A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 396 – Nemesis Game

Nemesis Game – March 31st, 2011

We bought this on a whim. A Highlander-inspired whim. At some point Andy saw it at one of the stores he was working at and it had Adrian Paul in it and he grabbed it. I don’t think we ever truly intended on watching it. I’d thought I’d offer it to my other Highlander fan friends and hand it off to someone else and that would be that. I ended up never handing it off and it stayed in our collection, still wrapped, until now. I considered taking it out of the project, since we didn’t really buy it for ourselves. Not really. But we did buy it. And we never got rid of it. I really am trying to be dedicated to watching everything we’ve brought into our collection. If that means watching this then so be it.

And you know what? It is not bad. I mean, it’s not great, but I can think of worse movies in our collection. Worse movies with bigger budgets and bigger names. Worse movies watched within the past week. Worse movies to come. It’s got flaws, but I had a lot more fun watching it than I had watching the Spider Man movies (any of them). Which was a nice surprise! So I’m going to treat this movie nicely. Yes, I’ll point out the plot holes and some issues I have with it, but in general? Not bad.

The basic plot revolves around a mysterious game involving riddles left for people to find and solve which will supposedly eventually allow the players to find out the meaning of life. And as a concept it’s fun enough. Anyone who’s spent any time with a riddle book will get most of them, but that’s not the point. The point is that the main character, Sara, along with a few people she knows, have gotten caught up in this game and they don’t really know who it is who’s planting the riddles or where they’ll eventually lead, but they’re so engrossed in it, they keep going. Even when one of Sara’s acquaintances turns up dead at the end of a chain of riddles, she keeps playing. Because she wants there to be some sort of ultimate answer and the game is all she’s got. Eventually it all leads back to a woman named Emily who tried to drown a boy six years back. She was playing the game too and claimed that the attempted murder wasn’t murder or some such thing. She talked in circles and was sent away for five years and has only just been released.

Our two main players are Sara and a guy who runs a comic book shop in a dingy part of town. His name is Vern and we never get to know much about him, but we do know that he likes riddles and he’s been playing the game. And here is one of the problems with the movie. The timeline is messy. We start out watching Vern and Sara play a game with a chain of riddles, but later on it seems like they’ve only just met. And before we meet Vern and Sara we see a man we don’t know interviewing a woman we don’t know. We later find out that the man is Sara’s father and the woman is Emily. And then it’s earlier, but then it’s later again, and then Sara explains how she got started playing the game six months back, but then the movie laps itself by coming back to the interview with Emily after she turns herself in for committing murder. Once you see it all, it’s possible to piece it together, and it’s obviously done with the intent of building tension and giving us a slow reveal. Instead it just makes it hard to figure out where and when it all started and with whom. I can see why, given the plot, the specifics might be shown after the fact, but well, it wasn’t done well enough to work.

My second issue with the movie is that it spends so much time following Sara around while she silently tracks clues and solves riddles and so on that we don’t really get much in the way of background for her. Or for anyone. Watching the making of documentary after, it was clear that the director/writer, Jesse Warn, had some concrete thoughts on the characters and Sara’s personality needing to be revealed without verbalization. And I get that. But I needed more background for her and earlier on in order to give a damn about her. Otherwise she just comes off as foolish for continuing to play the game even when it’s freaking her out. The same goes for Vern, played by Adrian Paul. I liked his character. I liked how Paul played him. He had a nice combo of world-weary and cocky going on. And yet we get one single line that tells us something about his background. One line and a shot of a large scar on his back and side. So. He’s mysterious? Except there’s never much of a reveal for him. He and Sara shout out their personal tragedies in one line each in one scene and that’s it. The movie tries! There’s a bit with Sara’s father and her step-mother where we see that there’s some animosity between Sara and the step-mother and the father wants to fix it. And I liked Sara’s father, played by Ian McShane (still not forgiving him for his attitude towards The Dark is Rising). I just wanted more. I wanted more out of all of these characters. Because there was potential.

The thing is, the movie is thoroughly wrapped up in its own philosophy. The concept of riddle as metaphor for life is played out in every scene. People toss riddles at each other instead of answering questions. People research riddles. Riddles are written on every surface. Riddles take the place of character development, backstory and in some cases plot. Which is frustrating, because as I said, there’s potential here. It’s a decent thriller under it all, it just got bogged down by too much concept. And let me be clear, I did like it. I just wish that it had been a little cleaner. A little more focused. A little less devoted to the concept. Maybe then the ending wouldn’t feel as rushed as it is, relying on postscripts (with a misplaced apostrophe that made me cringe) to give any sort of closure. But while I’ve been a little harsh, I will say that I had fun watching it. The performances were good and the visuals were nice. The concept was interesting and maybe given a little more time the movie could have played out more cohesively. Overall, I’m pretty glad I never got around to passing this to someone else and I’ll certainly be keeping it.

March 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Nemesis Game

March 31, 2011

Nemesis Game

I bought this movie as a kind of joke. Amanda is a huge fan of the Highlander television show and I saw this one day with the pre-viewed movies at one of the places where I worked. It featured Adrian Paul prominently on the box, and I knew nothing else about the movie besides that. Knowing what a ham Adrian can be I had zero expectations for this movie.

It’s actually not a bad movie. It’s convoluted and implausible, and feels at the end as though the writer kind of ran out of ideas, but it’s not quite the kind of cheese I was expecting when I put it in. Instead it’s a fun sort of thriller that plays with the notion of riddles and how they might reveal something about the chaos of our daily lives.

Riddles are the central theme of the movie. Adrian Paul is a mysterious shop owner named Vern who has a fondness for riddles. His shop looks like a kind of grungy comic book or video store. He has an acquaintance named Sarah, who is the actual lead character. She, too, is interested in riddles. Then there’s the central mystery regarding a woman named Emily Gray who used to be a normal intelligent person but who has inexplicably become involved in random murders. Sarah’s father, a police detective, is called in to interview Emily Gray but he is unaware that Emily’s latest victim was known to Sarah.

Sarah and Emily and Vern are all caught up in some kind of strange riddle-centric game. The high-concept premise behind everything here is that there’s a kind of secret cult obsessed with riddles. It sounds a little like Scientology. If you answer enough riddles you will be allowed into the inner circle who know the secrets of the universe. Specifically there is a Design to all things that allows somebody who has solved enough riddles to understand the reason behind the apparently random tragedies that plague us. Sarah is intrigued by the notion that there might be a reason that explains the death of her mother in a random traffic accident.

Where the movie falls down somewhat is in delivering on this high concept. Writer/director Jesse Warn has some good ideas here and there are a couple of fun twists to his plot, but the notion of the ultimate Design is poorly developed. Emily Gray is a chilling character and wonderfully played with her complete conviction that the murders she attempts are part of this design, but ultimately it is not explained why. Sure there are some odd coincidences and revelations (some of which feel particularly forced) but the ineffable design remains just that – ineffable. Unknowable.

As this is a movie about riddles there are constant riddles throughout the film, which is fun because it gives us as viewers a chance to figure out some things before they’re fully understood by the characters in the movie. But the ultimate riddle at the core of the whole plot is something that we’re pretty much told we cannot understand, so the last fifteen minutes of the movie or so when a whole bunch of stuff happens never makes any sense. Stuff happens and it feels unsatisfying to me because we’re never really told why. Then the movie is abruptly over.

Still – it is not a bad movie. It’s well made and has some fun writing to it. (I particularly loved the sort of riddle scavenger hunt that Vern and Sarah play near the start of the film: it looks like it would be a fun game to play in real life.) I like these sort of low budget independent films, and I’m glad that there are talented teams of people out there making them. It kind of makes me want to find a copy of my uncles’ movie Lies from the eighties. It’s been years since I saw that.

March 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 395 – Kung Fu Hustle

Kung Fu Hustle – March 30th, 2011

Clearly we need to get more Stephen Chow movies in our collection. And he needs to make more movies. Because there is something so bizarrely awesome about the two that I’ve seen and I think I need more of it in my life. It’s not just that it’s funny and full of good action. It’s the type of humor combined with the type of action. It’s a perfect mix of cartoonish comedy with unreal fighting.

There is something about this movie that puts me in mind of the old Roadrunner cartoons. And it’s not just the chase scene where two of the main characters go racing off along a dirt road with their legs blurred into whirlwinds while the scenery whizzes by. Though that is a fairly iconic image, so it figures in. But it’s that spirit of absolutely everything that happens being so thoroughly over the top and ridiculously dangerous, and while the people involved get banged up, for the most part they bounce back. Okay, so that’s not true of everyone in this movie, but once we pass the halfway mark? Yes, it is.

We begin our story with the introduction of the Axe Gang, who all wear black suits and top hats and carry little hatchets. They dance with them. This is about where I fell in love with this movie, because anything that has men in dapper suits dancing in formation while holding bladed weaponry is a-ok by me. Alas, there’s not much more dancing in the movie, but there is a lot of the Axe Gang, who’ve apparently taken over much of the city. They’ve got a nasty leader who’s not afraid to hack a man to death and they run whatever they feel like running. Then we meet the residents of Pig Sty Alley, who are all too poor to be worth the Axe Gang’s time. The residents are a motley bunch who seem to live hand-to-mouth and all owe back rent to the landlord and landlady of their buildings.

The landlord and landlady are interesting figures here, because while the movie starts out by setting them up as antagonists to the people who rent space from them, they end up being rather heroic. And I like that. I like that while the real bad guys are truly bad, and the good guy ends up being truly good, there’s plenty of gray area for everyone to spend some time in. I am all about the gray area. It’s nice to have characters who don’t neatly slot into Good and Bad sometimes. So anyhow, we’ve got Pig Sty Alley and its denizens and in walks Sing, a petty criminal who’s attempting to extort a little money out of folks by claiming to be with the Axe Gang. Unfortunately for him, and for the folks of Pig Sty Alley, he’s not in the gang at all. So when they show up, they’re not happy. And then the fighting starts.

The fight scenes are amazing. They’re varied and fun and fast but not too fast. There’s always something happening in screen but not enough to make it confusing or muddled. And during one of the big scenes I pondered aloud “So, this is the movie, right? It’s going to be another hour of fight scenes, right? Cause I can get behind that.” And okay, not quite. There’s plot in between the fight scenes, where we learn that the neighborhood has not one, not two, not three but five Kung Fu masters just hanging out incognito. We see the Axe Gang bring in hired killers to take out the folks who humiliated them. We see Sing try to get into their good graces by agreeing to do just about anything they want if they’ll let him join the gang. We get some background for Sing and find out that he was cheated out of his life savings by a con man who sold him what seems to have been a worthless kung fu manual. There’s a bit with a girl and a lollipop. The girl with the lollipop doesn’t get much in the way of time. She’s basically a symbol of Sing’s lost innocence and hope. Ah well. No movie’s perfect.

So wrapped around this plot are the fight scenes. There are the three masters in the beginning, fighting against the Axe Gang first and then two kung fu musicians, who use a guqin to make music that forms ethereal blades, fists and skeletal warriors to strike at their enemies. There are the other two masters who show up later and fight against the musicians and then against the Beast, freed from an institution by Sing at the Axe boss’s command. There’s Sing’s huge battle against the Beast that I swear takes up a third of the movie. And it’s all fantastic. And I mean that not only in that it’s good, but that it’s fantastical as well. It’s magical and outrageous as a movie like this should be. It’s the perfect combination of comedy and action and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it outside of Shaolin Soccer, which is, of course, another Stephen Chow movie. So I repeat what I said at the outset: I need more of him in our collection. Because this was awesome.

March 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kung Fu Hustle

March 30, 2011

Kung Fu Hustle

Early on in this movie – when there was a montage of men with axes dancing that showed the rise of the “Axe Gang” as their empire of sin engulfed Shanghai – Amanda asked me “Why don’t we own more movies like this?” To which I replied “Because there aren’t any other movies like this.” There really aren’t. It’s a big-budget effects laden kung-fu comedy as only Stephen Chow can do it.

Stephen Chow has such a unique sensibility. As with the brilliant Shaolin Soccer his movie blends cartoonish comedy with ultra-cool kung-fu action for something strange and magical. Something utterly and indescribably weird, but also something you can’t easily look away from.

Humor in kung-fu movies is nothing new. I remember when I was just getting into watching kung-fu movies and had it in my head that they were the epitome of cool action adventures how puzzled I was by things like Jackie Chan’s Half a Loaf of Kung-Fu. The notion that something so cool could also be so goofy struck me then as very odd. This movie takes that core concept of parody and comedy and brings it to the extremes that can only be reached by the modern age of digital effects.

Stephen portrays Sing, a no good vagrant and wastrel who has given up on being good and dedicated himself to his ambition of becoming a gangster. When he tries to use his wannabe gangster moves on the downtrodden people of Pig Sty Alley he inadvertently draws the attention of the dominant local gang – the Axe Gang. These thugs descend on Pig Sty Alley in force, only to be driven off by a trio of kung-fu masters who have been living a simple life of anonymity amongst the other slum dwellers.

From there it’s a plot of escalation. The Axe Gang hire a pair of creepy killers to assassinate the three kung-fu masters. The assassins are in turn stopped by another pair of unlikely masters who also dwell in Pig Sty Alley. The Axe Gang then release from a mental ward a cold blooded killer known as “The Beast” who cares about nothing but finding a worthy opponent. All the while Sing is proving himself to be a very ineffectual gangster, until he ultimately discovers his true potential.

Part of what makes this movie so much fun is the great collection of colorful characters. Every single performance is crazy, over the top and utterly bizarre. A mincing, wailing, flaming gay tailor who happens to also be a master of the kung-fu arts? Yeah. A round-faced clown of a character who spends the whole movie with his ass hanging out of his pants and shampoo on his hair because the landlady has cut off the local water supply? Weird. Sing himself with his ineffectual attempts to be a mean gangster which more often than not result in him being hurt instead is a strange character. (Luckily he has a preternatural healing ability or he’d be dead halfway through the movie.)

When I say that the action in this movie is cartoonish I mean that the movie often appears to be a live-action Warner Brothers cartoon. It might just as well have been directed by Tex Avery. There’s a road-runner style chase scene. There’s constant warping and deformation of people as they’re punched and kicked. There are bodies flung about, flying and falling every which way and smashing through windows and walls alike.

Most bizarrely of all there’s a kind of spirituality to this film. Sing’s ultimate redemption and awakening, even couched in the ridiculous cartoon violence of this movie, has a sort of power to it. This is also clearly a movie aimed at the child inside all of us – a point driven home by the last few minutes of the movie. The irony being that a movie aimed at bringing out a child-like wonder in its audience was given an R rating for its release here in the States due to the violence (I’m guessing because of some of the axe fighting early in the film.) It’s just one more strange contradiction in a movie full of them. Then again – if the Road Runner and Wylie Coyote were live action they might receive an R rating as well.

March 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 394 – The Magic Voyage of Sinbad

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad – March 29th, 2011

Back when we decided to buy The Day the Earth Froze we found we could get it packaged together with this movie. And since both of them were ones we’d seen on MST3K, we said why not? And indeed, I’m glad we own this in a non-MST3K format (even if I do enjoy the episode too). It’s a Russian production from 1953 that’s been repackaged and titled for American audiences. The names of the cast are changed, as is the director. Even the title was changed from the Russian Sadko, which is apparently an epic tale and an opera and okay, there is a connection to Sinbad in there, but this story isn’t actually about Sinbad. And once you get past that, it’s really not bad.

I really like this whole Aleksandr Ptushko thing where epic stories are made into grand movies with huge casts. If I had to pick one, I’d probably go for The Day the Earth Froze over this one, but they share a lot in terms of tone. There’s the conquering hero, who shows up only to have to leave again. There’s the woman he falls for, whom he only gets to marry at the end of the movie. There’s a quest to a far off and dangerous land and there are episodic encounters along the way. It could be likened to The Odyssey as well, or any other epic quest. Looking over the actual Sinbad stories, I can see how it was an easy name to slap on this movie. Sinbad gets on a ship, encounters a new land full of people whose ways are foreign to him, gets into some sort of trouble and then gets out again. But knowing that this movie is actually based on an entirely separate story – with its own opera, no less – makes me want to know that story better. Because while there are epic quest tropes in many stories, I love knowing the particulars and this movie? Well, it’s a quick dash through them.

Sinbad (for ease – the version we have is the English dub that was retitled and recut for the US) arrives in his home city after a long time away and sees that the people are downtrodden and taken advantage of by the rich merchants who’ve taken over. So, being the sort of guy who can’t abide by that sort of thing, he makes a deal with the merchants that if he can catch a golden fish, they’ll give their riches away. And since one of Neptune’s daughters has taken a shine to him, he does so! Hooray! And here is where I thought “Huh, he just introduced Communism.” Except it ends up not working out, with more people showing up than there are goods for, which seems like a poor argument for Communism, but perhaps I’m reading too much into things. Anyhow, Sinbad just wants his people to be happy, so he gathers a crew and sets off to find a bird that can bring happiness. He and his men encounter fierce warriors and end up playing chess to win the bird and the bird’s a let-down anyhow and then there’s dancing under the sea.

Yes, really. See, the thing here is that much like the other epics I mentioned, it’s episodic. Something happens and the hero deals with it, then something else happens and the hero deals with it. Any epic tale that involves a journey is going to also involve a variety of encounters, and one without a huge evil enemy to face (like in, say, The Lord of the Rings) is going to need to draw its encounters from a variety of places. Would that I were still in school and had an excuse to do a lengthy and involved study of epic quest tales in various cultures, because I find the ones I know of kind of fascinating. It makes me think of something like The Legend of the Eight Samurai, which is based on a serial that ran for thirty years. We’re talking stories that are supposed to hold people’s interest for vast swaths of time. Unfortunately, this movie has taken a story that I’m sure is much longer and compressed it into about 80 minutes. It ends up meaning that a lot of the bits are rushed through.

Oddly, the movie does take the time for three different dancing sequences. And the dancing is all well and good, but I’d have liked to spend a little more time in each place getting to know about it and about the perils the heroes will find there. Still, while it’s rushed it’s still fun to watch and obviously well made. Okay, so the copy we have was put together from a few different masters and the visual quality is faded. Look close and you can see the detailed costumes and sets. The cast is huge, the music is lovely (apparently it was scored with the music from the opera) and there’s some fun puppetry and effects work that I really do respect given the film’s age. It has its hokey moments, it’s rushed and it’s certainly not about Sinbad, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. It’s a good story and well made for its time and I’m definitely going to have to go look up Sadko and see what I can find out.

March 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad

March 29, 2011

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad

We own a couple of these Russian fantasy films from the fifties which we discovered through MST3K. I’m quite proud that our copy of Morozko is in the original Russian with English subtitles, but the three Aleksandr Ptushko films we own are all severely edited and dubbed into English. Perhaps someday we will get the films the way they were meant to be seen, but for now this is what we have. We already reviewed The Day the Earth Froze, which is based on the Kalevala, but until today I’ve always wondered what this movie was based on, because it is clearly not Sinbad.

A little quick internet research reveals that it is actually the Russian epic of Sadko. It’s a little difficult to figure out what’s going on much of the time while watching the “Sinbad” version of the movie as interpreted by Roger Corman. We know that Sadko finds himself in a vast city full of oppressed masses and that he wants only to liberate them. At first he tries to help the downtrodden masses by tricking the moneyed ruling class into distributing their wealth to the people. (He does this by betting his life that he can catch a golden fish, which miraculous feat he accomplishes with the help of a daughter of Neptune he has befriended using his harp.)

This fails to help all the people though, so Sadko sets out to sea in search of some other way to help his people. He gathers a hearty band of heroes including a young boy, an old sage, and a big slow dumb muscle man. They do battle with trident-bearing savages, match wits with a nasally voiced Indian horse fancier, and defeat a mystical blue harpy that tries to bore them to sleep. Ultimately they do not find whatever it is they’re seeking and turn back for home.

On the way home, however, they are beset by storms because Sadko has failed to pay propper homage to Neptune. In order to save his crew he must sacrifce himself, diving into the depths to confront Neptune himself. After some underwater hijinks he eventually escapes Neptune’s kingdom (with the help once again of one of Neptune’s daughters) and returns to land. He still hasn’t found anything to help the people of his home, but they don’t seem to mind much and everybody’s just so happy to see him again. The end.

I’m betting that most of the reason the movie feels so odd and disjointed is that the translation tries so hard to make it something that it is not. We’re told that Sinbad is seeking the bluebird of happiness, but I strongly suspect that this is an invention of the translators. So I have to admit I simply don’t know what’s going on for most of this movie, and yet I still enjoy it.

I enjoy it because Aleksandr Ptushko makes grand, sweeping, beautiful films. Even when they seem non-sensical as in this case they are still visually stunning. What this movie most reminds me of is the Douglas Fairbanks silent version of The Thief of Bagdad. It has the same scale to it, with it’s huge cast and colossal sets. It even has an interesting dry-for-wet underwater scene as part of its hero’s quest. (Although Neptune’s kingdom in this movie is played mostly for laughs. It’s a fairly goofy place full of puppets and dancing.)

As it stands in the version of this film that we own it is a fairly strange production. The plot makes little sense. The magical fantasy adventure descends at times into the laughably silly. Our hero is so clearly not Sinbad. But visually the movie still intrigues me. I long now to obtain the full-length and unedited Sadko with the original dialog. I’d really love to see this movie the way that Ptushko intended for it to be seen.

March 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 393 – Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love – March 28th, 2011

I saw this movie in the theater when it came out. I saw it while visiting Andy’s grandparents when I was in college. They were with us. And let me tell you, watching a movie with a sex scene – even a sex scene as romantic as this movie’s – with one’s future grandparents-in-law? Just as awkward as one might expect. And still, it didn’t ruin this movie for me. Yes, it’s a romantic comedy, which is not usually my thing, but it’s a period romantic comedy and it’s Shakespeare based. And I do like my Shakespeare.

Were I to be a cynic, I would dismiss this movie as pure speculative fluff and nonsense. And I am often cynical, but there is something about this movie that makes me ignore that little critical voice in my head and just run with the fantasy. And it is fantasy. It is a melding of period setting and Shakespearean reference to the point where it’s clear that this is far outside the realm of reality. And that’s the point. I honestly believe this movie was made for people who love Shakespeare. Or who at least know a good deal of his work. Sure, people who don’t know it can watch it and enjoy the romance between Will and Viola, but from the perspective of someone who knows more than a few of the plays, it’s full of references and nods, some clever and some obvious. I like those references. I even like the blatant and cheesy ones like the Stratford Upon Avon mug. It all just makes me smile.

We put this in tonight because I needed an antidote to our weekend of Spider Man crap. I needed something well written, with a solid plot and people to root for. And it helps that there’s a nice solid villain here. One you’re meant to loathe. The story has echoes of Romeo and Juliet, but also touches and tidbits of various other plays as well. When we begin, Will Shakespeare has writer’s block. He can’t seem to get his latest play written, rival playwrights are doing better and gaining acclaim, and he’s low on funds as well. He’s working on a new play called Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. It’s rubbish. And then we meet Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. She loves plays and theater and when Shakespeare manages to write enough for auditions to be held she shows up dressed as a boy. And that’s where the trouble begins.

I’m not going to try and explain the plot in intricate detail. Suffice it to say that it’s a cross between Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night and Viola and Will end up passionately in love. And you know from the start that this is doomed. Viola’s a gentlewoman with money and Will is a penniless playwright. And Viola’s hand has been promised to Lord Wessex. It’s all a matter of money and prestige and reputation and it’s hateful. Her father pretty much sells her to Wessex with the promise that he can send her back if she doesn’t breed. And while I find that disgusting, I know that it’s not inaccurate to the time period. And it’s also presented as horrible. This is no romanticized vision of a marriage for money. Viola doesn’t miraculously end up falling for Wessex and he’s certainly not a sympathetic figure. The one jarring thing for me about this movie is the utter certainty that the only things keeping him from striking Viola in just about every scene they’re in together is that they’re not yet married and/or they’re in public. The thought of her having to actually live with him for any amount of time makes me sick, as he is clearly written to be a nasty, coldhearted and cruel man. Not an ideal husband, to be sure.

But that’s the contrast to Viola and Will, whose short time together seems magical and dream-like. In fact, they comment on that several times, with those comments ending up as lines in the play Will is writing. With romance in his life his work turns the same way. And it’s fun to watch Viola dressed as a boy, playing out Romeo’s part on stage and living Juliet’s off stage. It’s a doomed romance entwined with another doomed romance. But played out beautifully by Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. It’s a lovely bit of work, having the two act as inspiration to the parts they play within the movie’s stage performance.

I feel like I’m failing to adequately review this movie but to be honest I’m tired and it’s been a long day and I didn’t put this in to spend a lot of time analyzing it. It’s sweet and pretty and romantic and funny. It’s got a fantastic cast and a lovely score and some fun cameos and performances from actors I recognize in smaller roles. There’s a wonderful performance from Judi Dench as Elizabeth II (though I don’t know if it was truly Oscar-worthy). And it ends with a vision of Viola’s future that leaves me hopeful that while her romance with Will is at an end, there is more for her than a cold and likely painful marriage to a man who cares only about her father’s money and breaking her spirit. It’s a sad ending for the romance, yes, but a better ending for the people in it than Romeo and Juliet got.

March 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shakespeare in Love

March 28, 2011

Shakespeare in Love

This movie never fails to amaze me. I’m no Shakespearean scholar, but I like to believe I’m pretty familiar with the works of the Bard, and this is a movie aimed directly at people like me. It’s a touching, funny, great homage to Shakespeare that uses his words and references to his works to bring the story to life.

This is a giddy fantasy set during the early days of Shakespeare’s career in London. What’s great about this as a concept is that Shakespeare is just a regular working slob (albeit a dashingly handsome one with a way for words.) He gets no respect from the vast majority of the people around him, which is refreshing if you’ve been exposed to some of the Shakespeare worship that exists nowadays (and even within the confines of this blog.) About the only person who seems to believe in him is a young noblewoman who loves the theater and dreams of being an actor. So when he is casting for his new play “Romeo and Ethyl the Pirate’s Daughter” she dresses as a young man to audition for him.

What follows is a timeless romance, and a hilarious romp, that works in references to Shakespeare’s most famous works and common themes from his plays. There’s cross dressing, mistaken identity, vengeance and remorse, sword fights, planned marriage, and plenty of wonderful Shakespearean dialog. Above and beyond all that though it is a movie about the theater. About the magic that transforms the chaos, clashing egos, financial hardship and rivalry behind the scenes into something special that can reach right out and touch an audience. Somehow everything works out, but how? It’s a mystery.

Every single second of this movie is a delight. The cast is wondrous and perfect. Geoffrey Rush as the set upon owner of The Rose theater and patron of Shakespeare? Hilarious! Gwyneth Paltrow delivers absolutely the most stunning performance of her career as Viola, the young noblewoman who steals Will’s heart as she follows her dream of being an actor. (It is to be noted that she does some of the most convincing male drag I have ever seen when Viola dresses as young Master Kemp. Usually I wonder how people could be so dense as to believe that a woman is a man, but here Gwyneth is all earnest boyish energy when in her Kemp disguise.) Joseph Fiennes is dreamy as Shakespeare himself. Judi Dench is unforgettable in her Oscar-winning turn as the regis-ex-machina Queen Elizabeth who knows all and effortlessly rules the film. This is probably the only movie I have ever actually liked Ben Affleck in. They’re all surrounded by wonderful talent from Colin Firth to Imelda Staunton to Rupert Everett.

The script is full of genius. Not just Shakespeare’s genius, but the genius of Marc Norman for creating the concept and Tom Stoppard for fleshing it out. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this and I still notice new things each time I watch it. (This time through it was a reference to Hamlet that popped out at me when Shakespeare visits a doctor to complain that he cannot write and says that the problem is “words, words, words!”) This is one of those screenplays where every single line works on multiple levels to move the plot forward while at the same time being entertaining on its own. You could probably enjoy this as just a historical romance/comedy about the theater even without much knowledge of Shakespeare. Though knowledge of Shakespeare definitely enhances the experience.

After watching this tonight I didn’t want it to end. As always. I wanted to put in the 1968 Romeo and Juliet again. Or the 1996 Twelfth Night. I wanted to immerse myself in the words of Shakespeare and never come out. As always this movie left me drained and delighted. It’s a movie that elicits a strong emotional response from me. It’s a movie I’m deeply in love with.

March 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 392 – Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man 3 – March 27th, 2011

I did not want to watch this tonight. Actually, after the last two movies I didn’t ever want to watch this. The first movie wasn’t great. The second one was thoroughly unpleasant. I mean, it was irritating. And annoying. And from what I had heard, I expected this one to be abysmal. The downward trend seemed a little too steep to correct in the space of one movie. And I can’t believe that anything done in this movie was supposed to make anything better. Much like the Venom symbiont, it amplified characteristics of its host. Negative ones. But not aggression. More like suckage. It has everything I disliked about the first and second and more. In one overlong, overcomplicated morass.

When we start with this movie, Peter is on top of the world. Which is a nice change from the last one, but it’s like he’s a pendulum and we only get to see him at one extreme or the other, never in the middle. He’s either an ego-maniac smarming for his crowds of adoring fans (or horrified onlookers) or he’s Mopey McMoperson, Mayor of Mopeville. But hey, I’ll take what I can get, you know? And what I can get is at least a few minutes where Peter’s not making me wince for one reason or another. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long. I understand the Venom plot and Peter’s personality getting amped up by the symbiont, but that doesn’t explain his performance in the park when Gwen Stacey gives him the key to the city and they smooch. Basically, the movie is setting him up as a douche. And then it goes and introduces a bigger douche and then gives them both super douche powers. But I’m getting ahead of myself! We’ve got a bunch of other plots to cover before we get to Venom.

First of all, let’s talk about Harry. We left off with him having delusions of his father talking to him and telling him to avenge his murder. So, yeah, Harry’s gone the way of the Goblin and attacks Peter a few times, both physically and emotionally through MJ. Next we’ve got Flint Marko, an escaped convict who, it turns out, was actually responsible for Uncle Ben’s death. But Marko’s a bit of a question mark as a character cause he claims it wasn’t the way it’s been presented and sadly, he doesn’t get much time on screen to be a character. Because before we get to know much more than that he’s escaped from jail and his daughter’s dying, he gets caught up in some particle physics experiment with sand and suddenly we have a walking dune. He wants to get money to save his daughter but Spider Man won’t let him steal it, so what’s a guy to do, right? Then we forget about him for a while because Harry’s got amnesia and can’t remember his vendetta against Peter. Then he remembers it again. Peter gets shut out of a job at the Bugle by the douchetastic Eddie Brock, whom he then exposes as a fraud and who then goes way overboard by wanting Peter dead. Yeah, that’s a healthy response there, Brock.

If all that wasn’t enough, through it all is MJ, whom Peter wants to propose to but he’s never around for her and keeps making everything about himself (douche!). The addition of Gwen Stacey as a pawn in the whole romance plot makes sense, but I don’t really like it. She deserves a little better. At least the movie tacitly admits that when she walks out on Peter after his incredibly gross display in MJ’s nightclub. The whole Venom plot, with Peter’s suit (and Peter himself) getting infected by a nasty symbiont from outer space that amplifies characteristics, specifically aggression (apparently in all forms) ties into this here, with him acting out all over the place. And then it infects Brock, so we get another villain on top of our new Goblin and Sandman. The trouble is, that while Peter’s infected, the only people left to root for are MJ, Gwen and Jonah, who are all given so little time it barely counts. And oh, oh do I weep for the lack of awesome Jonah, who is toned way down in this movie because he’s on blood pressure meds. Yes, really.

What a muddled mess of a movie. The relationship issues with MJ, Harry taking up his father’s mantle then getting amnesia, Sandman, Venom, smug celebrity Spidey, Gwen Stacey? Of course it’s the longest of the three thus far. It would have to be to have all of that. But really, come on. Pick a plotline, or a pair of plots! Run with Harry and Sandman! Or Venom and Stacey! MJ would certainly end up involved with either. But bundling them all together into a single movie doesn’t work. More plot doesn’t mean a better movie. Oh, it’s bodged into a semblance of coherence, with the Venom stuff seeping into the other parts. But it ends up feeling like every plot in the movie is lessened for there being so many plots.

The really sad part? Is that the end, with Sandman and Spider Man and the whole culmination of their plot once Venom and Harry are out of the way and MJ’s safe? It has some good emotional impact and Sandman/Marko and Spider Man/Peter have some similarities that echo nicely. Neither of them asked for their powers. Both of them want to help someone they care about. And the end for Harry and Peter brings things to a nicely bittersweet close. The endings aren’t spectacular, but they work. The problem is that those endings along with the endings for Venom and for Peter and MJ, we had to have four! If the movie had somehow managed to have all of the various plotlines come together for one actual ending with a coda after the fact? I’d have at least had to concede that they’d been tied together. Having to end them all separately is an admission that they were only loosely spun and easily unraveled.

March 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spider Man 3

March 27, 2011

Spider Man 3

I’ve been kind of dreading watching this movie again. Not because it is an awful or irredeemable movie but because it has such promise and tries so hard and just falls so flat. I saw it in the theaters – one of those rare times when I went to the movies alone because Amanda had no interest in watching this particular film with me. I found myself underwhelmed by the movie, but it had a lot of bits that were pretty cool. By the time the DVD came out my memories of the movie had faded somewhat and I was willing to give it a second chance. Maybe some of the frenetic fight scenes that simply didn’t work in the theater would read better on the small screen. Maybe the multiple plots fighting for dominance weren’t quite as hodge-podge as I remembered them being. Besides: I owned the first two movies already and it was a comic book movie after all so I felt the need to own it.

I’ve watched it again since then and I hate to say it but all the flaws I remembered from the theater did still plague the movie on the small screen. And I had managed to block out the most painful to watch and irritating bits of the movie.

Most of the problem with this movie is that it bit off more than it could chew. I was excited when it came out because I wanted to see the story of Venom on the big screen. I have only a passing familiarity with the actual comic books, but I know the tale. I distinctly remember Spider Man’s cameo in the Transformers comic book and being puzzled that he was all in black so I asked my friends what the deal was. The black suit was an alien symbiont that gave Spider Man extra super powers. He no longer needed to change his clothes to fight crime because the suit could change at a whim from street clothes to Spidey’s slick new duds. He also had no more problems with running out of web fluid (something he hasn’t had to worry about in the movies but a common issue I remember from the comics and cartoons.) And he had amplified strength and power as well.

This was too much for our simple web slinger, and left him fairly over-powered, so it had to end. Enter Eddie Brock, a rival photographer who wanted Peter Parker out of his way. When Peter finally freed himself from the symbiont Eddie merged with it, gaining all its knowledge of Spider Man’s true identity and all of Spider Man’s powers – amplified by his own rage and hate. Thus was born Venom, a dark mirror to Spidey and probably the coolest enemy he ever had to face. It didn’t hurt that these books were illustrated by the extremely talented Todd McFarlane, so they had the over-worked and insanely detailed illustrations that he was known for.

It’s a grand and epic tale that took place over the course of a couple years in the world of the comic books. Which is the downfall of this movie – because none of the groundwork for this whole tale was laid out in the first two films. The groundwork that was laid out over the course of the last two movies all has to do with Harry Osborn and his vendetta against Spider Man for the death of his father. The result is that this movie is committed to resolving the whole Harry Osborn thing and at the same time has to introduce the black suit and Eddie Brock as well. Then, just to make things more difficult, the film makers decided to throw in the Sandman as well. I think their intent was to give Peter somebody dangerous to fight that would require the ruthless power of the black suit and drive home how deadly it is – but it really is unnecessary and acts to weigh the whole movie down. (Wouldn’t it have been more powerful just to show Peter in the black suit almost killing his friend Harry and have that be the emotional core of the movie?)

Then we get to the most awful scene in the entire movie. Awful because Sam’s attempts to show Peter’s descent into darkness takes the form of him becoming a smarmy asshole. The alien symbiont is supposed to bring out the rage and hatred in its host. That’s a kind of cool concept and it would be interesting to see Peter tortured by the rage that the alien unleashes within him. Instead in this movie the alien inspires Peter to dance at a jazz club where Mary Jane is working in an attempt to hurt her. It’s a painful scene that doesn’t work to move the plot in the way it ought to – it just makes you hate Peter Parker and everybody associated with this movie.

We finally, after two entire hours of waiting, get to see Venom at the very end of the film, and he’s got maybe five minutes of screen time because by then the audiences’ collective asses are falling asleep and things need to get wrapped up mighty quickly. There’s no sense of payoff for all the investment we’ve made slogging through this convoluted and messy morass of a movie. Instead there’s a slap-dash quick CGI-heavy battle between Harry, Peter, Venom and the superfluous Sandman.

It’s such an underwhelming and pathetic conclusion to the Spider Man franchise. Like I said at the top there are individual bits that are cool. The transformation of petty thief Flint Marko into the Sandman, reminiscent as it is of the creation of Doctor Manhattan to me, looks awesome. The iconic image of black suited Spiderman brooding on a cathedral bell tower is cool. The few glimpses we get of Venom’s manic nasty grin are nice. In short: there’s about enough good film here to make a pretty kick-ass trailer. Too bad they padded it out to more than two hours.

March 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment