltergeist’ does is it takes childhood fears — that your home is the devil’s playground — and brings them into the adult world.  Unlike most cinematic families, the family in ‘Poltergeist’ is unified, loving, and three-dimensional.  It’s the family every kid wants and deserves.  When the kids’ fears prove real — and ghosts kidnap the little girl — the parents don’t react with skepticism.  To combat a supernatural enemy, they need the same imagination and faith their children have.  This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Not an impossible demand or a threat; a plea for open minds.

‘Poltergeist’ is indeed scary, but because it originated in Spielberg’s mind, it has the same sense of adventure and awe as ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  If you’ve got a stomach for horror, ‘Poltergeist’ is incredibly fun, and even inspiring.  Watching the father, played by Craig T. Nelson, interact with the kids, well, it made me want to be a Dad.  It’s increasingly rare that we get to see a purely positive role model.

I’ve referred to this as a Spielberg film, and it’s not because I have any illusions about who directed it.  That was Tobe Hooper.  The auteur is not always the director; its how we ought to pinpoint the chief creative force behind any project, no matter their role.  Here, it was certainly the co-writer and producer, Steven Spielberg, as the narrative is certainly his and every shot screams out his influence.

‘Poltergeist’ is my favorite horror film of all time.  It’s an experience akin to ‘Jaws’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ pictures.  I’ll be returning to that haunted house again.

Classic Review: Captain Blood (1935)

Now in video!

Stars: **** out of Four

Summary:  It’s heroic.  No, it’s epic!

He's a doctor, a pirate, an Englishman... and he's out to draw BLOOD!

He's a doctor, a pirate, an Irishman... and he's out to draw BLOOD!

Review: So yeah, ‘Captain Blood’.  Imagine swashbuckling pirates, battles at sea, escaping slaves, clever dialog, romanticized romance, and swashbuckling pirates.  Now put them into a blender.  Now pour the smooth, delicious mixture, which I’m sure you’re quite proud of, into a baking pan, set the oven for 425 degrees, and bake the sucker for an hour.  Now, do the toothpick test.  Is it ready?  Good.  Now cut, and serve to all your friends.  Top with popcorn butter, or if you’re daring, chocolate.  Is it good?  Probably.  But you see, there’s a problem with your latest experiment in the metaphysical culinary arts, as there is with all postmodern pirate movies.  You see, the problem with all new pirate movies is that they are not ‘Captain Blood’.  Only one movie is ‘Captain Blood’, and this is… well, you know.  ‘Captain Blood’.

So I won’t bother spoiling it for you.  Like a truly succulent dish, like great sushi, ‘Captain Blood’ can only be compared to tastes similar to it, which assumes that you have partaken of them.  This movie is so good, dear reader, that at the very moment that I was watching it, it had already climbed up my ladder of favorite films into the coveted realm set aside for ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Jaws’,  and ‘Casablanca’.  This film is a rollicking good time, a complete package for the whole family and the individual adventure enthusiast.  This is one of those landmark movies that makes us think of pirates in popular culture not as unwholesome murderers who spat in the face of the law, but as goodhearted sailors forced into a life of rulebreaking because the rules were not human enough.  Whatever moral and historical inaccuracies there are in our common perception, we can lay in large part on the shoulders of Errol Flynn and his cool, witty and moral Irishman Dr. Peter Blood, who charms and swordfights for love, revenge, and England.  But, faith! why wait and read about the film when you could be watching it right now?  Go on then!  Take a bite out of adventure!

What do you think of that, Orson?

That’s what I thought.

Sherlock Holmes

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  An old-school, fast paced adventure that resurrects neglected elements of one of the most famous people who never lived.

If this reminds of the poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's probably intentional.

If this reminds you of the poster for 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', it's probably intentional.

Review:  So my brother is this huge Holmes fan.  I’ve read a little bit of Holmes, I think only the first adventure and a smidgen after that, and I’ve always admired the character from a distance.  One of my favorite movies growing up was Disney’s strangely dark, animal version of Holmes, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’, which, come to think of it, would be fun to see again.  I also remember seeing a version of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ on the old Public Television edutainment show ‘Wishbone’, which was kind of creepy.  So I learned from my brother that the literary Holmes was not the self-assured, all-together character we know from the Basil Rathbone movies of yore (though Rathbone’s Holmes was pretty killer in his own right), but was a bit more like the protagonist of Disney’s rendition, who was irritatingly eccentric and just a little bit mad.  In fact, he would shoot holes in his wall, experiment with drugs (especially opium), and craved difficult cases in a similar manner.  He was a boxer, a martial artist, and a swordsman.

Then I went to go see Guy Ritchie’s new film, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, with ‘Iron Man’ star Robert Downey Jr. in the title role.  And now, in my own way, I’ve found myself an overall fan of the character, opium, bullets, and all.  Not only does Holmes himself get a truer treatment (though with the drug content toned down), but so does Dr. John Watson, who on screen has often been the unfortunate victim of being made something of a buffoon to enhance Holmes’ reputation as the genius.  Instead, like his literary counterpart, Jude Law’s rendition of Watson restores him to the military man who was wounded in action (if you watch the film carefully, you see him favoring a leg), and whose own wits and abilities are complimented and honed by his friend.  Ritchie, an action director, uses Holmes’ and Watson’s physical abilities to the limit, unleashing Holmes as a master of lightning quick fistfight stratagem.  Everything is amped up, just a little beyond what was canon in the books, but not far at all.  Really, it’s pretty grounded in the continuity and style Sir Arthur Conan Doyle envisioned.  The tone that the film strikes comes closer to the classic Indiana Jones adventures and their forbears, the thrill-a-minute serials of yesteryear, than basically anything in the past decade.  It’s a refreshing trip to the movies that I heartily recommend.  My critiques go to the villain, who I felt could have been just a little stronger, and to the pacing, which made the film a little hard to digest on the first viewing.  It roars by, so I suggest seeing it again and again to catch every little detail, which keeps it fresh.

A solid, though imperfect, beginning to what promises to be a fun franchise.  Here’s hoping they don’t make it a trilogy.


Note from James:  I actually saw this movie in May when it was first released, but for some reason I completely neglected to write a review.  Shame on me!

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Wrapped up in a package of innocence is a heartbreaking, touching story, told as only Pixar can tell it.

This poster is just awesome.

This poster is just awesome.

Review: Pixar has something of a rep. Every single one of their theatrical releases has been not just a financial success, but a bonafide blockbuster. Yet, they refuse to use the common tropes of modern animation; things such as strictly juvenile humor, adult bonuses, and endlessly annoying characters (the sheer volume of the last item in other CGI films raises the question as to whether it is intentional!). Not only did they pioneer the CGI animation medium, they continue to be a shining city of quality, sitting on an unapproachable hill.

Their latest, ‘Up’, continues this trend in unexpected ways. It lacks the high and exciting qualities of previous successes such as ‘The Incredibles’, instead providing a story rather small in scope. It follows an old man, widowed years before, as he deals with his grief and disappointment with life. The story’s remarkable success belies its humble central thread; in the end, both the heartbreaking and the heart-racing are explored with great enthusiasm. It’s an adventure story, completely appropriate for all ages, and universally affecting to them all. The ridiculous heroics of the same serials that inspired ‘Indiana Jones’ are used as a template for the fun side of the equation, and never do they feel awkward when paired with the story’s central themes. Strangely enough, ‘Up’ contains some of the most overtly cartoonish elements of Pixar’s history, including the classic Walt Disney staple of talking dogs (though accomplished in a clever way).

The first five minutes are the most powerful I’ve seen in an animated film. It matches the new ‘Star Trek’ in emotional realism during the opening moments. I’ve seen otherwise emotionally distant people react strongly to this sequence, and it’s hard to think about without being slightly affected.

Pixar’s new regular, Michael Giacchino, provides another great score. It’s married excellently to the film, but also deserves a listen for its own merits. I would suggest a purchase of the soundtrack.

Anyway, quite excellent, great fun, and a great story.