As research for this week’s column, I pulled out my dusty copy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis’ dark and hilarious live-action animated hybrid from 1988. The DVD doesn’t reveal a lot (the Vista Vision “special edition” is an enormous pain in the ass to navigate), but it does give a sense of how huge a technical feat the film was at the time.
It was early in Zemeckis’ career, a few years after Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone, and six before the ghoulish effects of Death Becomes Her, the Future sequels, and the behemoth that was Forrest Gump. He was fascinated by special effects from the beginning, but there was something human about films like the first Future instalment and Roger Rabbit that Zemeckis all but abandoned by the time he made What Lies Beneath, the awful Hitchcock-aping debacle that briefly appeared in 2000. (Yeah, you’ll say, but what about Contact and Cast Away? Contact doesn’t quite count, as I explain below, and Cast Away is two-plus hours of Tom Hanks blowing himself on the beach. He’s so talented!)
Flight is the first non-animated flick Zemeckis has made in years, after the hideous motion-capture “trilogy” consisting of The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. It stars Denzel Washington as a pilot who performs a miraculous landing after his plane malfunctions and nearly kills everyone on board. A closer look at the landing, however, dredges up some shady secrets. (The trailer makes it look like everyone finds out he’s an alcoholic.)
It looks akin to Zemeckis’ wanky and pretty awesome sci-fi flick Contact (with Jodie Foster as the world’s biggest science nerd, who creates a super spacecraft to visit aliens in outer space), a drama that blends in the big effects without having them drive the narrative. It’s the kind of story the movies are made for — a spectacle that feels both lived-in and larger than life. Unfortunately, my hope that Zemeckis has reached the end of his misbegotten experiments with the uncanny valley is probably short-lived. According to IMDb, he’s prepping a new version of The Beatles’ annoying, pencil crayon, psychedelic oddity The Yellow Submarine, which sounds fucking terrible and will probably make millions of dollars.
The other big contender this weekend is Wreck-It Ralph, a video game-inspired, animated confectionery sure to make nerdy 8-bit Nintendo fetishists squeal with delight. (Or maybe their lazy children.) John C. Reilly stars as a pixilated lout trapped in an old-school video game, doomed to repeatedly run around and pummel the hero. Tired of his villainous antics (he attends a support group for video game baddies, including Street Fighter II’s Zangief, and some ghosts from Pac-Man), he decides to leave his game for… something more enticing, I guess. If I wasn’t so prejudiced against video games, this would be a sure bet.
I’m sure what you really want to see (I know I do) is the RZA’s directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists. The Wu-Tang Clan’s resident philosopher (and kung-fu fanatic) looks like he’s channelled a lifetime of Shaw Brothers marathons and hip-hop demagoguery into this beast, starring Russell Crowe (who will be shorthand for weird casting choices any day now, if he isn’t already) as a soldier hunting for gold in China. Choreographed violence ensues. RZA has dabbled with some acting (a couple of Jim Jarmusch films, Californication) and done great soundtrack work (Kill Bill, Ghost Dog); it’s great to see him finally get the chance to direct.
Eli Roth (Hostel) co-wrote the flick with the RZA, making for a baffling and exciting pairing of tastes — the ultra-violent and the, um, Wu-Tang. If the idiosyncratic duo has made something half as good as the soundtrack, it’ll be a hip-hop, chop-socky delight.