The Rocketeeer (1991)
Before teaser trailers and CGI, before “cinematic universes” and Easter eggs, comic book adaptations had more in common with boxcar racers than corporate tent poles. They were these sweet, clunky things that seemed made in garages by inventive boys with too much time on their hands, and when they went speeding down hills, they were thrilling. Few films symbolized this aesthetic more than the last of their kind, The Rocketeer.
Made in 1991, three years before Jurassic Park’s scaly marauders would forever pixelize the movie spectacle experience, The Rocketeer was aggressively nostalgic in style, manner, and subject. The film is set in 1930s Hollywood, with Nazis seeking a secret jetpack developed by Howard Hughes, but the film’s gee-whiz plotting and acting feels lifted from serials of an even earlier era. The style, though, is something altogether fresh—a kind of hyped-up art deco that took full advantage of the film’s big budget. (Although it’s best set it didn’t have to construct: Los Angeles’ Ennis House, which was Frank Lloyd Wright’s trippy and crumbling take on Aztec architecture).
The movie is brisk and pure-hearted—it makes sense that Marvel would hire its director, Joe Johnston, to kick off the Captain America series 20 years after The Rocketeer went down in flames. The film was a disappointment for Disney when it was released, and watching it now feels like digging something up from a time capsule of two different eras: the twinkling ’30s Hollywood it depicts, and the last era where comic books sprung to life on screen thanks to the heart and imagination of its creators, not the magic of massive hard drives.
Take the artsy nihilism of Children of Men and the dirt-caked revolutionaries of Road Warrior, put it all on a crowded 10:15 express from Nyack in the dead of winter, and you have something like the year’s best sci-fi movie that not nearly enough people saw: Snowpiercer.
Directed by South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho, in his English-language debut, Snowpiercer is a truly original take on the world-ends-because-of-global-warming trope, fresher even than Interstellar. Here, the cure proves worse than the disease when a radical response to rising temperatures leads to a freezing of the planet and elimination of all life save the residents of a globe-spanning train. On board, everyday existence has turned into an ugly parable about the failure of tickle-down economics, with poor residents trapped in the tail of the train and subsisting on little more than slimy protein bars of unknown origin and “the optimism of the doomed,” as Tilda Swinton’s gloriously preening autocrat puts it.
In a summer that was thirsting for this sort of thing (Snowpierecer failed to get a proper U.S. release due to a dispute between Bong and the film’s distributor, the Weinstein Company), the film delivers fully immersive, utterly realized sci-fi that strikes a perfect balance between message and spectacle. While watching, you’ll find yourself checking the window to make sure Earth has not become a freezer in desperate need of defrosting, and considering an upgrade to business class next time you book Amtrak.
To use its own parlance, you don’t have to be Alfred Einstein to enjoy the sweetly crass, almost Dadaist comedy from the Farrelly brothers, but neither do you have to check your brain at the door. Kingpin tells the absurd tale of Woody Harrelson’s Roy Munsun, a one-handed failed former bowling pro who discovers and corrupts Randy Quaid’s Amish farmer Ishmael, who Roy mistakingly believes is a 10-pin prodigy. (It turns out his inflated scores are the result of bowling 15 frames, because 10, well, “that’s for Quakers.”)
What proceeds is a road-trip comedy, a fish-out-of-water farce, a vicious sports movie satire, and most significantly for its lasting enjoyment, a Bill Murray movie. From Quick Change to St. Vincent, Groundhog Day to Rushmore, Murray has steadily overtaken Jack Nicholson as the creator of cinema’s most wondrous, complicated, and ridiculous jerks. As Kingpin’s chief villain, “Big Ern” McCracken, he is unfettered by the need to be liked in any way, and so Murray whips up one of his most unhinged characters to date, a sexual id with a Trump combover and an unquenchable thirst for Tanqueray and Tab. And the movie’s climax allows Murray, always an undervalued physical performer, to bowl three consecutive strikes in a single take (an athletic and cinematic accomplishment that betters his amazing golf shot from Lost in Translation).
Yes, you may groan at just how low the Farrellys manage to set the comedy limbo bar—you will never look at cow milking or urinals quite the same way—but watching both Murray and Harrelson revel in all of this comic anarchy will still leave you feeling like you somehow hit a 7-10 split.