In case you don’t know or recently forgot, I live in Japan. This is relevant for two reasons. First, I can get sushi anytime I want and it’s super cheap. Second, I am compelled to drag my family on the grueling journey back to Ohio every Christmas to spend time with my family. Also, Adam.
During the endless hours of sitting in airplanes and sitting in airports required to travel from Japan to America, I often have a great deal of free time to dispense with. Occasionally, I fill the time with chasing an distraught two-and-a-half year old around but most of the time I fill the time with watching poorly selected films on a screen the size of postcard. This year, I have elected to share my thoughts on the films I experienced with you, our audience.
The films I watched during the never-ending journey are presented in the order in which they were viewed. Enjoy!
Film #1 - Looper
I’m not going to lie to you (Why would I do that?), I was really, really, really excited to see Looper. A near-future distopia involving time travel and Bruce Willis... where do I sign up? Since I am a family man and I live in a country where movie tickets cost at least $20, I very rarely see movies when they are released in the theater. As such, I missed Looper’s theatrical release. Therefore, you must imagine my excitement when I saw that Looper was available on the airplane for my view pleasure. As you have probably already guessed, I had that movie loaded up and playing within minutes of takeoff. Unfortunately, my feelings after watching the film are mixed at best.
Did I mention that this film has time travel, a distopian near-future and Bruce Willis. Do I really need to be more verbose about the positive elements of the film? If I must, I must.
At its heart, the film is very enjoyable and the pacing doesn't allow you to become bored or lose interest. The world created and presented feels full and I found myself curious about the elements of the world that were not shown in the film. This is an element that I am always looking for in a science fiction film and Looper has it.
Unfortunately, the film has two major negative elements that posed real issues for me as a viewer.
First, the time travel mechanics in this movie are inconsistent at best. In this universe, changes made to the younger version of a person ripple through and affect the body of the older version of that person, even after they have traveled back in time. Okay, that’s fine I guess but we run into a problem after that element is taken to its extreme. We see a older version of a person slowly loose body parts including fingers, nose and possibly a foot. We are to assume that he is loosing these body parts because his younger self is being maimed. We are also to assume that the course of his life is not altered by this experience and that he is still sent back in time in the same manner and at the exact same time. Thus, we are faced with a universe where everything is predetermined except your appearance.
Second, the ending sequence of the film. Up until the last scene of the film, we are mostly left to our own devices to read the emotions and motivations of the characters. We hear characters discuss motivations and emotions but we are not directly told. In the last scene, we are explicitly told the main characters motivation and emotional state through voice-over narration. This out-of-the-blue shift is both jarring and completely unnecessary. Anyone not in a coma is capable comprehending the main character's actions and yet the film elects to beat us over the head with narration. Overall, I found it somewhat insulting.
Film #2 - Prometheus
Much like Looper, Prometheus was a film that I was very excited for and never managed to watch at the theater. I am a huge fan of Alien and Aliens and the very idea of a prequel to those movies was wet-my-pants exciting. From the moment I turned on the video system, I knew that I would be watching Prometheus at some point during the flight. Sadly, I can’t say that I truly enjoyed the movie. I certainly enjoyed certain elements of it but not the entire thing.
As anyone who has seen this movie will tell you, the world-building is done exceptionally well. As with Alien before it, this movie creates and presents a universe that seems ripe for investigation. For the most part, the locations and scenery are both glorious in their details and subtle enough that one doesn't end up staring at them instead of paying attention to the movie. Overall, the effects are done in a similar manner. With a few exceptions. they are beautiful without spending trying to punch you in the face. Most importantly, the movie continues a storyline that I am already invested in. My personal investment in the story means that I was also able to enjoy all the plot elements and set pieces that connect to the following films.
There are a number of negative elements to the film but there are two that seemed most apparent to me. First, I found the pacing of the movie to be a little too slow. Even in the intense action scenes, I did not feel the urgency and panic that I feel when I watch Alien. Unlike Alien, this movie does not make you feel the anxiety and fear for the main characters that I was hoping for. Second, the mostly beautiful effects are absolutely ruined by some major stinkers. For example, the giant white proto-facehugger that grows in the room with the auto-surgeon looks atrocious. In the end, I didn't fear it as much as laugh at it. Another example is the alien ship rolling after its crash. The effect is both absurd and completely unnecessary. It adds absolutely nothing to the story and look ridiculous.
Film #3 - The Campaign
The Campaign was not a film that I ever intended to watch or had any interest in whatsoever. I ended up watching the movie on the plane because I wanted something a little lighter than Looper and Prometheus. I wasn't expecting much from the movie but I have enjoyed other Will Ferrell films in the past and expected that I would probably enjoy this one as well. While I cannot say it is the best comedy in the world, I can say that I thought it was funny and fun to watch.
At it's heart, the film is mostly dick and sex jokes layered thickly over a not-very-clever political message. That being said, I usually like lowbrow humor as long as it is delivered well. In this situation, I would say that the jokes are delivered quite well. In fact the delivery was good enough to overcome the unfortunate and heavy-handed censorship used to make this film safe for the airplane. Throughout the movie, I found myself laughing quite often. Moreover, I enjoyed the characters created by both Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. Most importantly, we have the opportunity to watch these characters evolve and grow. I am always happy when comedies bother to include elements of character growth.
Sadly, the lowbrow jokes are the only thing that this film really has to offer. As I stated previously, the jokes are built on the platform of a completely unoriginal piece of political commentary; Politicians lie and are in the pockets of big corporations. Unfortunately, this is the sort of political commentary one expects from a 3rd grader watching the news with his parents. This commentary as conceived by a 3rd grader regrettably serves as the backbone of the movie and the source of all character actions and motivations. While I didn't expect brilliant political commentary from the movie, I was hoping for something a little deeper than the sort of thing you might find scrawled in a youtube comments section. Does the lack of depth in the story ruin the movie? No, it doesn't but it would have been nice to see a little more.
Film #4 - Bernie
This film was a complete and utter shock and delight for me from start to finish. Before I stepped onto the plane, I was only vaguely aware of it. I had read somewhere that Jack Black was doing some sort of true-crime drama. That was the extent of my knowledge of the film and its story. In the end, I think that my ignorance of the story and the tone were fundamental to my enjoyment. As such, I will be very careful not to give away too much of what happens during the film.
This film is filled to the brim with positive elements. In fact, they are so overwhelming that I am finding it quite difficult to enumerate them. Jack Black’s performance throughout the movie is engrossing and utterly believable. He lovingly paints the portrait of a quirky but lovable man that you can’t help but empathize with. Moreover, Shirley MacLaine does an astounding job of portraying a woman that is obviously deeply emotionally scarred but also despicable and completely insufferable. A character that one can simultaneously despise and feel sympathy for. Beyond the excellent acting, the film also tells a story that is both touching and darkly humorous. Rather than just a retelling of the story of this crime, the film is more like a love letter to this moment in time and space.
Honestly, I am at a complete loss to find any major negatives to the film. In a stretch, I would suggest that the film could have done with fewer of the individual character interviews/testimonials. While they are well done and each seem like well-crafted and believable character studies, they do slow the film down a little and affect the pacing somewhat. The only other complaint that I could possibly lodge against the film would be the limit of its scope. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t delve into the back story of Jack Black’s character enough to paint a complete picture of his motivations. As such, we are forced to simply accept some of his actions rather than understand them. Personally, I feel that both of these complaints are relatively minor and neither of them really alters the quirky beauty and dark comedy of this film.
Film #5 - Dark Shadows
Ugh. I feel like that is all that I really need to say about this movie. I only finished watching it because it was too late to start a new movie before the plane landed. Before I started watching it, I knew almost nothing about it. I knew that it starred Johnny Depp and I thought it was about vampires and I assumed it would be weird. I suppose I was right on all counts. While it is all of those things, it is also one of the worst movies I have seen in a long time. From my uneducated perspective, it seemed like Johnny Depp or Tim Burton owed someone a favor and decided to cash in on it while simultaneously trying to cash in on the current Vampire craze. In my mind, that’s the only way I can justify such abysmal work.
I suppose the costume and set-pieces for both of the time periods featured in the movie are well done and appropriately off the wall. I’ll let you know if I think of any more in the future.
There are basically too many problems with this movie to possibly list them all in a single blog post. Considering the talent involved in this movie, it is nearly incomprehensible how bad this film manages to be. From the very beginning, we are presented with overacted and completely unbelievable characters and a backstory that is both infantile and rushed to the point of being meaningless. As we progress, we are shifted 200 years into the future and presented with an even more infantile story with characters that seem more like the work of high school drama students rather than professional actors. For the viewer, it is impossible to believe any of the characters’ motivations or become invested in their stories. We are left to float through a sea of mediocre comedic acting without any decent characters to anchor ourselves to. In the end, there is absolutely nothing to redeem this film. To my mind, this is little more that an 8th grade girl’s Johnny Depp as a vampire slash fiction turned into a full-length feature film. I am sure that she is quite pleased and she is probably the only one.
On a strange side note, the film makes the strange choice to shift us 200 years into the future rather than 240 years into the future which puts us right in the middle of the 1970’s. This seems like a completely unnecessary and overly complicated decision that probably made the movie much more expensive and adds absolutely nothing to the story. I found this aspect especially baffling throughout the entire movie.
Until Next Year
These five films represent the majority of my experience during my flight from America back to Japan. Overall, I would say that I made some good choices and I made some bad choices. I laughed. I cried. I considered pulling the emergency door release to escape the agony of Dark Shadows. In the end, I decided against it and survived to bring you this detailed account. I hope you enjoyed. Stay tuned for the next installment in the series, Five Films on an Airplane: 2014.