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The Astronaut's Wife

Manos: The Hands of Fate

Red Planet

The Astronaut's Wife (1999). Starring Charlize Theron, Johnny Depp, Joe Morton. Directed and written by Rand Ravich.

Wow, did this one stink. Sorry folks, but I gotta be honest here. What we've got is a cross between Rosemary's Baby and Suspicion, transported into the science fiction world. Writer-Director Rand Ravich shows some striking visual talent; I'd be interested in seeing what else he might do, provided that he gets someone else to do the writing.

Charlize Theron and Joe Morton are very good (Morton especially), Johnny Depp is pretty bad (he seems really miscast) and there are bits by Tom Noonan and Capt. Picard's Girlfriend from Star Trek: Insurrection. Donna someone? (Oh, now I remember Blair Brown was in it, and she had a Southern accent. I've always liked her, but obviously she didn't make a big impact on me here. Ahem.)

As I say, throughout Ravich comes up with good images, imaginative stagings and some really startling visuals. There's one near the beginning that has Charlize standing in front of a big screen which is showing the view from the space shuttle as it lands. It's beautiful and really works. And I remember a scene with a tape being passed between two people, and I thought at the time, wow, that really looks good. Of course, the problem with stuff like that is that it distracts you from the characters and the story, but in this case that's actually a good thing. All the distractions are good. It's kind of like, hm, well, if someone took the footage from Koyaanisqatsi and said, “Hey, I bet I can make this into a narrative film. I'll just film some talking heads in between, talking about, uh, I don't know, I'll write the dialogue later. Unlock the moviola, I'm inspired!”

Because it's that damn script that really makes this one bad.

Plus, this film has a Bad Ending, you know, where the bad guys win. I've never understood the appeal of that for film-makers. Think about that for a moment. Suppose at the end of Star Wars, Luke had missed the crucial shot, the Death Star had destroyed the rebel base, and then Darth Vader blew up Luke's ship. And then you have the credits, set to slow string quartet music in a minor key. Where'd George Lucas be now if he did that? Well, I think he'd be where Rand Ravich is now. This movie was made in 1999 and Ravich hasn't been heard from since. Oh, I'm sure he pays his bills and is nice to his cats, I mean in the movie biz. And I'll bet it's because of the Bad Ending. Had he made a Good Ending, where Charlize triumphed over the aliens, he might have made a couple of sequels by now, where Charlize goes around the world trying to stop evil aliens, kind of like Blade or Ash or someone like that. Imagine that—a female alien-fighter. Like Ripley, but more in control of where she goes. In the third film, there'd be this conflict where she realizes how much she's lost in life by being an alien-fighter, and she'd be tempted to quit and settle down with this nice guy she'd found. But of course, the guy'd be in the employ of the aliens and she'd have to blow him away. And she'd look wisfully at the camera, a single tear would roll down her cheek, and she'd stroll off into the fog, while the people she'd saved get to live their normal lives and have normal families and will always think of how she saved them. Man, why didn't they ask me to write this movie? I'd have done it pretty cheaply, too. Well, at first. You always have to pay for talent. I know I do.

But no, Mr. Ravich wrote his bad ending. I think that sort of thing is aimed more at critics and journalists than audiences (since the latter stayed away in droves from this movie in theatres, and now it's a DVD in the $5 bin at Wal-Mart. At least it's widescreen. Of course, a large chunk on the back trumpets the fact that this DVD has “Interactive Menus!” Which as I hope you know by now, means you move a cursor over a number of options, push a button, and that option is selected. I have an interactive bag of pretzels. I can choose ANY of the pretzels in this bag—they're all at my fingertips! Even better, I don't need a remote for this, which uses costly batteries).

Anyway, I digress (like you've never seen me do that before). Why choose a Bad Ending? I imagine the thought at the time was, “Wow, the critics will eat this up! I show how futile hope is, and how striving to defeat evil is pointless! Awards, here I come! I better buy a new tie.” I'm not saying what this is what Mr. Ravich thought. There is a school that thinks art, excuse me, Art is better when it's defeatist and depressing. That school is usually full of critics and reviewers who wish they were the ones making movies. But those are the kind of movies they give good reviews to. It's a catch-22, unless what you really want are good reviews and to heck with the audience (and the box-office).

However, I don't think the critics much liked The Astronaut's Wife. Carrie Rickey is quoted on the box, “A feverishly stylish film in the vein of Rosemary's Baby!” Ignoring the exclamation mark, that's not praise, that's a description. I've already mentioned the good visuals, I'm not sure calling them “feverish” counts as praise. James Bowman thought it was terrible, Roger Ebert said it had some nice visuals (like I did)(and to be honest, I don't remember the rest of what he said), and those are the two I remember.

Overall this film is just unpleasant and depressing, filled with people who are either unlikable (Depp) or whose struggles come to naught (Morton, Theron).

Should you see it? How the hell should I know, man? Oh, wait, you want a recommendation, yea or nay. Overall I'd say nay. But, if you're a big fan of Joe Morton, and you'd like to see some nice directorial flourishes, rent it. Just rent something good at the same time, so you can watch an enjoyable movie and get the taste of this one out of your mind.

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966). Starring Hal Warren, John Reynolds. “Written” and “directed” by Harold P. Warren.

Okay, that hurt. That was not funny, man, that really hurt. What we have here is the ultimate home movie, made by writer-producer-director-star Hal Warren. Have you ever seen people's home movies? How many of them had you jumping up and applauding at the end? Is it not true, instead, that as they unspooled, you sank in your seat hoping, I hope he doesn't ask me if I liked it, cause I'll have to lie. And I hope he doesn't ask me what I liked best, cause I'll probably slip and say, The End, cause that meant it was finally over.

I don't know anything about Mr. Warren, he's probably a really nice guy. But watching this, I suspect he was a frugal man. There are scenes here, entire sequences in fact, that have no business being off the cutting room floor. I can only speculate and think of Mr. Warren saying, “Damn it, I paid to have this film developed, I am putting it in the movie!”

I made a home movie once. And I did the same thing. Not because I was cheap, but because I could see a way where that poorly lit, underexposed footage could be put in as a “dream sequence.” I'm not kidding! But it kind of worked, really. But there is a difference. About ten people saw my film, none of them were charged for the priviledge, and I'm not listed on the IMDB or available on DVD. Mr. Warren's film is all over the place, famously on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (an episode I have not seen, by the way).

And none of the stuff that found it's way in here is a dream sequence. Case in point: there is a sequence where Mr Warren (as “Mike”) is trying to find a way to escape the hotel or boarding house or whereever he and his family have crashed for the night. Torgo, the housekeeper, sneaks up behind him, knocks him out, and ties him to a pole. Then some other stuff happens. Later, we cut back to Mike, he wakes up, shrugs off his bonds, and goes back to the house. It's more difficult for him to stand up than it is for him to untie himself—he doesn't even untie himself, he shrugs off the ropes as if they were as nonexistant as the film craft on display! That's the kind of thing I'm talking about, that sequence had NO impact on the story at all! You might argue that it was necessary for Mike to be out of the picture, so other stuff could happen. Sure. Fine. But the tying-up took up a lot of screen time (we watch Torgo's every struggle with the rope) and the untying was...“I'm tired, okay? I slip my bonds and go off! Cut.” This film might, MIGHT have made an eerie twenty or thirty minute short film. At sixty-nine minutes, it way, way, way overstays its welcome. (There's another scene near the end, where two women in a convertible decide to put the roof up. We watch every damn second of this process, and honestly are none the wiser. I've seen convertible roof's go up, and it's kind of fun to watch the first couple of times—you think, Wow, technology in action, what would Henry Ford think, not to mention Jules Verne, etc.—but I wouldn't put it in a movie. It's not cinematic at all.)

Here's the story: Mike and his family are on vacation, and they take a wrong turn, and end up at “The Master's” house. Torgo is the housekeeper, as he says repeatedly, and he'll also let you know that he looks after the place when the Master is away, repeatedly. He makes it pretty plain the family is not welcome, but they barge on in anyway. Oh and I should mention Torgo's knees. They're weird looking. Consider them mentioned.

The Master is out in some kind of outdoor Stonehenge (on a budget)-type tomb, lying on a slab, with a bunch of women all arranged around him (also in suspended animation). Torgo likes Mike's wife, he wonders if he can have her, since the Master already has a bunch of wives. Non-stuff doesn't happen. And more non-stuff doesn't happen.

Finally, we get a scene where “The Master” awakens in his tomb, another bit ripe for trimming. He sits up on his slab and, well, looks like someone who's been sleeping off a bender and awakens prematurely. IE, he looks supremely pissed off. And the camera just stays on him. And does that some more. And more. A Doberman Pincher wanders around, eventually he grabs its leash, stands up for a bit, walks a couple of steps and then...sits down again. This takes forever, and you feel every eternity passing.

At least, that's how I remember. I could watch the film again to be sure, but I really don't want to do that. Oh my God, do I not want to do that.

There's a sherrif and deputy who drive around and repeatedly break up these two kids' necking sessions. As I recall, the police never got anywhere near the house where the rest of the non-stuff was non-happening. Could their scenes have been deleted? You bet. Although, it would be funny if each time the cops caught the necking couple, it was a different girl! Meaning the guy was a real horn-dog, and was keeping all his lady friends in the dark as to his real intentions! But that would have meant hiring more actresses, which would mean more money. *BUZZ* Wrong answer!

And to be honest, the necking kids could BOTH have been entirely different each time and I probably wouldn't have noticed. I just wanted the thing to end. (Thank God DVD players have time displays on them.) Well, sigh, as you see, you have to invent your own entertainment during the course of this film, since the film won't oblige you with any of its own.

Anyway, the Master punishes Torgo for something or other, and burns his hand. The Master laughs a lot. The hand burns a lot. Repeat, lather, rinse, repeat. The Master's wives argue about Mike's wife and daughter. Some want them to join the harem, others think it's bad to do this to a child. There's a big girl-fight over this...which goes on forever and forever and forever, amen. And, wow, you'll never believe this, the fight doesn't resolve anything! Nothing changes because of his big fight. Nothing. It goes on and on, and then it's done.

Eventually, the film runs out of non-action and the “plot” (cough) all comes to a head--Torgo is dead, Mike's wife and daughter are now in the harem and (this is the SHOCK ENDING—PLEASE READ NO FURTHER FOR THE LOVE OF ALL YOU HOLD HOLY IF YOU VALUE YOUR SANITY) Mike is now doing Torgo's job. Thanks for the entire pointless waste of time, Mr. Warren.

I suppose you could say, What the Hell? But that's a question that implies there must be an answer (or a really awful Hell), and I don't have one, and neither does this film. I have no idea what possessed these people to make this movie. (It sure as hell wasn't the Manos of the title. He never showed up at all, except as a sculptured head that looked vaguely like Boris Karloff. But, all the evil guys [well, the Master, and kind of Torgo] served this Manos! Manos totally rocked for them! Pretty much everything was done in his name!...though that may mean nothing, and, ultimately, well, did.)

Should you rent it? Only if you have a very strong will, and/or a lot of alcohol. The only reason to see this is to say, “I've seen it.” Like some kind of rite of passage. That's all you'll get out of it. Don't rent this thinking it will be funny or cheesy. It's neither. It's just pure, unadulterated pain, now digitally mastered on DVD.

If someone tells you they rented it, or (gasp) bought it, remember Christopher Lloyd's line from Star Trek III: “Then I hope pain, is something you enjoy.”

Red Planet (2000) Starring Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss. Directed by Anthony Hoffman, written by Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin.

I saw this film some time ago, and was surprised after to read a review by Roger Ebert which praised the film, calling it the sort of story that John W. Campbell (editor of Astounding magazine) would have chosen for Astounding magazine (which he edited). Because when I saw the film, I thought it was very, very stupid and, while there were some elements John Campbell might have liked, I don't think he'd have published it. But what do I know, anyway?

Well, I have seen a lot of movies and I have to wonder about the scene in this film when it appears the astronauts, now stranded on Mars, are suffocating to death. This, as I recall, was about thirty minutes in, and I was wondering: do the film-makers think I've never, ever seen a movie before? That I think it's possible that all the characters will die thirty minutes in, and the sixty or so remaining minutes will be—what, exactly? Static vistas of the Martian landscape, every now and then panning to the astronauts, who are still dead?

I understand the concept of suspense, and of worry over the fate of our heroes, but this is so artificial it offends me. The suffocating scene is really unpleasant—it's not scary, it's not suspenseful, it doesn't make me writhe in sympathy. It's just unpleasant and it goes on and on.

Compounding this is the fact that the video box (which I assume reproduces the theatrical poster) shows two astronauts, helmets off, reacting to something that casts a tall, odd shadow over them. The image looks great, it's all in shades of red and black, and that shadow is so strange that I couldn't extrapolate backwards into what it could be. Whatever it is, it appears to be twice as tall as the astronauts and looks like it isn't a natural formation. But notice I said the astronauts had no helmets.

Presumably, had I not seen the video box there's a chance the suffocation scene might have had me on the edge of my chair. But again, presumably, the video box is going to be one of the things that will entice me into seeing the film. So which do the film-makers want?

I suppose the obvious answer is that, if I've seen the first thirty minutes, I've paid my money, and that's the bottom line.

I still want to know, do these people think I've been transported in a sealed bag and placed in front of this film? That I might think, at the thirty minute mark, “Oh, it looks like the movie might be over”? As I said, I've seen a lot of movies and I know how they work. This sort of thing just irks me. Worse, it adds nothing to the film. Red Planet certainly has a lot of plot, but it has almost no story. Whatever happened to the concept of story?

Of course, an equally fair question might be asked of me—haven't you learned that the video box sometimes has nothing to do with the movie?

Well, yeah, I have learned that. But hope springs eternal and so on. I mean, I'm being fooled because once again, I'm trusting them to deliver.

And I know I'll do the same thing next time, all wide-eyed and full of expectations. Somehow, this lesson never seems to sink into my thick skull.

In a way, I kind of hope it doesn't. John W. Campbell would definitely liked to hear that.