The Rocketeer (1991) Review

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It’s easy to imagine any sane filmgoer becoming tired of super-hero films, particularly film critics who have an obligation to watch at least some of them. Yet here you are reading a review of “The Rocketeer,” the 1991 adaptation of the Dave Stevens graphic novel. In an era of critically acclaimed super-hero epics, what does the quaint and dated “The Rocketeer” have to offer?

rocketeer-thumb-560xauto-28521After a shootout leaves their plane ruined and themselves broke, Cliff Sefford (Billy Cambpell) and his mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) stumble across a mysterious rocket engine left in their hanger by a dead mobster. Testing out the engine, they’re surprised to find it’s actually a jetpack and take advantage of their good fortune to make a little money. However, that won’t be easy with both the FBI and superstar actor Neville Sinclair’s (Timothy Dalton) henchmen after the device. Adopting the guise of The Rocketeer, Cliff sets off to protect his friends and his beloved Jenny (Jennifer Connely) from getting caught up in this chaotic war for the rocket.

It should be stated that “The Rocketeer” is little more than nostalgic action fun. That is all. It doesn’t try to be anything more, putting it’s energies into doing just that well. Besides the solid cinematography and special effects, it has an extremely tight script, with cliches being used at their finest and plot threads being interconnected fairly well. For example, Cliff’s character bit of gum chewing affects the plot at least three times over the course of the film. What really stands out, however, is the characters, being that there are some. While the main cast hits their rather flat marks well, the minor characters end up having the same amount of effort put behind them. The clever and charming dialogue leaves you with a sense of who each small character is, if not some attachment to them.

Disney-Considering-The-Rocketeer-RemakeWhile the comic played up a nostalgia for both film serials and golden age comics, the movie emphasizes the serial aspect a lot more (for obvious reasons). It’s actually one of the few times an adaptation makes a lot of sense, since it’s a return to a form the original material is based on. That being said, “The Rocketeer” only feels like an old serial, having all the maturity of storytelling that modern films have. Thankfully so, as those old “Commander Cody” shorts are hard to watch at times.

What “The Rocketeer” has to offer is simplicity. There’s no epic CGI climax, no political commentary, and no questionable content in any way. It’s not dumb or manufactured, it simply concentrates on doing the little things well. I look at “The Rocketeer” and I see so many tropes and story similarities present in super-hero films nowadays, but somehow they work better here. Perhaps it’s the acknowledgement that these things are cheesy and the humbleness of asking the audience to accept it, as compared to the assumption that the audience will accept it and presenting it flatly. “The Rocketeer” has no misconceptions of what it is and I think modern super-hero films have lost that. The makers have forgotten they’re filming silly little stories of men in tights, mistaking popularity for permission to relax. In a post-modern world you can’t present a simple good/evil story and expect a few jokes will make it clever. These stories aren’t new, we’ve been creating them for over 80 years or, according to “The Rocketeer,” at least 20 years.

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Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) Review

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As much as I love gory horror films like Friday the 13th or more highbrow films like The Artist, I’ve come to appreciate small quiet films, like the ones Studio Ghibli puts out, just as much. Now before any question of my manhood comes in let me state that 1. Kiki’s Delivery Service is an adorable film and 2. I absolutely love Kiki’s Delivery Service. There thought ought to cover me right? Nah in all seriousness, Kiki’s is an excellent and cute movie that really acts as a pallet cleanser for the rougher works out these days.

Kiki (Kirsten Dunst) is a young witch who, upon reaching the age of 13, leaves home to find a new town and start her year of witch training. With her cat familiar, Gigi (Phil Hartman), she settles into a large oceanside city and is taken in by a kind baker. Utilizing her ability to fly on a broomstick, she starts a delivery service and thus her struggles begin as she tries to understand how to balance out being a normal girl and following her witch training (while still keeping up her deliveries).

On a personal note let me say that I used to see trailers for the original release of this movie all the time on Disney VHSs and DVDs. I was always fascinated by the animation and the catchy (but shitty) pop song they played, but the concept never seemed that intriguing to me, nor was it at Hollywood Video so I never got around to watching it. So finally seeing this movie was really interesting as it was an experiment in challenging long held expectations. While we’re on the subject, that original VHS/DVD release is different then the one currently out on DVD/Blu-Ray. The old recording is reused, with the same great performances from Kirsten Dunst and especially Phil Hartman, but a lot of the excessive lines that Hartman had are taken out and the original sound effects and music are put back in. The dub you find nowadays is rather close to the original japanese and quite good, so check it out.

Now Kiki’s is another remarkably simple film from Ghibli, more so then the others. It’s a rather plotless journey of a girl as she learns to adjust in the city. If the first twenty minutes don’t grab you then the rest of it won’t, because all in all it’s paced rather slowly. It takes its time to address a lot of the issues that Kiki faces and while for some of the audience it will be really interesting and/or identifiable, others may find it boring. It doesn’t have the visual splendour of other Ghibli works because there’s not much to animate, but what there is is rather nice. It’s just a cute, simple film and I know I’ve said that but that’s because thats what it is. It’s simplicity is what makes it so refreshing and it really hit some interesting notes for me. The characters all rather simple too, but not in a bad way. With the exception of Kiki or Gigi we don’t get much from each character, but they’re far from cliche and we can definitely tell that there’s more to all of them. If I had to make a complaint it would be that every girl besides Kiki seems to be an asshole, but thats kind of the point.

Kiki’s Delivery Service may be too slow for kids, but it’s perfect for the nostalgic adult or the cinephile looking for a pallet cleanser. It probably could have stood to have more going on in it, but it sacrifices quantity for quality and rightfully so. It’s in many ways the antithesis of Howl’s Moving Castle, an overly ambitious film I still enjoy. Kiki’s is probably the most Western of all of Ghibli’s movies, with it’s witch-centric premise. It’s very easy to get into the world and characters of Kiki’s Delivery Service as the themes of growing up and finding acceptance are very universal. All in all it’s worth at least one watch even from the most tough and stubborn of moviegoers.

The trailer here is the aforementioned one from the old release. Holy Nostalgia Batman!

Porco Rosso (1992) Review

Besides telling tales of epic fantasy, Studio Ghibli can also be… a little silly and there’s no sillier movie of theirs then Porco Rosso. It’s the tale of a seaplane fighter pilot who quits the Italian army and becomes a bounty hunter after he mysteriously gets the head of a pig. Now living out his days in isolation, Porco Rosso is forced to get his plane repaired in Milan after getting shot down by American rival Curtis. There he meets Fio, a smart and talented engineer who teams up with him for his final battle with Curtis. Without going into detail you can tell that this is a rather silly movie, but its silliness isn’t what makes it great. Rather it’s the balance between silliness and seriousness that truly make it stand out.

Porco Rosso is a brilliantly funny movie, with witty dialogue and a complete exploitation of its very silly concept. Part of that is the Disney dub, which westernizes plenty of the jokes for the purpose of… well making them jokes. None of the changes betray the spirit and tone of the original and they’re welcome indeed. The cast does a great job, with Michael Keaton at the helm as Porco and a score of Disney stock actors to support him. The only really bad performance is Cary Elwes as the Texan Curtis, as his accent is absolutely awful. BUT I’m positive that this is played for laughs to make Curtis more of a caricature, because I’ve heard Cary Elwes do a half-bad American accent.

The characters aren’t as engaging and intriguing to me as the cast of Howl’s Moving Castle, but they are all surprisingly strong characters (at least on the protagonists side). Porco is one of those rare loveable assholes, who actually has an intriguing and complex background. Fio is just a great strong female character, but she isn’t afraid to show a little weakness and for me this sells her as a character. Gina, the hotel owner, is another great female character, as she strikes that balance between wanting a man without relying on men. On the flip-side, the antagonists are as one-dimensional as you can get, but it works because they’re played for laughs for most of the movie. I’d much rather watch well developed leads bouncing off of jokey villains then have the whole lot of them be half-developed. Thats not to say they’re cliche, as they still manage to be unique and engaging to watch.

Now for being as silly as it is, Porco Rosso isn’t afraid to get serious at times and it’s hard not to given it’s post-war setting. It’s the mark of a truly great kids film when the movie isn’t afraid to get serious, and Porco Rosso has that in spades. For example, we see plenty of people die (in the form of planes going down) and it’s clear that Miyazaki is putting a message of anti-fascism in the movie (not that there are many people who like fascism). Put somewhat simply, the dramatic serves as a good foil and break from the comedy and they feed off one other, creating a healthy symbiotic relationship. This is a pretty obvious statement that applies to most movies, but Porco Rosso pulls off that balance quite well.

I’m not sure why Porco Rosso isn’t more popular then it is, probably because it was in that dead zone of releases between Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, but it really deserves more attention then it gets. It’s score is amazing (I paid attention this time), the animation is frigging gorgeous, especially for 1992, and its a brilliantly funny movie. On top of that, it’s a movie that can appeal to boys, girls, kids and adults. It’s a very very simple movie, and I didn’t take many notes while watching it, but it has everything that a great family movie, or any movie for that matter needs and I will be adding it to my collection as soon as possible.